The heritage of Connecticut has been compared to a stonewall by one Homer Babbidge, Jr. a writer and storyteller. He states that stone walls, so common in Connecticut come in all sizes, shapes and textures with some of them standing out in grandeur and others known for their eccentric look, meandering through the hills and dales, going nowhere but did go somewhere, sometime ago. He notes that like some stonewalls, history is elusive and somewhat unknown especially the legends which blend fact with fiction and as he says, “ wisdom and whimsy.”
The legend of the Leatherman is well-known but it seems there were several other members of the vagabond world, not able to match him for his fame or fable but the characters known as Old Dog Man, Old Blue Bag, Jerry Blue Bag and the Old Darn Man have intrigued generations of Connecticut families. The Old Dog Man had a rather short career tramping through Windham County on no particular schedule, picking up stray dogs and selling them as his mainstay. It was said that some family pets went missing but he was never really known to have sold any dog that had its rightful home.
The Old Blue Bag, a harmless sort, made his living with household chores, filling a wood box or other efforts and then waited for a handout. Other than being on the loose, as it were, he was clean, washing his clothes in a stream and drying them over some bushes to dry, a practice of many a housewife as well. His going barefoot might be a sign of poverty but it appears that he didn’t want to get his boots dirty. His name, which is probably obvious, is derived from the blue, cloth bag he slung over his shoulder.
Another blue bagger, who held to the Norwich area, was Jerry Blue Bag, a nefarious soul who was not above removing household objects not nailed down so to speak. Legend has it they he took up with wayward children and there were many mothers who would use him to settle their unruly children by saying if they did not behave, they would be bagged by Jerry Blue Bag. You can bet that the children made themselves scarce when he arrived in town.
For all the local fame, none could hold a candle to the Old Darn Man who had a long circuit with a legend inspiring ability to approach that of the Old Leatherman. The Darn Man began is wanderings in the Windham and New London Counties sometime in the 1820’s. He moved about on an uneven route for more than 60 years with his real name, unknown. Giving various names as he roamed, a Clinton citizen remembered him as Frank Howland, a direct descendent of John Howland, a Mayflower Pilgrim. He was reported as having the name George Thompson, a former merchant from Taunton, Massachusetts and George Johnson. However, one thing rang true, he was a man of good breeding, intelligent and a talented violinist.
Legend is probably to blame for some of his qualities but then again, one cannot be certain of that either. Unlike the Leatherman, his clothing consisted of a long, double-breasted jacket with the split tails as seen in formal wear with close-fitting trousers with the straps at the feet, A long, brocaded vest hug below the coat with a watch fob of gold attached to an old-fashioned watch. He wore a tall, bell shaped hat that looked as if it had been white at one time but with his wanderings on dusty roads had become quite grey.
With his 60 years of passing through town after town, his garb held up with the utmost longevity. It is this “look” that gave him the name Darn Coat or as history has held, The Old Darn Man. Before asking for food, he would ask for a needle and thread to repair his clothes upon which he would sit in a chair and proceed to repair the worn spots in his suit. He would refuse a willingness of his hostess to mend it for him saying, “Thank you Madame, but I must refuse. These are my wedding clothes and they are sacred. My bride will be here soon.”
Of course, in time, what was once a rather dapper looking suit became a crazy quilt of stiches but never did a tear or spot remain uncared for. His jet-black hair eventually turned white and what was once an athlete’s body began to stoop with age but never wavering in his manner to be ambiguous of speech but consistent in his habits.
Unlike the Leatherman, he would sleep in a person’s home but one night disappearing in the winter to “his mansion.” Only one meal at the expense of his host. If encouraged to stay more than one night, he would pay for his lodging by reading aloud from books or newspapers, or playing his violin. What appears to be his quest to find a lost love was to be his end. As he sat in the stillness of the night, he is said to have heard a carriage coming his way. Thinking that his love had returned, he darted out into the street, waving his arms for the driver to stop. This waving distracted the horses, causing them to lurch forward, knocking the old man down. He died the next day.
When it came time to bury him, the womenfolk refused to put him in a conventional shroud but cleaned and pressed his suit, mending it so that he would rest in peace. Somewhere in Plainfield or Sterling lies the Old Darn Man, wearing the suit he had worn for over sixty years as he searched in vain for his lost bride.
We all know and maybe have forgotten by now of the exploits of one Robert Kidd, aka Captain Kidd. His treasure supposedly buried on Charles Island has yet to be discovered although many have tried in vane to uncover the booty. However, there are more tales of his adventures upriver in Windsor where his once anchored sloop the San Antonio has reportedly been seen in recent years. As the story goes Kidd and his crew came ashore with a huge chest, bulging with gold as the moon was dark and a heavy fog fell over the Connecticut River. As the gold was lowered into its hiding place, the crew drew lots to see who would stay behind to guard the ill-gotten loot. Well, as it goes, the man with the short straw could have assumed his life was to be spent in the Connecticut colony but not in life but death. He was shot and killed with his body being lowered onto the sunken chest, guarding it with his life, literally.
Over the years, reports have been bandied about that near the mid-section of the river’s shore, on dark and foggy nights, a great ship passes by, flying the well-known skull and crossbones. Popular belief holds that ghosts of those who have stolen money but have not returned it must forever wander the earth at night. Captain Kidd, at the helm, is searching for his lost treasure troves. If the gold is indeed found, Kidd can “pass over” in peace. Searchers for his gold have been frustrated for years by horrible noises at the old Wethersfield landing and the vision of a sailor killed with a water bucket wielded by Kidd in a fit of anger, appears in the gloom.
If this is not enough for you to get out your pick and shovel, I guess I haven’t intrigued you enough to try your hand at this most elaborate legend, ever told. Oh by the way, try digging at Haddam Neck, west of Clarkhurst Road or Haddam’s Lord’s Island. Branford’s Thimble Island is a good bet.
Believe or Not.