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Search For Clues Only Deepens 'Leatherman' Mystery

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Search For Clues Only Deepens 'Leatherman' Mystery

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Search For Clues Only Deepens 'Leatherman' Mystery

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The Old Leather Man was a mysterious, 19th-century character who wandered through town in Connecticut and New York. This week, archaeologists and historians set out to resolve at least a few of the unanswered questions about him.

As Craig LeMoult from member station WSHU reports, the effort has only added to the mystery surrounding him.

CRAIG LEMOULT: Off an old dirt road in Ossining, New York is a large rock face with some smaller, jagged boulders at its base.

Mr. DAN DELUCA (Author, "The Old Leather Man"): Here we are. This is actually where the Leather Man stayed.

LEMOULT: Dan DeLuca climbs down into what looks more like a crevice than a cave. More than 120 years ago, this spot was one of the homes of The Old Leather Man.

Mr. DELUCA: He was all dressed in leather, made from old boot tops that he sewed together with leather lace.

LEMOULT: Oh, and that boot suit? It weighed 60 pounds, and he wore it even in the hottest days of summer. In 1883, he started walking clockwise in a 365-mile circle between the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers. And he completed that circle every 34 days. DeLuca says The Old Leather Man was so punctual that people could tell the time by his schedule.

Mr. DELUCA: If normally, he would stop at your house at 10:00, he would be there around 10:00, give or take five, 10 minutes.

LEMOULT: The Old Leather Man slept in caves and other shelters where he tended gardens and stored food. He walked through more than 40 towns on his route. But he didn't speak much, just the occasional grunt of some fractured English and sometimes a phrase in French, which was clearly his native language. He was a curiosity, and no one knew who he was.

It's a mystery DeLuca's been researching for more than 20 years. He started his research after a heart transplant forced him to retire.

Mr. DELUCA: A lot of people, when they get a heart transplant, don't make it. They pass away. And I think The Old Leather Man has kept me alive.

LEMOULT: DeLuca's not the only one inspired by the legend. The band Pearl Jam recorded a song about him. There's a race in Pound Ridge, New York named after him. And his caves are visited by Leather Man enthusiasts, and so is his grave here in Ossining, New York.

(Soundbite of traffic)

LEMOULT: The gravesite is right next to a highway, and so many people visit it that there's concern someone could be hurt. So the local historical society decided to dig up The Old Leather Man. The plan was to move him to a more central place in the graveyard. And while they were at it, they decided to do forensic tests on the remains to check some of the theories about him: Did he have Native American roots? Was he from France or America?

The plan to take the DNA became a bit of a controversy. Don Johnson is a middle school history teacher in North Haven, Connecticut, who teaches his students about the Leather Man. He's also the creator of the website He says the Leather Man was intensely private.

Mr. DON JOHNSON (Teacher; Creator, Thirty years, 100,000 miles, never telling anybody who he was. That legacy, to me, should speak to us today as, do we want to respect him and memorialize him properly? Then leave him alone. Leave his bones alone.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

LEMOULT: But this week, archaeologists, soil scientists and amateur historians filled a tent erected over the gravesite. It feels somewhere between a scene from the TV show "CSI" and a circus tent.

Archaeologist Nick Bellantoni carefully scrapes away at the gravesite. He finds some nails and a few animal bones, but that's it. What he doesn't find is any trace of The Old Leather Man.

In a way, actually, the whole thing of the mystery of the Leather Man has been, you know, we didn't know who he was. Now we might not even know where he is.

Dr. NICK BELLANTONI (Archaeologist): Yeah. No, he's, you know, he's having a good laugh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEMOULT: They held a funeral for The Old Leather Man yesterday afternoon and reburied some of the dirt where they believe he decomposed. The Old Leather Man died more than 120 years ago, but the mystery surrounding his legend is now stronger than ever.

For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult.

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