Podcast 252 – The Darn Man of Windham County

In the mid-1800s, a colorful vagabond called the Darn Man wandered Windham County, Connecticut, waiting for his lost bride to return.

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In Episode 252, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger walk the roads of Hampton, Connecticut, searching for the story of the Darn Man, a colorful vagabond who wandered Windham County in the 1850s and 1860s wearing the coat he was to be married in, but his bride never showed. He gave different names to different families, he’d never talk about his past or origins, yet he became a local celebrity and the focus of many stories. But who was he really?

Read the episode transcript.

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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Additional Voice Talent: Dustin Pari
Theme Music by: John Judd

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Man walking in a foggy autumn landscape.

*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

JEFF: Ray, June is wedding month.
RAY: It is! It’s nice to drive by churches and wedding halls and see bridal parties again.
JEFF: My wife and I just celebrated our 20-year wedding anniversary.
RAY: Congratulations!
JEFF: We got married in June too. It’s amazing the things we do for love.
RAY: Many songs have been written about just that. Is a wedding the reason we’re taking a stroll down Main Street in Hampton, Connecticut?
JEFF: Sort of. But more because of a wedding that DIDN’T happen. Ray, we’ve come to Windham County to search for the legend of the Darn Man.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Welcome to Episode 252 of the New England Legends podcast. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time.
JEFF: We’re glad you’re with us. We’re a community of legend seekers who love exploring and sharing these strange tales of eccentrics, ghosts, monsters, aliens, odd history, and roadside oddities. Did you know most of our story leads come from YOU? It’s true! This one did. Thanks to Lauren Middleton for the lead on this one. Lauren developed our free smart phone app and helps us out in so many ways.
RAY: You can get more involved in our community by contacting us through our Web site, joining our super secret Facebook group, or calling or texting our legend line anytime at 617-444-9683. Also, don’t miss After the Legend – the second half of this episode where Jeff and I take a deeper dive into this week’s story and sometimes we veer off course.
JEFF: Before we go looking for this Darn Man, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
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JEFF: So Ray, do you remember the 1986 movie, Crocodile Dundee?
RAY: Of course! Who could forget Paul Hogan making his way through the Australian outback, then coming to New York City.
JEFF: That’s the one. In the movie he talked about going walkabout.
RAY: Right. That’s when you basically walk off into the outback and live off the land for a while.
JEFF: Yeah. Though I guess it wouldn’t have to be just the outback, I suppose you could try that anywhere. I guess in this country we’d call those folks Hobos. Hop on a freight train and hitch a ride somewhere. Live off of hand-outs. Make camps. Do you think you could live like that?
RAY: No.
RAY: Not a chance. But I get the appeal of having no responsibilities other than to survive another day. Life would be simple.
JEFF: To be clear, we’re not talking about our homeless population. We’re talking about a small group of people over the centuries who were homeless completely by choice. People who viewed true freedom as having no roots and no fixed address. Some of these folks became folk heroes.
RAY: We’ve explored a few of these eccentric vagabonds on this podcast. There’s Cling-Clang, Old Leatherman, and the Barefoot Farmer of Pawtuckaway, just to name a few.
JEFF: And now we can add The Darn Man to the list.
RAY: The Darn Man? I know we don’t swear on here… but Darn?
JEFF: I know, I know. In this case, darn refers to fixing or mending clothing. Like when you darn a sock. But with the Darn Man, it was a fancy coat. In fact, some people called him Old Darn Coat.
RAY: I’m sure he had a real name, right?
JEFF: I’m sure he did, but no one seems to know it. He’d give different names to different people, but his tale was tragic, which may explain why so many people in this part of New England were so willing to help him. To learn more, let’s head back to 1859, and meet the Darn Man.
RAY: It’s April of 1859 here in Hampton, Connecticut. It’s a beautiful spring day. A good day for a stroll. We’re standing just outside the home and farm of the Ayer family.
JEFF: The Ayer Farm is a busy place. There’s a swamp to be drained, animals to be fed, irrigation ditches to be dug, and every other endless chore associated with a farm. Immigrants fresh off the boat, and all kinds of other people make their way through this region knocking on doors of farms and homes looking for work, whether it’s seasonal work, or just a day or two. People will take what they can get.
RAY: Huh… this guy walking up the road looks different than the others.
JEFF: This MUST be our guy. He’s got on a tall, stovepipe hat. He’s walking with a certain gentlemanly swagger. But his coat! His coat is a site to behold.
RAY: His coat looks like a formal jacket coat with tails and everything, but it’s stitched countless times with threads and yarns of every possible color. (PAUSE) Good morning, sir!
JEFF: He just tipped his hat to us. Good morning! And there he goes heading for the Ayer’s home. Let’s follow him
RAY: Inside the Ayer house it’s clear the Darn Man has been here before. The Darn Man takes off his hat to reveal a snuff box with fancy gold inlays, his glasses, and a kerchief. He explains the snuff box was a gift from his bride to be.
JEFF: When Mrs. Ayer offers to patch a small tear in his fancy coat, the Darn Man insists that he’ll do it himself. Though he’d be grateful for the use of some thread or string. He explains that this was the coat he was to be married in, and he intends to leave it on until he’s reunited with his bride and they’re finally married. When the Darn Man comments on the picture of a woman in a new style of dress in Mrs. Ayer’s magazine, she asks him if the woman reminds him of the young woman he expected to marry.
DARN MAN: If I told you, you would know my thoughts, my memories of the past.
RAY: When he speaks, there’s a hint of an English accent, but it’s weird. It’s not on every word.
JEFF: I noticed that! It’s almost like the accent isn’t real? Something he’s putting on?
RAY: Maybe! I’m not sure. The Darn Man clearly loves to talk. He tells stories of noblemen he’s known over in England and Scotland. He’s obviously intelligent and well-read. He’s up on the news of the day. But he never gives a straight answer when asked a question—especially if that question is about himself.
JEFF: The Ayer Family are well-read as well. There are all kinds of recent periodicals lying around the reading room. There’s the Hartford Weekly Times, the New York Ledger, the Boston True Flag, and Harper’s Illustrated Weekly just to name a few. The Darn Man is practically salivating looking at all of those publications. He asks if he can stay a day or two and do some work in exchange for the opportunity to catch up on his reading. Mr. Ayer agrees.
RAY: When Mr. Ayer presses the Darn Man for his name, the Darn Man replies that his name is George Johnson from Rhode Island.
JEFF: Which is all well and good, but one of the farm hands told me he’s run into the Darn Man before. He said THAT time the Darn Man introduced himself as George Thompson from Taunton, Massachusetts. It seems like each time he tells a story about himself, it’s different.
RAY: The Darn Man also avoids discussing anything in his life that occurred before his wedding that never happened. If you bring up his childhood, or where he’s from, he changes the subject. You often don’t get the same answer twice.
JEFF: You’d think the Ayer Family and others wouldn’t trust someone like that?
RAY: I get that, but there’s something about him. Maybe it’s his soft eyes? Plus, at this point, the Darn Man is kind of a celebrity. After two days at the Ayer house…
RAY: He leaves. And moves on to the next house down the road. Always traveling the same route around Windham County in northeastern Connecticut. About once a month, he’s back at the Ayer Farm for a night or two, and then back on the road until January. Where he spends the winter months between January and April is a mystery. But when spring breaks, he’s back again in that Old Darn Coat.
JEFF: At each house he tells different stories, gives different names, but each time someone offers to mend his coat for him he tells the same story about how he was to be married in that coat, and he’ll tend to it until his bride returns… which should be any day now. Year after year, it’s any day now.
RAY: As to exactly what happened to that bride became the subject of many different tales. Some say Darn Man was a teacher engaged to the daughter of a New London ship captain. They say she sailed to New York to buy her wedding dress, and the ship sank in a storm. The bridegroom was never the same, and just wandered off wearing his wedding coat.
JEFF: Other versions are more simple. That Darn Man was left at the altar. His bride never showed, and he never saw her again. The truth is we don’t know. Still, we have a little insight. On one of his return visits to the Ayer Farm, the Darn Man pulls Ayer’s son aside to talk to him.
DARN MAN: Boy, as you grow up, beware of the girls. Don’t spend your money on them. Don’t pay out for a nice wedding suit, especially a coat, for you may be left as I was, to wander about with my wedding coat I avowed to wear until I learned what became of the one whom I adored, who I am not willing to say went back on me. I am charitable enough to think she was spirited away, or lost her mind, and perhaps was killed.
RAY: It’s 1860 when the Ayer family moves south to the town of Scotland, Connecticut. They don’t see much of the Darn Man after that, but one time they run into him traveling on the road. His hair is long, gray, and braided down his back. The Ayers ask him why he doesn’t adjust his route to come visit them in their new home in Scotland.
DARN MAN: No, I have my mind made up to keep on going over the same route, in the same towns, and I expect to die some time in some of the places I have been for years.
RAY: The Ayers ask the Darn Man if he maybe wanted to leave some information, confidentially, of course, for contacting his relatives, or if he had any kind of final wishes for when his end comes. But true to form, the Darn Man is vague.
DARN MAN: If you knew what I know about myself, you would know what I know.
JEFF: It’s 1863, when a farmer driving his wagon along Snake Meadow Hill Road in Sterling, Connecticut, discovers Old Darn Man lying near the road. The farmer scoops up the vagabond and places him in his wagon, so he can bring him to get help, but the old man dies in the wagon. He’s buried in the Oneco section of Sterling. They say he’s buried in his famous coat. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: He’s gone, but NOT forgotten. Like we said earlier, he was a celebrity in Windham County.
JEFF: He was.
RAY: Most of what we know about the Darn Man, or Old Darn Coat as he was also called comes from the 1920 book, A Modern History of Windham County. Dr. A. D. Ayer wrote the section on the Old Darn Coat from his childhood memories.
JEFF: There have also been various newspaper articles published over the years, where the Darn Man gets a mention or two. He was a folk hero in these parts. Yet so much about him is still a mystery. What we know has been cobbled together from old journals, articles, and things like that. You never know when your family might have some old letter or journal with some new piece of information about the Old Darn Man. If you find something, please do let us know! We love learning more.
RAY: I still feel like someone like this could exist today. I mean cities have certain colorful homeless characters that locals get to know. But you can’t knock on a stranger’s door and ask for a place to sleep anymore. It’s too scary.
JEFF: I get it. Some of these legends connect us to different times. I think it’s fitting to close this one with a section of a poem about the Darn Man that was written by Mrs. C.H.N. Thomas of Danielson, Connecticut, sometime after the Darn Man’s death.
The beggar lay dead by the roadside
A pitiful sight to see,
But then he was only a beggar
And nothing to you and me.
He was weary and worn with travel,
His feet could not further go
In chase of the beautiful phantom
That beckoned him from long ago.
With eyes like the eyes of the maiden,
Full of gentleness and truth,
Who died on the morn of her bridal
The love of his long-lost youth.
And left him so crazed and heart-broken
To wander alone through life,
Its joys and its pleasures unheeding,
Unheeded its turmoil and strife.
RAY: And that brings us to After the Legend where we take a deeper dive into this week’s story and sometimes veer of course. After the Legend is sponsored by our friends at Seaside Shadows!
JEFF: Seaside Shadows offers a blend of history and mystery on their guided tours of southern New England. And… BIG announcement… Friday, June 24th is opening day of their Concord, Massachusetts, tours! It’s called Downtown Concord Ghost and True Crime, and these tour operate six days per week!
RAY: Concord, Massachusetts, in the site of the shot heard ‘round the world. The birthplace of the American Revolution, the home of American Transcendentalism, and some of the best-known American literary icons are buried right there in Concord.
JEFF: The Seaside Shadows tour will take you through downtown Concord, through the burial grounds, haunted locations, and sites of sinister and dark activity. You’ll hear tales of missing heads, famous authors fishing for human corpses, curious funeral practices, cold-blooded murder, and missing travelers along the streets of Concord.
RAY: Seaside Shadow’s Concord tour meets just behind the Visitor’s Center on the far end of the Parking Lot at the bridge leading to Chamberlin Park. Parking is available in the lot or public street parking in Concord.
JEFF: Head over to SeasideShadows.com to learn about all of their upcoming events and tours in Mystic, Connecticut, Westerly, Rhode Island, and now Concord, Massachusetts! Plus Seaside Shadows can host murder mystery dinners, pub crawls, and more. There’s always something new going on at SeasideShadows.com! You can book your experience right online at SeasideShadows.com. Start your tour of local legends, lore, and true history.
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Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.

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One Response

  1. Amelia R.
    July 5, 2022

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