Legend in Leather

In the 19th century, a strange person known as the Leatherman wandered endlessly through the Valley and Connecticut. Curiosity about his odd life continues to this day

Over the years, the Hudson Valley has been home to any number of unusual and colorful characters. The 19th-century businessman and politician Zadock Pratt, for example, is best remembered for hiring a stone carver to chisel his likeness into the cliffs near his Catskills home, creating a “mini Mount Rushmore.” Not many years later, Francis Bannerman built a replica of a Scottish castle — turrets and all — on an island in the middle of the Hudson, which he used to house his family (as well as the ammunition he sold for a living).

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But arguably the most fascinating — and mysterious — of the Valley’s legendary denizens is the person known as the Leatherman. His story, or what we know of it, is difficult to believe — and almost impossible to understand.

By 1869, local newspapers in the lower Hudson Valley and western Connecticut had started recounting the itinerant wanderings of “a Frenchman, aged about 35 years, dressed entirely in leather.” Of medium height and build, with black hair, a black beard, and blue-gray eyes, he carried a leather bag and a tin cup, and regularly passed through towns located between the Connecticut and Hudson rivers — but spoke to no one. Newspaper reporters and others curious about this odd person often followed him into wooded areas, where he was seen to hunker down for the night under a rock, or in a cave or lean-to made from tree branches. There was always a water source near these locations, and some even had a carefully tended garden nearby.

The “Old Leather Man,” as he was soon known, quickly became a source of fascination among the townsfolk. His leather suit — a jacket, pants, and cap made of calfskin boot tops stitched together with leather thongs — probably weighed close to 60 pounds; he wore it year-round, even in the heat of summer. He was never known to harm anyone, steal, or beg for food (although he did eventually accept handouts from “friends”). Strangest of all, he refused to speak: people often asked him his name, where he was from, where he was going, and why he lived as he did. He never answered these questions, just continued to wander from one cold, rocky shelter to the next.

Around 1883, the Leatherman began to travel a precise route: a clockwise circuit of 365 miles through northern Westchester and Putnam counties in New York, and adjacent areas in Connecticut. He completed the loop every 34 days, appearing back in certain villages with such punctuality that housewives were said to set their clocks by the time of his arrival. He traveled this same route until he was found dead, in his shelter on a farm in Mount Pleasant, in 1889. An autopsy put the cause of death as blood poisoning brought on by cancer; he was approximately 50 years old.

the leatherman

Identity unknown: One of about 20 known photographs of the Leatherman, this shot was taken in 1888 by F.W. Moore in Connecticut

Photograph from The Old Leather Man by Dan W. DeLuca (Wesleyan University Press 2008)

leatherman grave in ossiningAt rest: The headstone marking the Leatherman’s grave in Ossining’s Sparta Cemetery. DeLuca hopes to have the name “Jules Bourglay” removed from the plaque

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Photograph by Frank Roberts

The Leatherman is buried in Sparta Cemetery in Ossining. For 64 years after his death, a plumbing pipe stuck into the ground was the only marker for his grave. In 1953, a headstone was placed on the spot, identifying the deceased as one Jules Bourglay. Here the story gets even more complicated. In 1884, a Connecticut newspaper had published an article that purported to be the “true” story of the Leatherman. According to this account, the Leatherman was a poor Frenchman named Jules Bourglay, who had fallen in love with a girl above his station. Her father, a well-to-do tanner, refused to give Jules his daughter’s hand in marriage until the young man proved himself worthy by working in the family business. Jules, so the story goes, worked hard, but made one disastrous mistake that destroyed the tannery and bankrupted the family. Heartbroken and ashamed, he immigrated to America, and wandered aimlessly through the countryside, wearing his leather suit as a penance for his failures.

This story — full of romance and pathos — was reprinted in several other papers. Before long, it was being accepted as fact — even though the newspaper in which it had originally appeared confirmed that it was completely fictitious. But tragic tales die hard; many people to this day still believe that the Leatherman’s name was Jules Bourglay.

But Dan DeLuca knows otherwise. A Connecticut historian and genealogist, DeLuca has spent the last 22 years researching this unusual character, and sorting out the known facts from the fantasies. His recently published book, The Old Leather Man (Wesleyan University Press), is a compilation of newspaper accounts, first-person remembrances, and rare photographs of the man.

As a result of poring through “miles of microfilm,” DeLuca has concluded that the Leatherman was most likely born in Canada around 1839; there is “strong evidence” that he was French-Canadian. He was first reported to be in the Connecticut/New York area in 1856, when he would have been about 17 years old. And he had a strong knowledge of Native-American lore, which he used to survive in the wild.
It seems that the Leatherman was something of a 19th-century celebrity. When he would arrive in a village, “it was like the circus coming to town,” says DeLuca. “The teachers would dismiss school. All the children would go outside, stand by the fences, and watch him go by.
“Everyone wanted to know about the Leatherman,” DeLuca continues. “He was a mystery. He didn’t ask or want anything from anybody. People were fascinated by him.

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“The newspapers were hounded to get information about him. People would offer him food to get him to talk, but he never did. So William Gordon [the author of the Jules Bourglay newspaper story] knew that the Leatherman would never say anything different [about his background].” DeLuca says that the French consulate was once asked about Jules Bourglay, and they confirmed he never existed.
In 1879, both New York and Connecticut enacted “Tramp Laws,” which allowed authorities to arrest the many homeless who wandered the area after the end of the Civil War. “The Leatherman wasn’t exempt from the Tramp Laws,” DeLuca says. “But he never got arrested. Everyone knew him, and knew he wasn’t dangerous.” In fact, one account seems to show the Leatherman had something of a playful side: when a group of children left four tarnished pennies on a fence post, he pocketed them — and replaced them with four shiny new ones.
Upon his death, his body was taken to undertaking rooms in Ossining; many curious people came to view it. His leather suit was placed on exhibit in a cigar store nearby. He was buried on March 25, 1889.

DeLuca plans to continue his research: “The quest for information becomes addictive,” he says. Perhaps one day he’ll discover why the Leatherman lived his life in such a curious way. Until then, his motives will remain unknown.

leatherman loop race

leatherman loop racePhotographs of Leatherman Loop Race by Carol Gordon

Walk (or run) in his shoes

He may be all but forgotten by most people, but each April more than 1,000 intrepid runners celebrate the memory of the Leatherman by taking part in the Leatherman Loop trail race in Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in Westchester County. This month marks the 24th running of this six-mile trek, which was founded by Bedford resident Tony Godino and four friends back in 1986, when trail running was “a budding sport,” he says.

“I think the course is unique; it has a little bit of everything,” says Godino, without a hint of irony. Indeed. Runners pay $28 for the privilege of negotiating not one, but two knee-deep stream crossings, three-quarters of a mile of mud flats (“with mud up to your ankles”), steep climbs up a sand/gravel pit — as well as a scenic pine forest, open meadowlands, and dense woodlands. This year’s registration for the race took place on January 1; within two hours, all 1,200 slots were filled, and several hundred people had to be turned away.

What is it about this event that inspires such enthusiasm for getting wet and muddy? “There’s a spirit to this race, and everyone — the runners, the spectators, the volunteers — taps into it. People just want to have the experience, and we want them to enjoy it and be moved by it,” says Godino.

While it’s true that one of the Leatherman’s caves is located within the Reservation’s 5,000 acres, Godino and the other organizers make sure that participants get the full, fascinating story of the race’s namesake. The event’s Web site includes a short history of the famous wanderer, and Leatherman expert Dan DeLuca attended the 2009 race. “I’m a local history buff. Even as a little boy, the story of the Leatherman really grabbed me. And I’m still as mystified by it now as I was as a child,” Godino says. “I just want to play a role in keeping the story alive.”

For information on the race, visit www.leathermansloop.org.

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