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Here’s how Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson got his distinctive nickname



If you lived in Richmond in 1874, you might have been a customer of Leon J. Boujasson. He was a hat maker, though it appears he spent as much time repairing, cleaning and blocking hats as making them. In other words, Boujasson was a journeyman. His creations were probably not haute couture, but a hat was an essential part of any gentleman’s or lady’s wardrobe. Demand must have been high enough to provide a decent living — provided customers paid their bills.

Boujasson was not from Richmond. He wasn’t from the United States. He was born in France. Before settling in Richmond, he’d tried his luck in a few other U.S. cities. An 1869 ad in a Charleston, S.C., newspaper announced that Boujasson was “prepared to Clean, Press and make new all styles of beavers, straw, Silk and Panama HATS, at a very low figure.”

In 1871, Boujasson was in Nashville, running an ad that said, “Don’t wear a soiled hat. Be up to the style.” In 1873, he is listed in the Wilkes-Barre, Pa., city directory, with a hat shop on Main Street.

By 1874, Boujasson was living in Richmond, with a shop on Broad Street near Ninth, in the basement of the old Swan Tavern. By 1875, he was in a Virginia penitentiary, serving a 10-year sentence for murder.

Why should anyone today care about a 19th-century French hat maker named Boujasson? Because it was the mispronunciation of that surname that would inspire the nickname of the great tap-dancing Richmond native Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

I am obsessed with exploring the possessive apostrophe in ‘Bojangles’


We’ll get to how in a bit, but first let’s explore what happened on Nov. 1, 1874, the day L.J. Boujasson decided he just couldn’t take it anymore.

Witnesses would later testify that they saw Boujasson, revolver in hand, chase a man named F.S. Gloor up Broad Street, onto Sixth Street, then into Pink Alley toward the city’s market. The hat maker raised the gun and fired. Three shots missed their target. One struck Gloor in the head.

“What is the matter?” a bystander asked Boujasson.

“I want to kill that man,” Boujasson allegedly replied.

He hadn’t. Though the projectile had entered the top of Gloor’s skull and lodged there, he was expected to survive. Gloor was brought to the Church Institute, formerly the Medical College Infirmary. Doctors had a hard time keeping him there, later reporting that Gloor frequently left his bed to walk around the city.

Gloor’s condition worsened, and on Nov. 26, he died. Later that day, police went to collect Boujasson. He was told that Gloor’s death had changed the “character of the offense.” What had been assault was now murder.

Like Boujasson, Gloor was an immigrant. He was Swiss, a tailor who worked out of the Monumental Hotel. (In November 1872, Gloor placed an ad in the Richmond Daily Dispatch in search of “a girl who can make good work on the machine.”)


The two men apparently despised each other.

Boujasson’s lawyers did not present much of a case at his trial, choosing to blame Gloor for his own death. They said that disobeying the doctors, leaving the hospital and walking Richmond’s streets had brought on the infection that killed him.

The members of the jury didn’t buy it. They convicted Boujasson of second-degree murder, recommending a sentence of 10 years. Reported the Norfolk Virginian: “Boujasson received the sentence with deep emotion, weeping long and bitterly.”

The judge asked Boujasson if there was anything he had to say. It was only then that the hat maker shared his story. The previous summer, Gloor had come into Boujasson’s shop to have a hat fixed. When the work was completed, Gloor took the hat without paying, Boujasson said.

The same thing happened two more times. When Boujasson demanded payment, Gloor responded that he would pay “sometime.”

Gloor could be threatening, too, shaking his fist in Boujasson’s face and calling him a “robber” and, a newspaper primly noted, a “d—d French scoundrel.”

On the morning of Nov. 1, a Sunday, Boujasson encountered Gloor on Second Street. Gloor, Boujasson said, jostled him from the pavement. That evening, Boujasson saw Gloor’s dog running along the street. Boujasson turned and saw Gloor approaching menacingly. And that’s when the hat maker fired his first shot, an act, he implied, of self-defense.


The judge was unmoved. The sentence stood.

L.J. Boujasson was in prison in 1878 when Luther Robinson — Bill’s original name — was born. During that time, Boujasson’s brother, Charles, ran the hat shop.

By 1885, Leon was out of prison. Soon after, some neighborhood kids relieved the hat maker they all knew as “Bojangles” of some of his merchandise. The stolen chapeau — a tall beaver-skin top hat — was so distinctive, it proved impossible to sell. Bill Robinson was saddled with it.

“The episode became a joke on the street,” wrote Jim Haskins and N.R. Mitgang in their 1988 biography of Robinson.

“Who took Bojangles’s hat?” kids would cry. “Why, Bojangles took it,” came the response.

As George Bowles wrote in his 1979 book, “Pages From the Virginia Story,” Boujasson “probably went to his grave without realizing the international acclaim Bill Robinson brought to the slightly altered version of his name.”

Boujasson went to his grave in 1903, aged 72. He’s buried in Richmond’s Mount Calvary Cemetery under a stone that reads “Native of France.”


Source: Washington Post

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