The Old Leather Man: controversy over digging up a legend

Investigators 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]

It’s time travel writers stopped stereotyping Africa

Pop quiz: where was this photo taken?

OK, the title of this post kind of gives it away, but if I hadn’t written Africa, would you have guessed? It was taken in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. This isn’t the view of Africa you generally get from the news or travel publications–a modern city with high rises and new cars. A city that could be pretty much anywhere. That image doesn’t sell.

And that’s the problem.

An editorial by Munir Daya for the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen recently criticized Western media coverage of Africa, saying it only concentrated on wars, AIDS, corruption, and poverty. Daya forgot to mention white people getting their land stolen. If black people get their land stolen, you won’t hear a peep from the New York Times or the Guardian. If rich white ranchers get their land stolen, well, that’s international news. And look how many more articles there are about the war in Somalia than the peace in Somaliland.

Daya was objecting to an in-flight magazine article about Dar es Salaam that gave only superficial coverage of what the city has to offer and was peppered with statements such as, “Dar es Salaam’s busy streets are bustling with goats, chickens, dust-shrouded safari cars, suit-clad office workers and traders in colourful traditional dress.”

Daya actually lives in the city and says you won’t find many goats and chickens on the streets. But that wouldn’t make good copy, would it?

Travel writing has an inherent bias in favor of the unfamiliar, the dangerous. Some travel writers emphasize the hazards of their journey in order to make themselves look cool, or focus on the traditional and leave out the modern. Lonely Planet Magazine last year did a feature on Mali and talked about the city of Bamako, saying, “Though it is the fastest-growing city in Africa, Bamako seems a sleepy sort of place, lost in a time warp.” On the opposite page was a photo of a street clogged with motorcycle traffic. If Bamako is in a sleepy time warp, where did the motorcycles come from?

I’m not just picking on Lonely Planet; this is a persistant and widespread problem in travel writing and journalism. Writers, and readers, are more interested in guns than concerts, slums rather than classrooms, and huts rather than skyscrapers. In most travel writing, the coverage is simply incomplete. In its worst extremes, it’s a form of racism. Africa’s problems need to be covered, but not to the exclusion of its successes.

As Daya says, “there is more to Africa than famine and genocide.” There are universities, scientific institutes, music, fine cuisine, economic development, and, yes, skyscrapers.

And if you think Dar es Salaam is the exception rather than the rule, check out’s gallery of African skyscrapers.


Five reasons why life on the road doesn’t suck

A few days ago our roving reporter in China talked about “Five reasons why life on the road can really suck.” Her points were:
1. It can be difficult to make deeper connections with people.
2. People at home go on with their lives, and you become less and less a part of them.
3. Sometimes it feels like your life is standing still.
4. You can’t commit to any one thing, and so never experience anything fully
5. You continually have experiences that you simply can’t convey to folks who aren’t with you.

Valid points, every one of them, but I think her epic Chinese bus tour has left her a little worn out because there’s a positive flip side to each of these.

1. You can make deeper connections with people, it’s just harder (and therefore more worthwhile).

It’s true that being on the road means you usually don’t stay long enough to make lasting relationships, but that’s not always the case. If you settle down for a few days or weeks you can get to know some of the local people and you can keep in touch with them after you go. I was doing this even before everyone had email, and it’s a whole lot easier now. Sometimes people pop up out of your past totally unexpected. I made a good friend in Quetta, Pakistan, who I corresponded with for a couple of years. Eventually that correspondence faded away, but just this year he Googled me and got in touch! He lives in Europe now so we may even get to meet up.

2. If you and some of your friends drift apart, so be it.

Nothing lasts forever, not friends, not relationships, not even travel. We either move apart or we die (oh, that was cheery!). Travel brings new perspectives, a new lifestyle, and new associations. Yes, some of those old connections may fade away, but if you choose to have a different lifestyle than they do, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. And the real friends will always be there.

3. Your life is never standing still.
It just may not be progressing along the same lines as the clock-punchers back home. If you choose to spend your twenties wandering the world like I did, your thirties will probably not be as financially stable as some of your friends’, nor will your career be as advanced, unless, of course, your career is tied to travel. I went from being an archaeologist to a writer, so I was able to make my career progress while on the road. If I had wanted to be a lawyer or manage a company, I’d be screwed.

4. Give your trip focus, and you will experience things fully.

Travelers, no matter how leisurely they explore a country, are still just passing through. Despite having wandered all over Damascus I never saw it except in winter. Is it much different in springtime? I don’t know. I also haven’t seen its great transformation after the huge influx of Iraqi refugees. On the other hand, I have a sound knowledge of Islamic architecture and medieval castles, two big interests of mine. All through my travels in the Middle East I went to every mosque or castle I could find. That was my continuity, that and endless cups of tea during endless conversations in an endless string of cafes. Good conversationalists, the Arabs.

5. It’s OK to keep some memories for yourself.

It would be nice to fully share all our travel experiences with our loved ones, but to do that they’d have to come along for the ride, and even then their experiences would be different because they have different perceptions. We’re each on our own road through this life, whether we’re world travelers or couch potatoes. You can’t share everything with everybody. In fact, some of my most treasured travel memories are incidents I’ve never told anyone because they would never believe me!

A final note
Catherine, sooner or later there’s a fork in the road and we choose one way or the other. If we haven’t gone too far down one way we can always scurry back and try to catch up with the folks on the other path. I’ve known some people who did that.
Or we can forge on ahead. Every choice has its pluses and minuses, even being a globetrotting writer has its downsides. Believe me, I know. But I’ve never regretted my decision, and I have the feeling you haven’t either.
So don’t despair, you just have a case of the traveler’s blues. We all get it, but the road will offer up an instant cure with some magnificent sight or encounter. It’s probably done that for you already.