Monday, November 17, 2008
The old leatherman returns
I wish Dan DeLuca the best. For now, his are the shoulders upon which the legend of the Old Leatherman rest. It's partly a joy, and partly a curse, but DeLuca has taken on the robe of leather, and will bear it until someone else becomes obsessed with a mad old hobo who didn't know better than to come in out of the rain.
DeLuca just published a handsome, and definitive set of primary research materials on the Leatherman. His book, The Old Leatherman, has just been released by the Wesleyan University Press. It's chockablock with news accounts, some as early as the 1850's, about a man, dressed all in a handmade suit of leather, who wandered a regular route through New York and Connecticut for three decades in the 19th century. DeLuca has obviously spent hours and years in dusty archives, attics and hunched over microfiche readers, rooting out these news accounts which detailed the comings and goings of a minor celebrity on the backroads of local towns.
He lived out of doors, in rock shelters throughout the area (there's one on Higby, and one in Maromas). He lived on handouts, and traded, consciously or not, on his status as an omen of luck, and his minor celebrity.
I know about Dan's obsession, because for a few years, I too was lost in those same archives searching for material that might unlock the secrets of this wanderer for me. In 1984, with some willing friends, produced a documentary called "The Road Between Heaven and Hell" (you can watch it in installments, on Youtube, here). The title is line from an old folk song written contemporaneously with the wanderings of the Leatherman.
For me, it began with a photo of the Leatherman posted in the local newspaper, with a short article about a rock shelter in which the wanderer spent a few days waiting out the great blizzard of 1888. That rock shelter was just around the corner from where I was living at the time in Southington.
So I started digging. And I was lucky enough to meet Leroy Foote, the last person as obsessed as I had become with the old wanderer. And I met the last living person to have seen the Leatherman. And I met dozens of other people who had some material, or some connection, or some old photo that helped me piece an incomplete story together. But, alas, that story would remain incomplete, as it does today.
DeLuca has done a much better job than I in his research. He has found very early news accounts which make it clear that the Leatherman spoke, farmed and worked to make his way in the early days before he settled into a routine of grunting and begging. DeLuca has also ferreted out some amazing, never-before-seen or published photographs of the wanderer, which, amazingly, except for an obvious decline in weight, health and vigor, show a man, a lost soul, whose age and identity is indistinct because of the clothing he chose to wear. I remember writing in my script that "only a handful" of photographs of the Leatherman remain. Reflecting now, I think it's amazing that so many photos were taken, with the consent of the Leatherman, since in 19th century America, if you had even one photo taken of yourself in a lifetime, it was a memorable and rare event.
DeLuca's research also seems to prove, in these early accounts, a version of the legend that was to follow the Leatherman to his grave. According to those early reports, he was involved in the leather trade, as a tanner, and he was driven mad when he lost his business and the woman he loved, almost simultaneously. This madness drove him to his wanderings, and to wear the rough leather outfit he created for himself.
For me, at some point, I realized I would never uncover the fact of the poor, old Leatherman's life. He was nearly mute on the topic of his biography, and the accounts left behind were contradictory, inflammatory and not entirely helpful. I think DeLuca has come closer to the truth, for what it's worth. But the near truths are less interesting than what this story says about all of us, all these generations, who, as Nick Shoumatoff says in the documentary, remember the Leatherman when most of his contemporaries, even notables, have been forgotten.
The real interest is how communities form myths, and how those myths have power, and are passed from one generation to the next.
I dispelled my own obsession by writing a long novel about the Leatherman. I decided to make it a set of parallel stories - that of Jack Conroy, a boy who was raised at the Connecticut State Hospital for the Insane, and Jules Bourglay, the man who would become the Leatherman. I never submitted it to anyone for publication, and only a few people have read it, but I decided this weekend to start a blogpost where I'll attempt to put up a chapter each week, starting today, here.