Old Leather Man | A Connecticut Legend
A local legend like that of the Old Leather Man — Connecticut’s most famous tramp — can easily die of neglect unless someone takes an abiding interest in keeping it alive.
The Old Leather Man was a legendary beggar who trudged a wide circle through southeastern Connecticut and western New York State during the late 19th century. His legend and the mysteries of his life came to mean a lifetime’s search for Roy Foote, who otherwise spent his life as a banker. In his house, which he and his wife Sarah built on the south comer of his father’s farm, Roy Foote had accumulated closets full of information and stacks of photographs. He also had a large collection of memorabilia such as a tin pipe and a hatchet that belonged to the Leather Man. Roy even devised a suit of clothes believed to be a close replica of the Leather Man’s cumbersome and peculiar leather pants, leather jacket, leather shoes, and leather hat.
The Leather Man never spoke for himself, for the most part leaving his riddle to Roy Foote to puzzle and piece together, the way he did the Leather Man’s suit, a crazy quilt of leather scraps boldly stitched together with leather thongs. On Halloween Roy used to put on the Leather Man’s suit, his shoes, and his roomy hat, which fit like an upside-down pot, and shoulder his great big leather bag. Leaning on the walking stick he made to look just like the Leather Man’s, he’d open the door to greet surprised trick-or-treaters.
In southern sections of Connecticut, the story of the Leather Man was an oft-told one. It has been written up as books, and it’s been included in countless anthologies of New England lore. “Hundreds of people have written the Old Leather Man’s story,” Sarah Foote told me, “and not just in books and magazines. The students at the school, generations of them, used to come here and talk to Roy, and then they’d go back and write up their term papers about the Old Leather Man. In that sense it’s a story that we all share. And of course, Roy has written about him countless times. When people want to know about the Old Leather Man, they always call up Roy.”
His story was even made into a film that was shown by Connecticut Public Television. Ed McKeon, who wrote and produced the film, said that when he first started work on it, he had only a small file. In his research he kept coming across Roy’s name. And often the source of other people’s stories was Roy Foote. “I’d be interviewing someone and it would all sound like firsthand information. Then I’d say, ‘Gee, how do you know all this?’ and the person would say, ‘Oh, Roy Foote used to come to our town and talk about the Leather Man.’ ”
It was in the early forties that Roy and Sarah first heard about the Leather Man. Lifelong nature lovers, Sarah and Roy spent a lot of their weekends cave-crawling — spelunking as it came to be called. On one such excursion, Roy and Sarah and another of the group stopped under a ledge, and their companion told them the story of this mysterious, silent tramp who slept in caves and walked on an unwavering course through more than 40 towns from Essex to Greenwich to Ossining, New York, to New Fairfield to Middletown and so on, the endless circle.
The loop was said to have been 365 miles, and it took the Leather Man exactly 34 days to make a complete circuit. Punctual as a banker, he’d show up at the same place 34 days later, mutely asking for something to eat. No one knew who he was; he never spoke a word. He was a survivor who had lived through 32 New England winters, living in shallow caves, not much more than rock overhangs, until his face froze during the Blizzard of ’88, causing a cancer that eventually killed him. (This storm, which killed hundreds and turned New England upside down for weeks, delayed the Leather Man only four days.) He was but a tramp among thousands during that rough, scrappy period in New England’s history, yet a tramp so endearing that special legislation was passed to exempt him from stern new laws that called for bizarre and cruel methods of eliminating beggars from the landscape. He was a man who had no known roots, no name, no reason for his peculiar and almost eerie trek, and yet a man of apparent principles. He never took money; he never accepted clothes or charity of any kind except food. If he was ridiculed or jeered at, he never returned to that place; and in spite of his forbidding appearance in his voluminous outfit, he brought harm to no one.
To find out more, Roy began by asking the people who owned the land around the Leather Man’s caves what they knew about him. They told him they’d mark the Leather Man’s arrival on their calendars and sometimes bake something special that day. Roy found that people often had a picture of the Leather Man in their family album and that sometimes teachers would let classes out early if it was the time when the Leather Man, who was gentle with children, was due to arrive. One interview led to another or sometimes two more. Roy found that each person who had known the Leather Man had his own story and that it differed from anyone else’s. “When I was growing up in the forties and fifties, we spent nearly every weekend going out on interviews,” Roy’s daughter Lynn Boyle recalled. “Dad would spend hours sometimes talking to people who had fed the Old Leather Man or whose mothers had fed the Old Leather Man along his route.”
With so many stops along such a long route, there were hundreds who knew the Leather Man, and as Roy Foote gradually began to discern, there was also more than one Leather Man — there were three. At least, there were three identities presumed to be his: Jules Bourglay, Randolph Mossey, Zacharias Boveliat. Roy kept separate file drawers for the three identities and continued his research, more intrigued than ever. Knowing that, he began to feel that there were two different men, one of them an imposter. “Roy knew by the way people talked which one they were talking about. Randolph Mossey dressed like the Old Leather Man and followed roughly the same route, but he came along after the Old Leather Man died,” Sarah Foote explained. “He didn’t come round as often and he spoke. He even did odd jobs. Except for the clothes, he wasn’t really anything like the Old Leather Man. We think that he was simply trying to cash in on a good thing.” The other two stories were up for grabs, one as convincing and well substantiated as the other.