Who Was Westchester’s Mysterious and Legendary Leatherman?

Photo courtesy the Westchester County Historical Society A-158

Once a beloved staple of towns across Westchester and Fairfield counties, the leather-clad silent vagabond’s true story remains elusive.

Westchester is no stranger to urban legends and ghost stories, mayhem and murder, but few instances are as inexplicable — or oddly wholesome — as the true history of the Leatherman, a nameless wanderer who circled Westchester and Fairfield counties in an unbelievable 365-mile loop while living in local caves.

Courtesy the Westchester County Historical Society A-158

Most likely born sometime around 1839, the individual known as the “Leatherman” was first spotted around 1857, wandering between the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers, dressed head-to-toe in a heavy, handmade leather suit of slacks, shirt, jacket, scarf, hat, and even boots weighing approximately 60 pounds!

Despite his gruff appearance and wardrobe like something out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, locals quickly determined the Leatherman to be not only harmless but quite gentle. A Burlington Free Press article from April 7, 1870 notes the “Leather-Clad Man” rarely spoke, usually only in monosyllables or grunts and gestures, but capable of some broken English.

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However, he was apparently fluent in French and kept a French prayer book among his few worldly possessions. Rumors circulated that he was originally from Picardy, France or somewhere in French Canada. Declining meat on Fridays, it was presumed that he was Roman Catholic.

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The stranger walked a clockwise loop of 365 miles through Westchester, southern Putnam, and Western Fairfield counties, making stops in Purdy’s, Kensico, South Salem, Croton Falls, Yorktown, Shrub Oak, Briarcliff, and even the now affluent Bedford Hills. Incredibly, he walked the complete circuit in about a month, stopping off for supplies and returning to each town every 34 to 36 days or so. (A “Leatherman’s Loop” 10k is held along part of this every year in Cross River.)

While other Civil War-era vagrants might seek work or a place to sleep, the Leatherman preferred to sleep in one of nearly 100 “Leatherman caves” like the one you can still find at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, surviving blizzards and hard weather with only the occasional light frostbite, and building fires.

The Leatherman would stop by local farmhouses looking for food, so regularly in fact that locals often looked forward to his visits, with many housewives baking extra bread for his arrival. In A History of the Town of Lewisboro by the Lewisboro History Book Committee and historian Alvin R. Jordan, Miss M. Louise Bouton, born in 1889, recalled the Leatherman “came around once a year … always to the east side of the house. He would knock on the leader drainpipe. Mother would give him coffee and some sandwiches. He would say, ‘Thank you so much, lady,’ but never look at you. He was dressed all in brown leather. No one was afraid of him.”

The Leatherman c. June 9, 1885
James F. Rodgers (d. 1887) | Wikimedia Commons

Incredibly, the quiet traveler became something of a local celebrity in these towns. Ten different Connecticut villages even passed local ordinances to specifically exempt him from the state’s 1879 anti-vagrancy “tramp law.” Once, in 1888, the Connecticut Humane Society had him arrested and hospitalized, however he was found to be “sane except for an emotional affliction” and released. Desiring freedom and apparently possessing the money to travel, he was left to his own devices in the countryside.

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How exactly the Leatherman came into his money was never known. One local store reportedly kept a record of a usual resupply order, which was paid in person before the Leatherman moved on: “One loaf of bread, a can of sardines, one-pound of fancy crackers, a pie, two quarts of coffee, one gill of brandy and a bottle of beer.”

The Leatherman’s body was found on March 24, 1889 in a Saw Mill Woods Cave in Mount Pleasant, on what was then the farm of George Dell. Despite his harsh life, he had not lost any digits to frostbite and appeared in good health. His cause of death was determined to be mouth cancer from the use of chewing tobacco. He was laid to rest at Sparta Cemetery along Route 9 in nearby Ossining, with the following engraved on his tombstone:

Jules Bourglay
who regularly walked a 365-mile route
through Westchester and Connecticut from
the Connecticut River to the Hudson
living in caves in the years

The name “Jules Bourglay” was originally attributed to an 1884 article in the Waterbury Daily American; however this was retracted the day after his death. Still, the erroneous tombstone remained in place until 2011, when construction along Route 9 — just sixteen feet away from the grave — led to the decision to exhume and rebury the Leatherman in a new plot within the cemetery. Plans were also made to test the body to possibly help determine the Leatherman’s true origins. This was not to be.

In the Century since his death, legends sprung up around the beloved Leatherman. He was in love with a wealthy French heiress who was denied to him after he accidentally burned down her father’s factory — and possibly home, killing her — before fleeing to America. He himself was wealthy but fell in love beneath his station and suspected his parents had his love murdered. His restless spirit still haunted the paths along Buckout Road.

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Also, soil settled and earth shifted. When his grave was exhumed, little was left of the Leatherman’s coffin save for a few nails and scraps of wood. No body could be found and no new information would be gleaned.

Local Leatherman historian and author Dan W. DeLuca had raised funds for a new, more accurate memorial, and so a new coffin was filled with the original coffin nails and burial soil. DeLuca places four pennies on top and the local legend was again laid to rest with a new grave marker that simple reads “THE LEATHERMAN.”

Ɱ | Wikimedia Commons

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