The Leatherman

When I was little and living in Connecticut, I’d hear stories about vagabonds who lived in caves thereabouts. Vagabonds always fascinated me. Didn’t they get lonely? How did they survive the winters? Were they dangerous? I bet they had a lot of stories to tell. I certainly could relate to wanting a whole lot of “leave me alone”. I used to fantasize about running away and living in a cave. I might have tried it if I hadn’t found being cold and wet so unappealing. So who was I to judge?

The caves in question were always called “Leatherman Caves” but I had no idea why. And then I recently heard this 4 minute story on National Public Radio. NPR definitely gives me a lot of ideas for blog posts.  

The Leatherman was a guy who walked clockwise in a 365-mile circle between the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers, from 1857 to 1889. The route took him through 49 towns in New York and Connecticut, and people could practically set their watch by the man. If he had a tendency to show up on your porch for food at 10 am, he would do so, like clockwork, every 5 weeks.

People knew him so well that 10 towns in Connecticut passed ordinances exempting him from the “tramp law” in 1879. Well, they knew him, sort of. No one knew his name. No one ever had any significant conversation with him. He mostly grunted or spoke in monosyllables. It was clear that his first language was French, not English, but was he from France or was he French Canadian? No one knows.

He was called the Leatherman because he wore a 60 pound suit, complete with hat, scarf, and shoes, that he had made from old boot tops and leather cord. He wore this outfit all year round. (I bet that smelled great. Not.)

No one knows how he got his money. He always had some. Sometimes he would buy his food at local shops.

When he died in 1889, a French prayer book was found on him. Apparently he could read. It was also said that he’d refuse to eat meat on Fridays, leading some to think he was Roman Catholic. He died of cancer of the mouth. He loved his tobacco.

He was buried in Ossining, New York in the Sparta Cemetery. His grave was located so close to a highway, and so many tourists liked to visit it, that in 2011 his grave was moved to a safer location in the cemetery.

But the fascinating thing about the exhumation is what they found, which was basically nothing. Just a few coffin nails. Had he rotted away over the years? Quite possibly. Or were they digging in the wrong place? Equally possible.

The lack of body was a huge disappointment, because modern scientists were going to run his DNA to see if they could at least suss out where he came from. The plans for that exhumation were so controversial that it gave rise to a fascinating website called leavetheleathermanalone.com. Check it out! There’s much more to learn about him.

Whether that exhumation was a violation of a very private man’s privacy or not, the Leatherman had the last laugh. Now his relocated grave contains some of the original grave’s dirt, plus those coffin nails. One way or another, he has moved on, and will forever be a mystery.

I think he’d be amused or astounded to discover that he made it into popular culture. There’s a 10k race in Pound Ridge, New York every year called Leatherman’s Loop. And the band Pearl Jam recorded a song about him. You can listen to it here.

I probably walked in Leatherman’s footsteps many times without even knowing it as a child. It would be fascinating to trace his route and then follow it. He frequented a lot of towns that I lived in back then. I like thinking that I’ve stood in the same place as this fascinating character more than once. I wonder if he would have talked to me.

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