The backcountry in the late 19th century was a far different place than it is today.
Thousands upon thousands of trees pack the present-day landscape, creating the sort of peaceful privacy treasured by so many who call it home. Vast estates are not only insulated by towering trees and the sheer distance between many, but also by long runs of stone walls that mark property boundaries.
Journey back to the 1800s and you’d find a northern Greenwich dominated by an agrarian way of life, where much of the land was open pasture cleared for farms on which crops were grown and animals raised.
One day in the latter half of the 19th century, a mysterious vagabond covered head to toe in leather walked into this farmland. He didn’t stay long, but he liked what he found enough that he would return again and again and again until his death.
The man had a name back then, but it wasn’t the one he was given at birth. He was known as the Leather Man.
Greenwich was but one stop for the Leather Man on his remarkable 365-mile clockwise loop through western Connecticut and eastern New York state. Walking 10-12 miles a day, he would complete the journey in 34 days and repeat it countless times from the early to late 1880s.
He became a regular, but fleeting, fixture in the many communities he passed through, from points as far north as Burlington, Conn., as far east as the shoreline town of Old Saybrook, as far south as Greenwich and as far west as Pleasantville, N.Y.
He was unmistakable in his leather garb, but the Leather Man’s true identity and origins have remained hidden from view for more than 100 years.
He was found dead near Ossining, N.Y., on March 24, 1889, and buried in the pauper’s section of the town’s Sparta Cemetery.
A New York coroner at the time gave the Leather Man’s cause of death as blood poisoning resulting from cancer. Newspapers of the day reported that he had been suffering from cancer of the jaw in the years leading up to his death.
After more than a century’s worth of wild speculation about the origin of the Leather Man, a team of researchers and scientists led by Connecticut’s state archaeologist, Nicholas Bellantoni, could take a huge step forward this week in solving the mystery. Beginning Monday and lasting into Tuesday, they will exhume the Leather Man’s remains and conduct forensic tests on what they unearth to learn more about the man.
After a sample is taken for testing, the remains will be moved from the current grave, which is next to a busy Route 9, and reburied in a more central section of the cemetery.
’WE COULD SEE HIM COMING’
The Leather Man spoke little, and when he did utter something, it was difficult to make out. Even so, he found his way into the hearts of countless Connecticut and New York families who would aid him in his trek.
One of those families was the Reynolds, who had a farm on Stanwich Road just north of where the Merritt Parkway runs today.
Russell Reynolds, 79, said his grandmother Mary, who died in 1948, would occasionally speak of the Leather Man, who she said would stop at the family farm as he came from Stamford on his way to New York state.
“She said he was a familiar figure and she wrote about him in her book ’80 Years in Greenwich,’” Russell Reynolds said.
In the book, Mary Reynolds tells of a man who livened up a young farm girl’s life in the decades before automobiles, radio and television.
“Another interesting character was the old leather man,” she wrote. “He was clad in clothes he made himself from leather. He came every few months to the kitchen door and stood there, never speaking. We would see him coming on foot a quarter of a mile down the road. Mother would fix a plate and a cup of coffee and hand it to him. He would place it on the cistern, then after eating, knock on the door, hand the plate in, nod his head and walk on. Sometimes he would wrap part of the food in paper and put it in his pocket.”
Despite developing bonds with locals, the Leather Man remained an intensely isolated person, choosing to rest in rock shelters, sometimes called “Leather Man caves,” along his route.
When he would leave the Reynolds farm, his next stop would take him west to one of these shelters, a rocky outcropping deep within what is now the environmental sanctuary of Audubon Greenwich.
On a warm day earlier this May, Jeff Cordulack retraced on Audubon land what could have been the Leather Man’s path to his cave.
Cordulack, an Audubon spokesman, remarked how much the land has changed since the days of the Leather Man.
“It was most likely pasture at the time,” Cordulack said as he walked toward the shelter the Leather Man slept in. “New England in the 1800s had been totally deforested for sheep farming. In the late 1800s, people started moving into the cities, more leaving their farms. In the early 1900s, farms were just left to be and they started growing back. Almost every tree here is less than 100 years old.”
That open land allowed the Leather Man to walk almost unhindered through the backcountry, Cordulack said.
Cordulack climbed over a slight hill to reveal a rock ledge looming over the area. After moving into the rocks, Cordulack squatted under the rock ledge, about 10 feet at its highest point. It’s believed the Leather Man would have slept in this spot, somewhat protected from the elements. Greenwich Time is not pinpointing the cave’s precise location after Audubon officials expressed worry that interest in the Leather Man could draw curiosity-seekers to the ecologically sensitive habitat.
Photographs of other Leather Man shelters taken in the 1800s show wood placed around a rock ledge or cave to help complete the shelter. There’s no evidence of that at the Audubon location, but black marks in the shelter’s interior could have been left by fires the Leather Man sparked to keep himself warm, Cordulack said.
The Leather Man is believed to have established makeshift shelters in other spots around town.
In one of his columns in Greenwich Time, the late Bernie Yudain wrote that the North Porchuck area was rumored as the location of one of his caves.
A second shelter is said to located somewhere along the Byram River in the backcountry, and there may be more.
Every good mystery has a dogged detective.
And in this story — one that stretches back more than 120 years — he is a retired high school electronics teacher and history buff.
About two decades ago, Dan W. DeLuca, 69, was asked by a Meriden historian if he knew anything about the Leather Man.
“I was a school teacher, had a number of heart attacks and retired. I was spending a lot of time looking into local history,” DeLuca said. “I had heard of him but I didn’t really know anything about him. Within a short period of time I determined to look at all the newspapers at the time.”
It was a task that meant countless days of going through microfilm of Connecticut and New York newspapers looking for any mention of the Leather Man.
Finally, his work produced fruit, when his book “The Old Leather Man: Historical Accounts of a Connecticut and New York Legend” was published in 2008. It’s a collection of articles published in newspapers in the late 1880s about the Leather Man and his trek.
Whoever the Leather Man was — and there have been plenty of theories floated through the years — DeLuca is positive who he wasn’t. A romantic legend names him Jules Bourglay, a heartbroken Frenchman who left Europe for the United States after financial ruin and romantic disappointment.
That story became so embedded that in 1953 the name was inscribed on the stone at the Leather Man’s grave in Ossining.
But the story was false. DeLuca believes it was fabricated by a writer for the Waterbury Daily American named William Gordon in the 1870s. The Gordon family had a tannery in Woodbury and would give scraps of leather to the Leather Man, DeLuca said.
DeLuca believes it was Alexander Gordon Jr., William’s brother, who first wrote in another publication, the Woodbury Reporter, that the Leather Man had a successful business in western New York before losing everything in a fire followed shortly by the death of his fiancée. In a later story, the town was identified as Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
“There was no truth in that whatsoever,” DeLuca said. “One brother took that little story and expanded on it and put it over in France where it was harder to verify the information.”
Even in those days, there were doubts about the Bourglay story, DeLuca said. Waterbury Daily American Editor Charles Burpee asked William Gordon about the story, and Gordon admitted he had made it up, DeLuca said.
Burpee printed a retraction and would write to other newspapers if he discovered they had reprinted the Jules Bourglay myth, asking them to correct the error, DeLuca said.
Among the unknowns about the Leather Man is why he chose an itinerant existence, sleeping in caves and rock shelters, DeLuca said.
“Why did he live the life he did? We don’t know. That is a mystery, just like other mysteries,” DeLuca said.
When DeLuca needed to find an origin for the Leather Man, he looked north of the border.
“He didn’t really start making the (365-mile) route until 1883,” DeLuca said. “Before 1883, he was all over Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont. He was supposedly making trips up into Canada prior to 1883.”
Those trips, combined with the fact that the Leather Man spoke fluent French and broken English, led DeLuca to believe he was originally from Canada.
The historian thinks the Leather Man’s father was French Canadian and his mother may have been at least part Native American.
“I think his grandfather on his mother’s side taught him all about rock shelters, how to survive in rock shelters and to fish and hunt,” DeLuca said. “I think this person lived up in Canada and that was the reason why (the Leather Man) went up there.”
DeLuca theorizes that the Leather Man’s parents died young, and after his grandfather died there was no reason for the Leather Man to return north.
His name came from the pants, coat, hat, boots, mittens, knapsack and tobacco pouch that he stitched together out of scraps of leather. After his death, they were weighed and found to be 66 pounds.
“We don’t know why he chose leather,” DeLuca said. “But it was from old boot tops. Everyone wore boots because it was pure mud out there summer and winter.
“Leather protected him from wild animals, from snakes when he slept in the shelters. In the summertime, the clothes would have been very hot — you would have smelled him before he was there.”
With the exception of a mitten, tobacco pouch and leather bag stored at the Connecticut Historical Society Museum in Hartford, all of the items have been lost, DeLuca said.
The wanderer was first seen in Connecticut and New York about 1856, said DeLuca, who believes the Leather Man was about 17 at the time. In the quarter-century leading up to 1883, he was self-sufficient, DeLuca said.
“There are newspaper reports of him having a garden in his shelters and also preserving fruit for the winter,” DeLuca said. “But around 1883 he abandoned that and he became completely dependent on others.”
DeLuca thinks that as more newspapers reported on the Leather Man, more people became aware of him and offered him food.
“Now he didn’t have to provide for himself,” DeLuca said. “Then he became totally dependent on people to feed him.”
Despite the fact that both Connecticut and New York state had passed “tramp laws,” calling for a prison sentence of up to one year for homeless people, beggars and wanderers, no one ever turned the Leather Man in, DeLuca said.
The historian believes residents thought him harmless.
DISTURBING THE PEACE
Not everyone is so anxious to see the Leather Man’s remains dug up for clues to his identity.
Donald Johnson, a Bethany resident who teaches history at North Haven Middle School, said the Leather Man wanted anonymity in life and should be granted it in death.
“For many years that was his thing — don’t ask him who he is or where he came from, or he would leave,” Johnson, 40, said. “I think they should just respect his privacy.”
The Leather Man’s case is different from other exhumations, for example, in criminal investigations to determine who is buried in a grave, or for significant historical figures like an Egyptian pharaoh, Johnson wrote in an email. There’s no need to unearth the remains of a simple person like the Leather Man.
“To me, he was just a common man, with an uncommon way of life,” Johnson wrote. “Further, his uncommon way of life clearly spoke of his wishes to remain anonymous. To me, if there is one place his secrets should remain safe, it is within his bones.”
Norman MacDonald, president of the Ossining Historical Society, which owns the cemetery, said the Leather Man is being moved for safety.
“We have senior citizens, Boy Scouts and other people who have come to the cemetery to see his grave,” MacDonald said. “It is right beside a very busy (Route 9) and we have safety concerns.”
While Johnson said he understands the safety issues, he remains resolute in his protests of taking a DNA sample.
“The fact is, they are saying, ’While we are at it, let’s take one of his wisdom teeth, drill in the pulp and get a DNA sample.’ That is the part that is not OK with me and never will be,” he said.
Johnson has discussed the issue with Bellantoni, whom he described as a true professional.
“Bellantoni told me it is just one milligram (of a DNA sample),” Johnson said. “That is one milligram too much for me.”
DeLuca, who said he is respectful of Johnson’s position, points out that the Leather Man, although taciturn, was a public figure who didn’t run away from society.
“If he really wanted to do that he would have become a hermit,” he said. “He would have isolated himself, and he didn’t.”
WHAT WILL THEY FIND?
The argument about taking a sample may be moot, Bellantoni said, since no remains may be left.
“We may get down there and there may be nothing,” the 62-year-old said. “We won’t know until we do the work.”
The grave is in the pauper’s section in the lower section of the graveyard. Over time, water runoff may have disturbed the remains, Bellantoni said. Also, if the Leather Man was buried in a wooden coffin, which was common at the time, the weight of the ground above may have collapsed the coffin’s top as it decayed through the decades. Microbes and soil acidity may also have eaten away at the remains, he said.
The gravesite will be covered by a tent to allow the scientists to work undisturbed because the exhumation has attracted media attention from across the country, MacDonald said.
It may take weeks to get DNA results back, Bellantoni said.
After the exhumation, the remains will be reburied, likely on Wednesday, in a separate site in the cemetery, MacDonald said.
DeLuca is realistic about what science may be able to uncover about the man he has spent two decades researching.
“It’s not going to tell us his name,” he said. “DNA could tell us what part of the country he came from, or it might not tell us anything.”
— Staff Writer Frank MacEachern can be reached at email@example.com or 203-625-4434.