Saturday, May 15, 2010

leather man

My mother believed in early childhood education. When I was three she sent me off to a preschool down by the river in Scarborough. Weekday mornings for much of a year, she packed me into a taxi for the 2.5 mile ride. I have some recollection of the taxi ride and the building which was its destination but mostly I recall my emotional reaction: confusion, fear, and a grave mistrust of this new environment and its inhabitants. I don't remember that I eventually settled in and learned to accept much less enjoy myself there. She tried a different preschool when I was four, of which I have better memories.

I did not know then and in fact — all these years — have not known until now that this first school close to the old Croton Aqueduct as well as one of the region's oldest landmarks, the Sparta Cemetery. The blue squares on this map show where we lived (home), the Scarborough preschool, and the Sparta graveyard. The green line shows the path of the aqueduct.

The cemetery came into being a year or so after 1763. It was consecrated by the Scarborough Presbyterian Church whose building is not far away and it contains the remains of original settlers and many veterans of the Revolutionary war. There's a hole in one of the headstones and an old marker said to have been made in 1780 by an errant shot from a British ship that was bombarding the village of Sparta as it passed up the Hudson.

The most famous grave is that of a 19th-century vagabond, an eccentric and harmless creature whom everyone called the Leather Man. He showed up just before the Civil War dressed in crudely-sewn pieces of leather head-to-toe in leather. For the next 30 years he tramped a circuit through Westchester and Fairfield counties in New York and Connecticut. He took the same route from Scarborough and Briarcliff north and east to Mt. Kisco and across the state line to Danbury, then on to through Watertown to Middletown, then south down along the Connecticut River before turning west along the Connecticut coast to New Caanan, then back north into Westchester.

He spoke no more than monosyllables like eat and yes and he would never stay inside, but would be outdoors in all seasons, reportedly sleeping in caves and improvised shelters at nightfall. He carried no pack, but only a walking staff and leather satchel. He accepted donations of food at houses and farmsteads but did no chores in return and neither asked for nor received any money. His schedule was punctual. People would report Leather Man sightings to the local newspapers and would remark whether he was a day early or late.*

This map shows his route.


Here are a couple of photos of him.

{The Old Leather Man in 1888, by F. W. Moore, enhanced by H.N. Gale}

{The Old Leather Man, by James F. Rodgers, 1887, taken at the Bradley Chidsy House, Branford, CT}

There are other photos of him and his environment at a site called HISTORICAL PHOTOS OF THE LEATHERMAN (from which the above photos come).

A great deal has been written about the Leather Man, much of it wishful thinking. The most durable legend maintained that he was a Frenchman named Jules Bourglay who became heartbroken, having been disappointed in love, and emigrated to America. The story, which has no basis in fact, is given in full here. It is true that he was harmless. When harshly treated, he would afterward simply avoid the place of occurrence. He was said not to accept money, but he somehow did acquire funds enough to buy himself tobacco and some other items that he couldn't count on being given. It was tobacco that caused his death from cancer of the mouth. He was treated kindly by many farmwives and seemed to enjoy being around children. When brought to a hospital when suffering from frostbite during an especially bitter winter, he departed as soon as he could.


Some links:
Leatherman, wikipedia article

Old Leather Man, a compilation of facts and lore

Legend of the Old Leatherman on

The Legend of The Leatherman on

The Leather Man on

Legend in Leather in Hudson Valley Magazine

Sparta Cemetery and The Leather Man on

The Old Leatherman on

The Leather Man's Keeper from Yankee Magazine

The old leather man: historical accounts of a Connecticut and New York legend by Dan DeLuca with Dionne Longley (Wesleyan University Press, 2008)

* A search of old newspaper articles turns up many more than 500 accounts in local papers about the Leather Man, most of them about sightings.

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