Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Old Leather Man (again)

This photo shows the Old Leather Man seated outside a house in Middlefield, Connecticut. It was taken sometime between 1869 and 1889.

{Caption: The Leather Man sits to eat in Middlefield in this undated photo. Researchers are planning to dig up the Leather Man's grave next year in an attempt to determine his identity. Source: The Republican-American newspaper of Waterbury, CT[1]}

About a year ago I wrote a post about him.[2] Since then a controversy has arisen over plans to exhume his remains, perform some scientific tests, and rebury them in a new location. Last December a writer named Phil Reisman gave a succinct account of these plans on the LoHud news blog — Exhuming the Old Leatherman. The comments section of this post contains the beginnings of a debate between those who support and who oppose the project. During the past couple of months local reporters have picked up on the story and comments lists have grown. See for example see Briarcliff’s Mysterious and Legendary Leatherman by Kathleen Reilly on the Pleasantville-Briarcliff Manor, NY, Patch network blog, The Footsteps of the Leatherman by Mike Paoletto on the Trumbull, CT, Patch network blog, and Digging up the Leather Man's story in Conn., an Associated Press report.

The Ossining Historical Society owns the cemetery but its web pages contain nothing on the subject.[4] A set of pages called Leave the Leatherman Alone are distinctly polemical but nonetheless full of interesting details, including a copy of the OHS petition to the NY supreme court system and other court documents. The petition says the OHS Museum would like to remove the body, conduct "forensic and genetic testing" for purposes of "public education on historical and genealogical matters," and rebury of remains in another part of the cemetery. The "Leave the Leatherman Alone" site currently has a polite Letter To The Ossining Historical Society as its top posting. Along with most people who have spoken out on the subject, the writer of the letter, Don Johnson, says that it would be better not to exhume the remains at all, but if they are to be relocated, there should be no tampering with them. The Leather Man wanted privacy during his life and there is no good reason to subject his body to invasive study now or ever.

Newsmen Steve Frank, Ray Bendici, and others connected with a site called Damned Connecticut have followed the controversy and prepared a series of useful blog posts about it, including an Interview with Don Johnson and some helpful photos. The photos include this one, which shows the current location of the grave and its marker. As you can see, a cemetery access road currently runs over part of the grave. The road that passes close by is a busy one which is, reportedly, to be widened at some future date. These, plus the quantity of visitors to the grave (including --- by OHS permission -- geocachers), and the fact that the current location is in a "paupers'" area, are the reasons given for moving the remains to another location in the cemetery.

{source: Damned Connecticut[4]}

A few days ago a man named Stephen Griswold alerted me to the OHS plans and the concerns that many are raising about them. He summarized the objections that have been submitted and raised some questions about OHS motives. He asked why, for example, the OHS wants to exhume and rebury these remains and not others that are to be affected by road-widening. He also said the person who runs the OHS Facebook page has been deleting comments that raise questions about the project or show opposition to it. (Note that the FB page does now have comments from April 11 and 12 which are critical of the OHS plans.)


Some recent sources:

Leather Man, century-old hermit, to be exhumed David Pescovitz on BoingBoing Friday, Mar 4, 2011

Leatherman Series on

Who was the Leather Man? Experts hope forensic tests will solve mystery by Sam Cooper, Republican-American, Waterbury, CT, November 29, 2010,

A few of many (many) accounts in 19th- and 20th-century newspapers:

Story of the Leather Man, by Fred C. Warner, Putnam County Courier, Carmel, NY, Jan. 19, 1961

'Old Leather Man' Still Remains Enigma by Ray Barnett, The Herald Statesman, Yonkers, NY, March 5, 1937; subhead: Newspaper Clippings and Photograph Owned by Mt. Vernon Woman Prove His Existence, But Search by Historians Fail to Reveal Identity

Is It The Same Leather Man?; A Silent and Patched Wanderer who Carries an English Bible and is Never Ill, The Sun, November 12, 1883

The Old Leather Man Arrested, The Recorder, Mt. Kisco, NY, December 7, 1888. Excerpt: "Chief of Police Chapman of Middletown, Conn., new New Haven, arrested the "Old Leather Man" last Friday and put him in the insane asylum. He escaped on Sunday, however, and stated for New Haven. He was last seen going toward a cave which h has frequented, between Middletown and Higganum. Only last week he passed through New Castle Corners, on his usual trip east."

THE OLD "LEATHER MAN" DEAD, New York Times, March 25, 1889. Excerpt: "The queer old hermit who has been known throughout this State for some years as the "Leather Man," from his unique apparel. Which was made of skins, was found dead in his cave on the George Dell farm in Mount Pleasant, near Sing Sing, yesterday."


Here is a copy of this NYT article.

This satellite image shows the location of Sparta Cemetery. The Old Leather Man's grave is in the south-east quadrant, invisible beneath the leafed-out trees.

View Larger Map



I prepared my original Leather Man post as part of series on the old Croton Aqueduct, which runs close by Sparta Cemetery. To see these posts, click the tag "Croton Aqueduct" in the list headed "Labels" at right. I'd begun looking into the aqueduct while tracking some family history. One of my great-uncles worked for the engineering firm that contracted to build it. Also, I'd been exploring some family-history connections in the Five Points neighborhood. That had been the site of a lake that previously supplied a lot of New York's water and it was near the terminus of the Aqueduct in New York's City Hall Park. Click the tags "family history" and "Five Points" to see these posts.



[1] Rep-Am copyrights its pages, but the photo is 19th century and thus presuably in the public domain; at any rate I'm reproducing it under fair use provisions of copyright law with linkback to the source page.

[2] He was generally called the Old Leather Man during the 19th- and 20th-centuries. For the most part he's been called simply Leatherman since then.

[3] There's also an Ossining Historical Society page on Facebook. The OHS person who moderates that page has replied to a couple of recent comments requesting that OHS not carry out forensic testing. The first says that the information given on the headstone is inaccurate and needs to be corrected (there is no disagreement about this) and the second says "To tell you the truth, since he was buried in a paupers style grave (we still have the receipt) there may not be anything left to dig up but the earth itself." However, in response to an earlier question, the OHS person seems to be much more optimistic about examining the remains: "We are very excited to have Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni, State Archaeologist with the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and Archaeology Center at the University of Connecticut. Stay tuned for more info."

[4] I'm reproducing this copyrighted photo under fair use provisions of copyright law with linkback to the source page.

1 comment:

Don said...

Thanks for the in-depth update. The links at the end to the other news articles are the type of research I support, and I believe are the best and most respectful way to further the historical record. One note about the road widening project - the NY state DOT has confirmed that there are currently no plans to widen Route 9. It is conceivable that someday it may be widened, but then there would be other remains affected by that decision. It also appears that the actual date of the exhumation will soon be made public, and that is a departure from their original plans. Not the departure I have been hoping for though, as I still think it would be most appropriate to forego the DNA portion of the testing.