The Sparta Cemetery in Ossining, New York, at the crest of an undulating ridge overlooking the Hudson River, is old enough that many of the marble headstones dates before 1900. Some have fallen, others have been swallowed whole by gnarled shrubs or split clean in two by frost.
The cemetery is home to the graves of members of Ossining’s founding gentry as long-dead state senators, wealthy railroad merchants or influential local business owners, but most of those interred at the Sparta Cemetery are long forgotten.
There’s only one grave that still attracts a steady stream of visitors, and it belongs to a nineteenth-century vagabond known as “Leatherman”.
Until 2011, the inscription on the Leatherman headstone (etched onto a recycled piece of granite that had previously adorned some other grave) was brief and cryptic:
“Final resting place of Jules Bourglay of Lyons, France.
‘The Leather Man.’
Who walked a 365 mile loop through Westchester and Connecticut from the Connecticut River to the Hudson, living in caves, in the years 1858–1889.”
However, there is a problem (and apparently not only one): the name was wrong. Not just wrong, in fact, but a real lie, ’cause Leatherman was not Jules Bourglay. That name was just one of the countless myths (and misattributions) affixed to the man when he was alive, and long afterward.
If you had lived in Westchester County, south of New York, or western Connecticut during the second half of the 19th century, you probably would have met this strange character wander the streets of the city. His real name was unknown, but he was identified by all as “Leatherman” because of his clothing, a suit of coarse leather, a patchwork garment he made from discarded boot tops, with a bulky pack and hand-hewn wooden shoes. His figure was massive and imposing, and he walked with the help of a stick, which supported him along his streets through a well-defined path. He rarely spoke, communicating almost exclusively in grunts and pantomime.
When he first appeared around 1856, people were fascinated with the way he lived, at a time when most people remained where they were born. The homeless at the time were considered outlaws, but obviously the community made an exception for Leatherman, who has become a sort of legend.
Every 30 days, traveling on foot, he’d complete a rigorously predictable circuit of some 580 kilometers between the Hudson and Connecticut rivers. He would regularly pass through what were then just small farming villages, living mostly off the charity of the townspeople. Farmers claimed they could set their watches by him and the inhabitants of the cities where he stopped were waiting for his arrival.
He lived and traveled alone, sleeping in caves around the surrounding forest, caves that are still known as “Leatherman caves”.
He was never known to stay indoors for more than a minute or two. But every few days he’d pass through a town, with a tin pipe clenched between his teeth, shambling under his heavy pack, which, like his clothes, was hand-stitched out of leather’s scraps.
He’d be given a meal, which he might eat on the spot, standing at the threshold. Other times he’d pack the food he was given in to his bag, nod wordlessly, and keep walking.
Leatherman did this, without pause, for 30 years, but we still don’t know his true name, or his age. Or where he came from.
He always refused money, but according to one story, when people left the occasional penny for him, he’d polish it and place it back where it was found.
Of course, locals were very curious about this mysterious character.
Unfortunately, Leatherman never revealed the reasons that led him to this nomadic life, and even today his story is a mystery. The man barely spoke, his English was uncertain with a distinctly French accent, which led many to believe that he was French or French-Canadian.
The suspicion that has come down to the present day is that his problems in dialogue were linked to some form of autism, which made him almost unable to explain his thoughts.
What little we know of him has been reconstructed from a series of anecdotes from the people whose homes he habitually visited. Leatherman was a Catholic, he had a French-language prayer book, he smoked and did not eat meat on Friday.
Many of Leatherman’s photos were taken secretly, and since he was very confidential, it is said that after someone took a picture of him, he never showed up in that house again. Despite his oddity, people were fond of this mysterious character, and worried about his health during the nights spent in the freezing cold. He was once arrested and hospitalized, and many people expressed concern about a fat lip, but Leatherman managed to escape and resumed walking before he could be examined. He survived the “Great Blizzard of 1888”, one of the most catastrophic snow and frost storms in the history of the United States, but he died anyway the following year, due to cancer, of which that wound on his lip actually represented a symptomatic lesion.
His body was found in a cave in Ossining, near New York, and after his death, his large “dress” was weighed, discovering that it weighed 27 kilograms.
He was buried under the fake name “Jules Bourglay”, legend has that Leatherman was a French leather merchant, who lost all his luck, including his wife, and then he had begun to wander North America as a sign of penance.
After his death, some newspapers created a sensationalistic version of the story, depicting him as a horrible monster that killed and ate children. This rumor was quickly disproved by protests from those who interacted with him, and who insisted on describing him as a helpful and kind person.
The old plaque marks the dates 1858-1889, years in which man traveled his route, but the actual date of birth was an absolute mystery.
Curious fact: in 2011 historians dug into his grave to see if they could discover other details and especially the origin of the man dressed in leather but, when the coffin was opened, no remains were found, neither bones nor other signs that anyone had ever been buried there. The only thing present were the nails of the coffin.
Still today, the grave with Leatherman’s remains (or their absence) is a popular destination and some people leave him their pennies, in the hope that he comes back to return them polished….
Images from web.