Wanderer from 1800s gets more peaceful NY grave

AP News
Posted: May 25, 2011 7:22 PM
Wanderer from 1800s gets more peaceful NY grave

A mysterious man who wandered New York and Connecticut in a 60-pound leather suit during the 19th century became a little more mysterious Wednesday.

Historians announced that all they found when they dug up the 1889 grave of the man known as the Leatherman was dozens of coffin nails.

"The Leatherman was a mystery in life and he's going to be a mystery in death," said Ossining Historical Society President Norman MacDonald.

The grave in Ossining's Sparta Cemetery was being relocated because it was just a few paces from busy Route 9, and recent interest in the Leatherman was bringing more visitors to his resting place. MacDonald said the grave site had become dangerous.

Accounts of the nomad's all-leather outfit, his quiet demeanor and his regular ways _ he made a 365-mile loop through the same towns about every month _ have fostered interest, although his name is unknown and he died 122 years ago.

Pearl Jam recorded a song about him, "Leatherman," in 1998 describing him as "making the rounds 10 miles a day."

The historical society won permission to disinter the remains and hoped to arrange DNA testing that might shed some light on where the Leatherman came from and whether he had autism, as some suggest.

But MacDonald said there were no visible remains of the body. Nicholas Bellantoni, a University of Connecticut archeologist, said there was no hope of finding a DNA sample suitable for testing.

"It's ashes to ashes," he said.

Bellantoni, who supervised the excavation, said time, plus the impact of traffic over the shallow gravesite, had combined to destroy both soft and hard tissue. He also said a road-grading project could have scraped away some of the original gravesite.

However, he said the soil in the grave would hold "what is left organically of the Leatherman."

So the nails and some soil from the grave were placed in a new pine coffin topped with wildflowers and lowered into a newly dug hole on the cemetery's hillside, well above the road, after a Presbyterian minister read the 23rd Psalm.

Dan DeLuca, author of "The Old Leather Man: Historical Accounts of a Connecticut and New York Legend," attended the ceremony _ in a leather jacket _ and brought along a tin pipe he said was the Leatherman's. Before the coffin was buried, he placed four tarnished pennies and said if children left tarnished pennies for the Leatherman, he would replace them with shiny ones.

DeLuca has declared that the Leatherman was not Jules Bourglay, the name on a marker that went up in 1953 and was taken away Sunday to the historical society's museum. That name and the story that went with it _ that the Leatherman came from France as the victim of a sad love affair _ were false and were retracted after they were published in a Connecticut newspaper, DeLuca found.

The new marker is a boulder bearing a plaque that says only "The Leatherman."

DeLuca suspects the Leatherman came from Canada.

It is known that the Leatherman lived outdoors in winter and summer, using caves and rock overhangs for shelter. He relied on the kindness of strangers for food.

Some accounts said he showed up for a handout at the same houses every 34 days as he made his way around Westchester County and eastern Connecticut.

The Leatherman didn't say much, "possibly because he knew French rather than English," MacDonald said. "He'd say a word or two, and he used some sign language."

He was found dead in 1889 in a cave in what is now Briarcliff Manor; he was given a pauper's grave in Sparta Cemetery, which holds some veterans of the American Revolution.

There was some opposition to the exhumation.

At LeavetheLeathermanAlone.com, Don Johnson of Bethany, Conn., and others argued that it would have been disrespectful to the Leatherman to test his remains because he obviously tried to keep his privacy.

"I believe that the Leather Man's DNA is his property, and he went to unimaginable lengths to guard his identity during his life," Johnson wrote.

He said Wednesday he was happy that no visible remains were found.

MacDonald disagreed about the Leatherman's quest for privacy.

"I wouldn't say he was a private person, because he depended on people almost every day," he said. "Besides, you don't walk around in a 60-pound leather suit if you're trying to be anonymous."