Monday, September 5, 2016

In the 19th Century Everyone Knew when the Leatherman was coming to Town


Today, the sighting of a man looking like the 19th century wandering hermit known as the Leatherman would probably elicit a response more closely associated with Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Instead, a celebrity surrounded this man that has not been forgotten.  “It was like the circus was coming to town," said Dan DeLuca, long time researcher of this local real life legend.

He didn't do tricks, in fact he hardly spoke but his appearance usually meant front page news and his obituary made page one of The New York Times.  The Leatherman was first seen in 1856 in Greenwich and was among the vast army of tramps common to the era.

What distinguished the Leatherman was the precision of his movement.  He traveled a 365 mile route and stopped every 34 days at specific homes along his seemingly preordained journey to nowhere.  People didn't complain, said Mr. DeLuca, "They felt it was an honor to feed him," and if they sold their homes, they informed the new owners of the routine like we might identify which neighbor's cat comes by for an extra meal.

Of course, around the facts grew legend, magnified by his near silence.  According to Mr. DeLuca, early in his travels he spoke clearly in French, but as his celebrity grew so did his silence in the face of too many questions. Mr.  Deluca also believes the lip cancer that eventually took his life made it difficult for him to speak - thus silencing him further.

A rap on the door and only a murmured thank you came in loud and clear to newspapers trying to sell the story of this mysterious man clad in a 60 pound leather outfit stitched together from discarded boots.  Using his French speaking tongue as a start, a story emerged that he left France after bankrupting his future father-in-law's leather clothing business.  The marriage called off, he came to America broke and broken-hearted and walked through Western Connecticut and Westchester and Putman Counties as penance.

Tagged with the name Jules Bourglay, he is buried in Ossining's Sparta Cemetery under that name today.  Mr. Deluca found this story often in newspapers, which always seemed to be followed the next day with a retraction that no proof existed of this tale.

"Who remembers the retractions - even today," he questions, and the legend grew with peoples' imagination.  What is true is that his reputation was impeccable as an honest man who never hurt anyone.  So as his appearance deteriorated, what people knew of his harmlessness did not.  

For Mr. Deluca, sifting through the myth has been a painstaking process.  He starts with photos, traces the copyright to 
WashingtonDC, which often leads to newspaper articles and possibly artifacts and stories passed down through families.  The easy part is how he is so widely known, which means he constantly receives emails from all over the country.  The hard part is all the time spent scanning through miles of microfiche.  "We spend hours, days, weeks and years," he said in the pursuit of information.

Headlines in hundred year old publications are also rare.  "A Leatherman passed through here today," he says might easily slip past strained eyes.  Still, from all the research, he will only speculate on the Leatherman's origins. There were sightings early in the Berkshires, which is close enough to 
Canada for Mr. DeLuca to believe he was born there. It's also known that his route once encompassed a more northerly trek.  Therefore, he takes the French tongue and the northerly route as an indication of French Canadian descent.
He further believes, but again cannot prove, that his father was French and his mother was an Indian.  At some point, they both died and he came under the care of his maternal grandfather.  This resulted in the wandering man who had the skills of an Indian used to surviving in the wilderness – specific to tribesmen being away from their village on hunting expeditions. 
This mirrored the existence he lived in between stops.  He lived in small natural rock shelters, built fires, preserved food and constructed tools with the expertise of an artisan.  When his grandfather died, the northerly route moved south but it certainly hasn’t put a stop to Mr. Deluca’s journey.
He hopes to centralize the artifacts into one location when his book comes out next September.  “You’ve got to tie everything together these days,” he says in hopes that the Old Leatherman can finally be put to rest – even though he knows such a thing is not possible. He and the Leatherman wouldn’t want it any other way.

1 comment:

Katonah Joe said...

Interesting tale, Rich! Good read. I had never heard mention of him until now. I think we should collaborate on a screenplay soon!