Follow the route of the mysterious leather man
Six months ago, American vacationers were venturing everywhere. Since the Covid-19, many are reluctant to travel, and those who want a vacation prefer to travel by car. close to the house. When interrogates, 43% of respondents said they would consider walking tours the safest travel activity. For those who live in the tri-state area, one of the most fascinating and mysterious walks is to follow the route of the Leather Man.
Right after the Civil War, a mysterious but gentle hermit walked from town to town through the countryside of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. They called him “the Leatherman” because he wore a leather suit sewn from scraps. For 25 years he has followed the same 365 mile route, stopping in the same caves to sleep and completing his circuit exactly every 34 days. Then he would start over. While more than a century has passed since his death, the Leatherman mystery continues.
Who was this man who wore an entire suit sewn of leather with no underwear so that the heavy skin rubbed against his flesh, almost as if he was doing penance? And why has he never changed his obsessive schedule, walking every step of the way from Westchester County to Putnam, through Connecticut, then back to White Plains to start over? He avoided large cities and main roads, rarely spoke to people he met on his trip, and slept only in caves or rock shelters.
The Leatherman stopped at a few farms on his way, but he never spoke, leading some to believe he was deaf. He made a sign with his hands that he was hungry and after eating, if he was invited to spend the night, he refused and disappeared into one of his camps: a cave or a rock shelter. The next morning he would continue his journey. But precisely every 34 days, he returned to the same farms to feed himself. His timing was so precise that the housewives along the way could set their clocks by his side. They eagerly awaited his arrival and, in his honor, were baking homemade bread, pies and special meals.
Obsessed with leather, the hermit would visit harness stores and accept scrap donations which he sewed into a bizarre outfit. His clothing included a leather hat with a visor, a pair of trousers cut to the chest and held in place by suspenders, a leather condom that descended below his knees, a pair of wooden-soled shoes with leather uppers, and a leather pouch. The only part of his costume that wasn’t leather was a cane. His clogs resembled the leather and wooden clogs worn by French and Belgian peasants. A resident gave him a brand new pair of leather boots; he cut off the soles and threw them away, then put the leather boot uppers in his leather bag.
Her outfit weighed over 60 pounds and looked like a leather patchwork quilt. Locals heard the leather crack as it passed and many said they could smell it coming. The Leatherman picked up cigar butts on his way and quickly accepted donations of fresh tobacco or cigars from the townspeople, but he did not accept money. A farmer’s wife left him a few new pennies and the next morning the new pennies were gone but had been replaced by old rusty pennies.
The Leatherman’s appetite was ravenous; he ate whatever was intended for him. Many wives prepared special meals for him and often gave him an extra loaf of bread. He looked terrifying but was harmless, and the only time he lost his temper was when the children pelted him with stones. Then he would shake his cane and try to scream, but his words were unintelligible. Some claim he was in fact a Frenchman, Jules Bourglay, from Lyon, France.
One story goes that when Jules was younger he got engaged to the daughter of the owner of the leather factory he worked for. One night Jules accidentally knocked over a lantern and burned the factory down. His fiancée’s father denied him. Having given up all hope, Jules embarks on a boat for America. Another version claims that his fiancee’s father was unhappy with the romance but agreed to give Jules a chance to prove he was worthy of it. If he managed to work in the factory for a year, the merchant would allow Jules to marry his daughter. Otherwise, he had to give up all rights to her and leave Lyon. Jules was unsuccessful and soon after his fiancée died in a mysterious fire that destroyed his father’s house.
Jules – if he was really Jules – came to America. He donned a leather suit, perhaps as a symbol of his failure, and did penance by riding a 365 mile circuit for the rest of his life. He survived the 1888 blizzard, but the following winter was found dead in his cave in Briarcliff, NY. His bag contained heavy leather equipment as well as a crucifix and a small prayer book in French from 1840. He was buried at Sparta Cemetery in Ossining, New York. Visitors can see the rock, which is his grave with a plaque saying The Leatherman.
Today, walkers can follow many trails and see some of its many caves in Cross River, Bedford Hills, Briarcliff and Armonk, New York, among others. Even a year ago Leather man race at the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation.
Over 131 years later, the Leatherman continues to fascinate not only for its independent spirit, but also because it was able to survive in the great outdoors for three decades. Some have gone so far as to call him America’s first backpacker. Others see it as a symbol of broken love or loneliness. But for some reason, young and old continue to be intrigued by the Leatherman, a legend in Hudson Valley folklore.