The Old Leather Man: controversy over digging up a legend

Leather Man, Leatherman, Old Leather Man, The Old Leather ManInvestigators in Connecticut are planning to uncover a local legend, but they’re facing a backlash of public sentiment.

An archaeological team will open the grave of The Old Leather Man, a mysterious wanderer who from 1883 to 1889 walked a 365 mile loop from the lower Hudson River Valley into Connecticut and back. It took him 34 days to make the journey and he was so punctual that well-wishers used to to have meals ready for him when he showed up. He spoke French but little English, slept only in caves and rock shelters, and never revealed information about himself. He got his name from his homemade, 60 lb. suit of leather.

His grave in Ossining’s Sparta Cemetery brings a regular flow of the curious, but local officials are afraid it’s too close to the street and is a safety hazard. They plan to dig up The Old Leather Man and move him to a different part of the cemetery. They also want to take a DNA sample. Legend claims he was a heartbroken Frenchman named Jules Bourglay, but Leather Man biographer Dan W. DeLuca says this is an invention of a newspaper of the time.

The DNA might prove a clue to who he really was and that’s where the controversy starts. History teacher Don Johnson has set up a website called Leave the Leatherman Alone, saying that his privacy should be respected. Judging from all the comments on his site, he seems to have a fair amount of backing.

As a former archaeologist I love unraveling a good mystery but I have to agree with Mr. Johnson on this one. The Old Leather Man obviously wanted his identity to remain unknown, and just because he was a homeless man why should his wishes be ignored? He never committed any crime besides vagrancy, he died of natural causes, and there are no known inheritance issues, so what’s the need?

As a teenager growing up in the Hudson Valley, I loved the mysteries of New England and the Mid-Atlantic states–the strange rock constructions, the Revolutionary War ghosts, Mystery Hill, and, of course, The Old Leather Man. Most of this is the stuff of imagination, but The Old Leather Man was real, living person.

And because of that, we should let his mystery remain buried.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

England plans to sell all its public forests

forest, forests, sherwood forestEnglish environmentalists, hikers, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and pretty much everybody else is up in arms about a UK government plan to sell off all the woodlands managed by the Forestry Commission in England, the BBC reports.

The Forestry Commission manages 18 percent of all England’s forests, some 2,500 sq km (965 sq miles). A portion of the forests are already being sold to raise £100m million ($159 million).

A public poll this week found 75 percent of the public against the move.

The plan will not affect forests in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

This is the dumbest idea the UK government has come up with since selling the Royal Mail. Forests are a national heritage, not something to be sold off by privileged members of government to their old classmates from Eton. The government says that environmental and public use rights will be protected but, to use an English phrase, that’s a load of bollocks. Once the forests are in private hands, it will be much easier for private interests to undermine the laws governing them, or simply ignore the laws if the fines come out to less than they’d make turning the forests into shopping malls and housing developments. This is already standard practice in Spain, and it has ruined some of the best stretches of the Mediterranean coastline.

As a hiker who loves England’s woodland, I have grave concerns over what this will mean for people from England and around the world who go to the woods to see some of England’s most beautiful spots. A few hundred million pounds in the government’s pocket will not solve the economic crisis, or save national health care, or pay off the national debt, but it will mean that the heritage of the English people may disappear forever.

[Image courtesy user ntollervey via Wikimedia Commons]

Controversy over Spain’s reopened Army Museum

Spain has reopened its Army Museum after moving it from Madrid to Toledo, but some Spaniards aren’t happy with the choice of buildings.

The Museo del Ejército is housed in El Alcázar, a fort overlooking Toledo. When the fascists rebelled against the Second Spanish Republic and started the Spanish Civil War, Toledo was controlled by the Republican government, but the fort was in the hands of an army garrison who threw their lot in with Francisco Franco and the other fascist leaders. The defenders held out for two months against overwhelming odds until Franco’s army took the town. Franco went on to defeat the Republic and rule Spain as dictator until his death in 1975. Spain quickly switched to democratic rule after that.

The siege was a rallying cry for the fascists during the war and a major propaganda tool throughout their rule. Many on Spain’s left don’t like the symbolism of putting a military museum there. Some on the right are upset too, because a planned exhibit dedicated to El Division Azul, Spanish volunteers who fought for Hitler on the Russian front, was left out. Some artifacts from the division are on display in the World War Two section.

Another lingering controversy is the cost–€101 million ($129 million), almost four times its original budget. The museum was four years late in opening.

The museum itself is an interesting addition to any already much-visited city. With 21 rooms and 8000 square meters of exhibition space, it displays thousands of items from the early days of Spain’s military might up to the present day. While the displays tell the story of the Spanish army, the controversy over the museum says a lot about Spain’s struggle with its past.

Photo courtesy Rgcamus via Wikimedia Commons.