Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Exhuming a Local Legend?

Today, the local CBS affiliate ran a story about a local controversy, the proposed exhumation of local legend, the Leatherman- no, not the one you were thinking of!

The Leatherman was a traveling man who wandered a 365 mile circuit (bounded on the west by the Hudson river, on the east by the Connecticut River) which he typically completed every 34 days. While he was a taciturn, solitary man, he accepted handouts of food and tobacco from individuals along his route. He typically took shelter in caves (I've been in the one at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, and I always get goosebumps contemplating the smoke-darkened rock walls, and thinking "Somebody lived here).

The Leatherman wore an eccentric wardrobe pieced together from scraps of leather, the ensemble weighing approximately sixty pounds. The identity of the Leatherman was never known, but he was thought to be French, having a French prayer book in his possession at the time of his death. The most popular legend, purely based on speculation, was that he was Jules Bourglay of Lyons, a man who had married a girl above his class, the daughter of a prosperous leather merchant. This legend avers that he bought a stock of leather on speculation right before the price plummeted due to a new manufacturing process, and ruined his father-in-law's business. Disowned by his in-laws, Bourglay was supposed to have sailed to America, and began his solitary, penitent itinerary.

While a spectacular story of financial ruination, lost love, and remorseful rambling makes for a great legend, the truth behind the Leatherman's identity is not known, even though the plaque on his grave in Ossining's Sparta Cemetery bears the name Jules Bourglay.

The plans to exhume his body from the pauper's grave and run some forensic tests on his remains before reburying him in a more suitable spot have, understandably, met with opposition. I am of the opinion that any attempt to increase our knowledge about this fascinating local legend is worthwhile, and trust that the archaeologists who will handle the exhumation will handle the mortal remains in as dignified a matter as possible. I understand the romantic impulse which inspires those who wish to have the Leatherman left alone, but I confess to being a hardnose about these issues.

The most famous picture of the Leatherman gives a nice, detailed view of his eccentric raiment:


Vonnie said...

Wow. THis is fascinating.
I love local lore.

vacuumslayer said...

I find this ensemble a little steampunky. I approve!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I love local lore.

Like I said, I get goosebumps going into the guy's cave- the evidence that someone was living there off and on for years is really amazing!

I find this ensemble a little steampunky. I approve!


Smut Clyde said...

TOMB, n. The House of Indifference. Tombs are now by common consent invested with a certain sanctity, but when they have been long tenanted it is considered no sin to break them open and rifle them, the famous Egyptologist, Dr. Huggyns, explaining that a tomb may be innocently "glened" as soon as its occupant is done "smellunge", the soul being then all exhaled. This reasonable view is now generally accepted by archaeologists, whereby the noble science of Curiosity has been greatly dignified.

M. Bouffant said...

Some of the more well-known caves that he used in Westchester include Bull's Hill Cave in Bedford Hills, behind the Mobil station

You think they let him wash up in the men's room?

Anonymous said...

He doesn't look like a multi-tool.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I loved his top ten lists.

Dragon-King Wangchuck said...

I'm glad that, despite covering his entire body in leather, he didn't have a leather face.

Anonymous said...

Other than to satisfy ones curiousity (about a man who chose to live a life of solitude, what societal contributions could possibly be made from this exhumation?? I say leave him alone!

Don said...

The romantic impulses and emotional attachments are being used by the people digging him up too. They say they want to give him "the dignity he deserves", and a "proper Christian burial", even though in the court documents, they state they are not aware he had any spiritual beliefs. There is much more going on here, The History Channel is interested, and in CT papers, there was an insinuation that a widening project was imminent on RT 9, so many graves including his had to be moved. Not true.
He's not Ramses the Great, or Lee Harvey Oswald, he's just a regular guy with an unusual lifestyle. Is that enough criteria for a stranger to dig another stranger up these days? I have no doubt it would be done professionally, my issue is with the fact that it is even being done. I started the Leave the Leatherman Alone website (Thanks for Linking) to inform the public about the Leatherman, and the project, and as an open forum for either side to give their opinions. I would enjoy hearing why you are "hardnosed" about this issue? -Don

chrom said...

I think it's interesting that human beings come up with ideas to validate their actions- "the soul is gone"-- funny. Isn't it widely known that many Egyptologists who disturbed graves were met with misfortune and curses?

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

I'm glad that, despite covering his entire body in leather, he didn't have a leather face.

...or a chainsaw.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Thanks for leaving a comment, Don. As you can probably infer from scanning my past posts, I am very much interested in the "hard" sciences, so any attempts to bolster the folk history concerning the Leatherman with physical anthropological study is of interest to me. To be able to place the Leatherman in greater context as a member of the human family is, to me, a worthwhile pursuit.

It is precisely the fact that he wasn't Ramses the Great or Lee Harvey Oswald that piques my interest- scholarship that sheds light on the lives of common (in this case, an uncommon commoner) individuals has often been neglected. I am not a particularly sentimental person, being "hard-nosed" (and risking coming across as "hard-hearted"), I feel the interests of scholars outweigh any ethical qualms that I would have about exuming the remains. The excavation of the African cemetery in Manhattan raised similar ethical concerns, and then, as now, I throw my lot in with the anthropologists and archaeologists.

Thanks for weighing in here, Don. I look forward to following the debate (although I have said my piece, so I'll keep to the sidelines moving forward). Finally, the debate is raising awareness of the Leatherman's life, which is certainly worthwhile.