The Vagabond – Strange characters of early Gadsden


By Danny Crownover

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Jean Leclaire, a Frenchman, was a strange Gadsden character, especially to children.

Leclaire might have had a few close friends who knew something of his origin and background, but they were not evident on the surface. He was rarely seen talking to anybody and wandered around downtown, seemingly in a hurry at all times. He would pass scores of people on the street without noticing them. But the old timers regarded the man with respect.

Leclaire was tall, slender and had a short beard. His eyes were rather wild but nobody ever considered him the least bit offensive. However, mothers used to scare their children into good behavior by telling them that “Old Man Leclaire would get them.” That idea was doubly impressed upon them when a little girl died in one of the few Catholic families in the area.

None of the Protestant kids had ever seen a Catholic funeral. When it was reported that Leclaire had visited the dead child’s home and placed lighted candles around her coffin, local folks gathered the notion that the man was up to some monkey business.

Few people ventured into the little girl’s home while Leclaire was there. The candles around the child’s coffin were the talk of the town so far as the kids were concerned. Leclaire, however, was probably acting as a layman in lieu of a priest for the sacrament of Last Rites.

To add to his mystery, Leclaire erected a large two-story frame building at the northeast corner of Broad and Sixth streets. The first floor was cut up into small store rooms and the second story into ordinary bedrooms. The building stayed vacant much of the time, and in its decline was turned over almost entirely to African Americans who conducted small shops on the first floor and lived in the second story.

The building eventually burned to the ground and rebuilt. It was then blown flat and then raised. The building was not rebuilt following a second fire, as the owner was dead. In the building’s last days, local businessmen referred to it as “Leclaire’s Folly.” If Leclair eventually thought he had been foolish in constructing such a place on an important corner of the downtown section of Gadsden he never let that fact be known.

Another odd character was a man named Butler who resided on the Etowah /Calhoun County line and traveled all over the district, reputedly to perform miracles in finding lost articles and hidden treasures.

It was said that Butler never failed when he seriously attempted to find lost valuables. It was also said that he had a depression in his forehead that widened and deepened when he went into a sort of seance. One day while Butler was talking to some friends on Broad Street, a farmer from Calhoun County came in and explained to Butler that he had lost a valuable gold watch and wished Butler to find it.

Butler went into his act immediately. He concentrated and finally he said that the watch could be found on the ground where the owner had climbed over a pasture fence. The owner said at first that he had not been near that point but suddenly he remembered that he had and lit out for home. In a few days, the farmer found the watch exactly where Butler said he would find it.

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