[Originally published November 11, 2002.]
[This is the first of a series of non-fiction pieces by Samantha Hunt that will describe the lives and times of people who have become famous for walking great distances.]
The Leatherman sometimes mumbled but did not speak. Maybe this was because he was French and didn’t understand English, or maybe he did not speak because he didn’t want people to ask him why, for thirty-one years, he couldn’t stop walking.
His real name was Jules Bourglay. He was called the Leatherman because his entire outfit — his hat, his shoes, his pants, jerkin, visor, scarf and sack — were each handmade from leather.
Bourglay’s walking circuit encompassed the land between the Hudson and Connecticut Rivers. He passed through Brewster, North Salem, Ridgefield, Danbury, Bridgewater, Waterbury, Forestville, New Britain, Saybrook, Guilford, Branford, New Haven, Stratford, Bridgeport, Norwalk, New Canaan, Stamford, Greenwich, White Plains, Armonk, Chappaqua, Ossining, Mount Kisco, Bedford Hills, Pound Ridge, Yorktown, Peekskill, and Somers before arriving back at Brewster. It took him approximately thirty-four days to complete one 365-mile circuit. Thirty-four days divides thirty-one years perfectly into 365 circuits. After 365 365-mile circuits the Leatherman’s body was found in one of the many caves he slept in on his route.
You can visit some of the caves where scientists and historians believe Bourglay slept. There is a particularly large one in Pound Ridge, New York where these same scientists and historians have measured grease deposits in the soil and find the results commensurate with a human habitation in the years between 1858-1889. You can lie down in Bourglay’s cave. Try to fall asleep. It is difficult as there are very dark parts in the Leatherman’s cave, hiding holes for bats or bugs or worse that might keep you awake.
One grocery store on his circuit kept a record of Bourglay’s recurring order: one loaf of bread, one can of sardines, one-pound of fancy crackers, one pie, two quarts of coffee, one gill of brandy and one bottle of beer — the fuel for walking.
There is also a record from the time the Connecticut Humane Society had Bourglay arrested and hospitalized. The doctors diagnosed Bourglay with an “emotional affliction” but, apparently, this disorder was not reason enough to keep him confined to a mental institution, so soon he was free to walk again.
Bourglay died from cancer. He had been a smoker and at the time of his death the disease had eaten parts of his lips, cheeks, and mouth, a malady sadly apt for a man who didn’t want to speak.
At an inquest after his death they found leatherworking tools and a French prayerbook in his sack. The weight of these items plus the weight of his leather outfit approaches one hundred pounds.
Bourglay is different from most other long-term walkers, who usually embody a freedom of the open road. Bourglay’s road was not at all open but a closed circuit and each step he took was not for pilgrimage, discovery, or exercise, but a patterned battering to beat back heartbreak.
Though his history is spotty, historians know that Bourglay had been a leatherworker in France. He had fallen in love with his boss’s daughter, and the two were engaged to be married. But there had been an accident. Either through some accounting error on Bourglay’s part, or through a mishap he had with a lantern, his fiancee’s family business was destroyed along with Bourglay’s plans to marry the woman he loved. Not long after the accident Jules came to the United States on a packet boat and, once here, began walking.
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