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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