Who Is the Leatherman?

After a recent court ruling, science may be able to help us figure it out.

Things are not so good for the Leatherman, the mysterious wanderer who wore a homemade all-leather suit and walked a near constant, 365-mile looping trail from Westchester to Connecticut. His grave is close to a busy street. It’s shabby and gets desiccated. And—worst of all—it is marked with the wrong man’s name. To fix these wrongs, the State Supreme Court of New York recently ruled that the body of the Leatherman could be exhumed, moved, and reburied.

But moving the remains isn’t the only goal. With a few simple scientific tests, we can learn more about the famed Leatherman, separating man from myth. The Ossining Historical Society approached Nicholas F. Bellantoni, the Connecticut State Archaeologist, to lead the team of scientists conducting the tests and eventually re-interring the body.

“Of course, this is all predicated on there being preserved organic material to test,” Bellantoni says. “I’ve seen graves like this where there’s nothing left but soil.” Here, he leads us through some of the tests and what we can learn from them.

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Gross Morphology Examination—His skeleton alone can tell us his age, whether he had any severe traumas, or whether he had certain diseases. (If he had TB, for example, lesions would be visible on his ribs.) “We expect to see a robust musculature,” Bellantoni says. “After all, he walked for forty years of his life.”

Stable Carbon Isotope Analysis—This test, which looks at carbon isotopes present in a system, can determine a person’s diet for the first 20 years of his or her life. A grain-based diet would suggest that he came from Europe, while a corn-based diet is more likely to be present in a born-and-bred American.

DNA Testing—It might be able to help prove that he hailed from Western Europe (or not). Also, DNA evidence might be able to determine if the Leatherman has any descendants.

Digital Facial Reconstruction—Yes, it may be possible to give the Leatherman a face. Digital equipment can make markers of various craniofacial elements, and then can add layers of skin to make a 3D composite model of the face. We can finally see if he looks like that famous photo of him in his leather outfit.

“We won’t be able to solve the complete mystery of his life,” Bellantoni says, “but, if there’s anything there, we will be able to give some insight into his life, and maybe adjust the legend if we need to.”

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