Tim Lamorte

The Leatherman's Legacy

Tim Lamorte
The Leatherman's Legacy
The top of the stone with "The Leatherman" plaque.

The top of the stone with "The Leatherman" plaque.

OSSINING, NY — Beads and coins crown the stone. Below them, on a bronze plaque, is the nickname of a man whose identity is unknown. Next to the stone, atop a pole, a new marker summarizes his story:

FROM 1883 TO 1889 HE TROD A

Members of the Ossining Historic Cemeteries Conservancy unveiled the marker on Saturday, Sept. 17, at Sparta Cemetery. The conservancy’s founder and current president, Miguel Hernandez, obtained the “Legends & Lore” marker through a grant from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, which began offering them in 2015, in partnership with the New York Folklore Society.

“The Leatherman fits perfectly into that description [Legends & Lore] because we don’t really know much about the man. He is a mysterious person,” Hernandez said. “So it seemed to me that this particular marker was emblematic of that program and of the Leatherman.”

The Leatherman was buried at Sparta Cemetery in 1889. On March 20 of that year, he died in a cave in the Town of Mount Pleasant, adjacent to the Town of Ossining. The coroner determined that the cause of death was blood poisoning that resulted from cancer. The coroner also listed his age as 50, which was a guess.

Neither his age nor his name were known during his decades of wandering, including the years he walked the clockwise loop mentioned on the marker. Dressed in a suit made from leather boot tops, he communicated through gestures and grunts, and perhaps a word or two. He was fed by people along his route, and slept in caves and under rocks.

The Leatherman was a popular subject among newspapers small and large. Some published facts, such as the dates and times he passed through certain towns. Others printed fiction. The Dec. 31, 1884 issue of the New Haven Daily Palladium, for example, published a story that described his underground lair, including a bearskin bed, gas lamps, Persian carpets, Venetian vases, and the embalmed corpse of his fiancé “decked in her wedding garments.”

Historian Dan DeLuca of Connecticut, the preeminent authority on the Leatherman, included the Palladium story in his 2008 book “The Old Leather Man.” The book is a collection of newspaper articles, photos, illustrations and maps from 1869 until 1953.

The most persistent fabrication about the Leatherman was published in the Waterbury Daily American on Aug. 16, 1884. That tale referred to him a Jules Bourglay, a Frenchman who fled to the United States after his plan to marry the daughter of a leather merchant was dashed. DeLuca’s book includes the full story.

The “Jules Bourglay” moniker survived into the 20th century. The Leatherman’s grave had been unmarked until May 16, 1953, when the Ossining Historical Society unveiled a plaque that read:

Jules Bourglay
who regularly walked a 365 mile route
through Westchester and Connecticut from
the Connecticut River to the Hudson,
living in caves, in the years

The plaque was mounted on a headstone. On the other side of the headstone was engraved the name George Chalmers, who was identified as a Connecticut resident and World War I veteran.

That plaque remained in place until May 2011, when the Ossining Historical Society enlisted an archeologist and researchers to excavate the Leatherman’s gravesite, which was close to Route 9. The society intended to conduct DNA tests of his remains. The excavation yielded nothing but dirt and nails, which were reburied inside a pine coffin at the base of the current stone and plaque, farther from the road.

The Ossining Historical Cemeteries Conservancy was incorporated three years ago to preserve and enhance the Sparta and Dale cemeteries, which date from 1764 and 1851, respectively. To support its efforts, the nonprofit will host a haunted hayride on Oct. 29, from 7-10 p.m.

The unveiling of the “Legends & Lore” marker featured a performance by Hudson Valley storyteller Jonathan Kruk, who has been telling tales about the Leatherman since the 1980s. On Nov. 12, at 2 p.m., he will lead a hike to one of the Leatherman’s remaining caves, at the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation. During the event in Ossining, Kruk was asked to explain the insatiable interest in the Leatherman.

“In part, it’s because silence is golden,” he replied. “It draws us in. It makes us fill in that which we don’t know with wondrous speculation. It’s a mystery, and because it’s a mystery people get intrigued and continue to hunger to just be near, or even just learn about, this strange wandering figure.”

Tim Lamorte is an award-winning journalist who has spent almost two decades documenting life along the Hudson River.