Bigfoot Encounters

Leatherman saga remains intriguing

(Original publication: September 19, 2004)

For no good reason other than abiding curiosity about local folklore and the nature of eccentricity, I had always wanted to visit the fabled Leatherman's Cave at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, Westchester County, New York.

So one day last week, I conquered my procrastination and set out for the 4,700-acre nature preserve which is Westchester's largest public park and a lovely, tranquil vestige of its rural past.

There I met Taro Ietaka, a 31-year-old assistant curator at the Trailside Museum, who guided me to a short, slippery path off Honey Hollow Road where there are thick stands of trees, a jumble of glacial rock and remnants of old stone walls that must have been intact when the Leatherman roamed the Earth. Quickly, we came to an opening at the base of a 660-foot cliff called "the overlook."

This was it — the cramped lair where the mysterious vagabond made his bed and fire. The Leatherman died 115 years ago and his remains lay buried at Ossining's Sparta Cemetery, but stooping in the darkness of the cave and taking in the silence of the surroundings, I had a nagging feeling I was invading the old hermit's privacy and imagined that he would suddenly emerge and grunt his displeasure.

Many probably know the basics of the Leatherman story — that he was a harmless soul, who wore a bizarre outfit entirely made of stitched-together patches of leather and that he circuitously wandered the countryside accepting food from charitable farmers. He never took off the 60-pound suit, even in the sweltering months of summer. It was said that people could hear him coming because of the creaking of the dry, cracked leather. But he must have had a powerful aroma that announced his presence as well.

Taro Ietaka said the Leatherman was known to bathe in streams without taking off his signature garment "and because he didn't wear any underclothes, the wet leather must have chafed him like a medieval penitence."

Remarkably, he kept to a strict itinerary. From about 1860 to 1889, his route was a 365-mile loop that he covered on foot through the country towns and hamlets of western Connecticut, Putnam County and the northern reaches of Westchester County, New York.

Almost unfailingly, he completed the circuit in 34 days, a kind of unofficial hobo record that he may have veered from only when the Blizzard of '88 delayed him by four days. The farmers' wives could set their clocks by him, they used to say.

For the Leatherman was in sync with the natural rhythms of the sun and moon — and it occurred to me that it's probably because the summer is about to give way to autumn that my thoughts turned to him in the first place. His lonely orbit was as reliable as the Earth's path through time and space.

In an age before mental illness was fully understood, people were fascinated by him as if he were a passing comet, and considered it a kind of honor, or a harbinger of good luck, when he chose their homes as a regular stop for food. Children gravitated to him, but he rarely spoke. The few photographs of him were taken surreptitiously (and against his will) and those that exist today show an unsmiling man lost in madness.

The mystery of his identity endures. It's generally accepted that he was a Frenchman named Jules Bourglay who lost his sanity after a failed business venture and romance and then somehow made it to the United States. Some believe he died of cancer of the mouth, but there is evidence to suggest that his death was caused by the combined effects of syphilis and mercury poisoning.

On March 24, 1889, his body was found curled up in a crude shelter he built on a Mount Pleasant farm. After an inquest, the county coroner gave his leather suit to a Bowery museum, where it was destroyed in a fire.

The story of the Leatherman's death made the front pages of New York City newspapers — and recollections of his odd ways were repeated over and over again in newspaper accounts and magazines. He was the subject of at least one children's nursery rhyme as well as short stories. In the 1930s, he was featured in "Ripley's Believe It Or Not."

The Leatherman even captured the imagination of rocker Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who wrote a song about him that includes this lyric:

leatherman/leatherman/ shake his hand, he's leatherman/ take some bread, he's leatherman/ shame he's dead/ i saw his bed/ it's all that's left of/ leatherman/ leatherman/ give me some skin leatherman.

For all intents and purposes, the Leatherman's life remains unexplained, which is why he continues to fascinate, said Jonathan Kruk, a storyteller from Cold Spring, who nearly every year for the past 20 years has helped preserve the legend of the Leatherman by giving a popular talk and tour at the Pound Ridge cave.

Kruk first learned of the Leatherman when he was a boy growing up in Katonah, where the Leatherman slept in another cave, at the intersection of Cherry Street and Bedford Road. (In all, the Leatherman frequented perhaps two dozen caves on his route.)

"He's sort of our own Sasquatch, our Loch Ness Monster, but the difference is he was real," said Kruk, whose next tour will be held Nov. 14. "He also wandered very tangible roadways and pathways that we can still see now."

But it's the mystery that holds us, the everlasting enigma.

"It's wanting to know what you can't know," said Kruk.
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