Should The Leather Man, 19th-c. proto-hobo of New York, be exhumed?

From The New Haven Register:

The Leather Man lived the simplest of lives in the mid- to late 1800s, walking the countryside in a set pattern through parts of Connecticut and New York, sleeping in caves, saying very little, living off the land and, later, eating through the kindness of strangers. He became a folk hero, as much for the mystery of his past as for the uniqueness of his lifestyle and personality.
122 years after his death, the Leather Man is at the center of a controversy: historians want to dig his remains up from a cemetery in Ossining, N.Y., because of the site's "dangerous proximity" to a busy road, and because they want to perform forensic tests, due to his historical significance.

A local middle school history teacher, Don Johnson, wants them to He "uses the life of the Leather Man to teach students about prejudice, bullying, harassment, stereotyping and recycling." There's even a Facebook page for those who want to leave his grave undisturbed.

(via BB Submitterator, thanks Jack)


  1. Why?

    Sounds like someone wants to grease the wheels of progress. Removing the grave will make the environmental document easier to write when they want to add a lane or strip mall to that busy road.

  2. I wonder if the Leather Man would give a care about his bones remaining in one place. That kind of thing apparently wasn’t so important to him while alive.

    1. Good point. But his opinion doesn’t matter, as he is dead.

      I will forever be grateful to this man, I have found his (original model) tool very helpful in many odd situations.

  3. Historians want to dig up his grave due to it’s dangerous proximity to a bust road; it is felt that due to the amount of traffice on this byway that it is quite possible fumes from the exhaust of the vehicles could affect the health of “Leatherman” and could lead to causing him ill health or eventually cause him death.

  4. First I’ve ever heard of the fellow: but that dynamic and utilitarian outfit is Smashing! Kudos to you, Leather Man!

    But I agree: let the dead rest in peace. Too often some of the more ghoulish members of the ‘scientific’ community desire to exhume the remains of various historical figures for dubious reasons: ‘Let’s measure his cranium!’ ‘Did Napoleon have the gout?’ ‘The Elephant Man was hilarious, lets have a look!’

    Yes, I admit, sometimes I’m interested how Rasputin REALLY died et al: but come on.

    When does a dead person lose his or her right to be left alone and become public property?

    (When there are no living relatives to raise a fuss. . .)

    Let the dead rest.

      1. To answer your remark, of ‘Rotten Meat’, You may same the same thing of your belated relatives. Or close friends who have passed away.. Yes, the scene changes when you look at it that way.. Well, this person, was a friendly journeyman, who simply wandered the mid to western state of Connecticut, into the eastern section of New York, on a nearly solid 34-day schedule, covering more than 365 miles. Just moving the remains (and remains of obvious others who are also buried in that same section) would not have raised so much ire, as the additional “Hey, while his remains are above ground, let’s do additional forensic tests!” action, claiming it as just another autopsy (he already was determined to have died from Cancer, what else would they find he died of?) But, the actions of DNA extraction, for the purpose of finding his place of origin, possible mental state (was he autistic? That should be HIS right to keep private!) and yes, possible relatives. For what purpose?

        Just using antiquated laws, to fortify a morbid curiosity.. Modern Day Grave robbers! Instead of stealing belongings, the new thing to steal is Identity, and they will wring it from him now that he’s dead, because he refused to back when he was alive.

  5. Dude, if he’s reinterred somewhere nearby, it could raise the profile of his story and give the community the opportunity to properly memorialize him.

    I don’t understand what makes exhumations “ghoulish.” The dead don’t know they’re being disturbed. My guess is none of the leave-him-alone crowd are organ donors.

    Me, I’m donating every last scrap to science, so there you go.

    1. For what it’s worth: I’ve got the donor mark on my license (though I don’t think anyone would want my liver). . .

      Still: anybody starts digging up people I know and messing with ’em better Watch Out!!!

    2. I don’t understand what makes exhumations “ghoulish.” The dead don’t know they’re being disturbed. My guess is none of the leave-him-alone crowd are organ donors.

      The issue is respecting the wishes of the dead no matter who they are and no matter what reason. If you don’t believe in a heaven and hell (I don’t) then you really need to realize that “heaven” and “hell” really are connected to your reputation to others when you have gone away. And respect that when you pass on, other generations will have enough basic respect to respect your wishes.

      Dude, if he’s reinterred somewhere nearby, it could raise the profile of his story and give the community the opportunity to properly memorialize him.

      That is not a bad sentiment or feeling, but the issue is respecting folks for who they are and what they are.

      For example, when a slave gravesite was found in Lower Manhattan, it made sense to elevate the profile of those folks and give them a better grave/memorial site. These are folks who were unwillfully treated like crap their whole lives and now in a new America their ancestors have earned the respect they were denied and passed it onto those in the past who didn’t have better.

      In this case it’s tough to know how to relocate his remains, yet retain the story of how he was treated and what his life was. A good part of the story is where he was buried and why: Poor and treated like crap by a society who still treats the homeless the same way. If you move his gravesite and memorialize him, you basically are sending the message of if you are homeless and “magical” then you will get some respect 100+ years after you are dead. That’s not really a great message to send.

      There is no easy answer here, but I will say to move him because of a highway expansion and then state that his remains will be examined for DNA purposes is kind of patronizing. You might learn his ethnicity at most, but who cares?

      1. Ww jck, fr smn wh dsn’t blv n Hvn nd Hll y sr cm ff lk tw-bt Nw g Chrstn. Hnr th dd? Hw ds tht hv ny mnng fr smn wh clms nt t blv n hvn r Hll (r hv y bn tkn n by sm thr, bt qlly nt-thght rlgn?)? ‘ll ply sm lvtr msc whl y cntmplt tht thght…

        Thr r lts f sy nswrs hr, bt jst nt fr y.

        1. You don’t need to be religious to Honour the dead. If you don’t like the word honour then use the word respect instead.

          1. I just don’t buy your argument that the idea of “honour for the dead” is predicated upon the belief in heaven, hell, or a sky wizard. If the person had meaning while alive, you can honour and respect their memory.

            It’s not as if there’s some sort of black and white divide where if you’re an atheist/agnostic that the body has no meaning, and if you happen to be religious the dead must be revered. There’s plenty of shades of grey for everyone.

          2. When I am dead, I will have no argument.

            H♥y m♥ds, y♥♥’r♥ t♥♥ d♥mn s♥ns♥t♥v♥. g♥t ♥v♥r ♥t.

          3. I have. Basically it reads play nice, but we’ll still gut your thoughts if they don’t jive with our view of the world. Just like every other group of primates on this Earth.
            If I’m going to be disemvoweled, the faceless mod could at least provide a reason. Especially as one of the (catch all and ambiguous) reason I suspect I was disemvoweled for is that my original comment was perceived as annoying to the mod. One person’s funny is another persons reason to get all PC up in someone else’s sh*t.

          4. Was that supposed to be funny? I can read that gibberish if I try, but I think it’s kind of silly to ask “Y rlly ddn’t rd r ndrstnd my pst dd y?” when you’re writing like that.

          5. Where do you draw the line of respect?

            Is giving the deceased clothes to charity disrespectful? Because their clothes are about as connected to their sense of self as their corpse is.

            Any emotion connected to a dead body is purely cultural, not logical; I’m with some of the other commenters, when I’m gone I’d like my body to be used in whatever way possible to help whatever possible; be it science or entertainment, what the hell do I care?

            The thought of an empty hole in the ground that at some point used to contain my gas-expelling rotting body I think is ‘ghoulish’.

      1. I don’t know what that means, but I’m a chick. Not that it matters, but I use “dude” because I like colorful, expressive language. I had a legitimate point worth making and arguing. I’m not trying to be rude. I get the feeling you thought I was, or you wouldn’t have been so dismissive.

  6. The wikipedia page linked to says Route 9 is being expanded, and that his grave is 16 feet from the road as it is right now. Is there a middle ground that involves relocating his grave, so that it won’t be under a stretch of highway, without having to conduct forensic analysis on his remains?

    I believe in letting the dead rest in peace, but maybe this road expansion is something the community can benefit from. And if they’re going to go ahead with it, it would be nice if the Leather Man’s resting place could be relocated, so as not to be lost forever.

  7. I hate to sound like a terrible person, but it *is* just a body. Call me cold-hearted, but even if there is an afterlife, I seriously doubt it’s filled with caring about what’s happening to your physical remains. The only valid concern I could find would be the concerns of existing loved ones/family seeing you probed and prodded – but this guy has neither.

    I hereby give boingboing permission to do whatever they want with my remains, including (but not limited to) recreating leather-man’s jacket.

  8. i can’t believe he died at the age of 31. he looks a lot older in that photo. i suppose that was a good age in those days

    1. He was actually 50 when he died. Wikipedia lists his birth as 1839 and death as 1889. His tombstone says that he wandered around for 31 years.

  9. The issue is respecting the wishes of the dead no matter who they are and no matter what reason. If you don’t believe in a heaven and hell (I don’t) then you really need to realize that “heaven” and “hell” really are connected to your reputation to others when you have gone away. And respect that when you pass on, other generations will have enough basic respect to respect your wishes.

    That just sounds like a slightly different brand of hokum to me.

  10. “One man gathers what another man spills”

    I highly doubt The Leather Man cares one way or another what happens to his body at this point. In fact I am certain of it.

  11. What strikes me is here is a odd guy in a weird outfit, and yet he was completely accepted by the communities he visited.

  12. The road is going to be widened whether his remains stay there or not; why not give him a new – quieter – resting place with a marker about his historical significance. He’s dead – I doubt he has a care now for his earthly remains, and what’s the difference if he stays in the same place or moves – it’s not as if he was tied to one particular place in life.

  13. I find it really amazing how many afterlife experts are also BB posters! It’s amazing that a community of people that know so much about what happens after you die would all congregate on a site that has nothing to do with the afterlife!
    After all, how else could you pronounce, with a seeming 100% surety, that one isn’t aware or doesn’t care what happens to their body after they die?
    I don’t go in for the fairy-stories either, but at least I can admit that I honestly don’t know.
    And this is a matter of respect for the remains of a human being. You may not care what happens to your remains when you die, but the least that can be done is to respect the wishes of others when possible. And when those wishes aren’t known or can’t be known? Better to err on the side of caution. Move him if it needs to be done. Don’t play with the parts just for kicks.

  14. I’m curious where the line is then: when is it not o.k. to exhume buried human remains?

    Is it when it’s more than one set of remains? Is it when it’s your family member? I know the line is somewhere, but, WHERE exactly?!!

    I say this as I see both sides of the issue: I’m thinking that the person who embodied said remains has obviously moved on, and at the same time feeling, however, that our society benefits when we respect the placement of the remains as well as the remains themselves moreso (as a blanket rule) when we leave them alone.

    1. I see that I didn’t respond appropriately. It is never ‘not okay’ to remove remains, unless they are significant historically, have a good deal of money and influence, or apparently, thru my own observances, that they belong to any religious group who still has enough funds and influence to fight development, or any changes to their grave plots or land.

  15. I’ve know a couple of modern day Leathermen.

    One still alive (as of a couple of years ago, at least) goes by the handle of Dago. He wears a leather trenchcoat and no shoes, regardless of the weather or where he is going. Dago carries a full tool kit on his person, including bar clamps mounted on his legs. He seems to have taken the Boy Scout “Be Prepared” motto to the literal extreme.

    The other guy is dead now, but he lived under a bridge and always wore very short “leather” pants, again, regardless of the weather. His name was Frank, and he was often without a shirt, even in freezing temperatures. We always thought he wore leather shorts until we got close enough to see that it was just, um, well oiled denim. Frank’s claim to fame, in my book, was cutting a car down to the undercarriage with nothing but a normal pair of pliers. He turned the car carcass into a hand drawn cart, and used it to haul large loads of cast iron pipe he was given by a construction crew to the recyclers. Had Frank had access to Dago’s tool arsenal, there would have been nothing to stop him from dismantling a freighter for scrap single handedly.

    I hope that, as long as they are content with the lives they make for themselves, we always have characters like these two and Leatherman to teach us that we do not necessarily need to conform to social norms.

  16. Marie Curie is dead, and her legacy exists beyond a grave or a headstone. She contributed something to the advancement of mankind. Thus she will always be looked upon favorably. Thus she can be said to be in “heaven.”

    Some guy in NYC named Maksim Gelman recently went on a murder spree literally stabbing 4 people to death and injuring at least 4 more. 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now that is absolutely all this sicko will ever be known for. Thus his reputation is destroyed. Thus he is in “hell.”

    “The Leather Man” was a kooky old character whose idiosyncracies have spawned legend that is still being talked about 100+ years after his death. His main legacy now is his odd life, but others like this great teacher—Don Johnson—loving use the Leather Man’s life as an example of how “othering” works in a society and how society deals with it’s innermost fears extend the Leather Man into a new world of knowledge and thought. You can say the Leather Man is in “heaven” because his short, unique life teaches folks nowadays how to better understand society and how we treat others in society.

  17. “… and because they want to perform forensic tests, due to his historical significance.”

    This is the most specious reason I can imagine for wanting to perform forensic tests. “Historical significance”? Would anybody buy that if it were about a beloved historical figure? What does forensic information have to do with his status as a significant person?
    It’s making my head hurt, thinking somebody came up with that line and thought it sounded reasonable..

  18. We honor the dead in order to honor the living. How we treat our dead tells us a lot about how much value we place on human life. By honoring the dead we convey a message to those who are still alive, letting them know that every human life – including their own – has value; and that, when they die, they won’t simply be discarded and forgotten, but will live on in the collective memories of those they leave behind.

    However, honoring the dead does not necessarily mean refusing to disturb their remains under any circumstances. There are (rare) situations in which we show more reverence for human life by disinterring a dead body than by leaving it undisturbed. The most obvious example is in a suspicious death investigation, when a body might have to be exhumed for forensic testing to determine whether or not the deceased had been murdered. Because murder is the ultimate offense against the sanctity of human life, we show more respect for human life by thoroughly investigating suspected murders than we do by refusing to disturb a dead body.

    But murder investigations aren’t the only cases in which respect for human life can lead us to exhume a dead body rather than leaving it undisturbed. Obviously, there are cases in which public health concerns might motive officials to order bodies disinterred from one location and reburied elsewhere. And I would argue that when archaeologists discover ancient human remains, it is more respectful to human life to dig the bones up and study them than to leave them undisturbed. The purpose of archaeology is to resurrect the memory of ancient civilizations that have been lost to history. If these bones are left undisturbed in the ground where they were discovered, the lives of these ancient people will be forgotten. But if they are preserved in a museum, for all the world to see, they will live on in human memory. We may never know who these individual people were; but we know that they once lived. They are not forgotten. So, in this case, reverence for human life would lead us to dig up these ancient bones rather than allowing them to “rest in peace” where they were buried.

    As for the Leather Man, it’s a borderline case; and good arguments could be made both for exhuming his remains and for leaving them undisturbed. On the one hand, the Leather Man has been dead for a long time; there’s no one alive today old enough to remember him when he was still alive; and few people outside of this one community seem to know much about him. Thus, disinterring, studying, and relocating his remains could serve to honor him, which would honor the living. On the other hand, it’s not as if this is an ancient person whose identity has been lost to history. Enough is known about the Leather Man already that disturbing his remains is unlikely to shed much more light on his life. And many people in the community seem to feel that it’s important for his remains to stay where they are, undisturbed. So, it’s a tough call. I would have to see each side present its best case for why it would be more respectful to the memory of the Leather Man, and more respectful to the dignity of human life in general, to either disinter his remains, or to leave them undisturbed. However, I’m not persuaded by purely pragmatic arguments about his grave’s proximity to a busy road, or what might be learned by doing tests on his remains; nor am I persuaded by purely emotional arguments about how the dead ought to be allowed to “rest in peace” and never disturbed. Tell me, instead, how either exhuming his remains or leaving them where they are will better advance the cause of human dignity.

    1. That obviously should have been “motivate” instead of “motive” in the second sentence of the third paragraph. I don’t know why I never notice these things until after I’ve hit the “Submit” button.

    2. I’ll take a shot at shedding some light on this: The initial announcements that spurred this controversy made reference to involvement from the History Channel, and not just exhumation, but also finding a molar tooth for DNA extraction to determine the Leatherman’s identity. Then came the “road widening” comments from members of the team which through further investigation have been proven to be mere conjecture. Also, it has been stated that the date of the work will be kept secret to avoid media attention. Of course, that made even more people take notice, and question what this was all about.
      The Leatherman’s legacy in our region was one of solitude and keeping his identity private, while doing no harm. He was admired for being a common guy who had a very uncommon way of life. It is estimated that during the 30 years he was known around here, he probably walked upwards of 75,000 miles – three times around the globe at the equator. Yet, from what we know, his contemporaries were never able to get him to engage in conversation about his past. He slept outside every night for those 30 years, and lived off of the land, and donations of food and leather from willing citizens. So the crux of the argument to “leave him alone” is not as much about relocating his bones, as it is taking parts of those bones to reveal to modern researchers what he steadfastly refused to reveal during his life. The irony of hoping to find a “Wisdom Tooth” to obtain a good DNA sample is not lost here. If the merits of an exhumation and the taking of anatomical gifts to further the historical record are considered on a case by case basis, then how much weight do we give to the man himself, and the way in which he lived his life? It is a very unique case, because permission was granted by the court due to the very fact that he guarded his privacy so well, there is no hard evidence that he had any relatives who could object. He was known to carry religious items, but there are no documents to prove he was officially part of any particular religion. In his final months, when cancer was ravaging his face, yet he continued his monthy trek, a newspaper ran a column about what should be done about him with the title “The propriety of non-interference”. This was the course his contemporaries chose, as instead of forcing him to live his final days in a hospital, (They actually suceeded in getting him into one, but he somehow escaped within a couple hours, and continued walking)they “left him alone” to die on his terms. Should we take the cue from those who did know him, and let his memory continue to exist on his terms, or should we take pieces of him and perform DNA testing to further our historical record?

      1. Interesting. In the interest of fairness I’d like to hear an argument from the other side as well. But you make a very strong case for leaving his remains undisturbed. Unless proponents of exhumation can provide a compelling reason for violating everything this man apparently stood for during his lifetime, I’d have to vote to leave his grave alone if I were judging this case. So, the ball is now in the court of those who are in favor of exhumation: Give us your best argument for how this will honor the Leather Man’s legacy and advance the cause of human dignity.

          1. Fascinating documentary. Not being from the NY/CT area, I’d never heard of the legend of the Leather Man before. After watching the video I can see why people from that area might be eager to learn more about this enigmatic figure, and to try to solve the mystery of who he was.

            But I’m not sure that satisfying people’s curiosity is justification enough to posthumously violate the privacy and autonomy that he guarded so carefully when he was alive. The fact that his legend is still very much alive and well in the parts of New York and Connecticut where he wandered tells me that it isn’t (yet) necessary to exhume his body looking for clues as to his real identity in order to honor him for who he was, and to accord him the dignity that all human beings deserve.

            Perhaps there will come a day when the legend of the Leather Man has faded from popular memory, and is known only to a handful of amateur or professional historians and folklorists. Perhaps then it would be appropriate to exhume his body and try to solve the mystery of who he really was, thereby rekindling the forgotten legend of the Leather Man. But why is it necessary to do this now?

            I guess it all boils down to two questions: (1) What’s the best way to honor the legacy of the Leather Man: to leave him alone in death as he wished to be left alone in life, or to try to learn as much about him as possible, even if that means prying into matters that he apparently didn’t want anyone to know about? and (2) What message do we want to send to the living by how we treat the dead: that we respect the living enough to continue to honor their wishes even long after they have died, or that once you’re dead you enter the public domain, and your wishes will be ignored in order to satisfy the curiosity of the living? I think I know how I would answer each of these questions; but my answers are no more authoritative than anyone else’s.

  19. If I’m going to be disemvoweled, the faceless mod could at least provide a reason.

    You insolently tried to pick a fight with another commenter.

  20. Is it me, or is The Leather Man’s jacket kinda steampunky…? The Wiz’s Tin Man? A lost Jules Verne time machine engineer?

  21. The Wikipedia page reads : “FINAL RESTING PLACE OF
    Jules Bourglay OF LYONS, FRANCE”. Argh ! I hope the person who wrote the page has mistakenly copied the epitaph ! If that’s what’s written on his grave then they made him one more injustice. The city referred to here is Lyon, not LyonS as often spelled by English writers.

  22. H♥y m♥ds, y♥♥’r♥ t♥♥ d♥mn s♥ns♥t♥v♥. g♥t ♥v♥r ♥t.
    ^Yeah, who was this? First nomination for moderation of the year.

    On topic.. it really all depends on if we know of the wishes of the deceased and the wishes of their relatives IRT exhumation. If everyone is down with it or neutral I don’t see there being a problem.

  23. Jean-Luc Turbo
    “I’m curious where the line is then: when is it not o.k. to exhume buried human remains?
    Is it when it’s more than one set of remains? Is it when it’s your family member? I know the line is somewhere, but, WHERE exactly?!!”

    It is done all the time in the US. In active private cemeteries, varying by state, there is a 30+ (usually around 100) year rule on maintaining graves. I suppose that, if there are family members who keep in contact with the graveyard, the graves might be left longer. Otherwise, it is not an uncommon practice for private cemeteries to raze private free standing mausoleums, for stones to be toppled, and for any of the deceased remains to be removed and destroyed, in order to make way for new ones. To wit, many graves/cemeteries have been moved, or paved over, in the name of progress, to make way for buildings and highways, etc.

  24. This guy was the basis for the Pearl Jam song “Leatherman” and was written because Vedder is supposedly related. I wonder what he would think of this?

  25. I’ve also heard he would say Tuu flameurs when he was hungry and probably hung over in the Boston area. Great story.

  26. Off the wall idea here – Pearl Jam release a B-Side based on a story of a Leather Man called “Leatherman”. I wonder if they can help.

    Pearl Jam

    I know about a man to whom I may be related, he’s leatherman.
    Died a long time ago in the 1880′s…leatherman, leatherman.
    Covered with leather, but it was tight.
    Underneath the moon in the woods at night…

    Makin’ the rounds ten miles a day,
    Once a month they’d spot him, here’s what they’d say…
    “Here he comes, he’s a man of the land.
    He’s leatherman. Smile on his face, an axe in his pack.
    He’s leatherman.”

    Comes out of the caves once a day to be fed.
    Wasn’t known to say but “Thanks for the bread.”

    So modern day I walk my way, my jacket faded,
    Just like a man of leather whom I may be related.

    Rolled a cigarette, but when he asked for a light,
    Appeared to be an animal, yet so polite.

    Makin’ the rounds ten miles a day.
    Once a month they’d spot him and here’s what they’d say…
    “Here he comes, he’s a man of the land, he’s leatherman.
    Smile on his face, an axe in his hand.
    He’s leatherman.”

    Shake his hand he’s leatherman.
    Bake some bread he’s leatherman.
    Shame he’s dead. I saw his bed,
    It’s all that’s left of leatherman.

    Give me some skin, leatherman

  27. Per NPR this AM, they opened the grave…. and it was empty. Or at least, they couldn’t find any remains, even bone shards.
    Evermore enveloped in mystery, then?

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