Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Leather Man

Many knew him and many more knew of him, his death made the front page of the newspaper, but no one knew his name. It was the late 1850's, a time when it was not uncommon for wanderers, hobos, the homeless of that time, to knock on your door and offer to work for food. After they performed the agreed upon task, they would be invited in to have a meal. Sometimes they spent the night in the barn. Undoubtedly, there was probably a little polite conversation--unless the wanderer was The Leather Man.

He was dressed from head to toe in leather from his cap, to his coat to his pants and boots and he carried a leather bag. He would rap on the door with his cane and point to his mouth. People would motion him to come in, but he never did. They would give him the food and he would dine alone with never a word spoken and he never spent the night.

This is not the only thing that set him apart from the others. His consistency is what made him a legend. Every 34 days he would show up like clockwork, it is said, at the same hour, to the same house. He had his own circuit which he traveled between the CT and Hudson Rivers, 364 miles in clockwise direction, travelling ten miles a day for nearly thirty years.

He never took shelter in any one's barn, rather he had one hundred or more caves along his route that he slept in. He made a bed of boughs and chopped firewood that he kept at each cave. He chose caves near water and planted gardens for food. A lover of tobacco, he had a pipe at each of his caves.

He made his leather attire from old boots that people gave him or sometimes he would buy material at the many tanneries he passed by. His sack had tools for working with the leather, a French prayer book and extra food that people would give him. He was said to have had a large appetite.

There is no record of this unusual man ever hurting anyone, however the same cannot be said of how people treated him. Most people treated him kindly, but the few who didn't, he remembered and he never went that way again. Only once did someone ask him to work for the food. He did, but that was the last time he stopped there.

A few photographs were taken of him and some were made into postcards. These were sold or used as a promotion to get people to spend money in their store.

It is thought that he was French Canadian, but nothing more is really known of his identity. There were rumors of him being hurt by a lost love, but this romantic rumor was never validated. At times he purchased items which sparked the rumor that he was a rich eccentric. It was thought perhaps he had buried treasure near his caves. After his death, the area around his caves were searched and no treasure was found.

This man who chose not to become friends with anyone, became a celebrity. People looked for him on the 34th day. Children would run up to meet him when he entered town and follow him as he left. These same children grew to be adults with children who greeted him. It is said that women left church early to bake for him. The teacher in the classroom would dismiss the kids for an early recess when he came by so they could share part of their lunches with him.

His circuit in CT included Harwinton, Bristol, Forestville, Southington, Kensington, Berlin, Middletown and towns along the south westerly side of the Connecticut River and down to the shore towns. He then went into Westchester County in NY within a few miles of the Hudson River and back into Connecticut--Danbury, New Milford, Roxbury, Woodbury, Watertown, Plymouth and back to Harwinton (240 miles in CT and 126 miles in NY)--all in 34 days.

Weather never slowed him down except for the blizzard of 1888. He was discovered with frozen hands and feet and taken to the hospital in Hartford. It was then discovered that he had cancer of the lip. He left the hospital as soon as he could and continued his routine. He died a year later at the age of 50.

He is buried in Sparta, NY. Currently there is a name on his headstone but that was a case of mistaken identity and soon that name will be removed, but it is still not known the name of this legendary man. He could never know that his life would be a part of history passed on by generations. Pearl Jam even wrote a song about him. Facebook has a fan page for him. He was a fascinating character, simple but intelligent, resourceful and brave, poor in social skills but harmless.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Dan DeLuca speak about the Leatherman. As a result of 22 years of study, he has written a book called "The Old Leatherman". This 232 page book is a wealth of information complete with pictures of the caves the Leatherman stayed in and photographs of him. It is a wonderful tribute to the unknown man who became a legend. The book is available on Amazon.

1 comment:

Don said...

Have you heard that his remains are being exhumed and forensic tests will be performed on them? Would love to hear your opinion on this at 'Leave the Leatherman"