Dan W. DeLuca is a genealogist, historian, a former educator and the leading expert on The Old Leather Man, a 19th century loner who walked the same 360-mile circuit every 34 days for years. Dan has also chronicled the Old Leather Man’s story in the highly recommended The Old Leather Man (available from Amazon and other fine booksellers), an amazing collection of historical accounts, pictures and stories.
Recently, Dan kindly agreed to answer some questions for us via e-mail about everyone’s favorite legendary wanderer.
Damned Connecticut: What inspired you to research and write about the Old Leather Man [OLM]?
Dan W. DeLuca: About 22 years ago an historian from Meriden asked me what did I know about the Old Leather Man and do I believe what was being written about him in the newspapers? The newspapers every year or so would revive his story, the Jules Bourglay story about The Old Leather Man.
I told her I did not know anything about him, only what was printed in the newspapers, but would do a little research and get back to her. That was 22 years ago.
Damned Connecticut: How long did it take to do the research and write the book?
Dan W. DeLuca: Researching off and on for about 20 years. To layout and publish the book, the process took about 1½ years. I’m still researching the “OLM or LM” and more and more information is still being uncovered, in the past three years I have more than doubled the information about him.
Damned Connecticut: What was the most surprising thing you learned about OLM while researching and writing the book?
Dan W. DeLuca: He was not Jules Bourglay and every major research over the years has made statements to that fact.
Damned Connecticut: What’s the most common inaccurate idea that people have about the OLM?
Dan W. DeLuca: There are a number of common inaccurate ideas that people have about him and I will list just a few. He did not travel his famous circuit of 365 miles every 34 days for 30 years but started in 1883 and only traveled the circuit for 6 years until he died on March 20, 1889. He would talk to people who talked French but he did not understand English ever well and only then would answered in grunts and hand gestures. He never begged for food, he was not Jules Bourglay, a tramp or hobo. He was not homeless, had many caves and rock/shelters and there was times he wound enter a house, only if he was invited in. He was not exempt from the tramp laws.
Damned Connecticut: What’s one thing that most people don’t realize about him?
Dan W. DeLuca: At one time he was gathering and preserving food, fishing, tanning leather and had a number of gardens in different locations. He was providing for himself and had a strong knowledge of Indian lore, which he was using to survive. All this information has been documented. I also believe he was trapping and hunting but do not have any documentation.
Damned Connecticut: In his day, the OLM was a bit of celebrity — newspapers detailed his travels, and everyone in the towns he passed through knew of him. What made him special as compared to other vagabonds or wanderers?
Dan W. DeLuca: The OLM was around before the Civil War and every one knew who he was. He was dresses all in leather, his suit was made from old boot tops stitched together with leather lacing, his shoes were carved from spruce wood about three quarters of an inch thick with leather uppers, there were water proof, a leather cap with a visor completed his costume all of his own make. He never stole anything, never begged, molested or hurt any one, he would only take what was freely offered him.
Chauncey Hotchkiss of Forestville, Connecticut, in 1885 documented the OLM’s famous clockwise circuit of 365 miles every 34 days. He always wanted to be on time to his next stop or eating place, people went out of their way to feed him what he liked, and they looked forward to his next visit.
Damned Connecticut: I’ve often wondered if maybe the OLM was legitimately mentally ill — possibly afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Is this possible? Or do you think there was another reason for his repetitive routine?
Dan W. DeLuca: I do not believe he was mentally ill, and at this time I believe he had an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Not only did he want to be on time, but when he set up his shelters, they were away neat and everything in its place, the way he stitched his leather suit, the lacing had to lay flat and not twisted. He made pipes to smoke tobacco for every one of his caves; all of his pipes were exactly the same. Everything he made had to be perfect.
Damned Connecticut: Why do you think he did what he did?
Dan W. DeLuca: Why do we do what we do? This was his way of life and he was surviving.
Damned Connecticut: I notice that many of the images in the book are from your personal collection — how much OLM-related items do you have? What’s the most interesting OLM item you possess?
Dan W. DeLuca: I have thousands of LM-related material and newspaper articles, hundreds of photographs of caves, eating places, people who fed him and period photos of towns he visited. One painting, ten original cabinet photographs and 40 postcards of him or his cave-rock/shelters.
The son of the famous LM researcher Leroy W. Foote who researched him for over 40 years gave me the most interesting artifact I have: A pipe made by the Leather Man.
Damned Connecticut: Why did he stay on that particular route? Was there something special about it?
Dan W. DeLuca: Before 1883 he was mostly providing food for himself and had many routes all over Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and it has been said Canada. This particular route or circuit was developed over time, and he made many friends that had started feeding him, most all of these towns accepted him for who he was, and left him alone to live out his life. He was no longer providing food for himself and was now dependent upon his friends for his nourishment.
Damned Connecticut: I know you’ve visited numerous stops along the route — have you ever tried walking the entire route?
Dan W. DeLuca: I have driven over his famous circuit many times but have never tried to walk it. The only person I know of, not counting the OLM himself, is Steve Grant, who in 1993 walked and wrote about his daily journey for the Hartford Courant. For years, it was his responsibility to “Keep the Legend Alive,” and he would give talks about his walk and the OLM at historical societies and libraries throughout Connecticut and New York.
When I started researching the OLM I followed the stories in the Hartford Courant and attended a few of Steve’s talks.
Damned Connecticut: Although the name Jules Bourglay is on his tombstone, the truth is that it’s a fabricated name created in a newspaper story that was more fiction than fact — who do you think the OLM really was?
Dan W. DeLuca: It’s a question that I have answered many times but cannot prove: I think he is part French Canadian and Indian, for some reason he was raised by his Indian grandfather. His grandfather taught him all the skills he needed to survived, and around 1880–1882 I think his grandfather died and he stopped making his trips up into Canada.
I also believe like LM researcher Allison Albee who said in 1937 when asked, who was the Leather Man? “Occasionally, legend and reality unite in the form of some remarkable soul who, through peculiarity or chance, assume a role resembling the mythical characters we read about in childhood’s fairy tales. The Old Leather Man was one of these.”
Damned Connecticut: Why do you think that 120 years later, people are still so fascinated by the story of OLM?
Dan W. DeLuca: He was a “mystery and legend” in his own time and very little was known about him. You have to remember that at one time he traveled over four states, great-great-grand parents, great-grand parents, grand parents and parents have passed down the “mystery and legend” and there were others who took it upon themselves to “Keep the Legend Alive.” Every year since the OLM died there has been a story about him in newspapers and someone going around giving talks about him. People like mysteries and legends, and the OLM was both.
It is also important not to forget the newspapermen, researchers, and people who spent a lot of time to “Keep the Legend Alive.” I would be remiss if I did not name some of them: Jonathan Tillotson Clark, Alexander Gordon Sr., Alexander Gordon Jr., William A. Gordon, Alfred E. Hammer, James F. Rodgers, Chauncey Hotchkiss, Isaac W. Beach, Lanning G. Roake, William P. Toms, Frank Knight, Allison Albee, Leroy W. Foote, Thomas J. Price, Elliot B. Hunt, Foster M. Johnson, L. Raymond Ryan, Nick Shoumatoff, Patricia E. Clyne, Bertram R. A. Smith, Edward McKeon Jr., Steve Grant and all the other anonymous people.
For about seven years railroad historian Leroy Roberts has been helping with the research and I would say he knows all most as much as I do about the LM; he is now working on the LM’s timetables and cave-rock/shelters. He donated his railroad collection to Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut, and you can view some of his collection at Connecticut History Online.
Shirley Sutton has been to a number of my talks over the years and interviewed me about my research, for the past few years she has been going out giving talks.
And now added to the list is Ray Bendici, who is “Keeping the Legend Alive.”
Damned Connecticut: Finally, Steve wants to know: Why leather?
Dan W. DeLuca: Leather was easy to come by and it was plentiful; Keeps in body heat, protected him from the winter weather and from animals and snakes.
Dan adds: At this time I’m back researching, looking at microfilm, compiling more and new information on the OLM for a new book: 1889-1937 The Legend Continues.
If anyone has any information about him or his cave-rock/shelters they can email me at email@example.com
Here are some links to other sites.
- Wesleyan University Press
- “The Story of an Old Man and the Road”
- The Old Leather Man and James F. Rodgers
- The Leatherman’s Loop 2011 (10K road race)
Thanks again to Dan for taking the time and passing along all the great information. And we will do our best to keep the legend of Ol’ Leathery alive!