The Old Leather Man
We can repeat the whole story, but if you want to learn about the Old Leather Man in amazing detail, we recommend Dan W. DeLuca’s excellent The Old Leather Man (Wesleyan University Press 2008), a well-researched tome with numerous illustrations, images, anecdotes and newspapers excerpts detailing his exploits. You can also get David Phillips’ brilliant Legendary Connecticut, a book that is essential for anyone who lives in this state and enjoys the damned of the past.
In a nutshell: Just before the Civil War, an odd vagabond dressed head-to-toe in leather appeared out of nowhere and started walking the same 360-mile circuit for almost 30 years. It was always the same clockwise route — starting in Danbury and heading east through Watertown to Middletown, then south down along the Connecticut River before turning west along the Connecticut coast to New Caanan, then back north into Westchester County, New York, before turning east again to Danbury. In all his travels he never engaged in conversation with anyone beyond monosyllabic phrases like “Eat” or “Yes,” nor did he ever stay inside, always choosing to spend the nights and winters in the great outdoors. His possessions included a walking staff, a leather satchel and the leather on his back. He also never worked or accepted money, and would’ve made a terrific postman as neither rain, nor sleet nor snow nor dark of night could deter him from his self-appointed rounds. People could almost set their calendars by him as it took him exactly 34 days to complete a lap (depending on the weather).
OCD much? Seriously, if he were alive today, I don’t know if he would be diagnosed as anything else! I also wonder about his personal “aura” as someone traipsing 10 miles daily through the Northeast in August completely clad in heavy leather and eschewing man-made comforts like roofs and bathtubs had to be a bit more than ripe. Phew! From recorded personal observations of the time, he had a rough-but-harmless edge about him, being aged greatly by constant exposure to the elements and single-minded devotion to his self-imposed task. As he was a “celebrity” of the time, a number of photos were taken of ol’ “Leathery,” many of which you can find in DeLuca’s book.
The Old Leather Man was found dead in March of 1889 in one of the many hovels he had built along his route, near Scarborough, New York. According to coroner’s inquest, he died from blood poisoning due to cancer which had ravaged his face and mouth — sounds like a fairly painful and nasty end, but as his whole existence seems to have been some sort of bizarre penitence, suffering terribly and alone may have been how he wanted to die.
Our Damned Experience: In July 2009, we drove out to Sparta Cemetery in Scarborough, N.Y., and visited the grave of the Old Leather Man.
The picturesque cemetery is right on Route 9, just a few minutes north of Sleepy Hollow (yes, that Sleepy Hollow), and the Leather Man’s simple headstone is literally right inside the entrance, less than 10 feet from the roadway.
The inscription bears the name Jules Bourglay, and says he was from Lyons, France, but the evidence to support this story seems to have been concocted in the time following his death. Contemporary accounts claim when asked his name, he always responded “Isaac”; then again, he barely spoke, so who knows what his true identity was.
Anyway, whoever the curious wanderer was, it appears as though he is finally resting in peace.
As you can see, the old grave marker erroneously naming him as Jules Bourglay has been replaced with a giant rock with a plaque that simply reads “THE LEATHERMAN.” It’s near the middle front of the cemetery, about 40 yards to the right of the driveway entrance—and his former resting spot—off of Route 9, and halfway up the hill.
A lot of small trinkets, including pennies, have been left on top of the stone. There’s also a granite bench a few feet in front of it for those who want to stay a while and contemplate about the story of an anonymous loner and vagabond who still captivates our imagination over 130 years after his death.
If You Go: Well, the Old Leather Man may be gone but he’s certainly not forgotten. In addition to his grave in Sparta Cemetery, you can visit many of the caves he used to stay in around Connecticut, including in New Canaan, East Haven, Southington, Westbrook, Clinton and on the Mattatuck Trail in Black Rock State Park in Watertown. There’s also a portrait of him hanging on the first floor of the Derby Public Library.
In addition, I should mention that the band Pearl Jam recorded a song “Leatherman” that apparently is an homage to the Old Leather Man.
A little damned tune for you, ol’ Leathery!