- The Story of the Leatherman
By Trailside Nature Museum staff
- One of the most interesting pieces of Westchester County
folklore is the legend of the Leatherman. The true story of the
Leatherman is still shrouded in mystery and controversy. However,
even though we may never know the full story of this real person,
numerous anecdotes and facts have been collected over the years,
and new stories about him are still emerging now, having been
kept as part of oral history by various families within his territory.
Though not purporting to be a full documentation of his life,
this leaflet may clear up some of the questions that a visitor
to Ward Pound Ridge Reservation may have about the Leatherman.
- In and around the time of the Civil War, around 1860, there
were harmless and itinerant wanderers roaming the countryside,
usually looking for work on various farms or perhaps a meal or
a place in the barn for the night. During this period there appeared
in the area of eastern Connecticut and Westchester and Putnam
County, New York, a wandering hermit who was not to be forgotten.
He came to the doors of farm kitchens, presenting a striking
appearance with his home-made leather outfit, asking for neither
work nor lodging but making it clear that he would accept a meal.
He did not speak but seemed to mumble incomprehensibly, and made
an impression on those who were generous to him by returning
regularly every month or so for another visit, and he kept these
regular visits up all the year round to certain farmsteads, in
some cases for 25 years or more.
- Gradually, through research of reporters and word of mouth,
it became clear that this strangely attired figure, who kept
his inner world to himself, was indeed covering a large area
of territory in his wanderings; completing a regular circuit
in Connecticut that covered the route from north of Danbury toward
Waterbury and then following towns along the Connecticut River
to Long Island Sound, and then starting west with a large detour
round New Haven and Bridgeport as far as Norwalk, where he headed
toward New York State by way of New Canaan and Wilton. Thus,
it appears that in between this Connecticut circuit he would
visit Westchester and Putnam Counties, visiting such towns as
Purdy's, Kensico Village, South Salem, Croton Falls, Yorktown,
Shrub Oak, Bedford Hills, and Briarcliff, though it appears that
occasionally he continued his Long Island Sound route, visiting
such towns as Greenwich, Rye, and Mamaroneck in a more southerly
entry into the county. One estimate of his full journey was that
his route covered approximately 365 miles and took him over a
month to do, including about 240 miles through Connecticut and125
miles through New York. The Leatherman's timetable was set up
so that he arrived in a separate locality each day, and his timing
was so exact that housewives along his path "could set their
clocks by him."
- There are several features of the Leatherman's life and appearance
that give us a deeper understanding of his identity and personality.
These were: his preoccupation with leather, his hermitlike existence
in local caves, his craving for tobacco, and his remarkable appetite.
- It is clear that that Leatherman was obsessed with leather.
He would visit harness shops and accept donations of leather
scraps which he sewed together himself into his outlandish outfit.
His clothing consisted of a leather hat with visor, a pair of
trousers which went well up to his chest, held by suspenders,
a leather greatcoat which extended just over the knees, and a
pair of wooden-soled shoes with leather tops. He also had a bag
of leather and carried a cane. In the winter months he wore a
scarf under his coat. His costume, weighting a mere sixty pounds,
presented a patchwork effect and the leather lacing was rather
crude in its workmanship. They say that one could hear the leather
creak as he walked by and there were also some that said you
could smell the Leatherman coming! Of particular interest to
our story is the Leatherman's footwear. The clogs that he made
closely resemble a type of wooden and leather sabots worn by
the peasants of northern France and Belgium.
- The Leatherman seemed to prefer keeping to himself, living
alone in caves or rock shelters that he discovered along his
route at regular intervals. He kept his caves very neat with
a pine bough or leaf bed, with a fresh supply of wood always
stacked up for his next visit. He did not hunt or fish to anyone's
knowledge, and his interest in caves seems to be part of his
withdrawn behavior. Some of the more well-known caves that he
used in Westchester include Bull's Hill Cave in Bedford Hills,
behind the Mobil station; Helicker's Cave in Armonk, just behind
the bowling alley; and the Leatherman's Cave here at Ward Pound
Ridge Reservation near Honey Hollow Road.
- The Leatherman smoked a pipe and enjoyed his tobacco. He
picked up cigar butts along his way and gratefully accepted offerings
of fresh tobacco or cigars that townsfolk would press into his
hand as he walked silently through their villages. Perhaps due
to his constant smoking, toward the end of his life he developed
a severe lip cancer which ate away the side of his cheek, apparently
causing him much discomfort, and possibly being one of the main
causes of his death.
- The Leatherman's appetite was remarkable. He was known to
eat whole loaves of bread and boxes of crackers all at one sitting,
and loved his coffee which is the only food that he cooked for
himself at his camp sites. Several families mentioned that they
so looked forward to the regular visits of the Leatherman that
the wives baked especially for his arrival, sometimes even giving
him an extra loaf which he would put in his bag.
- Another important feature of the Leatherman's personality
worth mentioning is that he never harmed a soul, and under his
rather terrifying appearance was a harmless and gentle person.
He is known to have lost his temper only a few times, shaking
his cane and shouting at children who pelted him with rocks -
an understandable response.
- What was it that drove this man on his lonely itinerary and
why was he so obsessed with leather? The answer to those questions
may never be known, but a story did appear in newspapers of the
time that purported to be the true revelation of his identity,
though this story has never been verified. It relates that the
Leatherman was a Frenchman known as Jules Bourglay of the city
of Lyon. When younger, he had a promising career in a leather
factory and was engaged to the factory owner's daughter. Due
to a severe oversight on his part, he either accidentally tipped
over a lantern late one night and burnt the factory down, or
another version says that he made a serious error in the accounts
which he kept, causing a big loss to the business. The story
says he lost his job and was disowned by his fiancée's
father, and having lost all hope in life, he took a packet boat
to America and became the Leatherman, doing penance for the rest
of his life and following his existence of torturous isolation
and self-imposed physical hardship.
- The Leatherman survived the blizzard of 1888 but at the end
of the winter of 1889 he was found dead in his cave on the Dell
farm in Briarcliff. Because he was such a well-known personality,
a coroner's inquest was held, during which some interesting facts
were brought to light that give a clue to his identity. The Leatherman's
bag was examined at this inquest and was found to contain leather
working equipment such as scissors and awls, wedges, and a small
axe, an extra axe head, and other equipment that made the sack
unusually heavy, considering that the Leatherman carried this
burden as he walked. Of much interest is the fact that the bag
contained a small prayer book which was in French. This piece
of information combined with the French-style footwear may allow
us to conclude that the Leatherman may well have been a Frenchman.
The Leatherman is buried in Sparta Cemetery in Ossining, New
York. The headstone, identifying him as "Jules Bourglay
of Lyons, France", was placed on his grave by local historical
societies in 1953.
- Excavations were conducted in the Leatherman's Cave here
on the Reservation, and though no diagnostic artifacts were found
that directly related to the Leatherman, the soil yielded a large
quantity of grease that had penetrated quite deep into the cave
floor, which was perhaps a vestige of the Leatherman's activities