This is a good day to memorialize the Leather Man. If he didn't die exactly 100 years ago, at least his body was discovered then, on March 24, 1889.
The Leather Man was a famous tramp, thought to be named Jules Bourglay or Jean Bogeaureau. Then as now, there were thousands of the homeless, but he stood out, head and leather hat above the rest.For 28 years he meandered through New York and Connecticut over a particular circuit he imposed on himself, 366 miles around, following a timetable.
"But if through any cause he is delayed, he shortens his trips in New York, and is always on hand in Connecticut," A.B. Stewart wrote in 1889, in a pamphlet about him.
Sometimes he would spend up to four days in Guilford, Conn., mending his clothes and resting in a hut he built of railroad ties.
"This time is made up on his trip into New York, as he was once nine days behind time at Wilton, and arrived at New Fairfield on time," Stewart added.
A newspaper reporter in New Haven, Conn., noted on Dec. 8, 1888, "This `Old Leather Man' never begs, never appears to want anything, and simply wanders around taking no notice of anything or anybody. Kind-hearted women and children feed him and sometimes give him money.
"He comes and goes, sometimes disappearing altogether from the populated parts of the State, and is not seen again for several months. At other times he travels along the turnpikes and goes through the towns and cities.
"He always sleeps out of doors, having regular stopping places along his routes. In winter he puts up in a cave near Tariffville . . . . The only audible sound he has ever been heard to make is "Wer-r-rum," and this is his reply to every question."
Others said he spoke French, with a dialect showing he came from the south of France. He also said a few words in English - "Must go" and "No, no."
Mrs. James F. Barnard of North Haven, Conn., described his clothes less than three months before he died, "pants, vest, coat, hat and a sack, all made of boot legs sewed together with thongs of leather like belt lacing."
Until shortly before the end, he carried a leather bag. Mrs. Barnard thought it was "full of pieces of leather and a short-handled axe."
The New York Times said that men who once nursed him back to health discovered "the secrets of the old sack."
"They were a French Prayer Book printed in 1844, a pipe of his own make, a hatchet, a small tin pail, a small spider, a jackknife, and an awl, the lot constituting his library and housekeeping utensils."
Besides his leather garments, he wore only a knit woolen jacket. Around his neck were a crucifix and two small pieces of cloth joined by strings, a token of religious devotion for Catholics.
Mothers used to frighten their children into obedience by warning them that if they weren't good, the Leather Man would get them. But once people got used to him, the New Haven reporter said, "fear gave place to curiosity."
According to the New York Times, "he readily found shelter in the barns of the farmers, who never feared that he would do their property injury. Farmer's wives willingly fed him, and vainly tried to get him to talk. Country school children gave him pennies and sweetmeats, and no one seemed to fear him.
"The long staff he carried was never used, save as an aid to locomotion."
He had blue eyes with a wandering, innocent and yet somehow intelligent look. When he took off his cap, his forehead was white and high. His hair was brown, fine and curly. Although matted, it had few gray strands.
Tales circulated that he had loved a girl who worked in his father's leather factory in France, and he lost his mind when his parents either broke up the affair or had her murdered. Today, the stories seem fanciful attempts to weave together his leather outfit with the idea of undying love.
What's certain is that witnesses said he showed up in Connecticut around 1860 and never stopped walking his weary rounds, regardless of the weather.
After the terrible blizzard of March 1888, he was found nearly dead, with his hands and feet frozen. Nursed back to health, he returned to the road.
In the fall of 1888, a cancer developed on his lower left lip. It eventually ate away part of his lower jaw and throat.
On Dec. 3, 1888, he was arrested near Middletown, Conn., in an effort to care for him. He was taken to the Hartford Hospital for the Insane, but the proprietors couldn't get him to stay.
"An attempt was made to induce him to change his leather garments for some of cloth, but he objected," the New Haven reporter wrote. He went on his way.
Then on Dec. 9, he knocked at the James Barnard home in North Haven, the first time he was ever known to ask to go into a home.
"It was cold and wet," Stewart wrote. "The old man was dripping with rain and mud."
The family brought him to the fire and saw he was a pitiable person, "half of his lower lip on the left side eaten away, and under the left side of his jaw was a bunch (a swelling) as large as a large orange, very red, but not a sore. He pointed to his lip when offered an apple, and shook his head."
He was starving because he couldn't eat the solid food people had given him. So the Barnards gave him hot coffee and milk, bread, cake and pie.
"He seemed nearly famished. He could only eat food by crumbling it into the coffee, of which he drank six large bowlfuls of the softened food . . . . When eating, he had a piece of leather which he put over his sore lip to keep the food from it."
When he was warm and full, he stood to leave. The family told him to sit and warm himself as long as he wished. "He simply pointed up the road, and with an expressive gesture indicated that he must go."
Around the middle of March 1889, farmers saw him near Sing Sing, N.Y., "very ill and hardly able to walk, but he declined to accept assistance."
On March 24, 1889, a farmer went to show his wife a cave on the George Dell farm in Mount Pleasant, N.Y. Inside, under a rock shelf, lay the body of the Leather Man.
Coroner George H. Sutton held an inquest, at which two doctors testified his death was due to blood poisoning resulting from the cancer that had eaten away part of the lower jaw. The jury's finding was, "That the Leather Man came to his death from cancer and inability to obtain or take food."
L. Dibble of Saybrook, N.Y., wrote a poem commemorating his life and death. At the end, his true love comes to him in a dream and persuades him to climb the ladder to heaven with her.
So, together, they ascend, far away from mortal sight,
Till sweet music, song of Angels, thrill'd their souls with new delight;
Soon they reach the `golden city,' soon the Heavenly host they scan,
Lo! the pearly gate swings open, `Welcome, Welcome, Leather Man."