Back in the 50's, I remember driving with my Dad on a back country road. He slowed down the car to point out an elderly man carrying a small satchel and walking all alone. Dad said he was a "wanderer"; when he was a boy in the 1920's they were pretty common. They were not bums - just old men who had outlived their families and had nowhere to go. Like the Hired Hand in the poem by Robert Frost, they would work for room and board. If they couldn't find a kind person to take them in, they would shuffle- off to the next town. Between jobs they would sleep in barns and sheds and live off raw corn and apples. In time, they would grow too feeble to work and many would end up at the county poor farm. And others would be found dead in a snow bank by the side of some country road.
Such a wanderer was a Polish nobleman who in 1881 briefly strayed into our life here in Derry. There is no way of knowing if his story was truth or fiction. The Count may have just made up the facts to appeal to the sympathy of the listeners Regardless, the ninety year old visitor stood-out in a crowd, with his long white beard and main of silver hair. He measured only a little over 5 foot tall. He had a clear, ruddy complexion and shuffled when he walked. Despite his age he had a firm handshake and an "earnest" voice.
He claimed to be Count J. Jowacki who had been born in Poland on July 4, 1791. The elderly man said he had fought with Napoleon at Austerlitz and Waterloo and had taken part in the tragic march from Paris to Moscow. With obvious pride he added that he was exactly the same height as "The Great Napoleon." For his service, the French gave him a pension which continued until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. In 1831 he had joined his father and brothers in the Poland's unsuccessful war for independence. The next year, Russian Czar Nicholas exiled him to Siberia.
Jowacki next saw military action in 1848 during the Hungary's unsuccessful war for their independence from Austria. In 1851 he was driven into exile in America along with the famous freedom fighter Lajos Kossuth, future U.S. Senator Carl Schurz and future U.S. General Franz Sigel. During the Civil War he served under Sigel and rode a beautiful thoroughbred Arabian horse which he had brought from Europe.
After the war's end, Count Jowacki went to California. There he was a San Francisco police man for six years and nine months. Since then, he has wandered on foot throughout the United States earning a living by begging. He explained he had just come from Boston where he had hoped to find some old military comrades who would take him in. Sadly he found that everyone he used to know in Boston had either died or had moved away. His next plan was to look for old comrades or relatives in MontrÃ©al, Canada.
In Derry, the old warrior successfully begged for a warm bed at Sanders' Hotel. After a hardy (free) breakfast, he hit the rode again heading north. In Manchester a crowd of hooligans surrounded the old fellow and gave him little mercy. Finally the city's police had to take the 90-year-old man into protective custody. Probably, after a good meal and a bed for the night in the lock-up, the Queen City authorities sent him on his way on the road to Canada. I know nothing more of this story. I do sincerely hope that when Count Jowacki finally breathed his last breath, he was in a warm bed with a full belly and that some kind soul took pity on the old man and gave him a Christian burial.
I guess we'll never know.
Rick Holmes is Derry's Town Historian and author of "Nutfield Rambles," which is available for purchase at the town hall, local libraries and many local stores.