The Mystery of the "Leatherman"


250px-Leatherman.gifMost local residents and students are familiar with the "Legend of the Leatherman".

He was apparently a homeless drifter who travelled a circuitous route between 1856 and 1882 through Fairfield County into Westchester County, just east of the Hudson River.  He would complete a circuit once every 34-days.  His clothes were hand sewn from scraps of leather - many of high quality left by people along his route.  Residents would also leave food, tobacco and money outside their houses for him to take. Among his possessions were a crucifix, a French prayerbook, a handmade tin pipe, a hatchett, a small tin pail, an awl and small frying pan.  He had a series of caves and shelters he used to sleep in during his travels.

In December 1888, the Middletown Humane Society had him taken into custody since he had a sore on his lip. He was transported to Hartford Hospital, where he was diagnosed with cancer of the lip and jaw.  While the medical staff was trying to decide what to do, he packed up his gear and left.  On March 20, 1889, he died of blood poisoning from the cancer. His body was located in a cave in Mt. Pleasant NY.  Residents took up a collection to bury him in a cemetery in Ossining.

For years, legend had it that the Leatherman was Frenchman Jules Bourglay.  He was from a lower class family, and had taken over his future father-in-law's leather business in France, Jules was going to marry the man's daughter if he could turn it into a prosperous venture. Instead, he ruined the business due to some risky investments,  He was denied the woman's hand in marriage, and it is said he spent two years in a mental institution before he escaped  to the United States. 

Other legends paint the Leatherman as a murderer doing penance for his crime, as an officer in the Napoleonic Wars who was banished for an error in the Crimean War, or as a robber on the run, responsible for a burglary in Connecticut.  Another legend is that the Leatherman's father had murdered the young girl because she would not (or could not) marry Jules.  Jules exiled himself to the United States to do penance for his father's crime.

It is said that Jule's brothers and others came to this country to convince him to return to France since his father had left him money in his will, but the Leatherman refused. 

To compound the mystery, Middlebury-resident Roy Foote came up with the theory that there were 3 Leathermen!  They were Jules Bourglay, Randolph Mossey and Zacharias Boveliat.  Randolph Mossey showed up after the Leatherman had died in 1889.  Foote believes Mossey was just trying to take advantage of the Leatherman's demise by assuming part of the route and picking up the food and money left by residents.  Another story claims Mossey was a shoemaker from France who came to search for his wife, who ran off with "a friend".  The Hartford newspapers claimed that he told the wagon drivers taking him to the hospital for care that his name was Zacharias Bovelait.   Mr. Foote put together a film on the Leatherman titled "The Road Between Heaven and Hell" in 1985. 

 In April 2010, the Housatonic Times reported that local historian and storyteller Shirley Sutton had researched the drifter, and debunked many of the rumours associated with the Leatherman.  Ms. Sutton believes he was of French Canadian and Native American descent.  His grave in Sparta Cemetery in Scarborough NY may have to be moved, which would allow specialists to perform some DNA sampling.

Some residents weren't that welcoming, either.  They would throw stones and wrotten vegetables at him.  This, no doubt, was partly due to fear of the unknown.  Many residents started to trust him after awhile, and he even befriended a young boy, who took pictures of him.

Ms. Sutton contends the Leatherman did not spend the years 1856 to 1882 walking the circuitous route, but only started seven years before his death.  Although he looked much older, he was only 50-years old when he died.

So the legend of the Leatherman lives on.  The only thing that is known for sure is that there was, indeed, a man who travelled through part of Connecticut and New York.  His true identity remains a mystery, as well as his motivation.  There appear to be more questions than there are answers.  Perhaps someone in the future will have the technology to solve the mystery of the Leatherman. 

 (Photo Coutesy of Greenwich Time)





Recently, it has been reported that his remains will be dug up in the Spring. I am trying to gather more information about the purpose and/or the necessity for doing so.

Don -

Maybe they want to use DNA to determine his ancestry (e.g. where he came from, who he is, name of family). That would put an end to all the speculation.

I can understand tjhe privacy issue, though.


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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Carl White published on July 27, 2010 4:41 PM.

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