This spring, a team of historians, geneticists, archaeologists and anthropologists will exhume the remains of the Leather Man, probably the most famous hermit to inhabit these parts. First noticed around 1856, the Leather Man, who fashioned his suit from discarded boots, wandered Westchester County and western Connecticut for decades, sleeping in caves and lean-tos, rarely speaking, accepting food and then walking on. From about 1883 to 1889, he traveled a never-changing 365-mile loop through at least 41 towns; he died in a cave near here on March 20, 1889.
What’s known about the Leather Man is almost entirely limited to what was observed during his walks, reported in thousands of articles in newspapers like The Deep River New Era, The Penny Press of Middletown, The New Milford Gazette and The Brewster Standard.
Everything else is a mystery. His headstone reads Jules Bourglay, but that was not his name. Nor is there any reason to believe it was Isaac Mossey, Rudolph or Randolph Mossey or Zacharias Boveliat, as he has sometimes been identified. He was said to have been born in Lyon, France, the son of a wealthy wool merchant who was driven mad by economic ruin and a broken heart. It was reported that he had vast real estate holdings; that he once had a thriving business in Poughkeepsie; that he might be Portuguese; that he was a devout Catholic; that he was a fugitive from justice; and that he was a black man. There is no proof that a word is true.
He was given a pauper’s burial at the edge of Sparta Cemetery, and, in 1953, as his fame continued to spread, the bronze plaque was added, a few paces from busy Route 9. But, as a result of research conducted by Dan W. DeLuca, author of the 2008 book “The Old Leather Man,” it became clear that the name on the headstone was wrong. And with traffic on Route 9 increasing — to 16,000 cars a day — officials of the Ossining Historical Society, which maintains the cemetery, felt that the site, visited regularly, was unsafe. They decided to move the body to a spot with a proper and accurate marker near the flagpole in the center of the cemetery, and bring in experts to see if the body can tell us what the old man never did.
There’s no guarantee there will be enough remains to determine anything. But Nicholas Bellantoni, the Connecticut state archaeologist, said analysis of bone and teeth could provide clues to the Leather Man’s origins and health. At best, it could provide information about whether, as some have speculated, the Leather Man was autistic, which might explain his behavior.
“We’re trying to do right by this man; he deserves better than a stone with someone else’s name in the pauper’s area,” Mr. Bellantoni said. “We’re never going to solve all the mysteries of the Leather Man, but if he couldn’t speak, or chose not to, maybe his biology will have the chance to teach us about him — not through legend, but through actual scientific knowledge.”
Others disagree. Don Johnson, a middle school teacher in one of the Leather Man’s old haunts, North Haven, Conn., has started a Web site, leavetheleathermanalone.com. He argues that an accurate, respectful marker could be built and the site made safer without moving the remains. If he’s in a pauper’s site at the margin, that was the way he lived, Mr. Johnson said. “If anyone’s actions spoke louder than words, it was his,” he added. “For 30 years and over 75,000 miles of walking, he showed he could get comfortable with people, sit with them, until they asked any question about his identity, and then he’d be gone. For some reason, it was off-limits.”
As for genetic tests, he says, “If there’s any place left where you can keep your secrets, with the Internet and everything out there, it should be your bones.”
Of course, we don’t know if the Leather Man could not communicate or chose not to, if he would have taken some pleasure in his notoriety or hated it. All we know is that, as distant and lonely as his life was, it ended at a familiar place. As one eulogy at the time had it:
May his wrongs all there be righted
And the poor man’s frame be made whole:
And his life, that here was blighted
Add happiness there to his soul.
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