“One misty moisty morning, when cloudy was the weather,
I met with an old man a-cloth-ed all in leather,
He was cloth-ed all in leather with a cap beneath his chin, saying:
‘How d’ you do and how d’ you do and how d’ you do again?’ “
- Old Nursery Rhyme
One of Connecticut’s greatest and still unsolved mysteries lies in the true identity of The Leatherman. Much has been written and much has been retracted but, even after researchers going so far as to exhume this man’s body to DNA-test it, not much is still known but the public is remains fascinated.
Right now, all we know is there once existed a man clad in 66 pounds of leather who would trek about ten miles a day clockwise around his predetermined route of 365 miles every 34 days. Although he slept in caves along the route, people got to see him when he walked by their homes every 34 days and after a while began giving him food, drink and tobacco. He stopped in towns to buy food and supplies. One store kept a record of his purchases: “one loaf of bread, a can of sardines, one-pound of fancy crackers, a pie, two quarts of coffee, one gill of brandy and a bottle of beer” but has no idea where the Leatherman got his money.
“Old Leathery”, as many referred to him, became quite popular. Town residents knew when he would arrive in town and have extra food ready for him. He would accept it and often consume it as he sat at their doorsteps. They knew not to ask him questions about who he was because Old Leathery would usually only grunt.
He traveled the same route from 1856-1889 living in the “Leatherman Caves” where he heated his rock shelter with fire for heat, which allegedly allowed him to survive the ferocious blizzard of 1888. In that same year, The Connecticut Human Society had him arrested and hospitalized because of a blatant sore on his lip which they thought was caused by the severe storm. It turned out to be cancer from excessive tobacco use, and before Old Leathery could be treated, he escaped and continued on his route. Later, on March 24, 1889, his body was found in the Saw Mill Woods cave near Ossining New York.
Who was this mysterious leather-clad drifter? There were many theories of his origin. Some thought him to be Canadian or French because of his fluency in the language and the discovery of an all-French prayer book on his body.
On August 16, 1884, the Waterbury Daily American published a story about him, referring to him as Jules Bourglay, in a false tale of a Frenchman who fell in love with a woman of a rich family. Her father made a concession: If Jules, a talented woodcarver, made good in the family’s leather business, he may have his daughter’s hand in marriage. Jules failed miserably and disappeared, only to resurface in America making his fabled 365 mile trek. The newspaper later retracted the article in March of 1889. Until this year, his actual headstone, erected in 1953 and replacing a pipe as a grave marker in Sparta Cemetery in Ossining, read, “Final resting place of Jules Bourglay of Lyons, France, ‘The Leather Man’ who regularly walked a 365 mile route through Westchester and Connecticut from the Connecticut River to the Hudson living in caves in the years 1858-1889”.
Most people who tried to converse with him received mostly grunts and those who asked his name were never told. When asked if he were Jules, Old Leathery answered with a grunt or not at all. Some people speculate that he was autistic due to the facts that he never spoke, shunned people, mistrusted the medical profession, and was compulsively punctual on his clockwise journey throughout the two states.
He may have been a Roman Catholic and not only carried the afore-mentioned prayer book but refused meals consisting of meat on Fridays. Some say he wore a crucifix.
So how can we find out who this man really was? Since the cemetery where he is buried is less than 16 feet from the highway and road expansion would take it to within a foot of a grave, bodies had to be moved. Since Old Leathery is in one of these graves, plans were made to exhume him.
Dan DeLuca, author of The Old Leather Man: Historical Accounts of a Connecticut and New York Legend, stated that exhuming the body could lead to new revelations about the Leather Man. He claimed that through DNA testing they can learn more about his mental health and where he originally came from. They even planned to use forensic techniques to create a 3-dimensional model of his “biological” face.
On May 22, 2011, on an overcast Sunday morning in Ossining Cemetery, a small backhoe removed the headstone and gingerly dug at the top layer of the grave which was immediately inspected by a team of anthropologists, soil scientists, historians, and an osteologist (a scientist who studies bones).
Nothing was found until they dug a little deeper. They were going through this with a fine-toothed comb. A metal detector caused some excitement when it went off and the group found some coffin nails and some bone fragments. Unfortunately, the nails may have been just cast-offs and didn’t match each other as well as being too close to the surface and the pieces of bone were non-human.
Three days of digging and examining turned up some shards of pottery and an arrowhead. His identity will continue to remain a mystery.
On Wednesday, May 25, after spending almost a century and a half in this pauper’s grave, the contents of his resting place on Route 9, consisting of dozens of nails from what may or may not have been his old coffin and some excavated earth were put into a plain pine coffin and buried during a ceremony officiated by Rev. Dr. Tim Ives, of the Scarborough Presbyterian Church, in a more peaceful spot beneath a flagpole closer to the center of the cemetery.
The Leather Man seemed to be a sad, lonely figure, unsmiling, speaking very few words, rarely entering a home, always sleeping out doors and living on mostly meals given to him by people who lived along his route. He is more popular today then ever and he often appears in articles all over the nation, in books read by thousands and music heard by millions He left the world nothing but his legend and his mystery. That’s quite a legacy.
Makin’ the rounds ten miles a day.
Once a month they’d spot him and here’s what they’d say…
“Here he comes, he’s a man of the land, he’s leatherman.
Smile on his face, an axe in his hand.
Shake his hand he’s leatherman.
Bake some bread he’s leatherman.
Shame he’s dead. I saw his bed,
It’s all that’s left of leatherman.
- Pearl Jam