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In his later years, most documented sightings of the Leatherman would reference the growth on his lip (seen here), which turned out to be cancerous. Photo: Courtesy Westchester Historical Society

The Legendary Leatherman

If you lived in Westchester County in southern New York, or in western Connecticut during the later half of the 19th century, you might know who this mysterious man is. He was a hulking figure that would amble through towns, walking with the aid of a stick and a few worldly possessions, and all dressed in a strange patchwork outfit of leather scraps. He was known only as the Leatherman.

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 34 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.

This curious vagabond was actually quite the beloved figure in the small towns that dotted the countryside between the Hudson and Connecticut Rivers, even though his description is a little alarming.

The Leatherman was known for two things: First, his appearance. He wore, every day, a suit made entirely of heavy leather, roughly sewn together. His hat, boots, pants, coat and backpack were all made the same way, and he was never seen wearing anything other than his trademark outfit. Most estimate that the whole outfit weighed near, or more than, sixty pounds. The second thing for which he was known was his impeccable timing and route.

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.

The Leatherman was first seen in Connecticut in 1862, and all who encountered him wanted to know who he was and where he came from.

The recognizable Leatherman stopped at a number of ledges and overhangs across the central and western portions of the state to sleep on his cyclical journeys over nearly 30 years. The mysterious Leatherman, who was covered with patches of leather, and would walk a 360-mile circuitous route from the Connecticut River to Hudson River every 34 days.

The Leatherman could be identified by the stitched leather clothing that he wore. This outfit was estimated to weigh more than 60 pounds. Rumour is that he also had a strangely disfigured face caused by jaw cancer. Folklore differs on the exact identity of the Leatherman and his reason for the constant travel. Some people believe the Leatherman to be Jules Bourglay from Lyons, France, but many others believe that he is someone completely different.  

From 1856 to 1889 the Leatherman was a wandering vagabond that used to walk a loop from the Connecticut River to the Hudson River (New York) and back. This was a 365 mile journey and the Leatherman would make the trek year round. If you aren’t from around the Northeast you really can’t understand how amazing that is. The winters are extremely harsh with ice, snow, and sleet and the terrain is nothing to sneeze at either.

The Leatherman would take this journey sleeping in rock caves arriving in the same locations at the same time of day, at the same time of year. People would leave food out on their back porches in anticipation of the Leatherman’s arrival. He would only speak in grunts and gestures, mixing in a few words of broken English. Local farmers would plant or harvest crops based on the Leatherman’s presence because it was more accurate than any other indicator of timing.

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.

It is unknown how he earned money. One store kept a record of an order: “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”. The Leatherman survived blizzards and other foul weather by heating his rock shelters with fire. Indeed, while his face was reported to be frostbitten at times during the winter, by the time of his death he had not lost any fingers, unlike other tramps of the time and area.

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.

The strange man only spoke with grunts or gestures and dressed in crudely stitched leather from his hat to his shoes. The suit was made of heavy pieces of raw leather estimated to have weighed more than sixty pounds in total. It was a coat of armour the vagrant depended on to protect him from the sometimes harsh New England elements. “Leatherman,” as he was dubbed by those who encountered him, would only sleep outside year-round — and mostly in caves around Connecticut and New York.

Some claim old Leatherman is still making his endless journey today, through the woods, mountains, and river valleys of Connecticut and New York State.
A wandering vagrant is nothing surprising. American folklore has more of them than could fill a thousand railroad boxcars. What makes the Leatherman unique is his incredible precision in daily routine. He would arrive in the same location every 34 days.
Many different families took it upon themselves to feed the Leatherman. Since he arrived at precisely 34-day intervals, and at the same time of day, some would have a meal prepared for his arrival. He would grunt or make appreciative gestures and then quickly move along to keep his tight schedule.

While tales of vagrants, hobos, and bag-men fill the history books, there are very few that gained the notoriety of The Leatherman. Where exactly he came from is unknown, though most believe him to be a Frenchman. He’s been theorized to be everything from a traumatized war veteran to a European vagrant who wandered onto a boat, thus arriving in America. At one time he was believed to be a Frenchman named Jules Bourglay from Lyon, France, who was a leather-working tradesman.

An 1888 photograph of the Leather Man by F.W. Moore. This photo seems to show him as a younger man. He spent some 30 years traversing New York and Connecticut, and no one knows why.

At one time he was believed to be a Frenchman named Jules Bourglay from Lyon, France, who was a leather-working tradesman. When a wealthy businessman refused to let Jules marry his daughter, he left for America.

That Leatherman’s tale begins in Lyons, France in the 1820s. A young couple named Bourglay had a son, Jules. The Bourglay family’s occupation was woodcutting, and the income from their labours afforded them a certain level of distinction. They were of a lower middle class during a time when your social station was all-important. Your family’s wealth would determine your entire future: what kind of job you would have, whom you would marry, and if you could go to school.
Young Jules Bourglay met and fell in love with Miss Margaret Laron, the daughter of a somewhat wealthy leather merchant. Jules approached Margaret’s father to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
The marriage request was met with an objection, primarily due to the differences in class between the Bourglay and Laron families. After much pleading, and further meetings, it was decided that Jules would be given the opportunity to work in the Laron family leather business, and if he could acquire the trade and be successful, he would be granted permission to marry Margaret.
Jules Bourglay worked hard at the leather business and was quickly given more responsibilities, including the purchase of more leather on the open market. One day in 1855, Jules made a large leather purchase. Then, almost overnight, the price of leather dropped by 40% due to a new breakthrough in the tanning process. Prior to 1855, leather tanning had been done with tree bark and was extremely labour-intensive. The tanning industry discovered a chemical compound that could tan the leather in a lot less time and with less physical effort. Unfortunately, because young Jules didn’t have his eyes on the technology breakthroughs in his industry, he was stuck with a large stock of leather that could only be sold at a loss.
Laron’s leather firm was ruined at the hand of Jules Bourglay and too ashamed to go back to his own family, the disgraced Jules became a homeless wanderer in Lyons, France. He quickly became the ward of a local physician who took care of his basic needs for almost two years. One day, without notice, he disappeared from Lyons and was never seen in the city or the country again.
There are some missing years in the story of Jules Bourglay. One could speculate that he simply wandered Europe as a beggar, and then finally made his way onto a boat bound for the United States. The fact is, someone fitting his description and background showed up in the town of Harwinton, Connecticut in 1862.

The story, however, has never been proven, shedding no light on exactly who he was.

The Leatherman Connecticuts Wandering Hobo. Why did the Leatherman walk this same road and sleep in caves? Why did he wear a sixty pound suit stitched from raw leather? The Leatherman’s route, seen here in green, covered some 365 miles and stopped in several specific towns, who anticipated his arrival every 35 days.

A panoramic view of Leatherman’s Cave. Photo: Tony Bacewicz

Cave Opening. Photo: Tony Bacewicz

Immediately upon arriving, he began his approximate 10-miles-per-day, 365-miles-per-month clockwise trek between the Connecticut and Hudson rivers. From Harwinton, Connecticut, his route took him to Bristol, Forestville, Southington, Kensington, Berlin, Middletown, and south along the westerly side of the Connecticut River to the shore towns. He then travelled west to Westchester County in New York state, coming within a few miles of the Hudson River and then back east into Connecticut. From Danbury, Connecticut, he went north to New Milford, through Roxbury, Woodbury, Watertown, Plymouth, and back to Harwinton, completing his one-month cycle.

It seems many people whose families lived in central and western Connecticut have tales of family members who gave food to the legendary Leatherman, or know a cave where the Leatherman stayed – a kind of “George Washington slept here” claim to fame.

Over the next three decades, the man — covered entirely with leather patches — kept walking a circuitous, 360-mile route. He stopped only to eat and sleep, and when he finished one circuit, he would turn around and began again. He completed the circuit 11 times each year.

One of his rest stops was a series of rocky ledges and overhangs in the wilds of Watertown that today are known as the Leatherman’s Cave.

Although it not a true cave, the jumble of massive rocks under a ledge known as Crane’s Lookout are about as impressive as any that are seen across the state.

The cave is accessible along the Connecticut Forest & Park Association’s Mattatuck Trail by hiking east several miles from Black Rock State Park or west from Reynolds Bridge over the Naugatuck River. The hike from the park will bring visitors to the top of Crane’s Lookout first, a kind of penthouse for the cave below. The views from the 780-foot-high peak are beautiful, and one can imagine the Leatherman taking a break from his walk to admire the view.

The trail descends from the lookout into the cave, where visitors have to squeeze through a tight opening in the ledge or crawl underneath to get in. The cavern was created when huge pieces of the rock ledge fell, ending up in positions that created a cave-like appearance. It is quite a cavernous ledge with huge icicles dangling from clumps of moss along the sheer sides of the wall.

A rare photo of the Leatherman eating lunch on one of his journeys.

The south entrance to Leatherman’s Cave. Photo: Peter Marteka

No one really knows why the Leatherman made his cyclical journeys, but many historians who have written about him speculated that it was due to a lost love or broken heart. Some called him Jules Bourglay, the son of a woodcarver who won the heart of the daughter of a Paris leather merchant only to lose it after the leather industry crashed and he was ruined financially.

Others say he was Rudolph Mossey, a French shoemaker whose wife ran off with another man to America. He followed only to discover his wife had died.

When newspapers first started writing about him, he was an object of little more than idle curiosity. Dressed in a suit of coarse leather — a patchwork garment he made from discarded boot tops — with a bulky pack and hand-hewn wooden shoes, he was a mystery from the outset.

A Hartford Courant article during the summer of 1884 tried to piece together the storied past of the “eccentric Leather Man”: “Nothing can be more pitiful than to see this poor, miserable, broken-hearted creature wandering around in cold and wet weather without even the common comforts of life, brooding over his terrible sorrow which has cost him his happiness and prosperity. Treat him kindly, dear reader, wherever you meet him and lighten his heavy heart with acts and words of kindness.”

He was never known to stay indoors for more than a minute or two. But every few days he’d pass through a town, a tin pipe clenched between his teeth, shambling under his heavy leather pack, which, like his clothes, was hand-stitched out of scraps. He came to remember the homes where he’d previously been well received, and rarely stopped anywhere else. The routine was more or less the same in every town or village: He’d rap on the door of some well-to-do farmhouse, and when it was answered, he’d gesture toward his mouth. Sometimes he’d utter the word “eat.” Often he’d say nothing at all.

He’d be given a meal, which he might eat on the spot, standing at the threshold. His appetite was legendary. “Slice after slice of bread disappeared,” one reporter wrote, in the New Haven Evening Register, “and huge blocks of meat went after them in rapid succession, and the manner in which he consumed his pie and cake reminded me of an expert magician disposing of his cards.” Other times he’d pack the food he was given into his bag, nod wordlessly, and keep walking.

The Leatherman carried two bags in one hand and a staff in the other. Among his belongings were an ax, pail, hatchet, jack-knife, awl and scraps of leather. His coming “was heralded by the squeak of dried out leather and his presence was predictable as his leaving,” according to Courant article from 1977.

A true outdoorsman, The Leatherman didn’t survive on handouts alone. Through his experience he knew how to deal with everything mother nature threw at him. Though he would be invited to sleep indoors or in barns by good Samaritans, he always chose to sleep outside or in one of his many caves.
Bourglay tended to the finest details before leaving each day’s sleeping location. He would gather wood for his next fire and safely store it in the cave, so when he returned he could quickly get a fire started with timber that had been stored under the cover of rock for 34 days. His fires would quickly warm the small cave by heating the rocks around him to a comfortably warm temperature, even on the coldest winter nights. His bed was made of the rocks by his fire, and of course his thick leather suit added some additional padding.

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.

For almost three decades, the Leatherman made his journey through heat, rain, drought, and bitter New England winters. The Leatherman’s routine would suffer only one setback. The harsh blizzard of 1888 slowed his cycle by four days. Bourglay, now in his mid-60s, would never recover from the hardship. The weather, combined with his age and hard life, made him ill. He made it through the rest of the winter but finally expired in a cave on the George Dell farm in Briarcliff Manor, New York.

Gravestone of the Leatherman, at Sparta Cemetery. Most of those interred at the Sparta Cemetery are long forgotten. There’s only one grave here that still attracts a steady stream of visitors, and it belongs not to a man or woman of means or influence, but to a nineteenth-century vagabond known as the Leatherman. “Tramp” was the word to describe people like him back then, though today we would simply call him homeless. Taken May 26, 2014. Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons

The Leatherman died in a cave in Mount Pleasant, N.Y., in 1889 ending his years of wandering. The Great Blizzard of 1888 and cancer took a toll on him in his later years. He will perhaps always be known as the mysterious man in leather forever trying to run from his past before eventually dying from his broken heart.

The Leatherman would abruptly leave if anyone ever asked him about his origin or why he would walk the continuous loop. If you took his picture he’d never return to your stoop. This gave rise to rumours that the he may have killed his wife and her lover and needed to constantly be on the move. Others believed that he had committed a series of crimes in Europe and it was his penance to walk the loop. A French prayer book was found on his body after his death.  He also was picked up by the Connecticut Humane Society and hospitalized at a mental institution, He promptly escaped.

It is said that if you go to one of the Leatherman’s Caves on a winter day you can still smell the smoke from his fires and the tobacco of his pipe. Another urban legend states that the Leatherman still walks his old route and if you leave out food for him at the right time of year it will be gone the next day.

Today the Leatherman’s caves still stand. One of the most famous is located on the Mattatuck Trail in a section of state forest in Watertown, Connecticut. A good starting point to reach the cave is the Black Rock State Park on Watertown Road in Thomaston, Connecticut. Leatherman Cave is approximately a two-mile hike into the woods from the state park. It is a blue-blazed trail and well-marked, but it is rocky and at times very steep. A trail map may be available from one of the park rangers on duty.

That anyone took notice of Leatherman — that they did anything other than scorn him — is remarkable enough on its own. Merely existing as a “tramp” in those days was an arrestable offense. But his story is one that has endured, undoubtedly more fascinating for all the gaps. People still carry on his memory, through scholarship or imitation or just simple admiration. He’s been the subject of academic-journal articles and documentaries; the rock band Pearl Jam even wrote a song about him.

The lore of the Leatherman has reached far enough to become known to Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who wrote a song entitled: Leatherman

At Madison Square Garden in New York (just 26 miles downstate from the Leather Man’s grave) on September 11, 1998, Ed explained the songs origins to the local crowd: “So two Christmases ago, I was staying with a good friend somewhere on the outskirts; outside of the city, outside of the trains, outside of the traffic. And this next song’s written about this guy we learned about on on this hike that we took. We took this hike and out on these back trails and this guy used to set up these little caves – ya know, rock caves – and he had them all spread around like for ten miles. And he would, just every night, go to a different cave – each one just a few miles away from each other. So the next song’s written about him. So this is ‘Leatherman.'”

Lyrics

I read about a man to whom I may be related
Leatherman
Died a long time ago, in the 1880s
Leatherman, Leatherman

Covered with leather but it wasn’t tight
Underneath the moon in the woods at night

Making the rounds, ten miles a day
Once a month they spot him
Here’s what they say:

“Here he comes, he’s a man of the land
He’s Leatherman
Smile on his face
Axe in his pack
He’s Leatherman, Leatherman, Leatherman.”

Comes out of the caves once a day to be fed
He wasn’t known to say much
But, “Thanks for the bread.”

So modern day I walk my way, my jacket faded
Just like a man of leather to whom I may be related

Rolled a cigarette for which he asked for a light
Appeared to be an animal, yet so polite

Making the rounds, ten miles a day
Once a month they spot him
Here’s what they say:

“Here he comes, he’s a man of the land
He’s Leatherman
Smile on his face
Axe in his pack
He’s Leatherman, Leatherman, Leatherman
He’s Leatherman, Leatherman.”

Shakes his head, 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
Leatherman
Give me some skin, Leatherman.

Historian Dan DeLuca of Meriden, CT has found through research that the Leatherman was not named “Jules Bourglay” and that the story of his origins in France and failed love affair are a myth. In other words, there was a Leatherman – and only one – but his true name and origins remain unknown to us today. “I have been researching the ‘Old Leather Man’ for about 20 years now and have been collecting many articles on him” writes DeLuca. “The first ‘Jules Bourglay story’ was printed by the Waterbury Daily American, August 16, 1884. And four denials were printed in 1889. Historian Allison Albee of Rye, N.Y., who was an authority on the history of the well-known character, spent endless years to keep historical facts from legends. He did research in France, to try to confirm the Jules Bourglay story – No names in the story were able to be confirmed. Research was done on the person who penned the story, and there was no person of that name from that town – the story was made up. The ‘Old Leather Man’ was not ‘Joules Bourglay.'”

The Leatherman was not Jules Bourglay. That name was just one of the countless myths and misattributions affixed to the Leatherman when he was alive, and long afterward.

For DeLuca, the mystery had always been a big part of his attraction to the Leatherman. And the truth, as DeLuca is proud to tell you, is that no one knows who the Leatherman was. Least of all DeLuca. The process of piecing together the man’s life is what he really loves. “I used to collect basketball cards,” DeLuca explains. “And I was always looking for new basketball cards. Now I collect information about the Leatherman.”

That’s why that headstone in Sparta Cemetery was such an affront; it purported to solve the mystery. It declared the Leatherman a known entity. And as DeLuca puts it, “as long as that stone said Jules Bourglay, he would never be declared a mystery.”

The weaving of fact and fiction about this curious character has meant that his story has taken on the dimensions of a minor myth.

One of only twenty known photos of the Leatherman: Photo: Courtesy Westchester Historical Society

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. Though it was later thought that Jules Bourglay was not The Leatherman, the name still stuck, although there have been reports that, when asked his name, he replied “Isaac.” He was so well known that his obituary was on the front page of the New York Sun Times.

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 have rejected the story about Lettermans name being Bourglay who 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.

But the creepy aspect of this story is what happened after the Leatherman’s reported death.

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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