He Was Only Known As The Leatherman

He Was Only Known As The Leatherman

(By Les Hewitt for Historic Mysteries)

He was a man that was difficult to miss and his arrival was always anticipated by many townsfolk. Various towns and villages constructed along the Hudson and Connecticut rivers could almost set their clocks with his impending arrival approximately every 35 days or so. Whenever he appeared he would stroll through the town, relying heavily on his walking stick. Other than that, he had very little in the way of personal possessions, but was always dressed in the same style all of his own.

Who was this man? Nobody knew. He was only ever referred to by his rather unique appearance. His entire outfit consisted of scraps of leather that had been stitched together by hand. He came to be known simply as Leatherman.

Despite his strangeness and impressive size, he was rather well liked and treated locals with courtesy and respect. This man was much more fluent in French than English and would often choose neither language to communicate with people, opting to use grunts or other incoherent sounds. During his three decade tour, Leatherman would often stop at the same homes whenever he reached a certain town or city. Householders would always prepare additional food pending his arrival and schools were often allowed to close early. Children that left pennies out for him would find that they had been replaced by newer coins of a similar denomination. His route took him past and through towns that had rules against vagrancy and every single one of them relaxed these laws especially for him.

Barely anything about this man was known. His true identity was never established and a name was never revealed. Using his broken English and fluent French as a guide, it is speculation that this man was a French-Canadian native by birth. It is entirely possible that he was a naturalized Frenchman though. His origins and identity are just one aspect of this most mysterious man. No-one ever discovered why he wore a suit 60 pounds in weight made from old leather footwear and walked in a constant 365 mile round trip for his entire adult life, spending his nights and outbreaks of inclement weather inside caves along his chosen route.


A look inside a Watertown, CT cave used by Leatherman.

While not much basic knowledge of this man was ever forthcoming, there are things that have been discovered about him. Anecdotes from times spent with families he boarded with have produced a few facts about Leatherman. He was a devout Roman Catholic and was never without his prayer book. This book was a French language version. Leatherman never ate any form of meat on a Friday. He also enjoyed smoking. Whenever additional data about the man was requested, Leatherman would retreat into is shell and conclude the conversation.

Over the course of his trekking, many people attempted to get a photograph of this most private man. Legend has it that if he ever caught someone trying to get a snapshot of him, that he would not spend any time with them or accept an invitation to that person’s residence. What few photographs there are have always had to have been taken furtively.

When 1888 brought a severe blizzard to the area, quite a few residents were more than concerned for his welfare. Leatherman managed to live through that harsh period and carried on his routine regardless. Sometime in the following year however, a sore was noticed on one of his lips. Concern over this was so pronounced, that efforts to hospitalize Leatherman were made. He was even arrested specifically to get him medical treatment. Leatherman refused and managed to escape custody and resume his now famous journey. People were right to be concerned over this sore. It was more than that. What Leatherman had was actually a cancerous growth that festered and remained unchecked. His body was discovered inside a cave close to Ossining, New York.


Gravestone of the Leatherman, at Sparta Cemetery. Taken May 26, 2014. Image credit: By Ɱ [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

With the passing of their beloved local celebrity, stories about him began to crop up. A lot of these came from one periodical that was quickly shut down as a direct result of the inflammatory things that they printed. They claimed that Leatherman was everything from a child molester to a cannibal. A funeral service was arranged and, for some reason that isn’t clear, the name of Jules Bourglay was carved into his headstone. Also on the headstone were the dates of his known travels, as no-one knew when he was born or how old he actually was. Historians reject one account that Bourglay was a French tanner that lost both his fortune and bride and then decided to meander through the American north east as some form of self inflicted penance.

In his lifetime, Leatherman was something of an eccentric, that much is obvious. His actions and reactions could be the result of a form of mental disorder – perhaps autism – but perhaps the real mystery about this man came over a century after his death. In 2011, historians wished to see if they could discover anything about the man that modern science might be able to answer. An exhumation was granted and the coffin was opened. The inside of Leatherman’s casket was completely empty, save for a few coffin nails. Might there be some significance to the name carved on the gravestone that forced someone to react? Authorities had little choice but to re-inter the coffin in a new burial plot. Even to this day, pennies are still being deposited at this new grave site.

Leatherman. Surely one of the most mysterious men that has ever lived.

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