Q & A with the Research Team

On Monday,  Jan 3, 2011,  I sent the following questions to any members of the Research team listed in the Court Documents that I could locate an email address for.  I am eagerly awaiting their responses to the questions, that YOU, the public have relayed to me.  Some were addressed in the Record-Journal article, but keep checking back!  New visitors, I know it’s a long read, but these questions really get the heart of the debate.

Update 1/13/2011 I have received responses to many of these questions from CT State Archaeologist, Dr. Nick Bellantoni.  His answers are in italics, followed by the annotation (Bellantoni)

Regarding the project:

1. How has this project been funded thus far, and going forward?

This project is primarily a volunteer effort on the parts of all the scientists involved.  No one is being compensated for their work.  I will be taking personal vacation time to conduct the fieldwork.  We are all involved because we believe in the importance of this project. (Bellantoni) Note – Dr. Bellantoni grouped responses to questions 1 and 2 together into this one one response – Don

2. Are the members of the research team being compensated for their time and expertise, or is this a volunteer effort?

This project is primarily a volunteer effort on the parts of all the scientists involved.  No one is being compensated for their work.  I will be taking personal vacation time to conduct the fieldwork.  We are all involved because we believe in the importance of this project. (Bellantoni)

3. Who will ultimately claim “ownership” of the Leatherman’s DNA, if it is recovered?

I will check into this, but, all remains unused will be reburied, so that DNA will remain as sequence of markers, not human remains. (Bellantoni)

4.  Has it been determined where and by whom the forensic evidence will be analyzed once it has been gathered? (for example: Quinnipiac University or Licensed NY State facility)

We are hoping to conduct most of the forensic evidence on site, so that the remains would not have to leave the cemetery or area.  However, that said, some of the analysis, such as DNA would obviously have to be conducted in controlled labs.  The smallest of samples will be removed, and whatever is not used will be returned for reburial.  We will be working to identify local NY state facilities when possible.  The list of the original researchers is those available last year and may not be available this year, so this year’s team may be different.  I will be formulating the team this winter.  (Bellantoni)

5.  Will his skull will be removed from the remains and transported separately to a facility in order to perform a CT scan?

Again, we are planning to use portable equipment and conduct much of the analysis at the cemetery.  (Bellantoni) Note:  I then asked for further clarification of the wording directly from the affidavit that mentioned the CT Scan.  Here it is:  In terms of the use of a CT scan, one of my original interests was to place a “face” on the Old Leatherman.  As you might know, some of the extant photos we have of him were “doctored” when they were published in the late 19th-century, so my interest was to use forensic techniques to create a 3-dimensional model of his “biological” face.  However, this would be predicated on whether we have good organic preservation.  Cranio-facial bones are very thin and decompose rapidly in our acidic soils, so all of these potential analyses that we wrote about in the affidavit may/may not be feasible.  We will be dependent on the degree of perservation.  I have seen burials of this timeframe where there was nothing left of the remains but soil.  Soils at the cemetery measure around 6 on the pH scale, so we are keeping our fingers crossed.  In fact, at this stage, there will be no soft tissue preserved, and maybe little hard tissue (i.e., bone).  So, what skeletal elements do preserve will not be “attached” to each other.  My hopes are that the Old Leatherman due to his “active” lifestyle will have a high degree of bone density, especially in the leg elements, that may allow for better preservation – the more exercise, the thicker the bone,  and the better chance for preservation.  That said, I have looked into some new technology that may allow us to take “digital” measurements of the face and crania on site! Cranio-facial landmarks can now be digitally measured to create a 3-dimensional model without the need to remove to a laboratory with a CT scan.  The equipment is portable and can be operated at the cemetery.  This would be most desirable.  I will do my best to obtain it.   As I mentioned before, my goal is to remove as little as possible for any of the forensic analysis.  The portable digitizer may allow us to do what we propose without removing the crania or other preserved skeletal remains to a laboratory.  It will be one-step-at-a-time, but please let your readers know that we will make every effort to keep the remains together and not remove what we do not have to. (Bellantoni)

6.  Will a molar be extracted from the skull, and will the entire molar be “destroyed” during testing?

A molar would be the best source of DNA since the enamel protects from contamination.  Researchers would only remove through insertion part of the pulp cavity for DNA extraction.  The molar will be reburied with the rest of the remains. (Bellantoni)

7.  Will the evidence taken from the Leatherman’s remains be accessible for future study?

If samples are small and only for immediate research needs, then the data extracted would be all we would get.  However, if future analysis were deemed important (i.e., with advances in technology), then samples could be available for future studies.  At this point, we are hoping to remove as little as possible. (Bellantoni)

8.  What is the History Channel’s role in the project?  (Sponsor, independent observer, other?) Note: Original reference to The History Channel was made by Norm MacDonald, Ossining Historical Society President, not by Dr. Bellantoni.  “MacDonald said The History Channel has expressed interest in documenting the undertaking.”  Waterbury Republican-American 11/29/2010 – Don

The History Channel is not involved in this project as far as I know.  I have been on a couple of THC programs and producers have asked me at times what future projects I may be working on. I did mention to them the possibility of the Leatherman Project among others, but, they have never gotten back to me on this. (Bellantoni)

9.  It has been stated by Dan Deluca, a member of the team, on several occasions that “The goal is not to determine his identity.  The Leatherman will always remain as he lived – a mystery”, yet in Dr. Bellantoni’s affidavit, he states “DNA will assist in the determination of the Leatherman’s ancestry and could be used to compare with potential contemporary relatives for future family identification…”  Please clarify, as these two statements from two members of the team contradict each other.

What we can learn are things like: Was he was born in America or in Europe (i.e., France) as some have speculated? Was he autistic as some have suspected (i.e., never spoke and was compulsively punctual)?   Did he die of cancer or some other ailment?  What pathologies did he have?  Trauma – healed or unhealed?  Are there life stress pathologies that might be indicative of occupation prior to his recorded journeys or the stress of his walking life? However, if continued historical documentation where to be found and additional biological and cultural data through our research obtained, then it could be compared with any potential family identified down the road.   DNA markers could be compared with contemporary individuals to see if we can locate family.  Would we ever know his name?  Not likely.  The Leatherman will still hold many secrets. (Bellantoni)

10.  Please explain the statement  “Petitioner has no knowledge of any religious preference of the Decedent” on page 2, #4 of the “Notice of Petition” filed Oct. 14 2010.  Isn’t it very well-established and widely accepted that he observed many Christian practices, including wearing a crucifix, carrying a prayerbook, and never eating meat on Fridays?  Doesn’t that indicate a religious preference?

This is part of the overall mystery of the Old Leatherman.  Some have suggested (due to their believing he was a Frenchman) that he was Roman Catholic, but we obviously do not know that.  Accounts are not consistent or suspect to people’s theories and ideas about the man.  As you know, he never spoke to anyone.  Did he wear a crucifix?  Maybe, we can learn that when we do our fieldwork and then be sure that his reburial will be with the appropriate religious context.  Wouldn’t that be wonderful to provide him with a re-internment ceremony that is appropriate to his beliefs?    That would make us very happy. (Bellantoni)

11.  On page 3, #7 of the “Notice of Petition” filed Oct. 14 2010, it is stated “Petitioner has no knowledge that any such anatomical gift would be contrary to the religious or moral beliefs of the Decedent.”  Isn’t it also well-established that for the duration (possibly 30 years) of the Leatherman’s documented travels he intentionally shunned anyone who attempted to gather information about his past?    Isn’t it also well-established, that during the final months of his life, with cancer eating away at his face and jaw, he also shunned the assistance of medical professionals, choosing to leave(escape by some accounts) Hartford Hospital on December 3, 1888, and instead suffer in solitary silence for the remaining 3 months of his life until he was found dead, alone, at one of his shelters?  Doesn’t this indicate his subscription to a belief system that would be contrary to the actions proposed?

Leatherman may have been autistic and that his silence, shunning of people, mistrust of the medical profession, punctuality and other behaviors may have had little to do with belief systems.  We can find that out. (Bellantoni)

12.  Why is the date of the exhumation being kept secret?

The date for the fieldwork is not a secret.  We have not set it yet due to the various schedules of all the researchers and volunteers. (Bellantoni)

Regarding public safety:

  1. Was moving the Leatherman’s grave considered the best of many solutions to address public safety issues?  If so, what were the criteria used to qualify and rank the other options?  What were some of the other solutions which were discounted?
  2. Is the Leatherman’s gravesite in Sparta cemetery still listed on self-guided historical tours of Ossining NY?
  3. Are school groups still allowed to visit the cemetery, and the Leatherman’s grave?

Regarding promoting historical interest in historical and geneological matters:

1.  Please explain further how this interest is being served specifically in the case of gathering forensic evidence from the remains of the Old Leatherman.  The most frequently asked question I have received is “Why go through all of this for a man with no known relatives who are searching for info, who made it his mission to not share information about his personal life, and who was just a private guy with an uncommon way of life?”

Please know that we have been a working archaeologist for well over 30 years and have been involved in numerous burial removals, either through the request of family members and representatives or due to accidental discovery during construction activities.  For example, we work very closely with Native American tribes ensuring that when the remains of their ancestors are uncovered due to modern economic development and/or vandalism that the remains are treated with the utmost respect and in accordance with Indian belief systems.  We have ensured that all the remains we deal with are properly reburied.

In terms of the Leatherman, he will be treated in the most respectful and professional manner we can ensure.  Listen, I am a big fan.  I learned about the Leatherman over 25 years ago and have been fascinated by his story ever since.  We have taken on this project to be sure that the best science and respectful treatment will occur.

We can certainly appreciate when people raise concerns about our work.  It is sensitive and emotional.  But, we would want you to know that we take our work personally.  That is, I never lose sight of the fact that I am a human being handling another human being.  Usually, like the Leatherman, they are anonymous.  We resurrect them and through forensic science, allow them to tell their own stories.  Not stories we all make up about people of the past we think we know and put ideas into their heads that are really our ideas, but, let them “speak” with their own “voices” (i.e., their biology and culture).  We give them voices (when maybe they didn’t have one), and, we bring their names forward to be remembered before the public. We would never want the public to forget the story of the Leatherman.  And, believe me, as an historical preservationist, I have seen many times that in our fast moving culture, we forget the past very quickly.

The Leatherman will remain a mystery.  Our work will not answer all the interesting questions about his fascinating figure.  What we can do is shed a little light on some aspects of his life.  People have long speculated that he was a Frenchman.  The stone at the cemetery even has a false French name that folklore made up for him.  There is so much misinformation.  How good it would be to have some proven things to say about him.  Or, would we rather maintain the mystery even at the risk of perpetuating falsehoods and myths about the man.  Either way, he is probably having a good laugh and amazed that so many people are concerned about him.

Was he Roman Catholic?  His grave currently lies in a pauper’s section of the cemetery; an unsanctified area.  Would it not be appropriate to replace him in the sanctified section of the cemetery?  With a new monument that tells his story and gives proper respect and memory.  Currently, he lies with a tombstone that is someone else’s name (Jules Bourglay) and perpetuates folklore, not reality.

Have you been to the cemetery?  Do you think this is the proper treatment of such a legend?  Also, there is a safety issue. The primary reason for the grave being moved is one of public safety.  Traffic experts have advised that 1,600 vehicles pass the gravesite each day.  Much of the traffic is commercial vehicles weighing many tons.  The traffic is increasing each year.  People congregating around the Leatherman burial site must be very careful.

One of the reasons we were willing to take on this project is that we believe the historical society truly wants to do better by him

The Leatherman deserves our professional and respectful attention. (Bellantoni)

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