Who Is the Real “Leatherman”?

by John Reynolds on December 15, 2005

Co-written with Rob Yasinsac


Scan of photo originally published in The Lure of the Litchfield Hills Magazine, December, 1952

Scarborough is a hamlet of the town of Ossining, New York, which is about 30 miles north of New York City located on the Hudson River. Not quite as regal as the two or three old mansions it’s best known for – but just as significant and interesting – is the Sparta Cemetery, just off Route 9, yards from the famous Scarborough Presbyterian Church. There, five feet from the road behind a gate pillar, is the grave of “The Leather Man.”

My interest in the real Leather Man was sparked in early 1998 when I discovered that the b-side of the newly released first single from Yield, “Given to Fly,” was a song called “Leatherman.” I was only vaguely familiar with story about this man of the land, but I looked in my copy of History of the Tarrytowns and sure enough, Eddie Vedder’s description of the Leatherman exactly matched the story as told by author Wally Buxton. My question to Synergy’s Rumor Pit in the summer of 1998, and the resulting answer, confirmed it.

Q: Ever since “Leatherman” was released, I’ve wondered if it was written about a certain Jules Bourglay – “The Leather Man” – who wandered Westchester County, NY in the late 19th century. Was it?

A: Yes.

Shortly thereafter, at Madison Square Garden in New York (just 26 miles downstate from the Leather Man’s grave) on September 11, 1998, Ed explained the songs origins to the local crowd: “So two Christmases ago, I was staying with a good friend somewhere on the outskirts; outside of the city, outside of the trains, outside of the traffic. And this next song’s written about this guy we learned about on on this hike that we took. We took this hike and out on these back trails and this guy used to set up these little caves – ya know, rock caves – and he had them all spread around like for ten miles. And he would, just every night, go to a different cave – each one just a few miles away from each other. So the next song’s written about him. So this is ‘Leatherman.’”

Side by side, Eddie’s lyrics match up directly to the facts from excerpts of History of the Tarrytowns

“Leatherman”
words/music by Eddie Vedder

I heard about a man

To whom I may be related

He’s leatherman

Died a long time ago

In the 1880s

Leatherman, leatherman

Covered with leather

But it wasn’t tight

Underneath the moon

In the woods at night

Making his 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

Axe in his pack

He’s leatherman, leatherman, leatherman

Comes out of the caves

Once a day to be fed

Wasn’t known to say much

But “thanks for the bread”

So modern day, I walk ’round

With my jacket faded

Just like a man of leather

To whom I may be related

Rolled cigarette

For which he’d ask for a light

Appeared to be an animal

Yet so polite

Making his 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

Axe in his pack

He’s leatherman, leatherman, leatherman

Leatherman, 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, leatherman

Give me some skin, Leatherman

From A History of Tarrytowns
by Caning and Buxton

“A grave, unmarked for many years, in Scarborough’s Sparta Cemetery holds the remains of Jules Bourglay, a Frenchman whose curious ways earned him the nickname, ‘The Leather Man’.”

“Legend says Bourglay began his strange behavior after his failure in the leather business of his future father-in-law broke up his romance in the mid-19th century. Stricken with grief, he came to America and wandered between the Hudson and Connecticut Rivers, clad in the substance of his ruin: leather. His presence soon was heralded throughout the area as people came to recognize the leather-clad gentleman who was never known to speak, enter a house or accept favors or money from anyone. Some early writers believed he was a mute. He appeared many times in the Tarrytowns, reported Marcus D. Raymond, early historian and editor for the old Tarrytown Argus.

“The Leather Man was known for his great appetite. His regular order in local groceries was a loaf of bread, a can of sardines, a pound of fancy crackers, a pie, two quarts of coffee, a gill of brandy and a bottle of beer.”

“He wore a suit of heavy leather year-round and must have been a strong man to wear this heavy suit and walk the many miles he tramped each day in his wandering, solitary existence.”

“The Darrow family of Shrub Oak in northern Westchester developed such an interest in the Leather Man that, in the front of their account book for 1884-93, they listed the dates he passed through that community from 1885-89. the list shows that he visited Shrub Oak a little less frequently than once a month, usually appearing in mid-morning; next to the dates are brief notes about whether he stopped and, if so, for how long and what he did.”

“Representatives for the Connecticut Humane Society became so concerned about the Leather Man that in December 1888 they had the old man arrested and taken to a Hartford hospital. But he wanted his freedom. He had money and refused to stay, so hospital authorities judged him sane except for an emotional affliction, and released him to his wanderings.”

“He died March 24, 1889, some say of cancer, in a shelter on the George Dell farm in Briarcliff and, after a coroner’s inquest, he was buried as a public charge in an unmarked grave. History enthusiasts of the Westchester County Historical Society learned the location of the grave and placed markers on it in the 1930′s.”

“the inscription on the modest headstone near the entrance to Sparta Cemetery on Route 9 reads: ‘Final resting place of Jules Bourglay of Lyons, France, “The Leather Man,” who regularly walked a 365-mile route through Westchester and Connecticut from the Connecticut River to the Hudson, living in caves, in the years 1858-1889.’”

Headstone of the Leather Man


(click to enlarge)

It reads:
FINAL RESTING PLACE OF
Jules Bourglay

OF LYONS, FRANCE

“THE LEATHER MAN”

who regularly walked a 365 mile route through Westchester and Connecticut from the Connecticut River to the Hudson living in caves in the years 1858-1889

So that’s it? The Leather Man is Jules Bourglay? End of story? Apparently not.

Historian Dan DeLuca of Meriden, CT has found through research that the Leatherman was not named “Jules Bourglay” and that the story of his origins in France and failed love affair are a myth. In other words, there was a Leatherman – and only one – but his true name and origins remain unknown to us today. “I have been researching the ‘Old Leather Man’ for about 20 years now and have been collecting many articles on him” writes DeLuca. “The first ‘Jules Bourglay story’ was printed by the Waterbury Daily American, August 16, 1884. And four denials were printed in 1889. Historian Allison Albee of Rye, N.Y., who was an authority on the history of the well-known character, spent endless years to keep historical facts from legends. He did research in France, to try to confirm the Jules Bourglay story – No names in the story were able to be confirmed. Research was done on the person who penned the story, and there was no person of that name from that town – the story was made up. The ‘Old Leather Man’ was not ‘Joules Bourglay.’”

The weaving of fact and fiction about this curious character has meant that his story has taken on the dimensions of a minor myth. And the Pearl Jam song, “Leatherman” has gathered it’s own mystery. Why was “Leatherman” the only one of two original studio Pearl Jam b-sides that weren’t included on Lost Dogs? Only Pearl Jam knows for sure.

“Leatherman”‘s release set the stage for the band’s second trilogy – the “Man Trilogy” (the first trilogy being the well-known “Mamasan Trilogy” of “Alive” “Once” and “Footsteps”). This trilogy consists of Pearl Jam songs with “man” in it: “Better Man,” “Nothingman,” and “Leatherman.” The first time the Man trilogy was performed was at the 6/24/98 Rapid City, SD concert. “Nothingman,” “Leatherman,” and “Better Man” were played one after another, and Ed introduced the songs with “We’re gonna do something this band has never attempted before – play three songs in a row with ‘man’ in the title.”

Leatherman highlights:
03/19/98 Perth, AU – “Leatherman” played for the first time

Ed: “We haven’t ever played this song, and we’re probably never going to again, so here goes.”

06/24/98 Rapid City, SD – First Trilogy, played consecutively

Nothingman, Leatherman, Better Man

06/27/98 East Troy, WI – Trilogy, all songs played, not played consecutively

Nothingman… Leatherman, Better Man

07/08/98 Phoenix, AZ – Leatherman played, no trilogy

Ed: “[Leatherman] is a b-side to that song [they just played, 'Given To Fly'] so some of you might not know it. True story, swear to god …”

07/11/98 Las Vegas, NV – Trilogy, all songs played, not played consecutively
Nothingman, Leatherman… Better Man

09/08/98 E. Rutherford, NJ – Trilogy, songs played consecutively
Nothingman, Leatherman, Better Man

09/11/98 New York, NY – Trilogy, all songs played, not played consecutively
Nothingman… Leatherman, Better Man

06/04/00 Manchester, UK – Trilogy, all songs played, not played consecutively
Nothingman, Better Man… Leatherman
06/16/00 Katowice, PL – Leatherman played, no trilogy

Ed: “[Following 'Light Years'] The next song is also about a dead guy.”

06/23/00 Zurich, CH – Trilogy, songs played consecutively
Better Man/(Save It For Later), Nothingman, Leatherman

08/07/00 Atlanta, GA – Trilogy, songs played consecutively
(Romanza)/Better Man, Nothingman, Leatherman, Grievance

08/10/00 West Palm Beach, FL – Trilogy, songs played consecutively
Better Man/(Save It For Later), Nothingman, Leatherman

08/21/00 Columbus, OH – Trilogy, all songs played, not played consecutively
(Romanza)/Better Man… Leatherman, Nothingman

08/23/00 Wantagh, NY – Trilogy, songs played consecutively
Better Man, Leatherman, Nothingman

08/30/00 Mansfield, MA – Trilogy, songs played consecutively
Better Man… Leatherman, Nothingman

Ed: “There’s ‘Better Man.’ There’s ‘Leatherman.’ All this prick writes about is men. This one’s called ‘Nothingman’.”

10/09/00 Rosemont, IL – Trilogy, songs played consecutively
Better Man, Leatherman, Nothingman

10/28/00 Devore, CA – Trilogy, songs played consecutively
Leatherman, Better Man, Nothingman

Ed: [introducing each band member and mentioning what they worked at before becoming famous] Mike worked in a coffee shop, Jeff worked in a pizza place, Matt worked at Kinkos [crowd laughing]. And then, Stone Gossard. Never worked a day in his life.”

Stone: “Oh, he says he worked at a lumberyard. I’ve never heard this. Ohhh!! His uncle owned the lumberyard… Can I get you some coffee, Uncle Steve?”

Ed: “And myself … well, how about this: I waited tables. My first job was construction, but I had to save my hands. The restaurant I waited for had this thing called the ‘holy trinity’. It was a meal for the cheapskates that couldn’t afford a real meal. At this particular restaurant there happened to be a lot of cheapskates and people that didn’t tip. I’m kidding if you’re out there listening. Anyways, the ‘holy trinity’ was ‘soup, salad and bread’. Here’s Pearl Jam’s ‘holy trinity.’ See if you can put it together as we go.”

11/02/00 Portland, OR – Trilogy, all songs played, not played consecutively
Better Man… Leatherman, Nothingman

Ed: “That one [DTE] is a true story and this one is too. It’s about a real guy. He had a name. His name was ‘Leatherman’.”

11/06/00 Seattle, WA – Trilogy, songs played consecutively
Leatherman, Better Man, Nothingman

Ed: “This song was actually written about a about a guy who lived in the late 1880s in the Northeast… His name was Leatherman.”

03/04/03 Osaka, JP- Trilogy, songs played consecutively
Nothingman, Leatherman, Better Man

04/16/03 Charlotte, NC – Trilogy, songs played consecutively
Nothingman, Better Man, Leatherman

06/26/03 Detroit, MI – Trilogy, songs played consecutively
Leatherman, Nothingman, Better Man

07/11/03 Mansfield, MA – Trilogy, songs played consecutively
Leatherman, Nothingman, Better Man

09/22/05 Halifax, NS – Trilogy, played separately, once each set
Leatherman… Nothingman… Better Man (one in each set)

10/03/05 Philadelphia, PA – Trilogy, songs played consecutively
Leatherman, Better Man/(?)/(Save It For Later), Nothingman

by John Reynolds

Bibliography and Further Reading

About the Author

Rob Yasinsac has been documenting historic and distinctive architecture in the Hudson Valley since 1994, showcased at www.HudsonValleyRuins.org. A resident of Tarrytown, New York, Rob has focused his work on ruins and abandoned buildings. Since graduating from college, Rob has worked as a Museum Associate at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, NY, a property of Historic Hudson Valley. He serves as a Trustee on the Boards of the Westchester County and Irvington Historical Societies. The author of Briarcliff Lodge, published in 2004 by Arcadia, and Rob is currently co-authoring another book, Hudson Valley Ruins. Rob is also among four photographers documenting the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery for a book on the famed resting place of Washington Irving, Walter Chrysler, William Rockefeller, Samuel Gompers and other luminaries.

This is Rob’s first article for TwoFeetThick.com

John Reynolds ( Twitter: @jjjrrr )
A New Jersey based programmer, John handles TFT’s programming and technical aspects. He also conceives and writes his share of TFT’s articles and sections. John’s first Pearl Jam show was at Lollapalooza on August 12, 1992.

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