What This Leatherman Site Is (and isn’t)

If you’ve stumbled onto this site when your curiousity was peaked by a story about an old man dressed head to toe in Leather who wandered around CT and NY for decades while never speaking, then we have something in common.  I must issue you a friendly warning however, the more you try to know about Ol’ Leathery, the more you realize you may never know, but that’s what has kept me and countless others coming back to his unique story year after year, for well over a century now.

So as you browse this site, you are seeing the archived work the “Leave the Leatherman Alone Movement” that took place from November 2010 to June 2011.  Many people from all over the world got caught up in the most recent wave of “Leatherman Mania”.  Unfortunately, the blog got hacked recently, and as a result, all comments have now vanished, without a trace…

So for the time being,  I’m letting the site remain as a sort of time-capsule of the events of that time period surrounding the controversial decision to try to find out more about the Leatherman by unearthing his remains.  That’s what the saying “Leave the Leatherman Alone” alone was all about.   The controversy came and went, just as he did, and the movement to “Leave Him Alone”, became just another footnote in his legendary tale.

Buried within this site, are lots of great resources, and info about the Leatherman, so I encourage you to explore and see what all the fuss was about back in the Winter and Spring of 2011…and beyond.

But keep in mind, once you start, you may find, like me, that it is almost impossible to just “Leave the Leatherman Alone”

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Leatherman Update

I’ve taken some of my own advice, and left the Old Leatherman alone for a few months.  However, not so with the research team, as I did learn that this summer they were back at the Sparta Cemetery for another (albeit unpublicized) try at locating some DNA evidence from his remains.  Apparently they were again unsuccessful.

The original court order granted them one year to do their forensic research on the Leatherman, and that will expire soon, so there may be more details yet to emerge from their findings.  Dan Deluca, the leading authority on Ol’ Leathery, and a member of the research team will be doing a talk at the CT Museum of Natural History on November 12 at 3pm.  If you are interested in Leatherman lore, I would highly recommend attending one of Dan’s talks.

If you are visiting this site for the first time, please take some time to check it out.  Last year was a busy one in the fascinating story of the Old Leatherman

My short version of what happened regarding the Old Leatherman last year goes something like this:

  1. I found out researchers were going to try to exhume the remains of the Old Leatherman to learn more about him.
  2. I used this site and facebook to raise awareness in an attempt to get them to reconsider their actions on the grounds that he seemed to guard his privacy while alive, so his remains should be left alone.
  3. They went forward with the exhumation in late May 2011, and did not find any remains where they dug.
  4. They re-buried the dirt and some iron nails in a plain pine box on higher ground in the  middle of the cemetery, had a short religious ceremony, and placed a new headstone at the site.
  5. They went back in July to dig in the area of the original gravesite, and found nothing but a golf ball.

After my five month hiatus, I will be trying to spend some time updating and streamlining this site in the coming weeks.   I’m aware that the Spam comments got out of control, and I’ll try to fix that too.


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All Good Things…

Being the eternal optimist that I am,  I always choose to finish the above statement with “…In All Good Time”. It seems that the in the case of the Leather Man exhumation project, from where I stand, today this motto rings especially true.  After months of debating, researching, planning, and wondering, it appears that forces beyond the control of us ordinary folks had the final say in what secrets Ol’ Leathery was willing to reveal.

According to Sarah Studley, Editor of the Pleasantville-Briarcliff Manor Patch  who has been reporting on the story from the gravesite, the team was not able to find samples that could be used for DNA testing.

Whether it was the micro-organisms, acidic soil, an innacurate map, or something else beyond our comprehension, there is no doubt another chapter has been added to this man’s incredible tale.  We now know that what remained of his physical form is truly one with the earth, while his legacy and legend continues to live on.

I’ll admit, I sat down and wrote some of this post a couple of days ago, but I never wrote the one that said “…must come to an end.”   I tried, but I couldn’t.

Many people have asked me, “What is it about him that has inspired you to care so much?”  Today, I can say, with clarity, that I simply admire the way he went about his life.  Some words that come to mind when I think about the Old Leather Man are: humility, perseverance, respect, sobriety, patience, creativity, and faith.  For me it’s a challenge to exhibit even half of these traits in my daily life and interactions with others.

And to think, he exhibited all of them daily, and he did so without using words.

For that , I thank you, Leather Man; wherever and whomever you are.

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While We Wait…What’s Next?

So,  while we await the announcement of what was found during the exhumation, I started  wondering,  “What’s next?”   In the scenario that enough usable organic material is taken to be able to perform DNA testing, then:

Will the data from the testing be in the public domain, or privately held?

If privately held:

  1.  Would the owners consider keeping the data unpublished until a potential “heir” came forward with substantial proof that they were indeed related to the “Old Leather Man”?
  2. Will the data be made available to any interested party for independent  research? 
  3. Where will the data be stored? (Digital genealogical database, filing cabinet at the OHS, other? )

The alternate scenario of finding no organic material to test makes all these questions a moot point.  Of course, it’s the one I’m hoping for.   But all I can do until Wednesday, is think back to that famous Geraldo Rivera  T.V. special with my fingers crossed.

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Exhumation, Then a Funeral

(UPDATE – As of 4:00 p.m. Sunday, May 22, digging has commenced.  Link to pictures courtesy of Stephen G)

The Ossining Historical Society announced Wednesday that the exhumation will take place in the next couple of days.  The article about it is here.  It appears a press conference to share their findings, followed by a funeral, will take place next Wednesday, May 25.  The funeral part is still puzzling to me, due to the fact that in their court petition, it states “Petitioner has no knowledge of any religious preference of the Decedent“.  Of course, they further state in seeking approval to take “anatomical gifts” to conduct the DNA testing that, “Petitioner has no knowledge that any such anatomical gift would be contrary to the religious or moral beliefs of the Decedent“.  Despite evidence that he carried a prayerbook, wore a crucifix, and took no meat on Fridays, they have used the lack of evidence of religious beliefs as a rationale for performing the tests while they have access to his remains.   But then “out of respect” there will be a funeral?  The juxtaposition of these two events will never sit well with me.  For what it’s worth, I do not plan to be there, or join in this misguided portion of the Leather Man’s journey.

Maybe the old earth which he communed with for all the years while he walked among us, and ever since, will have already returned him to the dust from which he came.  Only then, would he finally be free to roam in the shadows and the wind, forever mysterious and unknown.

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Map His Footprints, Not His DNA (Part II)

Despite the concerns voiced by hundreds of citizens,  it appears that the exhumation of the Leather Man’s remains, including the taking of “anatomical gifts” from him for DNA and forensic testing, will move forward as planned very soon.  It could be any day now. Here, in very simple terms, is my position:

I believe that the Leather Man’s DNA is his property, and he went to unimaginable lengths to guard his identity during his life. Curious strangers should not be allowed to take co-ownership of it 122 years later, just because he’s dead, and they can.

The forensic analysis will result in the destruction of a small amount of organic material from his remains in order to “expand the historical record”.  It is described as “minimally invasive”.  These are purely procedural terms.  In taking DNA from the Old Leather Man, the term “minimally invasive” is an oxymoron.  If there is one place left in the world where you should be allowed to keep some secrets, it’s within your own bones. Once performed, this action cannot be undone, so the time is now to voice your concerns directly to those involved.  I urge you to please take a minute to vote in the current poll to the right, but then even more importantly, pick up the phone, write them, email them, or maybe even try to speak to them face to face.  (Click here for contact information) Let them know that addressing public safety issues, and erecting a new  memorial are appropriate ways to accomplish their goals, but if they are intent on solving the mystery, or trying to unravel his identity, they should respect his legacy as a private individual and,   “MAP HIS FOOTPRINTS, NOT HIS DNA!”

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A Letter To The Ossining Historical Society

The most effective way to let the team know how you feel about this project is by contacting them directly.  Despite hundreds of votes and comments here and in local media in support of “Leaving the Leatherman Alone”, Norm MacDonald – OHS President, said he had only heard directly from one person as of April 2, 2011. I had hoped that the comments and data presented here on the site would be taken into consideration, but it appears only personal contact is considered a valid form of feedback. Contact info is located under the Activism Now tab.

I mailed the following letter on April 7, and I hope it sets the record straight on what “Leave the Leatherman Alone”  means to me.

To the Ossining Historical Society,

I am writing to you in regards to the “Leather Man project”.  I would like to clarify what I believe are some misconceptions about objections to this project that I have raised publicly through a website, and interviews in the local media.

First I want to state that I am in no way intending to discredit the good work that your organization, or any other Historical Society does to help preserve our past.   As a history teacher and private citizen I consider Historical Societies to be local treasures, and an invaluable resource to our communities.

I also believe your goals in this project are well-intentioned.  I have visited the gravesite, and wholeheartedly agree with your decision to take action to improve the public’s safety when visiting Sparta Cemetery.  The relationship between the current access road, Rt. 9, and the Leatherman’s gravesite is a potentially dangerous one, and I applaud your decision to remedy it.  I also believe that a new memorial for the Leather Man is a fine gesture, which would serve your mission of promoting interest in, and preserving local history.  So when I say we should “Leave the Leatherman Alone”, please understand that I am not suggesting that these two parts of the project be halted.   I am in full support of them moving forward.  I would also like to add that I have questioned only certain types of work being done, not the quality of the work.  The involvement of Dr. Nick Bellantoni assures that the project will adhere to the highest standards of professionalism.

I remain opposed to any forensic testing of the Leather Man’s remains that involves the taking and subsequent destruction of anatomical gifts to expand the historical record.  By extracting his DNA and other organic material from within his bones and teeth, the very essence of who he was will be removed and analyzed scientifically in a laboratory.  The result will be that the personal information he went to unimaginable lengths to keep within himself will be taken ownership of, and then made public.  These are actions that can never be undone.  One only needs to read the most basic research on the Leather Man to know that he did not willingly share this type of information while alive, so what makes  taking these drastic measures  acceptable now that he is supposed to be “resting in peace” at the Sparta Cemetery?  In the court petition, it is implied that since he never spoke of religious or moral views, or his genealogy, we are unaware of any personal beliefs, or family members that could raise an objection to the forensic testing.  I take umbrage at the fact that his preference to remain private through silence is now being used as justification for strangers to gain access to that personal information and share it with the world.  The way I read this is:  Since he never spoke, we don’t know if he or any potential family members would object to this, so let’s just assume he wouldn’t object and take these “gifts” from him in the interest of expanding the historical record.  I believe it is obvious that his actions spoke louder than words ever could, and they indicate loud and clear that he preferred to remain anonymous.  Rationales have been provided such as: We can learn so much through this, we may find out he was autistic, heirs may come forward, we can finally give him a voice, and he can now be given a proper Christian burial.  That last one seems to contradict the original court filing which states: “Petitioner has no knowledge of any religious preference of the Decedent”.   Team members have been quoted as saying “I would like to see him identified, It would be quite a find.”, and “I want to know.  It is to solve the mystery.”  I believe as stewards of the Leatherman’s remains interred at Sparta Cemetery, that more weight should be given by the OHS to the unique legacy of this intensely private individual.  The mere availability of 21st century technology coupled with historical curiosity should not allow us to impose our will on him because he chose to live alone and quietly outside of society’s norms.  He was a common man, with an uncommon way of life.  For me, and hundreds of others, in the case of the Old Leather Man, the ends do not justify the means.

I would like to reference one more public statement which I believe gets to the core of the issue.  From an interview with Norm MacDonald, OHS President, and petitioner to the court for permission to do the forensic testing:

He concedes that the Leatherman did not surrender much information about himself in his time, but says there are some rights you give up when you are dead. “They did an autopsy on him [in 1889],” says MacDonald. ‘This is nothing more.’”  (Fairfield Weekly, Tuesday January 11, 2011)

The word autopsy literally means “See for yourself”, which matches the rationale for this project perfectly.   The goal of the forensic testing is to “see for ourselves” what secrets the Leatherman kept private during his solitary trek.   However, with all due respect, I submit that taking anatomical gifts from the remains of the Leatherman after 122 years, is much, much more, and it crosses a line.  There is a small heart on my driver’s license that will indicate my wish posthumously to be an organ donor.  The dead do have rights, and in this case, ‘Ol Leathery has left us an unrivaled thirty year record of intentionally keeping those secrets tucked safely away in his innermost being.   I am not alone in believing they should remain there for eternity.

To achieve the goal of expanding the historical record of the Leatherman, there is still work that can be done following the excellent model given us by Dan Deluca, and others before him.  I believe in research that takes place above ground, and explores the breadth and mystery of the Leather Man’s journey through our communities so many years ago.  We should map his footprints, not his DNA.  I also believe someday he will be identified.  And when that happens, I will read all about it because I too want to know.   I sincerely hope and pray that it is never done at his expense.  Therefore, I again kindly ask you to please reconsider using any organic material from his remains to further unravel the mystery and legend of the Old Leather Man.

Respectfully submitted,

Don Johnson

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“Absolutely Not”

“Absolutely Not” was Norm MacDonald’s response to my question about whether the OHS would reconsider certain aspects of the “Leatherman” project especially the ones involving the DNA and forensic testing.  I believe him.  He explained to me that he knows of  hundreds of people who  fully support the OHS’s current plan, and thus far, he has only gotten one letter from a woman who disagreed with it.  Based solely on that information, he is 100% within his rights to discredit  the claims made here that there is “significant opposition”  to the project as proposed. I agree to some extent with his analysis, because  I recognize that data from Internet polls, and online comments are not yet in the same league  as a letter in hand, a signed petition, a public demonstration, or a personal conversation.  Case in point is Dr. Bellantoni’s willingness to listen to me when I met with him in person, and bring my concerns to the team. (He has since said they were working on paring down the forensic portion…waiting for more details)

Ironically, the same technology that has given this movement momentum, can also get it stuck in the mud.

It is now very clear that the kind of activism needed here is the  “Old School” tangible, soapbox on the ground, community involvement type.  Let’s face it, for some people (myself included), clicking a button to vote in a poll, or posting a comment  is much easier  than composing a letter, finding  a stamp and an envelope, and bringing it to the mailbox.   For what it is worth, the OHS will be getting  their second  letter of opposition this week, and I will post a copy of it here at this site.

We are at a nexus in the movement  to “Leave the Leatherman Alone”, and it is one that mirrors societies acceptance of online movements as valid indicators of public opinion.   If anyone reading this would like to commit to help in shifting the focus to local community activism, please post to the wall or guestbook, and I encourage you to get involved in this in the local community.  I am an hour and a half away,  and am thus limited in my ability to be “there”.

For the record, I continue to FULLY SUPPORT  the OHS’s goals of making the cemetery safer for visitors and replacing the memorial,  but remain FULLY OPPOSED to forensic testing that involves the taking and destruction of anatomical gifts from the remains of the Leatherman to expand the historical record.  If someone asked me if I would reconsider that position, my answer would also be an emphatic “Absolutely Not!”

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Keeping This About The Issues

I have finally spoken directly to Norm MacDonald, President of the Ossining Historical Society (OHS) concerning the “Leatherman” project.  Apparently, the two emails I sent to the OHS, on 12/6/2010 and 3/21/2011 were never received.  I will always admit when I am wrong,  and I sincerely regret not making more of an effort  to speak with him directly before today.  Unfortunately, this error may have negatively impacted the movement to “Leave the Leatherman Alone”.     I suppose it has appeared that I have been using  the anonymity of the Internet, instead of bringing my concerns to him personally,  as President of the OHS.   I profusely apologized for this, and other comments I have made, that were interpreted as discourteous to him, or to the good work that the Ossining Historical Society does.  I have tried my best to keep this debate ISSUE based, and factual, not personal.  As I stated in my first post on this site: 

“I have created this site to inform and educate, and give myself and others a forum to speak their minds on this topic.  All comments are welcome, and  please feel free to sign the guestbook.  I only ask that we all take a cue from Old Leathery himself, because although he didn’t use words and he looked a wreck, he somehow still managed to represent himself with dignity to the strangers he met.” (12/5/2010)

I would ask that anyone who visits this site keep this in mind moving forward.  Historical Societies are  local treasures, and the work that their volunteers  do to preserve the legacy of our past is invaluable.

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A DNA Test Six Years In The Making: What’s really going on?

I recently discovered a very informative newspaper article about the “Leather Man”  from June 2005.  The article describes a plan to take a DNA sample from the Leatherman to help in  “…solving the mystery of this anonymous man’s life”.  It goes on to say that DNA could “…help identify the Leather Man.”  The  two people describing this plan to the reporter in June 2005 are Dan Deluca and Norm MacDonald, two of the principals in the current project.  Here are their exact words then, and now.

From the Meriden-Record Journal June  6, 2005:

“I would like to see him identified, It would be quite a find.”  MacDonald said      

“I want to know.  It is to solve the mystery.”  (Dan Deluca)

From “Leave the Leatherman Alone.com” Dec 13, 2010

“The goal is not to determine his identity.  The Old Leather Man will always remain as he lived a mystery”  (Dan Deluca,)

Another point of interest is the acknowledgement by Mr. MacDonald that in 2005 pedestrian safety was already an issue at the gravesite, so the OHS was considering moving the grave.  Then comes this statement:  “However, they have to keep his grave within the confines of Sparta Cemetery, or they would need to get a court order for the removal.”   Yet it has taken almost six years to address the safety issues.  Does this  have anything to do with Deoxyribonucleic acid  – aka DNA?   

“He (MacDonald) said the Society is considering moving the Leather Man’s grave…to a more secure location for pedestrians” (Meriden-Record Journal  June  6, 2005)

Citing safety concerns, the society has filed a petition for permission to dig up and relocate the famed hobo’s body. “We’re responsible if someone’s hurt there,” says MacDonald                                       (Fairfield Weekly, Jan 11, 2011)

Putting all of these statements in perspective paints a clear picture for me of what is really going on here.  It is and always has been about the forensic testing and the DNA to solve the mystery and identify the Leather Man.  The safety issues could have been resolved long ago, but getting approval for DNA extraction from the Leatherman’s remains has had an undeniably strong role in determining the pace of events.

Once again, I ask:  Will someone from the team lay this all out for us and show how from start to finish, the public’s best interests are being served?

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