Who was the Leatherman, the mysterious Bedouin of the 19th century?

In the 19th century, a nomadic figure known as the “Leatherman” became a celebrity in Northeast America. Many were anticipating his coming and his hourly journeys through New York and Connecticut. But even though many people know him, the identity and history of this leather-clad tramp remains a mystery that persists centuries later.

Leatherman’s life

Who was the Leatherman, the mysterious Bedouin of the 19th century?
Old Leatherman. Image courtesy: Derby Public Library via backwoodshome.com

Between 1857 and 1889, a tramp known as “Leatherman” traveled through rural Connecticut and New York. At first, his trips were seemingly random. But he eventually settled on walking a continuous 365-mile loop clockwise between the Hudson River and the Connecticut River, a route Leatherman took 365 days a year.

Reports indicate that Leatherman walked more than 10 miles each day. Its course generally took about 32-34 days to complete. In fact, his travel was so consistent that the locals could predict when he would see him in the next area. In anticipation, they regularly cooked meals for him, a man with an understandable appetite, which he accepted politely. The locals also gave him leftover tobacco and leather, but he would seldom accept money or shelter.

Leatherman got his nickname because of his suit made of old boot shirts sewn together with leather lace. Most assume he sewed this suit himself, which weighed about 60-70 pounds, and wore it all year round. These clothes will probably come in handy during cold nights because Leatherman always sleeps in caves and rocky outcrops.

Who is he and where did he come from?

Who was the Leatherman, the mysterious Bedouin of the 19th century?
The Leatherman’s cave. Image credit: Wikimedia

Despite or perhaps thanks to his eccentric nature, Leatherman has become something of a celebrity. Some schools even let students out to give him food when he missed Leatherman Day. And although Connecticut passed the “Vagrants Act” in 1879 (which allowed the arrest and confinement of vagabonds), there is no record of anyone ever arresting them. That is, except for one time in 1888, on which she was concerned about his health.

But though many knew and recognized Leatherman, no one knew who he was, where he came from, or why Leatherman lived the way he did. He didn’t talk much, and when he did, he spoke either in broken English or French, most likely his native tongue.

With a little bit of work, people soon began creating origin stories for him. One account indicated that it was Jules Bourglay of Lyon, France. As the tale goes, he deserted his homeland after a failed voyage in the leather trade. His failure, in turn, ends his romance with the daughter of his employer (a local leather merchant), a woman named Marguerite Laron. Broke and downtrodden, Burglay began to walk in solitude across America clothed in “the essence of his ruin”. This story was later proven to be false but it has remained a folk tale.

The death and (failure) of exhuming Leatherman

Who was the Leatherman, the mysterious Bedouin of the 19th century?
Dig fails to find the leatherman. Image source: leavetheleathermanalone.com

Leatherman was found dead in one of his New York asylums in March 1889. Some accounts state that he died as a result of a head injury, others that he had cancer for which he refused treatment. In any case, the locals buried him to rest in the cemetery of Sparta in Ossining.

Several years later, in 2011, officials decided to move his gravesite due to its proximity to Route 9 and the danger this presented to visitors. At the same time, the Ossining Historical Society won the right to examine his remains and arrange DNA testing. The hope was that the test would shed more light on his origins and test whether, as some have claimed, he was autistic.

The project was not without controversy, and a local history teacher, Don Johnson, who created a website called Leave the Leatherman Alone campaigned against it. Johnson argued that Leatherman was very private in life and that this should be respected in death. However, it wouldn’t matter in the end anyway. When historians dug up Leatherman’s grave, they found only coffin nails. Leatherman appears to have disappeared.

Experts attribute the disappearance to the impact of traffic and a nearby road dredging project. In any case, it seems that for the time being, Leatherman will remain as mysterious in death as he was in life.

Who was the Leatherman, the mysterious Bedouin of the 19th century?
The Leatherman’s grave. Image credit: Wikimedia

With nothing left to rebury, nails and some soil from the original grave were placed in a new coffin and placed on the hillside of the cemetery, out of the way. The original gravestone, misspelled “Jules Bourglais”, went to the museum. Perhaps fittingly, the current grave marker is a boulder with a plaque reading only “The Leatherman”.

Leatherman in popular culture

The Leatherman has become something of a folklore legend, told and retold through the generations. His legacy has inspired many filmmakers, musicians, writers, and more.

Perhaps the most well-known Leatherman-inspired pop cultural artifact is the song of the same name by grunge rock band Pearl Jam. The track comically told the story and served as the B-side of the 1998 single “Leatherman” from the album Yield.

Finnish singer-songwriter J. Karjalainen is another artist who seems influenced by the Leatherman story. Their song “Mennyt mies” refers to the song “Uuden-Englannin nahkamies” which translates into English as “New England Leatherman”.

Leatherman has also been the subject of several books and television documentaries. There is even a race in Pound Ridge, New York (the Leatherman Loop) named after him and inspired by his travels.

The mystery and legend persists

Who was the Leatherman, the mysterious Bedouin of the 19th century?
Image courtesy: The Old Leather Man by Dan W. DeLuca

We may never know exactly who Leatherman was. But many continue to search for clues and speculate about the mysteries surrounding his identity, life, and death.

Dan DeLuca, author of The Old Leather Man: Historical Accounts of a Connecticut and New York Legend, is one of many fascinated by the story. And after more than twenty years of research, he concluded that Leatherman was likely French-Canadian and Native Indian. DeLuca believes he may have been raised by his Indian grandfather who taught him survival skills, but he also regrets that he cannot substantively prove these suspicions.

DeLuca noted that Leatherman’s fast, regular travel may indicate obsessive-compulsive disorder, but also stated that his waywardness was likely caused by the need to feed himself as he became less self-reliant.

When asked during an interview why Leatherman lived the way he did in the first place, DeLuca replied, “Why do we do what we do? That was his way of life, and he was alive.”


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