July 2010 Archives

The Mystery of the "Leatherman"

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250px-Leatherman.gifMost local residents and students are familiar with the "Legend of the Leatherman".

He was apparently a homeless drifter who travelled a circuitous route between 1856 and 1882 through Fairfield County into Westchester County, just east of the Hudson River.  He would complete a circuit once every 34-days.  His clothes were hand sewn from scraps of leather - many of high quality left by people along his route.  Residents would also leave food, tobacco and money outside their houses for him to take. Among his possessions were a crucifix, a French prayerbook, a handmade tin pipe, a hatchett, a small tin pail, an awl and small frying pan.  He had a series of caves and shelters he used to sleep in during his travels.

In December 1888, the Middletown Humane Society had him taken into custody since he had a sore on his lip. He was transported to Hartford Hospital, where he was diagnosed with cancer of the lip and jaw.  While the medical staff was trying to decide what to do, he packed up his gear and left.  On March 20, 1889, he died of blood poisoning from the cancer. His body was located in a cave in Mt. Pleasant NY.  Residents took up a collection to bury him in a cemetery in Ossining.

For years, legend had it that the Leatherman was Frenchman Jules Bourglay.  He was from a lower class family, and had taken over his future father-in-law's leather business in France, Jules was going to marry the man's daughter if he could turn it into a prosperous venture. Instead, he ruined the business due to some risky investments,  He was denied the woman's hand in marriage, and it is said he spent two years in a mental institution before he escaped  to the United States. 

Other legends paint the Leatherman as a murderer doing penance for his crime, as an officer in the Napoleonic Wars who was banished for an error in the Crimean War, or as a robber on the run, responsible for a burglary in Connecticut.  Another legend is that the Leatherman's father had murdered the young girl because she would not (or could not) marry Jules.  Jules exiled himself to the United States to do penance for his father's crime.

It is said that Jule's brothers and others came to this country to convince him to return to France since his father had left him money in his will, but the Leatherman refused. 

To compound the mystery, Middlebury-resident Roy Foote came up with the theory that there were 3 Leathermen!  They were Jules Bourglay, Randolph Mossey and Zacharias Boveliat.  Randolph Mossey showed up after the Leatherman had died in 1889.  Foote believes Mossey was just trying to take advantage of the Leatherman's demise by assuming part of the route and picking up the food and money left by residents.  Another story claims Mossey was a shoemaker from France who came to search for his wife, who ran off with "a friend".  The Hartford newspapers claimed that he told the wagon drivers taking him to the hospital for care that his name was Zacharias Bovelait.   Mr. Foote put together a film on the Leatherman titled "The Road Between Heaven and Hell" in 1985. 

 In April 2010, the Housatonic Times reported that local historian and storyteller Shirley Sutton had researched the drifter, and debunked many of the rumours associated with the Leatherman.  Ms. Sutton believes he was of French Canadian and Native American descent.  His grave in Sparta Cemetery in Scarborough NY may have to be moved, which would allow specialists to perform some DNA sampling.

Some residents weren't that welcoming, either.  They would throw stones and wrotten vegetables at him.  This, no doubt, was partly due to fear of the unknown.  Many residents started to trust him after awhile, and he even befriended a young boy, who took pictures of him.

Ms. Sutton contends the Leatherman did not spend the years 1856 to 1882 walking the circuitous route, but only started seven years before his death.  Although he looked much older, he was only 50-years old when he died.

So the legend of the Leatherman lives on.  The only thing that is known for sure is that there was, indeed, a man who travelled through part of Connecticut and New York.  His true identity remains a mystery, as well as his motivation.  There appear to be more questions than there are answers.  Perhaps someone in the future will have the technology to solve the mystery of the Leatherman. 

 (Photo Coutesy of Greenwich Time)

 

 

 

Electrifying Greenwich

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Unlike many other New England towns, throughout history Greenwich has been reluctant to embrace change over the years.  This could be due to a number of reasons including trying to preserve its rural character, avoiding influence by any one person, saving money on taxes, etc, etc.  On at least one occasion, Greenwich actually lost out on getting electric power installed for free!

To properly frame the story, we must remember that Greenwich grew up as a rural community until the middle of the 1800s.  Farmers milked by candlelight, horse and buggy riders depended on the moon to light the roads, public and private events were scheduled around the full moon.  Since there weren't that many stores with large plate glass windows with candles to cast light, streets were extremely dark.  Eventually, the Borough voted to install about a dozen lights on Greenwich Avenue, which ran on refined kerosene oil.  Young Willie Funston (16- years-old) was the lamplighter responsible for filling the lamps, cleaning the glass and extinguishing them.

Then, in 1874, a local resident, Mr. Ackerman, tried to convince the Borough to let him install gas mains to light the streets, at the expense of his own company.  He had to construct a building on the eventual site of Pickwick Arms.  He asked for no capital, and even rented the land himself for 5 years at a cost of $1,000.  His proposition was soundly turned down by the Borough! 
 
Another resident, Edward H. Johnson, president of the Edison Electric Light Company of New York, constructed a private plant to light his house on North Street on what we now call Electric Hill.  His lit house could be seen all the way to Long Island Sound.  In 1888, Johnson offered to provide street lights to Greenwich at a cost of $1,200 per year.  Once again, his proposal was soundly defeated!

Electric lighting was finally "introduced" by a special Borough meeting on Dec. 10, 1890.  The Greenwich Gas and Electric Light Company - run by non-residents and backed with foreign capital - built a generator building on Steamboat Road.  The electrification project dragged on because there was a general mistrust (i.e. prejudice) against the foreign backers.  A proposal to install street lights on Greenwich Avenue was finally approved, but not until after some unbelievable arguments.  Opponents cited defective wiring and storm damage as safety concerns!

Years later, electric lines were put up to power the trolleys from Stamford and Port Chester.  Eventually, all buildings - including residential homes - were all wired.  It's hard to imagine what life would be like without electricity.

 

Many people are not aware that the first trans-Atlantic short wave message was sent from Greenwich to Scotland on December 11, 1921. A transmission shack was built on the Elisha P. Cronkhite estate near the intersection of North Street and Clapboard Ridge Road. Inside were wires, cables and coils. A telegraph key was used to send out Morse Code. In addition to the shack, two steel masts - one 108-feet and another 75-feet tall - were erected between which a Flat Top"T" cage antenna was strung. This became known as amateur radio station 1BCG. It took part in historic experiments conducted by amateur radio societies in Great Britain and the United States in the 1920s. As a result, a message was sent across the Atlantic and received in Ardrossan, Scotland. The message was also picked up in Holland, Germany, as well as every state in the Union.

Prior to this, radio messages were transmitted as long wave (15,000- to 20,000-meters). Amateurs were restricted to 200-meter wavelengths, which weren't considered powerful enough for long distance transmissions. However, advances in technology made it possible to transmit further and further. Expensive long wave equipment and antennas were no longer required.

The six-man operating and engineering staff included: John F. Grinan, Ernest V. Amy, Edwin H. Armstrong, George E. Burghard, Milton Cronkhite and Walker P. Inman.On December 29, 1921, the equipment and station were sent to Columbia University for research. It never operated again.

Monument MarkerBesides winning several awards for this achievement, a monument dedicating this event was placed at the corner of Clapboard Ridge Road and North Street. It's inscription reads:

"Near this spot on December 11, 1921,radio station 1BCG sent to Srdrossan, Scotland, the first message ever to span the Atlantic on short waves. 1BCG, an amateur station, was built and operated by members of the Radio Club of America.

Dedicated
Greenwich, Connecticut
1950

1BCG

On Cape Cod in 1900, Guglielmo Marconi built a long wave transmission station. It was composed of four 210-foot towers at Wellfleet. President Roosevelt sent a message to King Edward of England to commemorate its opening. In 1917, it was shut down due to the war for security reasons.

For more information, see Carl White in the local history office.

Celebrate Founders Day!

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Greenwich was founded on July 18, 1640, when Captain Daniel Patrick and Robert Feake purchased land in Old Greenwich from the local Native-Americans for 25 coats. (This sounds very similar to the deal made for Manhattan Island.)  Elizabeth Feake purchased  Monakewego (now known as Greenwich Point), while Jeffrey Ferris claimed land west of the boundary with Stamford.
 
Greenwich was settled by people migrating west from Boston.  The Patricks, Feakes and Ferrises all had ties to the Bay State.   It was among the first ten towns established in Connecticut between 1633 and 1640, which included: Windsor, Wethersfield, Hartford, Saybrook, New Haven, Milford, Fairfield, Stratford, Guildford, and Greenwich.  Stamford was settled in 1641.  Notice that these towns either developed on a river or tidal basin.  Hydroelectric power became very important to New England.
 
The Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich will celebrate this historical event with a Founders Day Family Picnic to celebrate the 370th anniversary.  The program will include a re-enactment of the founding of the town, an address by the Dutch Consul about the Dutch and English influence in Greenwich, and music by the Sound Beach Volunteer Fire Department Band.  A lunch consisting of Turkey and vegetable sandwiches, chips, three-berry lemonade, brownies and madeleines can be purchased for $40 a couple.
 
The picnic celebration will be held at Greenwich Point on Sunday, July 18, from 11 am to 1 pm.  You can pre-register for lunch by checking out the Historical Society website at www.hstg.org.
 
Make a point to stop by Greenwich Point on July 18 to participate in this year's Founders' Day Celebration! 
 
 
 
 
 

The "Sugarboat" Disaster

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On April 29, 1930, the 560-ton vessel Thames caught fire and sank about 100-yards off Greenwich Point.  Sixteen of the twenty-four crew members lost their lives.  A red buoy in Long Island Sound marks the remains of the boat, and at low tide some of the wreckage can still be seen.  Today, there is still some controversy which surrounds the disaster.

The converted freighter was originally built in 1884 as a 142-foot passenger ship.  It was called the City of Gloucester, and sailed primarily in Boston Harbor.  In 1927, it was sold to the Thames Company and was converted to a freighter.  She was renamed the Thames.

On that fateful night in April, Captain Roger Sherman of Stratford was carrying 100-tons of sugar, 20 bales of wool shavings and 25 barrels of oil - a very lethal, flammable mix.  About 8 pm when the boat was about 2-miles off Great Captain's Island, a fire broke out below deck near the boiler room.  Rumor has it that a cigarette butt was thrown into the volatile cargo near the boiler room.  Although it was only 100-yards off  Greenwich Point, there were no rescue boats or communications systems in place like there is today.  Spectators viewing the firery glow from shore could only watch helplessly as crew members jumped into the frigid Sound.  Only one crew member appeared to be wearing a life jacket.  There is also some question as to whether all the crew members could swim.

The controversy concerns the final destination of the Thames.  Some reports claim the boat was headed toward New Bedford.  Others claim the sugar may have been destined for bootleggers in Byram.  After all, Greenwich had more "speakeasies" in Connecticut than any other town during Prohibition.  Because of its sugar cargo, it has been named the "Sugarboat".

Years later, the "Sugarboat" was still causing trouble.  In August 1954 a cruiser struck the wreckage and sunk.  Then in July 1961, another boat struck the remains and sank.  For this reason, it has been called "The Ghost of the Sound".

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