Damned Interview: Dan W. DeLuca

December, 2010 by Ray Bendici
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Dan W. DeLuca is a genealogist, historian, a former educator and the leading expert on The Old Leather Man, a 19th century loner who walked the same 360-mile circuit every 34 days for years. Dan has also chronicled the Old Leather Man's story in the highly recommended The Old Leather Man (available from Amazon and other fine booksellers), an amazing collection of historical accounts, pictures and stories.

Recently, Dan kindly agreed to answer  some questions for us via e-mail about everyone's favorite legendary wanderer.

Damned Connecticut: What inspired you to research and write about the Old Leather Man [OLM]?

Dan W. DeLuca: About 22 years ago an historian from Meriden asked me what did I know about the Old Leather Man and do I believe what was being written about him in the newspapers? The newspapers every year or so would revive his story, the Jules Bourglay story about The Old Leather Man.

I told her I did not know anything about him, only what was printed in the newspapers, but would do a little research and get back to her. That was 22 years ago.

Damned Connecticut: How long did it take to do the research and write the book?

Dan W. DeLuca: Researching off and on for about 20 years. To layout and publish the book, the process took about 1½ years. I’m still researching the “OLM or LM” and more and more information is still being uncovered, in the past three years I have more than doubled the information about him.

Damned Connecticut: What was the most surprising thing you learned about OLM while researching and writing the book?

Dan W. DeLuca: He was not Jules Bourglay and every major research over the years has made statements to that fact.

Damned Connecticut: What's the most common inaccurate idea that people have about the OLM?

Dan W. DeLuca: There are a number of common inaccurate ideas that people have about him and I will list just a few. He did not travel his famous circuit of 365 miles every 34 days for 30 years but started in 1883 and only traveled the circuit for 6 years until he died on March 20, 1889. He would talk to people who talked French but he did not understand English ever well and only then would answered in grunts and hand gestures. He never begged for food, he was not Jules Bourglay, a tramp or hobo. He was not homeless, had many caves and rock/shelters and there was times he wound enter a house, only if he was invited in. He was not exempt from the tramp laws.

Damned Connecticut: What's one thing that most people don't realize about him?

Dan W. DeLuca: At one time he was gathering and preserving food, fishing, tanning leather and had a number of gardens in different locations. He was providing for himself and had a strong knowledge of Indian lore, which he was using to survive. All this information has been documented. I also believe he was trapping and hunting but do not have any documentation.

Damned Connecticut: In his day, the OLM was a bit of celebrity -- newspapers detailed his travels, and everyone in the towns he passed through knew of him. What made him special as compared to other vagabonds or wanderers?

Dan W. DeLuca: The OLM was around before the Civil War and every one knew who he was. He was dresses all in leather, his suit was made from old boot tops stitched together with leather lacing, his shoes were carved from spruce wood about three quarters of an inch thick with leather uppers, there were water proof, a leather cap with a visor completed his costume all of his own make. He never stole anything, never begged, molested or hurt any one, he would only take what was freely offered him.

Chauncey Hotchkiss of Forestville, Connecticut, in 1885 documented the OLM’s famous clockwise circuit of 365 miles every 34 days. He always wanted to be on time to his next stop or eating place, people went out of their way to feed him what he liked, and they looked forward to his next visit.

Damned Connecticut: I've often wondered if maybe the OLM was legitimately mentally ill -- possibly afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Is this possible? Or do you think there was another reason for his repetitive routine?

Dan W. DeLuca: I do not believe he was mentally ill, and at this time I believe he had an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Not only did he want to be on time, but when he set up his shelters, they were away neat and everything in its place, the way he stitched his leather suit, the lacing had to lay flat and not twisted. He made pipes to smoke tobacco for every one of his caves; all of his pipes were exactly the same. Everything he made had to be perfect.

Damned Connecticut: Why do you think he did what he did?

Dan W. DeLuca: Why do we do what we do? This was his way of life and he was surviving.

Damned Connecticut: I notice that many of the images in the book are from your personal collection -- how much OLM-related items do you have? What's the most interesting OLM item you possess?

Dan W. DeLuca: I have thousands of LM-related material and newspaper articles, hundreds of photographs of caves, eating places, people who fed him and period photos of towns he visited. One painting, ten original cabinet photographs and 40 postcards of him or his cave-rock/shelters.

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The son of the famous LM researcher Leroy W. Foote who researched him for over 40 years gave me the most interesting artifact I have: A pipe made by the Leather Man.

Damned Connecticut: Why did he stay on that particular route? Was there something special about it?

Dan W. DeLuca: Before 1883 he was mostly providing food for himself and had many routes all over Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and it has been said Canada. This particular route or circuit was developed over time, and he made many friends that had started feeding him, most all of these towns accepted him for who he was, and left him alone to live out his life. He was no longer providing food for himself and was now dependent upon his friends for his nourishment.

Damned Connecticut: I know you've visited numerous stops along the route -- have you ever tried walking the entire route?

Dan W. DeLuca: I have driven over his famous circuit many times but have never tried to walk it. The only person I know of, not counting the OLM himself, is Steve Grant, who in 1993 walked and wrote about his daily journey for the Hartford Courant. For years, it was his responsibility to “Keep the Legend Alive,” and he would give talks about his walk and the OLM at historical societies and libraries throughout Connecticut and New York.

When I started researching the OLM I followed the stories in the Hartford Courant and attended a few of Steve’s talks.

Damned Connecticut: Although the name Jules Bourglay is on his tombstone, the truth is that it's a fabricated name created in a newspaper story that was more fiction than fact -- who do you think the OLM really was?

Dan W. DeLuca: It’s a question that I have answered many times but cannot prove: I think he is part French Canadian and Indian, for some reason he was raised by his Indian grandfather. His grandfather taught him all the skills he needed to survived, and around 1880–1882 I think his grandfather died and he stopped making his trips up into Canada.

I also believe like LM researcher Allison Albee who said in 1937 when asked, who was the Leather Man? “Occasionally, legend and reality unite in the form of some remarkable soul who, through peculiarity or chance, assume a role resembling the mythical characters we read about in childhood’s fairy tales. The Old Leather Man was one of these.”

Damned Connecticut: Why do you think that 120 years later, people are still so fascinated by the story of OLM?

Dan W. DeLuca: He was a "mystery and legend" in his own time and very little was known about him. You have to remember that at one time he traveled over four states, great-great-grand parents, great-grand parents, grand parents and parents have passed down the "mystery and legend" and there were others who took it upon themselves to “Keep the Legend Alive.” Every year since the OLM died there has been a story about him in newspapers and someone going around giving talks about him. People like mysteries and legends, and the OLM was both.

It is also important not to forget the newspapermen, researchers, and people who spent a lot of time to “Keep the Legend Alive.” I would be remiss if I did not name some of them: Jonathan Tillotson Clark, Alexander Gordon Sr., Alexander Gordon Jr., William A. Gordon, Alfred E. Hammer, James F. Rodgers, Chauncey Hotchkiss, Isaac W. Beach, Lanning G. Roake, William P. Toms, Frank Knight, Allison Albee, Leroy W. Foote, Thomas J. Price, Elliot B. Hunt, Foster M. Johnson, L. Raymond Ryan, Nick Shoumatoff, Patricia E. Clyne, Bertram R. A. Smith, Edward McKeon Jr., Steve Grant and all the other anonymous people.

For about seven years railroad historian Leroy Roberts has been helping with the research and I would say he knows all most as much as I do about the LM; he is now working on the LM’s timetables and cave-rock/shelters. He donated his railroad collection to Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut, and you can view some of his collection at Connecticut History Online.

Shirley Sutton has been to a number of my talks over the years and interviewed me about my research, for the past few years she has been going out giving talks.

And now added to the list is Ray Bendici, who is “Keeping the Legend Alive.”

Damned Connecticut: Finally, Steve wants to know: Why leather?

Dan W. DeLuca: Leather was easy to come by and it was plentiful; Keeps in body heat, protected him from the winter weather and from animals and snakes.

Dan adds: At this time I’m back researching, looking at microfilm, compiling more and new information on the OLM for a new book: 1889-1937 The Legend Continues.

If anyone has any information about him or his cave-rock/shelters they can email me at [email protected]

Here are some links to other sites.

Thanks again to Dan for taking the time and passing along all the great information. And we will do our best to keep the legend of Ol' Leathery alive!

Comments

Great interview! Mr. Deluca is very good at what he does. The idea that there is probably someone or some artifact above ground between here and Canada that can provide the next piece to this puzzle is what should be driving future research, and keeping the legend alive. That is why I am so against the plans to dig up his remains and force him to reveal the information he so closely guarded. Never in his wildest dreams or in his final moments, could he have imagined that someday, some stranger would be pulling his "wisdom" teeth from his jaw to force him to talk! Oh, the humanity!

Submitted by Dan DeLuca (not verified) on
Hi Don, When I started researching "The Old Leather Man," and uncovered that he was not Jules Bourglay and the LM before 1883 was all over Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and it has been said Canada, I had a number of goals I wanted to accomplished. 1 Have the gravestone changed and have the name Jules Bourglay taken off, he has never been identified. When the name was put on the stone, the mystery of who he was was declared solved, and researchers stopped researching him. I wanted to have him declared a mystery and an unknown, so researchers would begin researching him again. I am not interested in knowing his name, only more about him and his life. 2 To make sure his artifacts, and photographs etc, are preserved in historical societies and museums. 3 Collect as much information on him before it is lost forever and publish my research so my research will not disappear like so many researchers before me. Over the past 22 years I have spent around $1,000.00 researching him, not counting my time. As you known we don't do it for the money. 4 Rekindle the interest in him and pass his mysterious history and legend on to children, grand-children and future researchers. 5 To "Keep the Legend Alive" 6 It is my hope, as you said, the idea that there is probably someone or some artifact above ground between here and Canada that can provide the next piece to this puzzle is what will be driving future research, and keeping the legend alive. I want to thank you for putting up your web site, and hope you understand that it was the reporter who said: “Researchers are planning to dig up the Leather Man’s grave next year in an attempt to determine his identity.” We are not trying to determine his identity only relocating his grave for the safety of the people who go there to pay there respects to a mysterious historic legend.

Submitted by Dan DeLuca (not verified) on
Don, I made a mistake it my answer to you, I have spent around $100,000.00 not 1,000.00. Researching him over 22 years. Dan

Dan – I was at your talk at the Meriden Public Library about 3 years ago. I remember a woman showing you a painting of the Leatherman that her family had passed down for generations. That gave me chills. I had been a fan of the Leatherman for years and I brought two friends with me who reside in Meriden, and we were all blown away by the breadth of your research, and fascinated by your presentation. At that presentation you mentioned the resolve we all must take to try and preserve the legend of the Leatherman, and you gave the example of how a local conservation group had protected some land that contained one of his shelters. It was also at that presentation that you mentioned the possibility of someday getting a sample of his DNA. I turned to one of my friends, and said I feel like standing up right now and yelling out Leave Him Alone!!! Of course, I didn’t, out of respect for you and your program, and decided instead to keep reading and learning about him, and keeping up on any news. I pre-ordered your book and recommend it to everyone who shows the faintest interest. I re-read it twice a year. Once in the cold of winter, and again in the dog days of summer just to try and imagine what it must of felt like to BE HIM. The 60lb suit of leather in the summer, the frostbite in the winter, constantly moving, all to live alone in his private “underground” while walking in plain sight, and not have to share any details of his former life with anyone. The great thing about your book, and any quality piece of literature is that each person can read the same words, yet draw a unique meaning from them. What I take from all the news accounts and stories in your book as you presented them, is that this man was a fellow human being who went to unimaginable lengths to maintain his privacy while alive, and his contemporaries who had first-hand contact with him came to accept and respect that. I just can’t comprehend what gives us the right, 120 years later, having never been in his presence, to pass judgement that because he did not “indicate” otherwise, he would not mind us going to whatever lengths were necessary to extract any part of his story from his old bones. I have mixed feelings about whether I will attend your program on Jan 16th in Trumbull, because I do not want my presence to detract from your great program. But I will admit, your interview with Damned CT once again peaked my interest with the hint that there is another book coming!

Submitted by Dan W. DeLuca (not verified) on
The Old Leather Man is entitled and deserves the same respect and his rightfully place in American history as Johnny Appleseed, Mark Twain, The Headless Horseman, Daniel Boone, and Paul Bunyan of American Folklore. Please Help and--------------------“Keep the Legend Alive”-----------------------------------------

Don – Wow, the talk at the Meriden Public Library was in October 2006, two years before the book was published and six years ago. I’m pleased that you enjoyed the program and that you truly understand all the work and depth of the research. There are many little clues about the OLM in the book that still have to be looked into. It was my hope that someone in each town would look into these clues and do some research in there own town. Remember six years has past since I gave that presentation, and new information has been discovered since then. I think we both can agree that we want to “Keep the Legend Alive,” and agree on more things than we disagree on. Since I first started giving talks about the old Leather Man many years ago, a few other's have started giving there own programs about him, using my research. In all my programs I show a deep respect for the OLM, and the words I hear you say, the way you describe, taking a sample, did not come out of my mouth, I have to ask you, have you been to any other programs that others have given about him, and maybe they have used these words? Most all my presentations are open to the public, and the one in Trumbull is open to all that want to come and learn more about the OLM. Someone may bring in new information about him that we don’t have. I have found two more newspaper articles that have placed him in Trumbull, and I will disclose this information at the program, it is my hope that someone will come forward so we can locate another one of his cave-rock/shelter; It could be a very historic moment. Don’t have mixed feeling about coming to the program, I’m looking forward to see you, and I know we will be respectful to each other, and everyone else that is there. At any time you want to get together and discuss the OLM, please contact me. We can always get together over coffee, and talk about this great legend, or if you have a list of question, send them to me, and I will try to answer them. I think we are both trying to: “Keep The Legend Alive”

Submitted by David Wuterich (not verified) on
I have some origanal pictures of the leatherman, thought you might be interested, thanks Dave

Hi Dave, Very interested. If you have scans send them along and we will post them on the site. Steve [email protected]

Hi Dave, I would be interested in your original pictures of the Leather Man, and what is written on the backs of the photos, please email me, would enjoy looking at them, etc. Let's get together. [email protected] Dan

Submitted by John Roach (not verified) on
At what point does the moral point of historical research change to grave robbery? I believe that your support of the Ossining Historical Society's exhumation and DNA testing of the Leatherman's remains is a perversion of history. In life this enigmatic character had many unknowns and those died with him. To come along 100 years later with new science an unravel his identity is a sacrilege of history. Sometimes a puzzle holds more interest unsolved than when it is solved. How many have worked for days on a large jigsaw puzzle then shortly after completing it broke it apart and put it in the box. I remember years ago a computer puzzle game called MYST came out. I worked for months on solving the puzzle and had much enjoyment from it. As I was finishing a friend at work at my urging got the same game and started playing. He picked up a Cheat Book and got solution tips on line. He finished the game in less than a week and found the end.... Yes that is what was at the end of the puzzle "The End" nothing else! Just a you have solved it now put the disc away and forget about it, you reached the end! Mt prediction is when you reach the end of the Leatherman's Story the interest will end... Thanks for nothing! Grave Robber!

Submitted by Ben (not verified) on
I agree John, this story is only interesting to me because the whole thing is a mystery. I'd much rather read theories, than facts....but thats just me.

Submitted by Drew (not verified) on
The leather man obviously tried to hide his identity for most of his life so why destroy his dream? JUST LEAVE THE LEATHER MAN ALONE!!!

Submitted by Ok (not verified) on
Sounds like a sad and lonely life.

Submitted by Dennis Kelly (not verified) on
I need to talk to Mr. DeLuca 860-276-0633

Submitted by Dennis Kelly (not verified) on
I need to speak with Mr. DeLuca..860-276-0633 Subject Kelly Family tree

Submitted by dennis kelly (not verified) on
Dan l would like to speak to you I will be at aoh sat night for 90th party or call me at 860 276 0633 or djk005@aolcom dennis kelly

Grew up in Ossining. Just ordered The Old Leatherman from Amazon, have not yet gotten but am wondering impatiently if there is any any evidence, from those that would see him regularly on "his rounds", if any sort of family…kin….authority... might have been notified of his whereabouts and were proactively looking/asking for him? Maybe he had a sister, a brother, a kid? Any old letters to/from CN or FR?

Submitted by steve f (not verified) on
Nothing Definitive Theresa, its all guesswork.

Submitted by Gail (not verified) on
I am puzzled by the comments believing it would be a "perversion" or a sacrilege to exhume the Leatherman's remains and do a DNA test. All this can be done respectfully. Why keep muddling through any above ground evidence (of which there is so little) when a DNA test may provide an answer to his identity. Is the quest the goal or is an answer the goal?

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