When it comes to Connecticut vagabonds of days gone past, it's hard to top the legend of The Old Leather Man, but there were others to wander the highways and byways, the most noteworthy being The Darn Man (also known as The Old Darn Man, The Darning Man and Old Darn Coat). Although not as well-documented or celebrated as Old Leathery, the Darn Man was still fairly well known in his time as he made his travels across the eastern half of the state and into Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts.
Like the Old Leather Man, the Darn Man was a bit of an anonymous eccentric who traveled on a regular loop by himself, relying on small jobs and the kindness of others to get by, usually never staying at one place for more than a night. He was also identified by a distinct garment that he wore all the time—a formal suit jacket with tails, which started out as a fine coat but over the years had wore out, necessitating that he constantly repair (or "darn") it with donated fabric scraps and different colored pieces of thread, yarn and string—hence the name, the Darn Man. After all the repairs, he ended up with an eclectic patchwork frock (for some reason, the old hair of P-Funk's George Clinton comes to mind), that observers claimed he wore for nearly 60 years.
You could say it was a "technicolor dreamcoat" of sorts, as the reason given for the Darn Man's devotion to it was that it was the suit he had chosen for the day he was to be married—except his bride never appeared, and he never saw her again. The heartbroken gentleman then swore to always wear the jacket until he was married to his true love, and began on a 60-year quixotic journey in search of her.
Completely the opposite of the Old Leather Man, who was a bit grubby and never spoke to anyone aside from the occasional grunt or unintelligible uttering, the Darn Man was described as well-spoken and erudite. He was tall, had long white hair, which was braided, light blue eyes, and at times, a short-cropped mustache; he was also polite, kept his clothes neat and was always "well washed." Also, as where folks literally could set their calendars by the Old Leather Man, the Darn Man was a little more flexible with his schedule and his continuous circuit, which took approximately six months to complete—he also didn't travel much during the height of winter, preferring to hunker down at an undisclosed location he referred to as "his mansion."
The Darn Man's tale also starts before the Old Leather Man's, his first appearances being recorded in the 1820s.
In A Modern History of Windham County, Connecticut, Vol. 2, edited by Allen B. Lincoln and published in 1902, there's a chapter entitled "Old Darn Coat," by Dr. A.D. Dyer, who chronicles some of the stories and recollections about the Darn Man. When Dr. Dyer was a young man, his house in the Clark's Corner area of Hampton was on the Darn Man's route. He offers a firsthand description after his family started being visited by the mysterious traveler in 1859:
He usually wore a tall or stovepipe hat, in which he carried his glasses, kerchief, and a nice snuffbox with gold inlaid in the cover, which a woman had given him years before I knew him, and in the snuffbox, was the bean which all snuff users had in their boxes. He was a man who well-posted in current events and past history.
He was a great reader. My father had a regular reading list, in the Hartford Weekly times, New York Ledger (Bonner's), Harper's Illustrated Weekly, occasionally, the Boston True Flag, Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), and mother had Ladies' Magazine.
The "darn man" asked, soon after he began to come to our house, if he could not work a little and stay two or three days so that he could read more. He seemed much interested in mother's magazine. He would call her attention to a picture of a woman in a new style of dress, and then would sit down and gaze at it a long time. Mother would ask him if it carried him back to the young woman he expected to marry when he saw those pictures, and he would say: "If I told you, you would know my thoughts, my memories of the past." Never would he give a straight answer.
At times he carried a violin and would occasionally play dance music, but as I remember, he played sort of mournful tunes. He at times would sing, when out in the woodshed or in the garden, one song in particular—I do not remember the title, but I do remember him repeating this quotation: "She sat under the green willow tree"; then he would stop and take off his hat and stand as if gazing at something overhead . . . .
In no way could mother or father or anyone else I ever heard of find out his true name, where he was born, his nationality. He apparently was of English stock. He had good knowledge of English history, of men of those days.
At times his talk would lead one to believe he might have had personal acquaintance with some of them, and he might have been born there, and it was possible that his evident disappointment in love might have been over in England or perhaps Scotland, for he talked much of the highlands and moors of bonny Scotland, of the lassies and lads, after his failure to marry he may have come to this country . . .
Yet in no way did my parents, after all sorts of attempts, taking him unawares, ever get the history of his youth, but only from the time he avowed he would never would wear any other coat; never a date or the place where this avowal was made or when he first started on his trips.
A few years later Dr. Dyer's family left Hampton to move to nearby Scotland, and despite running into the Darn Man later and offering him a place to stay, could not convince the wanderer to alter his path.
As with any odd person who is reluctant to reveal anything about their past, stories were manufactured in place of the truth. At various times, his real name was rumored to be Frank Howland, George Johnson and George Thompson; similarly, he was said to be a merchant from Massachusetts, that he had sisters in Rhode Island and that he had originated in Centerbrook. None of these accounts were ever confirmed or denied, and the Darn Man's silence on the matter only deepened the mystery.
However unclear the details of his origin, he definitely did spend decades walking the same route through the same region of southeastern New England, his existence recorded in numerous sources. Not surprisingly though, his exact demise is also a bit unclear.
According to Legendary Connecticut by David Phillips, one account says that Darn Man died under tragic circumstances. The story goes that one night, after seeming uncharacteristically quiet, he was overheard muttering, "My bride will come tonight. Surely she will not disappoint me. Come, my beloved little bride."
A short time later, he heard the sound of an approaching carriage and the laughter of a young girl. Overwhelmed with joy, he ran out into the darkened road to welcome back his long-lost love—only to be accidentally trampled to death by an unsuspecting team of horses and a carriage that did not carry his former bride. The community took pity on the poor, broken man, supposedly laying him to rest in his well-worn and colorful wedding suit.
More conventional history suggests that the Darn Man eventually died along the road in the area between Sterling and Plainfield due to natural causes. No one knows exactly where he was buried, or if he ever was re-united with his lost love, either in this life or the next.
Oh, and what's a great old legend without its own song? Singer-songwriter Jonathan Jay offers his take on "The Darn Man."
So if you're out wandering the roads of eastern Connecticut one night and hear hooves pounding, carriage wheels turning and the laughter of a bride-to-be, you might want to check your pockets for some spare fabric, needle and thread.