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The Sparta Cemetery in Ossining, New York, at the crest of an undulating ridge overlooking the Hudson River, is old enough that many of the marble headstones have been weathered smooth. Most bear dates before 1900. Some have fallen flat against the earth. Others have been swallowed whole by gnarled shrubs or split clean in two by frost.
The cemetery is home to the graves of members of Ossining’s founding gentry: long-dead state senators, wealthy railroad merchants, influential local business owners. Some of the stones are huge and ornately carved, topped with Romanesque columns or granite obelisks. Those that can be read offer florid descriptions of lives of accomplishment and influence.
But most of those interred at the Sparta Cemetery are long forgotten. There’s only one grave here that still attracts a steady stream of visitors, and it belongs not to a man or woman of means or influence, but to a nineteenth-century vagabond known as the Leatherman. “Tramp” was the word to describe people like him back then, though today we would simply call him homeless. It is, essentially, a pauper’s grave.
For years, the stone that sat atop Leatherman’s tomb had bothered Dan DeLuca. An electrician turned college professor turned historian, DeLuca has spent the better part of his adult life researching the Leatherman. A burly man with a wry manner and a dry New England accent, DeLuca spent more than 25 years scouring local historical societies for newspaper clippings and thumbing through yellowed, century-old correspondence. In 2008, he published his book, The Old Leather Man: Historical Accounts of a Connecticut and New York Legend. But Leatherman’s life story was only part of DeLuca’s fascination with the mysterious drifter.
Until 2011, the inscription on the Leatherman headstone — etched onto a recycled piece of granite that had previously adorned some other grave — was brief and cryptic:
“Final resting place of Jules Bourglay of Lyons, France. ‘The Leather Man.’ Who walked a 365 mile loop through Westchester and Connecticut from the Connecticut River to the Hudson, living in caves, in the years 1858–1889.”
That epitaph had always troubled DeLuca. To begin with, the name was wrong. Not just wrong, in fact, but a lie: The Leatherman was not Jules Bourglay. That name was just one of the countless myths and misattributions affixed to the Leatherman when he was alive, and long afterward.
DeLuca wasn’t the first to be captivated by the story. Leatherman has been a source of fascination in a particular pocket of this country for well over a century, dating back to the 1850s. The subject of hundreds of newspaper articles throughout the Gilded Age, the Leatherman — and every detail of his life — became an obsession for the people of Westchester County and western Connecticut.
When newspapers first started writing about him, he was an object of little more than idle curiosity. Dressed in a suit of coarse leather — a patchwork garment he made from discarded boot tops — with a bulky pack and hand-hewn wooden shoes, he was a mystery from the outset. He refused to discuss himself. He rarely spoke at all, in fact, communicating almost exclusively in grunts and pantomime.
Every 30 days, traveling on foot, he’d complete a rigorously predictable circuit of some 360 miles between the Hudson and Connecticut rivers. He would regularly pass through what were then just small farming villages, living mostly off the charity of the townspeople. Farmers claimed they could set their watches by him; newspapers took note when he fell just a few hours behind his typical schedule.
He lived and traveled alone, sleeping in a rotating series of crude lean-tos and caves in and around the surrounding forest. The caves are probably the most enduring aspect of the Leatherman story. Some of them have been excavated by archaeologists; today many of them, in parks scattered throughout the area he roamed, are marked, and still regularly visited.
He was never known to stay indoors for more than a minute or two. But every few days he’d pass through a town, a tin pipe clenched between his teeth, shambling under his heavy leather pack, which, like his clothes, was hand-stitched out of scraps. He came to remember the homes where he’d previously been well received, and rarely stopped anywhere else. The routine was more or less the same in every town or village: He’d rap on the door of some well-to-do farmhouse, and when it was answered, he’d gesture toward his mouth. Sometimes he’d utter the word “eat.” Often he’d say nothing at all.
He’d be given a meal, which he might eat on the spot, standing at the threshold. His appetite was legendary. “Slice after slice of bread disappeared,” one reporter wrote, in the New Haven Evening Register, “and huge blocks of meat went after them in rapid succession, and the manner in which he consumed his pie and cake reminded me of an expert magician disposing of his cards.” Other times he’d pack the food he was given into his bag, nod wordlessly, and keep walking.
Leatherman did this, without pause, for 30 years, chronicled at every step by an enthusiastic press. More has been recorded — exponentially more — about the Leatherman than the vast majority of his contemporaries. But we still don’t know so much as his true name. Or his age. Or where he came from.
That anyone took notice of Leatherman — that they did anything other than scorn him — is remarkable enough on its own. Merely existing as a “tramp” in those days was an arrestable offense. But his story is one that has endured, undoubtedly more fascinating for all the gaps. People still carry on his memory, through scholarship or imitation or just simple admiration. He’s been the subject of academic-journal articles and documentaries; the rock band Pearl Jam even wrote a song about him.
DeLuca’s book is the definitive account of his life — a collection of newspaper clippings and a few surviving images, painstakingly wrung from microfilm in dusty corners of libraries all across the Tri-State area. (Many of the contemporary accounts in this story were sourced from DeLuca’s book.)
For DeLuca, the mystery had always been a big part of his attraction to the Leatherman. And the truth, as DeLuca is proud to tell you, is that no one knows who the Leatherman was. Least of all DeLuca. The process of piecing together the man’s life is what he really loves. “I used to collect basketball cards,” DeLuca explains. “And I was always looking for new basketball cards. Now I collect information about the Leatherman.”
That’s why that headstone in Sparta Cemetery was such an affront; it purported to solve the mystery. It declared the Leatherman a known entity. And as DeLuca puts it, “as long as that stone said Jules Bourglay, he would never be declared a mystery.”
In early 2010, the Ossining Historical Society, which maintains the cemetery, announced plans to move Leatherman’s grave. The goal was to relocate the thing away from a busy highway, primarily for reasons of safety. School groups and historical clubs still visit on occasion, to silently pay their respects or leave a few coins; Leatherman always refused money, but according to one story, when people left the occasional penny for him, he’d polish it and place it back where it was found. Doing likewise became a way to honor his memory.
When DeLuca heard about the relocation plan, he saw a chance to get rid of that loathsome stone. He and Norm McDonald, the historical society’s director, saw it as a way to give the Leatherman a measure of added dignity, to move his plot away from the road. They also thought a scientific examination might be able to reveal something more about Leatherman’s identity.
But to the two men’s great surprise, some people didn’t see the idea in such a positive light. The notion of disturbing the Leatherman — so private in his life — struck some as disrespectful. And by the summer of 2010, what might be a minor movement had begun to emerge, in the most modern form. A website: LeaveTheLeathermanAlone.com.
When he first appeared around 1856, the Leatherman was regarded almost anthropologically. People were fascinated with the way he lived: transient at a time when most people remained where they were born; an apparently voluntary ascetic when most embraced the comforts of the modern world.
In 1870, under the headline “A Strange Character,” the Port Chester Journal described one of Leatherman’s caves, located amid a pile of boulders that were “in many places rent in twain by some great convulsion of nature,” with clinical detachment. Poking around the interior, examining the Leatherman’s belongings, the writer noted “several troughs of different lengths and dimensions…used as a receptacle for meat, hides, etc. Two were filled to completion with nauseous looking beef, another contained something which is not usually put down on our ‘bill of fare,’ and the largest contained a cow’s hide immersed in ashes and water to remove the hair preparatory to tanning and which, no doubt, is destined to replenish the dilapidated wardrobe of this eccentric individual.”
Some facts about his background were pieced together, or inferred. On the rare occasions he did speak, to utter a greeting or to ask for alms, it was in broken English with a heavy French accent. He may have worn a rosary at some points, and was known to refuse meat on Fridays. From this people deduced that he was Catholic and French, possibly French Canadian. But that was about it. Mostly in those early years he was a “queer specimen,” a “singular nomad” regarded with amusement more than anything else. Since he ranged so widely, he became rather famous. And people were intrigued.
In 1875, the Connecticut Valley Advertiser might have spoken for the whole of the countryside when it asked, “[W]here does he come from? And where does he go to? And who is he?”
DeLuca first heard about the Leatherman as a teenager growing up in Meriden, Connecticut. The town was on Leatherman’s route, so he was a part of local folklore.
But to a young teenager interested in basketball cards, he was a figure in the background. DeLuca never gave him much thought.
After finishing college at Wilcox Technical School in Meriden, DeLuca, now 67, started his own electrician business. When it faltered, he took a teaching job at his alma mater. It wasn’t until his thirties that he started looking into Leatherman’s background in earnest. Originally it was just a hobby. DeLuca liked history, and so set out to find how much of what he’d heard about the man was true. But he also wanted to know what would drive someone to choose such a life. He started compiling old newspaper accounts and saving them in a box.
In the mid-Eighties, at age 40, DeLuca suffered a serious heart attack. “They gave me three months to live,” he remembers, with some evident pride. That led, eventually, to a heart transplant, which laid him up for months. “After the transplant I couldn’t do much,” DeLuca says. But he’d collected dozens of articles by then, many of which likely hadn’t been seen since they were published.
“I had an advantage over the earlier researchers,” DeLuca admits. They’d had to hunt old paper copies in far-flung archives. It dawned on him that, almost by accident, his casual probing might have uncovered new information. “I started to realize I knew quite a bit about the Leatherman,” he says. So, partly to pass the time as he recovered, he started transcribing the stories he’d compiled. As his health started to improve, the project spiderwebbed: If he saw a name attached to an account of the Leatherman, he sought out that person’s descendants, hoping they had a box in their basement with materials that might be of use. He started going deeper into the archives at historical societies across the state.
There have been a handful of what you might call “major” Leatherman researchers over the years. In the late nineteenth century, Chauncey Hotchkiss spent years cold-mailing people who might have met the Leatherman. Later there was Leroy Foote, who did the same in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1937, Allison Albee wrote probably the first scholarly accounts of the Leatherman, which appeared in the quarterly bulletin of the Westchester County Historical Society. All of them devoted the better part of their adult lives to the research. In 1993, Steve Grant, a writer for the Hartford Courant, re-created the Leatherman’s hike in a thirteen-part series.
For his part, DeLuca’s book sold about 10,000 copies, which is impressive when you consider the relative obscurity of the subject. But his biggest contribution to the Leatherman story, the one of which he’s most proud, actually amounted to a step backward for historians.
The mystery of the Leatherman’s origins and identity swirled for decades, with regular, speculative accounts in the newspapers. Some wondered if he wasn’t a fugitive, or just a crazy person.
Then in 1884, W.A. Sailson, a reporter for the Waterbury Daily American, published an earthshaking story under the headline “The Mystery Solved.”
Citing unnamed sources “which will guarantee for its authenticity,” Sailson unraveled what he purported to be the Leatherman’s long-sought life story: He was a Frenchman called Jules Bourglay, a wool merchant’s son, born in Lyons. He was educated in Paris, where he met and fell for the daughter of a leather merchant named Mssr. Laron. Bourglay requested her hand in marriage, and she accepted, much to the chagrin of her father.
But Laron agreed to take Bourglay into his leather business, offering the young man an opportunity to prove himself worthy of his daughter’s hand. If he failed to manage the firm competently, the story went, Bourglay pledged to leave Paris forever.
“This was in ’57,” Sailson wrote, “the year when [the price of] leather fell 40 per cent.” Caught off guard by economic forces beyond his control, Bourglay speculated, with horrific results: The business failed, Laron threw him out on his ear, and Bourglay spent the next two years confined to a “mad house.” Eventually, Sailson wrote, Bourglay escaped to New York, determined to wander the rest of his days wearing his heavy leather suit as a penance for his “disastrous failings.”
It was a good story. Lost love. A man driven mad (and, ultimately, into a leather suit) by a broken heart. It was a tale that would have resonated with the people of the time. Readers in 1884 were just emerging from what was likely the first-ever worldwide economic collapse, precipitated by the Panic of 1873 — an economic crash that caught many off guard, blindsided, just like Bourglay.
Sailson’s story, then, was a neat explanation for the Leatherman’s eccentricities, and one that left him blameless. He had been tossed about by the same cruel new industrialized order that was also threatening small-scale farmers in Connecticut and Westchester. It was relatable.
It was also utter horseshit. Not a shred of the story checked out, and for good reason: Sailson had invented it all. Early researchers attempted, unsuccessfully, to verify the account, going so far as consulting actual birth records in France.
The Bourglay lie was far from the only time Leatherman had been the subject of fanciful yarns in the local press. There was the account of him in the forest, like some woodland sprite, releasing a squirrel from a hunter’s snare (he was caught and apologized, claiming, in a gentleman’s diction, that he suffered from an overabundance of “what men call sentiment”). There were stories about imagined hoards of gold and riches he kept concealed under a stone somewhere in the woods.
Then there was the account of A.E. Hammer, who, writing in the New Haven Daily Palladium, described stumbling upon a trapdoor deep in the forest. It was Leatherman’s underground lair, essentially a subterranean steampunk mansion: “The carpet was the finest of Persian make,” Hammer wrote. “The furniture was so ornate with carving that every chair was a work of art. A malachite mantle of massive size supported several Venetian vases filled with giant ferns.” It was implausible, to say the least. But Hammer’s story veered into the nonsensical as he recounted meeting the philosopher John Locke, who died more than a century before Leatherman’s time, in 1704. The extremely dead Locke was serving as Leatherman’s butler, having been reanimated with chemical solutions and electrical wires.
It didn’t take much debunking to vaporize that particular story. But it was DeLuca who found the documents to ultimately disprove Sailson’s tale once and for all, and banish the name Bourglay from Leatherman lore. The proof was hidden deep in the papers of a former editor for the Waterbury Daily American, the paper whence the story had sprung: DeLuca found correspondence between Sailson and the editor in which the writer admitted his fabrication.
So DeLuca’s proudest contribution to the literature was not to add a fact, but to delete it. To strip Leatherman of his name. How many historians find their greatest satisfaction in un-answering a question?
Rectifying the Bourglay problem was one of the reasons DeLuca looked forward, in 2010, to the Leatherman’s exhumation. But there was more to the plan than just that.
In early 2011, McDonald, the director of the Ossining Historical Society, had enlisted the help of Nicolas Bellantoni, then Connecticut’s state archaeologist, with the more technical aspects of the project. Aside from just moving the gravesite out of harm’s way, Bellantoni thought there might be value in performing a more rigorous excavation. If they could find a bit of bone or a tooth, he thought, they might be able to extract DNA. And that could tell them a lot.
Bellantoni had known about the Leatherman since he was young, and had worked with DeLuca before. In the mid-2000s the two had excavated one of the Leatherman’s caves in the northern part of the state.
“To me it was just a great history mystery,” says Bellantoni, who is at once cheerful and intense, with something of the air of a schoolteacher. “His bones aren’t going to give us his name. But they might help us overcome some of the folklore, some of the innuendos that were being said about him.” Was Leatherman French, as had long been suggested? Or French Canadian? Testing could actually shed some light on some of this. What kind of wear would one expect to see on his vertebrae, or the bones of his feet, after the life he led? Leatherman’s grave could hold the answers to many questions.
The sometimes fanciful stories told about Leatherman might have served a kind of anthropological purpose. As Andrea Tucher, an expert on early news media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, points out, local newspapers at the time existed not just to inform, but as a way of establishing a sense of community and belonging. In the case of the Leatherman, the stories might have bolstered the idea that the towns he passed through were filled with generous, kindly types, tolerant of the stranger in their midst.
Some of the more extravagant accounts might have had a similar community-building agenda. The underground-mansion story, for example, was probably not meant to be believed. Local readers would easily see through it, while non-locals, those not in the know, might not. It was a way of privately laughing at outsiders, Tucher says.
The fascination with Leatherman, then, might have reflected a kind of local pride. Leatherman was an eccentric, to be sure, but to the townsfolk along his route, he was their eccentric. There are accounts of schoolhouses letting out early when he passed through on “Leather Man Day,” a phrase that appears, capitalized, in several published accounts. Children would gather to wave or call out to him, gestures he generally did not acknowledge, except maybe with a smile.
In later years, writers sometimes used affectionate nicknames for him, noting that “Old Leathery” or “his Leathership” had passed through town on his regular rounds.
In April of 1887, near Forestville, Connecticut, Leatherman was accosted by a couple of locals. He was probably in his sixties by then, and it did not go over well with the villagers, who had grown protective of their beloved stranger.
The earliest reports of the incident were spotty: Two local men of “doubtful reputations,” Daniel Nash and Patsey Troy, very much “in liquor,” had caught the old man plodding down the road. The Waterbury Daily American recorded what happened next:
“Troy and Nash approached and the three remained there some ten minutes. During this time, some boys say, the old man was crying and his tormenters were trying to make him take off his hat and cross himself, which he refused to do. They offered him a bottle of liquor, but he would not receive it till they had first tasted it.”
The papers called it an assault, but there was no violence recorded: just an attempt to make Leatherman drink and take food. It was a testament to how much people had come to respect, in a way, the man’s peculiar dignity. Several articles warned that if the story of the assault were true, the Leatherman might never return to Forestville.
No one place owned him, but they all wanted to.
There wasn’t enough evidence for action against Troy and Nash. But the Daily American seethed. “Ill fares the pusillanimous rascal,” it wrote, “who dares harm him and is proven guilty.”
Today in Westchester County or western Connecticut, any cave — any chink in a cliff wall or boulder pile big enough to crouch inside — is likely to be labeled a Leatherman cave. Most of them are not. He could only stay in a finite number of places, even if it seems like he was everywhere at once. But it’s just another part of the legend that has grown with him.
But quite a few of Leatherman’s dwellings are known, from historical and newspaper accounts, divined with the help of sometimes detailed visual descriptions and cross-referenced with old, yellowed deeds.
One of them sits on the southwestern edge of Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, a public park about an hour outside of the city in Pound Ridge, New York. It’s located across a clear, sandy-bottomed creek, about 300 feet up a ridge, marked with a sign reading “Leatherman’s Cave.”
It’s really just a heap of boulders, huge ones, the size of U-Haul trucks. Like most of the places Leatherman is believed to have stayed during his rounds, it’s not a true cave — those are formed over millennia by water boring through limestone bedrock. This particular formation is known as a talus cave, which occur in the boulder fields that are found on almost every hillside here. At the end of the last Ice Age, unfathomable tons of stone were sheared off the surrounding cliffs by the leading edge of the Wisconsin Glacier. Here and there, the boulders have fallen just so, leaving an empty space between them. Technically, they sit above ground but are deep enough that, once inside, you can feel cold air pushing out.
The rock here is Fordham gneiss, a hard, pinkish, black-and-white banded metamorphic variety that makes up the deepest layer of the strata under Westchester, into Connecticut, and all the way down to the Bronx. Jim Carroll, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, jumped off Fordham gneiss (pronounced like “niece”) into the Harlem River in a scene from the film The Basketball Diaries.
The Pound Ridge cave is among the more substantial ones Leatherman used. It’s mostly dry and big enough to stand inside. But many of his dwellings weren’t even talus caves. Rather, they were simply large stones that were angled sufficiently to make a suitable roof. Leatherman would construct a lean-to of timber and hunker in, building a fire he’d allow to flame on just long enough to heat the stone. He’d construct a bed of soft, aromatic hemlock branches and pass the night that way, with heat radiating off the stone.
On a recent cool, clear April day, the cave and its surrounding area was deserted, although the loop that takes hikers up and over the hill is “by far” the most popular trail in the park, according to a docent at the trailside museum. It was dead silent; surrounding cliffs insulate it from the sounds of traffic not too far away. A small pile of firewood sat just inside the cave entrance, alongside a generous heap of cinders from a recent fire. Scattered on the ground were a lost gray woolen glove and the wrapper from a fruit punch Jolly Rancher. Someone named “Meg” had scratched her name into the rock.
The landscape, today, is nothing but second-growth forest: sugar maples with slick gray bark, craggy oaks, and a few gnarled white pines. Almost none of them is more than ten or twelve inches thick. Things would have looked much different in Leatherman’s time. In the 1880s, the surrounding land was checkered with cornfields and sodden, rough-hewn dairy pastures. It’s strange to think that the land is wilder now than it was back then, but there’s about twice as much tree cover in New England today as there was a century ago.
And while the farmland has been reclaimed by the forest, it isn’t hard to imagine the view Leatherman would have enjoyed back then; even now the woods are stitched through with perfectly intact stone walls, the boundaries of cornfields and pastures a hundred years gone. Today it would seem, just by looking around, that Leatherman was living in the woods. But in many cases his camps would have been just beyond the edge of agricultural land — the Pound Ridge cave included.
Still, this likely would have been an isolated place in the late 1800s. The cave sits in a narrow valley, between cliffs that rise 50 or so feet on either side. One must walk to within 100 yards before it’s even visible.
Leatherman was frequently described in newspaper accounts as intelligent. His eyes would light up as if he understood what people said to him; he simply chose not to respond. Recently some researchers have posited the idea that Leatherman may have fallen somewhere along the autism spectrum. They cite as evidence his obvious discomfort around people, his rigid adherence to a schedule, his meticulous craftsmanship.
He always kept a store of firewood, and always scraped out the pit when he left, so that the place was ready to go when he made his return trip. Most of the accounts have him traveling through town fairly early, before noon, so he must have arrived at his campsites well before dark.
Even when farmland stretched all around, the cliffs would have kept Leatherman hidden as he sat and smoked his hand-crafted pipes filled with discarded cigar ends. Leatherman was frequently spotted in town picking up the chewed-on tips and stuffing them in a pouch he carried on his waist. Smoking was, apparently, his only vice.
It must have been a lonely life.
The first mention of the cancer that would eventually kill the Leatherman seems to have come in 1886. At first, observers assumed he had frostbite on the left side of his jaw. As the disease progressed, questions about his health became a regular feature in news coverage — but there was nothing anyone could do. He wouldn’t sit still for a meal — what were the chances he’d accept the scrutiny of a doctor?
By the winter of 1888, and especially after the historic blizzard that year, during which Leatherman disappeared for several days and was feared dead, concerns about his well-being became more paternalistic. Editors started calling for his capture so he could be treated. The local Humane Society determined that he could no longer care for himself. A warrant was issued for his arrest.
In December of that year, Humane Society agent Richard DeZeng, a tall, burly man pictured in DeLuca’s book with a stout white beard and a slender cane, caught up with Leatherman in Staddle Hill (now Middletown), Connecticut. He was gathered up, apparently willingly at first, and bundled into a carriage bound for Hartford Hospital. At one point during the trip, which spans about 30 miles, he “endeavored to escape,” possibly using his own cane as a weapon. But he was “quieted,” and the party made it to the hospital.
The staff was instructed to watch him closely, and to take his suit from him. He escaped “only a few minutes” after his captors left, however, and was back on the road.
For the remainder of his life, stories of the Leatherman would dwell on his illness. An open sore now covered much of his face, and had produced a “cavity in his neck.” He seemed to be moving unsteadily, and he failed to keep his strict schedule. For the first time anyone could remember, he entered a home and took a slow, painful meal. By that time he could “only eat food soaked in coffee, and it hurts him so that tears run down his cheeks.”
A report in the Bristol Herald, on February 21, 1889, lamented that he refused to stay in “any civilized situation” — “he breaks away and tramps off for the woods and ledges, be these far or near…death will be his only release and it is probably not far off.”
A month after that article was written, a man named Henry Miller took his wife, whose name is not recorded, to see Leatherman’s hut, in the woods a few miles north of present-day Ossining. The couple found him dead. He’d probably been there several days at least, and his body was swollen with decay. The coroner performed an investigation and determined what everyone already knew: The cancer had killed him. He was five foot seven and a hundred and sixty pounds at the time of his death.
Leatherman’s suit was sold to the Eden Musée in the Bowery shortly after his death, where an exhibit portrayed him as a crazed murderer. Back in Ossining, his body was put on display, and hundreds of people showed up to view it. He was buried, at the town’s expense, in an unmarked grave.
In 2010, Don Johnson, a middle school teacher in North Haven, Connecticut, went to see DeLuca talk about the Leatherman at the public library in Meriden. By then the exhumation plans were well under way.
When DeLuca mentioned the prospect of performing DNA tests on Leatherman’s remains, Johnson remembers, “my whole face just went flush.”
Johnson grew up in North Haven, and he remembers reading about the Leatherman in Yankee Magazine when he was ten years old. He’d always been captivated by the mystery, and thought it would be a terrible invasion of the old man’s privacy to wrest his secrets from the grave.
Johnson recalls: “I turned to my friend, who I’d dragged along with me, and joked that if they ever did dig him up, we should start a movement to leave the Leatherman alone.”
A few months later Johnson read an article that said the plan was moving forward.
“I kinda went crazy,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘I can’t believe they’re actually doing this.’ For 30 years, he had gone to incredible lengths to keep to himself. And you would think, when you’re dead, you wouldn’t have to worry any more.”
That fall Johnson registered the URL leavetheleathermanalone.com, and wrote an impassioned plea on the homepage. He attracted quite a few supporters and, most important for him, the site’s comment section became a place for people to share their own thoughts about Leatherman, and the family stories that had been passed down through the generations. Johnson attracted some media attention with the campaign. He also spoke with Bellantoni and DeLuca, both of whom now say they welcomed the controversy. “I thought it was really fabulous,” Bellantoni says. “People really cared about this guy. Any time you’re dealing with human remains, these are emotional issues, these are emotional things.”
DeLuca says he sympathized with some of Johnson’s points. He also saw the debate as a way to keep the Leatherman story alive. “You know, they say all publicity is good publicity,” DeLuca says. “And what happened was, all of a sudden, the newspapers were writing about the Leatherman again.” For DeLuca, he hoped the controversy would just spur more research, more curiosity. That someone else would take up the cause.
Despite the outcry from Johnson’s group, Bellantoni went to Ossining to scout the exhumation site in the winter of 2010, and started putting together a pretty ambitious plan. There would be heavy machinery, ground-penetrating sonar, all the trappings of a state-of-the-art archaeological dig.
As the day got closer, Johnson and his supporters got more and more worried. Thousands of people had signed a petition on the website by then, demanding that Leatherman remain undisturbed. “At a certain point,” he remembers, “I had some people who were pretty militant about it. They were talking about going and laying down in front of the bulldozers.” He laughs. “I wasn’t going to go that far with it, but people were really passionate.”
In May of 2011, the New York Times sent a reporter to Ossining to cover the exhumation. Ditto NPR, NBC, ABC, the Associated Press. You name it. And you know what they found?
Nothing. No bones, no casket. No answers. Just a few rusted coffin nails. Leatherman was gone.
Bellantoni thinks the most likely explanation is found in the area’s unusually acidic soil, which aided decomposition. He’s successfully excavated older graves, he says. But with Leatherman, there was simply nothing left.
Finding nothing, the crew took some earth from the gravesite and symbolically reburied it, in a custom-built casket designed to match the style used in Leatherman’s day.
Johnson was relieved. “He kind of had the last laugh,” he says. “I felt like if he had walked by me at that moment, he would have given me a little wink.”
DeLuca is ambivalent about the failed disinterment. He would have liked to see those test results. But they did get rid of that Bourglay headstone, and he’s very glad about that.
The new marker isn’t a headstone at all, just a weather-polished granite boulder. A plaque affixed to it says, simply, “The Leatherman.” There are no dates. Other than that sobriquet, there is no name.
On a warm afternoon in early June, about $5 in coins and a rosary were resting on top of the stone.
Jon Campbell is a staff writer for the Voice, covering criminal justice, legal issues, and the occasional mutant park squirrel.