The mysterious Leatherman became a celebrity of sorts in nineteenth-century America. He walked a 365-mile route between the Connecticut and Hudson rivers, year after year, and his route was so regular that people could set their watches by him!

The Leatherman’s Impossible Route

leathermanThis incredible story begins around the time of the American Civil War. It was a time when many were desperate for work, not to mention simply a hot meal and a place to sleep for the night. One such man became a local legend. Nobody ever discovered where he came from or who he was, but in the Eastern Connecticut, Westchester, and Putnam County areas, he’ll be forever known as the Leatherman. The closer they got to him, the more mysterious he became.

Roaming vagabonds were nothing new at all in the 1800s, but this curious character became a local mainstay. The people knew almost nothing about him, other than the fact that he would regularly walk a long, winding route, over the course of about 34 days. His circuit along the Connecticut River would pass through Westchester and Putnam counties, and such towns as South Salem, Croton Falls, Yorktown and Shrub Oak. Every step of the way, he’d be wearing his distinctive leather suit, which weighed over 60 pounds!

Whatever his motivations were, he sure drew attention to himself. As he became a fixture in each of the towns he passed through, thanks to his distinctive appearance, the townspeople began to notice that his punctuality was remarkable. More than that, it was impossible.  It was said that you could tell the time by his schedule. If a friendly local had arranged to prepare food for the Leatherman and hand it over at a certain time, he’d be there at your door at that time, wherever you lived on his route.

The Leather-clad Legend

This quirky character in his distinctive leather suit is a fascinating case study. The deeper you look into his story, the more intriguing it all becomes. There was just something about him, some inexplicable charisma that made him a local celebrity. It was considered a great honor for him to stop at your door for food. Indeed, schools would offer their hardest-working students the chance to take supplies out to him on a ‘Leatherman Day!’

Along his route, he slept in a series of caves and cobbled-together structures, where we would store food and such. These came to be known as ‘Leatherman caves,’ and they’re still points of interest in the area today. The question is, just why was this enigmatic man so beloved? Why, when the state of Connecticut passed a ‘Tramp Law’ in 1879, which permitted the arrest and imprisonment of hobos, did he seem to be exempted? Police reportedly took him in only once, in concern for his health.

leatherman cave site

A Leatherman cave site.

It was nothing to do with his sparkling conversation, that’s for sure. The Leatherman was notoriously tight-lipped, usually speaking only in grunts, mutters and a few words of what seemed to be broken English. It was said that the occasional phrase in French could be discerned, though, leading people to believe that French was his native language.

Indeed, he came to be known by the name Jules Bourglay, which was even written on his headstone. As with some many other things concerning the Leatherman, though, this just was just a theory, a mistaken belief that was disproven.

Jules Bourglay, according to one story, came from Lyon in France. He was, local legend would have it, a leatherworker, who lost his money in this failing trade. He fell in love with the leather merchant’s daughter, lost her too, and came to America in despair. From then on, he roamed in solitude, ‘clothed in the substance of his ruin.’ This fanciful fairytale was later proven to be false, but it continues to be told to this day.

Whoever this enigmatic character really was, he was just as inscrutable in death. He was found dead in one of his regular shelters in New York, in March 1889. Again, nobody can quite agree on the circumstances of his death. Some accounts attribute it to a mysterious head injury, others to cancer brought on by his extensive use of tobacco. Whatever the case, he was given a proper burial, as befits his status as a local ‘celebrity.’ And if you thought the Leatherman was an impossible mystery in life, his death only brought more unbelievable questions! Today we’re left with two seemingly unanswerable questions: not only who was he, but where is he?

A Mystery In Death As In Life

He was buried in Sparta Cemetery in Ossining, New York. In 1953, local historians added the headstone that falsely identified him as ‘Jules Bourglay of Lyons, France.’ In 2011, his grave was exhumed, in an attempt to move his remains to a more central location in the cemetery. Oddly, workers found no trace of a body at the site, only some large nails which were believed to be coffin nails!

Whatever scraps of this mysterious man’s life that could be gathered were re-buried elsewhere in the cemetery, with a new headstone that simply reads ‘The Leatherman.’ In this end, this nickname is all anybody was ever able to confirm about him. At the time of his death, he was found to have a prayer book written in French on his person, and the French-style footwear he always wore hinted at his possible origins. Beyond that, we’re still completely in the dark, over a century after his death.

He wasn’t Jules Bourglay, but we’re now unlikely to ever discover who he was. That’s the crux of his legend, and the reason he’s still spoken of so reverently by the locals of the towns he once frequented.

leatherman grave

The Leatherman’s new grave site.


By Chris Littlechild, contributor for Ripleys.com