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The Leatherman:
Connecticut's Wandering Hobo

Connecticut's wandering hobo -- The Leatherman

Article and photos by Jeff Belanger

Since 1862, many have heard the tale of a wandering vagrant who traveled in an endless 365-mile circle between the Connecticut and Hudson rivers. The strange man only spoke with grunts or gestures and dressed in crudely stitched leather from his hat to his shoes. The suit was made of heavy pieces of raw leather estimated to have weighed more than sixty pounds in total. It was a coat of armor the vagrant depended on to protect him from the sometimes harsh New England elements. "Leatherman," as he was dubbed by those who encountered him, would only sleep outside year-round -- and mostly in caves around Connecticut and New York.

Some claim old Leatherman is still making his endless journey today, through the woods, mountains, and river valleys of Connecticut and New York state.

A wandering vagrant is nothing surprising. American folklore has more of them than could fill a thousand railroad boxcars. What makes the Leatherman unique is his incredible precision in daily routine. He would arrive in the same location every 34 days.

Many different families took it upon themselves to feed the Leatherman. Since he arrived at precisely 34-day intervals, and at the same time of day, some would have a meal prepared for his arrival. He would grunt or make appreciative gestures and then quickly move along to keep his tight schedule.

The Leatherman was first seen in Connecticut in 1862, and all who encountered him wanted to know who he was and where he came from.

Jules Bourglay -- The Leatherman.
Jules Bourglay - The Leatherman
from The Lure of Litchfield Hills magazine
December, 1952

Lyons, France
The Leatherman's tale begins in Lyons, France in the 1820s. A young couple named Bourglay had a son, Jules. The Bourglay family's occupation was woodcutting, and the income from their labors afforded them a certain level of distinction. They were of a lower middle class during a time when your social station was all-important. Your family's wealth would determine your entire future: what kind of job you would have, who you would marry, and if you could go to school.

Young Jules Bourglay met and fell in love with Miss Margaret Laron, the daughter of a somewhat wealthy leather merchant. Jules approached Margaret's father to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage.

The marriage request was met with an objection, primarily due to the differences in class between the Bourglay and Laron families. After much pleading, and further meetings, it was decided that Jules would be given the opportunity to work in the Laron family leather business, and if he could acquire the trade and be successful, he would be granted permission to marry Margaret.

Jules Bourglay worked hard at the leather business and was quickly given more responsibilities, including the purchase of more leather on the open market. One day in 1855, Jules made a large leather purchase. Then, almost overnight, the price of leather dropped by 40% due to a new breakthrough in the tanning process. Prior to 1855, leather tanning had been done with tree bark and was extremely labor-intensive. The tanning industry discovered a chemical compound that could tan the leather in a lot less time and with less physical effort. Unfortunately, because young Jules didn't have his eyes on the technology breakthroughs in his industry, he was stuck with a large stock of leather that could only be sold at a loss.

Laron's leather firm was ruined at the hand of Jules Bourglay and too ashamed to go back to his own family, the disgraced Jules became a homeless wanderer in Lyons, France. He quickly became the ward of a local physician who took care of his basic needs for almost two years. One day, without notice, he disappeared from Lyons and was never seen in the city or the country again.

There are some missing years in the story of Jules Bourglay. One could speculate that he simply wandered Europe as a beggar, then finally made his way onto a boat bound for the United States. The fact is, someone fitting his description and background showed up in the town of Harwinton, Connecticut in 1862.

The Leatherman Arrives in Connecticut
Immediately upon arriving, he began his approximate 10-miles-per-day, 365-miles-per-month clockwise trek between the Connecticut and Hudson rivers. From Harwinton, Connecticut, his route took him to Bristol, Forestville, Southington, Kensington, Berlin, Middletown, and south along the westerly side of the Connecticut River to the shore towns. He then traveled west to Westchester County in New York state, coming within a few miles of the Hudson River and then back east into Connecticut. From Danbury, Connecticut, he went north to New Milford, through Roxbury, Woodbury, Watertown, Plymouth, and back to Harwinton, completing his one-month cycle.

A map of the Leatherman's 365-mile endless journey.
The green trail shows the Leatherman's 365-mile route.

A true outdoorsman, The Leatherman didn't survive on handouts alone. Through his experience he knew how to deal with everything mother nature threw at him. Though he would be invited to sleep indoors or in barns by good Samaritans, he always chose to sleep outside or in one of his many caves.

Bourglay tended to the finest details before leaving each day's sleeping location. He would gather wood for his next fire and safely store it in the cave, so when he returned he could quickly get a fire started with timber that had been stored under the cover of rock for 34 days. His fires would quickly warm the small cave by heating the rocks around him to a comfortably warm temperature, even on the coldest winter nights. His bed was made of the rocks by his fire, and of course his thick leather suit added some additional padding.

For almost three decades, Jules Bourglay made his journey through heat, rain, drought, and bitter New England winters. The Leatherman's routine would suffer only one setback. The harsh blizzard of 1888 slowed his cycle by four days. Bourglay, now in his mid-60s, would never recover from the hardship. The weather, combined with his age and hard life, made him ill. He made it through the rest of the winter but finally expired in a cave on the George Dell farm in Briarcliff Manor, New York.

The Leatherman's Caves Today
Today the Leatherman's caves still stand. One of the most famous is located on the Mattatuck Trail in a section of state forest in Watertown, Connecticut. A good starting point to reach the cave is the Black Rock State Park on Watertown Road in Thomaston, Connecticut. Leatherman Cave is approximately a two-mile hike into the woods from the state park. It is a blue-blazed trail and well-marked, but it is rocky and at times very steep. A trail map may be available from one of the park rangers on duty.

Making the hike in the summer wearing good hiking boots, shorts, t-shirt, and a backpack with water and fruit in it makes one truly appreciate what the climb must have been like in winter wearing sixty pounds of leather.

Leatherman Cave in Thomaston, Connecticut
Leatherman Cave in Thomaston, Connecticut

The cave itself is actually several enormous rocks stacked together like a card house. One entrance is a tight fit, requiring you to crawl through an opening, where the other side of the cave is completely open. If Jules Bourglay were still making his journey today, he would be most disturbed that his caves have become attractions on popular hiking trails.

The rocks in Leatherman cave form a natural chimney for campfires.
The view looking up from the center of Leatherman
Cave. The rocks form a natural chimney for campfires.

In the summer, Leatherman Cave is a cool place, completely in the shade, and lying in the shadow of a mountain. In the center of the dark cave, everything is very quiet and still. Many animals have no doubt taken refuge in Bourglay's cave. Hundreds of hikers have passed through enjoying the nature setting, but none of those visitors could possibly understand the mindset of the Leatherman.

Bourglay didn't wander someplace new every day, never stopping at the same place twice, and he never put roots down in any one location. He methodically trekked in the same circle for years.

With almost thirty years of perpetual, methodic motion, could his lost love for Miss Margaret Laron keep him forever moving to forget his past? Could he still be making that same 365-mile journey today?

Leatherman cave with several orbs floating by.
The last picture taken before leaving Leatherman Cave.

2014 Haunted New England Wall Calendar by Jeff Belanger photography by Frank Grace
Check out the 2014 Haunted New England wall calendar by Jeff Belanger and photography by Frank Grace!

Paranormal Conferences and Lectures
Don't miss the following events and lectures:

Jeff Belanger and “The Bridgewater Triangle” at Dedham Community Theatre - April 6, 2014 9:00PM

The Spirits of the Mark Twain House - Hartford, Connecticut - April 12, 2014

Paracon Australia - East Maitland, New South Wales, Australia - May 10-12, 2014