If we each had a dollar for every word that's been written about the penniless Old Leatherman, we'd all be millionaires.
Newspapers started writing about him in the latter half of the 19th century and they are still going strong. They usually lead with 'who was that mysterious man?' and go on from there. The truth is, no one knows who he was and no one will find out after all this time. He just was, but the fact that he was, makes for an intriguing story.
People first began reporting the appearance of the Leatherman in 1852, which means he wasn’t the mentally distressed Civil War veteran some stories claimed.
When he died in 1889, his autopsy indicated he was in his late 50s. That would have put him in his early 20s when he first appeared in Connecticut wearing garments of soft, tanned leather from his boots to his hat.
In these early years, he roamed the hills and rivers of Connecticut, but also traveled through New York, Vermont and up into Canada. Since the few words he spoke on his long journey were in French, the chance 'vagabond' very apt, since it's Old French for 'homeless wanderer.'
One of the stories that circulated about him said he was the son of a French woodsman and an Indian woman who was partially raised by his mother’s people. That would account for his ability to survive so long in the wilderness. But, then, that is just one of a dozen stories put forward to give him an identity and a past.
All along his trek he had shelters, usually caves, that he’d stocked with firewood and primitive items he needed for one night’s stay. Early newspaper reports indicated he had gardens planted in some areas, that he could smoke fish and tan leather; skills possibly learned from the Indians.
Many newspaper accounts — past and present — indicated he’d been making his continuous, unvarying 366-mile circuit every 34 days since 1852. However, further study of his history by experts like Dan DeLuca of Meriden believe it was only for the last few years of his life.
Be that as it may, it was that circuit that really solidified his place in history. His path took him along the western side of the Hudson River, crossing into Connecticut around Danbury, then across to the Connecticut River where he turned south to the shore towns along the Long Island Sound.
Once he reached Clinton, he stayed in his cave shelter for the night, then in the morning he’d stop at the Buell family farm for a meal. The house had been built in 1734 by John Rossetter and it was a regular stop on his round. Today it is a bed and breakfast inn called 3 Liberty Green.
He’d then tramp another ten miles or so to his next stop, this one in Guilford. He had hauled railroad ties to the top of a hillside near Leetes Island where he constructed a sturdy shelter. This one was cozy enough that he sometimes used it for more than one night if he needed to repair his clothing or rest longer.
Morning would see him headed for Branford where he’d make a stop at Harding’s Grocery Store, 116 Montowese Street, for lunch. His meal consisted of “one loaf of bread, a can of sardines, one-pound of fancy crackers, a pie, two quarts of coffee, one gill (half a pint) of brandy and a bottle of beer” according to newspaper accounts. (And we think modern newspapers are celebrity mad!)
Then he’d stop a half-mile further on at the Bradley Chidsey home for his two quarts of stew for dinner – possibly taken to go. Mary Chidsey told friends that he’d been coming by her door for 27 years and she always took pains to have food he enjoyed ready for the knock of his walking staff.
He was so popular an attraction in the town that an old Branford newspaper reported the teacher would call a recess during a lesson if the Leatherman was coming down the road. Branford resident James Rodgers eventually got Leatherman to trust him enough to let him take photographs of him, among the first to do so.
One of young Rodgers’ photos was taken after he followed Leatherman to his next stop, a cave in East Haven near Eagle Crest above. It was called his Totoket cave after the Indian name for the area. Following a night there, he’d head for his shelter in North Haven and a meal with his friends, the Harvey Leetes, whose house was on Broadway Street.
He would also shelter in Hamden, (where a street is named for him) eat at his regular stops, and then push on west toward New York. He avoided New Haven like the plague since large population centers could spell trouble. He had at least two reported run-ins with young hooligans who assaulted him along his travels. Once that happened, he never stopped again.
After the Leatherman died, his clothing was weighed. His coat and pants weighed 60 pounds and his boots another 10 pounds. He also carried a leather bag that contained a pipe, a small tin pail, an awl for working leather, an iron spider for his campfire, a frying pan, a jackknife and a French prayer book. He wore a French crucifix around his neck.
In appearance, he stood about 5 feet 7 inches tall, had dark hair and grey-blue eyes. It was believed he was Catholic, not only because of the cross and prayer book, but because he didn’t eat meat on Friday. His friends remembered that when he knocked on the door.
He never begged and would accept only food, matches, and his one vice, tobacco, from his friends. One person did manage to get him to accept a flannel shirt, which pleased him.
It seemed that he was literate, given the well-thumbed prayer book and the papers found on his person when he died. They seemed to be a code for his travels. He was known far and wide as being of generally good (if somewhat shy) disposition, well-mannered, and kind to children.
He also appeared relatively clean when he approached houses thanks to the fact he always had a stream near his shelters. It was never reported that he molested anyone or pilfered anything during his travels. Presumably nature and his friends provided everything he needed.
After his death, an autopsy indicated he died of blood poisoning, the result of a cancer that spread from his lip to his jaw. Concerned citizens in Connecticut went so to far as to arrest him in Middletown in 1888 in an attempt to get him medical treatment, but he escaped within hours and no further attempt was made to coerce him.
He survived the Blizzard of 1888 in his cave on the Southington-Berlin border, probably keeping warm by heating the stones on the cave floor with his campfire, then moving the ashes so he could lay on the warmth.
He finally succumbed due to the cancer in a cave on the George Dell farm near Mount Pleasant, NY, in March, 1898. His death was announced on the front pages of New York City newspapers and was felt by the many friends he’d made. A number of family photo albums were found to contain at least one photo of the Leatherman. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Sparta Cemetery in Ossining, NY. But he wasn’t forgotten.
Even in death, he was a source of interest. People began to write more about him, collect information, and again ask who he was. The latest publication about his life is a book published in 2008 by Dan DeLuca called “The Old Leather Man.” It is a compilation of dozens of newspaper stories from 1869 until 1889, and contains many photos of the Leatherman and places he stopped.
Eddie Vedder, the lead singer for Pearl Jam, went hiking over Christmas vacation in 1996 on a section of the Leatherman’s path north of New York City. He was told the legend of the Leatherman by his host, and was so taken with it, he turned it into a popular recording for his fans.
In the 1930s, the Westchester Historical Society put a marker on the spot where the Leatherman was believed to be buried. In the 1950s, the Ossining Historical Society unveiled an anonymously donated headstone – naming him Jules Bourglay, one of the names given him in a popular story by newspapers. Visitors continued to visit the grave by the thousand.
Recently, because the grave site was too close to Highway 9 to safely handle visitors, it was decided to move him. At this point, Connecticut State Archaeologist Nick Bellantoni stepped in and helped exhume the body. It was hoped that new technology could help give some clues to Leatherman’s identity.
However, when they reached the bottom of the grave, all that was found were a few rusted coffin nails and assorted detritus. They put the nails and some of the soil from the grave in a pine coffin for reburial at the new location. It is now marked with a headstone that simply says “The Leatherman.”
The Leatherman had kept all his secrets.