Digging up the Leather Man's story in Conn.
Despite a simmering controversy, researchers are finalizing plans to exhume the body of the 19th-century enigma known as the Leather Man.
A team of experts led by Connecticut State Archaeologist Nicholas F. Bellantoni expects to break ground next month on the project. They believe the remains may yield valuable clues into the vagabond's identity, which has been shrouded in mystery due to his taciturn demeanor and nomadic lifestyle.
According to research compiled by Dan W. DeLuca, author of "The Leather Man: Historical Accounts of a Connecticut and New York Legend," the Leather Man was a homeless wanderer who trekked a 360-mile loop between the Hudson and Connecticut rivers every 34 days between 1883 and 1889. He slept in caves, wore a 60Âpound, hand-stitched leather suit made from scraps collected along his journey and spoke little.
For decades he survived off the land and the generosity of New Englanders, many of whom took pride in feeding him bountiful meals.
His loop regularly took him through Waterbury and many surrounding towns.
Because of his unique appearance, the Leather Man became a regional curiosity.
Small-town newspapers secured his place in history with musings on his travels and regular reports along his circuit. He died in the woods outside of Ossining, N.Y., in 1889, presumably from cancer of the lip and jaw. He was buried in a pauper's grave in Ossining's Sparta Cemetery.
In the years that followed, the mystery of the Leather Man's identity became a popular campfire tale, and has since been cemented into the folklore of the area through music and print. However, a new chapter in the story may soon be written. Last November, the Ossining Historical Society was granted a court order allowing it to dig up the man's remains and move them to another location inside the cemetery. If bones can be found, researchers hope to perform a series of tests to help determine the man's origins. And if they can find the remains, they would like a DNA sample as well. Justification for the exhumation has been based on concerns over public safety. The grave is the most visited in the cemetery, and rests just feet from a busy road.
But that argument doesn't carry much weight with Don Johnson, a North Haven Middle School history teacher who for the last four months has been on a mission to raise awareness of the dig.
Late last year, Johnson started a website called LeaveTheLeatherManAlone.com. Since then, a flurry of media reports have brought the issue to a national audience. To date, the website has been visited more than 21,000 times.
Johnson believes the Leather Man was an intensely private, common, man who deserves to be left as such.
"If it's a public safety issue, why do you still need the DNA?" he asked. "They have never been able to come up with a reason that people on my side are willing to accept. The scientific research for them trumps any sort of personal privacy issues."
In support of his position, Johnson cites several online polls showing overwhelming opposition to the project.
"Eighty percent of the public is not in favor of this," he said.
According to Johnson, the Ossining Historical Society and its president, Norman MacDonald, don't consider the online protest valid.
"They think we're a small group of people instigating something," Johnson said.
When interviewed last fall about the project, MacDonald said the exact date of the dig would be kept a secret. But after what he called "tremendous" interest from the media, he said the Society has changed its mind.
"We decided we would allow the media to be there with certain restrictions," MacDonald said. "They will not be able to photograph certain areas ... just the whole process of opening a grave and moving it is a very sensitive subject and it's something we want to keep respectful. We don't want the whole operation to turn into a public circus."
MacDonald said that while he respects Johnson's opinion, he doesn't agree with the premise that the Leather Man was a private person.
"He was a very, very, visible public figure. If he wasn't, we wouldn't know about him today," MacDonald said. "If he wanted privacy, he would have been a hermit."
As far as opposition to the project, MacDonald said, he has heard nothing but support from the nearly 800 members that comprise the Ossining Historical Society.
MacDonald is aware of Johnson's website. "You know feedback on the Internet is somewhat anonymous," MacDonald said. "While I respect everyone who has answered his website, I'm not sure they know all the background and facts of what we're doing and why."
Johnson said he is still contemplating what to do next. He wouldn't rule out the possibility of protesting, calling it a moral dilemma.
"I'm still holding out hope somewhere down there will be someone who says 'Let the mystery remain,'" he said. "If not, I don't know how far I will I go."
Johnson says the last thing he wants is for people to turn against the Ossining Historical Society. "In general, I think they do incredible work."