Interview with Don Johnson

January, 2011 by Steve Frank

Recently we sat down with Don Johnson of leavetheleathermanalone.com and discussed his obsession with the Old Leather Man and the recent controversy surrounding the possibility of exhuming his body to obtain more information on his identity.

When did you first get interested in The Old Leatherman?

I remember when I was a kid, reading about him in a magazine at home. Then in 2002 we were driving through Hamden and saw the street named “Leatherman Trail” and it jogged my memory, so I got on the computer and started reading everything I could find. A couple of years later, we moved, and now I go by that street all the time.

I read you are a teacher; do you do anything with the OLM in your curriculum?

Yes, I teach world history, and I use the story of the Old Leatherman as an example of the enduring power of oral traditions. He regularly travelled through the town I teach in, and likely walked right by the present location of our school, so his story has a real world connection to my students. Other teachers have learned of my interest in him, and they have in turn incorporated elements of his story into Language Arts, Math and Science. For example, the Math teacher on my team had his students use the data from his route to determine that in the years he traveled his 365 mile circuit passing through our town, that he could have walked almost 25,000 miles, roughly the circumference of the earth at the equator!

We have read many different opinions on why the OLM made his trek. And why he didn’t interact with others on a personal level, do you have any theories yourself?

I have never really settled on any one theory, I prefer to leave it to my imagination, and sometimes my mood. I will admit that one of my favorites is the theory proposed after it was reported that he wrote the numbers 1 5 3 4 2 on a piece of paper after being asked his age. (Borrowing from Dan’s Book here, pg 41) From the Peekskill Blade Monday February 23, 1885 “...others, whose minds are capable of conceiving vast ideas, claim that the Leatherman must be 15,342 years of age.” I love that one.

Being Catholic, his story isn’t really all that unusual throughout history....well the leather part is pretty unique. I would compare it to some of the orders of Monks whose routine is the same day in and day out, as well St Francis of Assisi. They are all people who feel called out of this world to live a life devoid of earthly possessions. Others say he was paying a penance with his ritual. Do you think his motivation was spiritual or something else?

I do believe there was an intensely spiritual element to his journey through life. Maybe it was conditioned in him from an early age, and was all he ever knew. Maybe he was “called out” as you say. An individual’s spirituality is deeply personal. Some choose to stand at the pulpit and expound theirs to the world, while others choose to turn theirs inward, their devotion only evident through their actions. From what I have read, I would definitely place the Leatherman in the latter group.

I think by now we all know there is controversy over the plan to exhume his body. From the name of your website [leavetheleathermanalone.com], we know which side of the fence you sit on. But why not dig him up? If he was a Catholic and a believer in the resurrection, would he care while alive if this was done after death? After all Catholics have been digging up people and collecting artifact for centuries.

The idea of digging up anyone’s remains just seems excessive, like a last resort under extreme circumstances. From what I know, I am only willing to speculate that he was Christian. So this point could go in many directions. For instance, there are Christians who subscribe to the belief in a resuscitated corpse of Christ, those who subscribe to the resurrection of the Holy Spirit, and others in-between. It is their spirituality, and it is personal. Herein lays the issue with the Leatherman. Unless he left a detailed manifesto written in the first person expressing his religious beliefs, then I am saying we should err on the side of caution, and be prudent in the handling of his remains in light of the fact that to my knowledge, no such evidence exists. With the course of action I propose, I assume nothing of his religious beliefs. Instead, I have based my opinion not on an assumption, but on accepted fact - the man wished to be left alone. For a group of historians, genealogists, and scientists 120 years later, working in the secular realm and having never met the man, to make the assumption that either he wouldn’t mind being disinterred and give anatomical gifts, or would have preferred to have had a proper Christian burial is, excuse the pun, a “leap of faith”. And also to my knowledge, the Vatican is not involved in this case...yet.

We recently did an Interview with Dan Deluca, afterward you seemed to take some issues up with him in the forum. Care to expand on that?

Dan and I agree on more than we disagree on, and have acknowledged that publicly. The lengths that he is comfortable going to in the name of research are different from mine i.e. the taking of, and resulting destruction of, anatomical gifts from the Leatherman (bone tissue and a molar tooth), the removal of his skull from his remains for 3d imaging and facial re-construction in a laboratory, etc, Those are actions that I take issue with.

Obviously digging him up is physically invasive, but the books lectures, photos etc are all bringing someone who wished to remain private out into the spotlight. Is there really a difference in your opinion?

I thought about that before I named the website, and how it might be perceived as a contradiction. What I came to realize, is that in today’s hyper-connected world, there is very little I can do to control the flow of information about the Leatherman, nor would I want to try. What I mean by Leave the Leatherman alone is literally, leave him alone. Scouring archival newspaper microfiche in a small town America is a right guaranteed by our constitution, and I applaud the tenacity of the Leatherman researchers who have provided us with so much insight into his life thus far. The Leatherman did live in this country, so if he left clues behind during his life that can tell us more about him, I believe that it is certainly anyone’s right to search out information and publish their findings. Taking an anatomical gift from his remains might fast-track that research, but does so at the Leatherman’s expense on a genetic level and thus crosses a line that myself and many others are not at all comfortable with. I do not believe, in the case of the Old Leatherman, that any fellow human being has the right to such anatomical gifts just to “promote interest in historical and genealogical matters” (From Court docs). A judge did give them the right, but to me, it is not right. I say map his footprints, not his DNA!

Is anyone taking your considerations into account, and or responding to your objections?

Yes - As I mentioned earlier, I have had a very respectful ongoing discourse with Dan DeLuca, who has been very responsive thus far. Also, Connecticut State Archaeologist Dr. Nick Bellantoni has also promised some answers to my questions soon. I have also had private email, and personal conversations with others who are trying to make up their mind. The conversation has been very respectful thus far, and that is the spirit I was hoping for. My passion for this cause got the better of me with my initial “scoundrels” remark, and I give the other side of the debate credit for not holding it against me. Has anyone on the research team taken my points into account and said maybe they would re-consider? Not yet. Have others who initially supported the project changed their opinion after reflecting on some of the issues raised on my site? Yes.

Speaking of passion, what is it about the Leatherman that gets you so “amped up”?

It’s like Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam wrote in his song, “Leatherman”. “I heard about a man to whom I may be related – Leatherman.” Eddie Vedder has stated that he wrote the song right after visiting one of the Leatherman’s caves with a friend. Through the years, Ol’ Leathery’s story just has just resonated with certain individuals on a very deep level. As odd as it sounds, I feel a sort of “kinship” with him too, and I think it’s OK to be quirky and different without having to explain yourself. That’s why I feel like I must object to digging him up and doing testing on his remains. Another insight into how my worldview may be affecting me here is this story: I have three maple trees lining my driveway which are probably two to three hundred years old. An arborist came over one day to give me some advice on pruning them, and when he saw them, he just stood under the biggest one, and looked me in the eye and said, “These trees have been through more than you can ever imagine to still be standing here like this, three in a row. You are their steward now.” I really want to know how old they really are, but I would never cut them down just to count the rings. Still another is this song I heard once with the chorus, “There’s a ringing in my ear and I think it’s the call of the wild”. So, now that I’ve shared those three insights, there are at least two others I am aware of that I will not share, ever. So I’m going on record to request that no one ever dig me up, grab a molar and try to figure out what they were!

I have seen a lot of the polls in the newspapers seem to agree with your position. And the majority of people I have talked to seem to agree -- leave him alone. But the courts don’t seem to be blocking the way. In the end do you think he will be exhumed?

I’m an optimist and a dreamer by nature, so I will say no. If this were to be settled in the court of public opinion, I would still say no. However, they have a Court Ruling in hand, they own the cemetery, obviously have far greater financial resources than I do, and they are under no obligation to grant my wishes. All I have is my honest opinion, my resolve to see this through to the end, and the right to share my views with my fellow citizens.

Many people visit our site to check out paranormal activities and hauntings. What do you think about reports that the ghost of the Leatherman can still be seen/felt in and around the route he walked in life?

Well, I personally haven’t had any “encounters” so to speak, but there are a few things that are very curious to me when thought of in that light. The first is that I recently found out that the access road to the cemetery was likely paved directly over his grave. So now, aren’t his remains being protected by the very same thing that he found some measure of comfort and safety in during life? His grave site now reportedly poses a public safety hazard. Wouldn’t one sure-fire way to keep yourself safe if you want to see his grave be to simply not go there? You can see a picture of it right on here on DamnedCT, right? His headstone has the name Jules Bourglay on it. Is there not a better way to maintain your anonymity after death than to have a mis-labeled headstone? Add to that, the fact that it is a recycled headstone, with someone else’s name on the back! It’s fitting because this guy was the ultimate recycler! Leather scraps, cigar butts, homemade shovels and pipes, wooden shoes, vegetable gardens, etc. Didn’t he personify the saying “Reduce, reuse, recycle, and “Leave only footprints”? The research team says that they are acting in his best interest to give him a place of honor on consecrated ground, with a proper Christian burial, and a properly labeled brand new headstone. Maybe he’s already left us hints that he’s at peace exactly where he lies? No matter what, it still all makes for one great folktale, that’s for sure.

You had some T-shirts made up supporting your cause, where can I get some Leatherman gear?

Yes, those were a surprise gift from my family. There have been times over the past month where they have told me I need to “Leave the Leatherman Alone!” They’ve patiently listened to my ramblings, and been very supportive of what I’m doing, and had some “gear” made up for me for Christmas. They had to place a minimum order, so there are a few extras. I’ll probably put out word on the site soon, once everyone who has already asked for one has gotten theirs. What size are you?

I'm a s-medium,

Thank you Don, and good luck!

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Comments

Submitted by Larry (not verified) on
Nice interview!

Submitted by Stephen Griswold (not verified) on
I too, am right in the thick of the movement, with Don. There does seem to be a lot of contradictory statements made by Mr. DeLuca, especially with the remark of wanting to keep the legend alive, but it still strikes me as at the expense of someone who at one time, shunned attempts at knowing his story, and ironically, as Don put it here, with today's technology, the poor soul is no-longer able to protest.. Yet, from what I read of the court documents, as well of the statement by Ossining Historical Society director, Mr. MacDonald, the OHS seems to be placing 'Ownership' on the remains of the Old Leatherman, merely because the edge of the cemetery is in a poor location. Strange how a lot of the statements go that one step beyond the simple need to move the remains to a safer location, immediately into the need to perform all kinds of forensic tests and studies, while the remains are above ground. As I see it, the OHS made a mistake in allowing the access road to be built directly over the Pauper section of the cemetery. The roadway was expanded to compensate for larger volume of traffic, but took little heed of local 'Historic monuments'. (which, besides the headstone for the OLM, include a cast metal sign at the entry of that access road, marking the 'oldest cemetery' in Ossining.). Yet, with little reguard of who may've been buried, as seems to be the case with most pauper graves. Besides the Old Leatherman, Who-else is buried in this corner of the Oldest Cemetery, a corner now deemed no-longer consecrated, (correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't entire cemetery lands consecrated?) Do the OHS members care who-else they will be digging into the graves of? Will they show the utmost care they claim to give to the Old Leatherman, to their remains as well? Not very likely.. At the risk of taking a harsh view, Modern-day Grave robbers. Yes, I think that about sums up the feeling.. demanding to take information that they could not extract, and now do so with today's technology.. How fitting today's technology, doesn't also include the right to retain the right to protest. If they were possible, I very much believe, they would be the ones protesting to leave them (ALL who were buried in that corner) ALONE! Let them all rest in peace.. The damage of paving a road over their graves, is indignity enough!

As Don said, we agree on more then we disagree on, and we have both acknowledge that publicly and we have a respectful ongoing discourse. Both of us, and others would like to learn more about this mysteries folklore character “The Old Leather Man” and at this time in history I am the leading expert on him. More & more information is being discovered and I would like to share it with Don and others. I have been informed, for the health & safety of the public and because the highway has an 18-foot right of way to expand, the remains of “The Old Leather Man” will be moved to a safer location within the cemetery. At that time they will conduct forensic and DNA analysis of his remains so as to better carry out its mission of preserving sites of local historical interest and to educate the public on matters of local history. There are times that I feel Don and others have tried to put words in my mouth that I did not say. I am not an expert on the testing of samples but would agree that a small amount of bone tissue and or a molar tooth may be destroyed in the process. I have had a number of CT scans and my head was never removed. Don is the only one to my knowledge that has made the statement, "the removal of his skull from his remains". Don, please correct me if I am mistaken. Respectfully, Dan

Submitted by Stephen Griswold (not verified) on
reply to Dan DeLuca: I think I may be the origin of the statement, as it would seem unlikely the entire set of remains would be taken, and the entire set of remains used for the scan. (formal decay of the remains would also make it unlikely they are completely intact/attached.) I still do not see the need for the additional forensic testing. If the OLM is to remain a mystery, why go the extra steps, to literally pry into personal history? His place of origin, his genetic fingerprint. (read: the DNA sample.) The health & Safety issue, I do agree with, though, and if this simply was a moving of the remains to a safer location, this needn't go any further. But the additional acts of needing to scavenge additional information from the remains, full knowing the deceased himself abhorred people prying into his personal life, seems a little ghoulish, as someone else remarked in another interview. I admit, I may've been a little strong with the remark above of 'Modern-Day Grave Robbers', but when you really think about it, what seems to be the favorite thing to steal in modern times? Identity. Extracting the DNA sample, and the scan for facial reconstruction, the 'Experts' are pretty much opening the wallet of whomever the OLM was, stealing his identity from him.. and I still stand by my statement, How fitting, this is being done when he can no-longer protest.

Dan - I think as the leading expert on the Leatherman, and the most public and accesible member of the team, you do take alot of the heat for people’s dissatisafction with this project. I have been very careful to reference “The research team” when referring to the court documents, and Newsapaper articles, and mention people by name when quoting their words from these sources. I stand by the one statement I made that back in ‘06, I went to your Leatherman talk at the Meriden Public Library and you mentioned the possibility of someday digging him up and performing tests to learn more about him. I don’t have it in print, but I have two witnesses who heard it too, and especially remember how I was going on and on about it afterward. I do not believe I have been putting words in your mouth. Also, although there have been many times in my life that I have been accused of not having my head “screwed on straight”, I also never meant to imply that a (living) person’s head could be removed from their body to perform a CT Scan. I’m sure the folks on this site would be very interested in covering that story :) So to set the record straight, here is what I was referencing regarding the skull from the court documents. (Not my words, not your yours) from “Affidavit of Support of Nicholas Bellantoni"  filed under “Order with supporting Papers” "(b) a CT scan of the skull which will permit a three-dimensional image of the cranio-facial features for a reconstruction of his face, with such test to be performed at Quinnipiac University in New Haven, or at a licensed New York State facility and will not involve the destruction of the skull, after which testing the remains will be reburied;” This is a matter of public record, is posted on my website, and is part of the petition with your signed affidavit supporting it. How do you read this? Would removing of the skull from the rest of the remains bother you? -Don

Submitted by Dave (not verified) on
The Ossining Historical Society and the Sparta Cemetery board could come up with a better idea. How about keep his remains where ever they may be. Rope off the area. Leave a plaque explaining why, pointing to the head stone and thats that. Then you're really leaving him alone. Other than the thousands of vehicles that pass just a few yards from his head all day....

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