Mystery of Leather Man

Years ago, people were much more accepting of the odd ones among us, the mysterious ones, the different ones, the ones who we now say "aren't quiet right" and call upon the police to remove. In the early 1860's, just such a person made his first appearance in Connecticut and New York - the legendary Leather Man.

Historical picture of Leather Man
A wandering vagrant started making an appearance in certain towns and settlements  in 1862. He rarely spoke, never saying more than a couple of words at a time and even then it was mostly in French with an English word or two thrown in. He never told anyone his name and when someone asked about his background or what he was doing, he would mumble an unintelligible word or two and quickly move on. Just as peculiar was his clothing; dressed from head to toe in crude pieces of thick leather which had been hand-stitched together with leather thongs. It was a suit of clothes that weighed over 60 pounds, yet he wore it all year without fail, in summer heat and the bitter cold of winter. For lack of a better name, everyone began calling him "Leather Man."

Over time, people began noticing this strange man would return every 34 days. As a matter of fact, he would return to the same exact place within 10 minutes of the same time he had been there exactly 34 days earlier. No matter if storm, rain or snow, his appearances were on such a consistent schedule that you could almost set your watch by it. Eventually the more curious began following him and finally pieced together that Leather Man walked a circuit of 365 miles, always traveling clockwise. For his nightly shelter, he had a number of small caves which he had outfitted with a circle of rocks to enclose a fire and leaves and small twigs for a bed. Every morning before leaving, he would gather an armload of wood and leave it inside the cave where it would remain dry and ready for his next time there. 

Leather Man's route
As his appearances continued, many people took it upon themselves to feed and assist the harmless, always smiling odd man. With almost the exact time known when he would be in a particular spot, housewives would have a home-cooked meal prepared for him. Leather Man always accepted food and water with a smile, a small little bow of gratitude and grunt of thanks before hurrying on his way to keep to his schedule. Some of the men offered tobacco and matches which he also accepted in the same manner. Several school houses along his route would award their "Student of the Month" with the privilege of carrying a meal out to Leather Man as he passed by. It became a mark of pride among the students as to who would get to hand the meal to him every 34 days. However, he always refused money, alcohol or clothing and he never took up anyone on an offer of accommodation in their home for the night. 

In the winter of 1888, a severe blizzard struck Maine with day after day of below-zero weather and multiple feet of snow. Through it all, Leather Man continued walking his route, but for the first time in 26 years, he fell behind his schedule. With what was considered super-human will and endurance, he trudged through the howling, freezing winds and fought through the mounds of snow and arrived within a few hours of his usual time. People begged him to come in and take shelter at their fire, but he would just shake his head and kept plowing forward. After the storm had passed, he had completed his journey in 36 days rather than the usual 34 and people noticed he had a large black spot on his lip, a sure sign of frostbite. The Connecticut Humane Society heard about it and had him arrested and taken to a hospital for treatment. When his guard briefly turned his back and before a doctor could see him, Leather Man made his escape and resumed his walk through the woods. Other lawmen along his route refused to arrest him as he had never broken any laws and from then on he was left alone to continue his curious habit. 

One of Leather Man's caves
Leather Man maintained his punctual pacing and strange practices for 27 years. On March 24, 1889, he didn't make his expected appearance in Ossining, New York and people became worried. A search party found him dead in his cave where he had spent the night before. No foul play was evident and it was thought he had died of natural causes. The hardship and exposure he had suffered in the previous year's blizzard was thought to be a contributing factor in his death. He was buried in a shallow grave in a simple pine box just off Route 9 outside of Ossining. A collection was taken and a headstone was placed at his grave.

In 2011, Route 9 was scheduled to be widened so Leather Man was exhumed to be moved further away from the road and into a nearby cemetery. When his grave was dug up though, only a few coffin nails were found with no sign of his body. A new pine box was made and the nails along with some of the dirt from his first grave were placed in the new coffin which was buried in the cemetery. A new headstone was erected which simply says, "Leather Man."

Today there are legends about his true identity, but nobody has obtained any proof and he officially still remains unknown. There are stories about treasures supposedly buried in his caves, but the caves are well known and many people have dug in and around them with no treasure found. There have also been numerous reports over the years that his ghost continues walking along his trail, something he is damned to do for all eternity. Some have reported mysterious lights glowing in his caves at night, but actually, more than 150 years after his first appearance, only a huge mystery remains. Who was Leather Man? Where did he come from? Where was he and what did he do before his appearance in 1862? Why did he lead such a self-imposed solitary life? Why the particular route he traveled? Why the tight schedule? And why did he always wear only leather?

Adobe Walls & The Greatest Shot Ever

Monument at the site of the Adobe Walls battle
The place called Adobe Walls is located in a remote area of the Texas Panhandle. It was initially a small trading post consisting of several large tepees established in 1843 by William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain. The men hoped to introduce peaceful trade with the Comanche and Kiowa Indians who lived there. For 3 years the post remained open in spite of the occasional Indian attacks on the supply trains which brought in trade goods. In 1846, after increasing hostile attacks against the post itself, a contingent of men, including a number of Mexican adobe makers, replaced the tepees with what they named Fort Adobe. The structure was 80 feet square with only one entrance and had walls 9 feet high and 2 feet thick. The hostile Indian attacks however continued to increase and trade with friendly Indians continued to decrease until in early 1848, the post was abandoned.

In the fall of 1848, a peace treaty was established with the Indians of the area and William Bent, accompanied by Kit Carson and 11 other men re-opened Fort Adobe. During that winter, the post was able to conduct business with several friendly Comanche tribes through a small window cut into a wall. By the spring of 1849 though, the peace treaty had been broken and the Comanche, accompanied by a large number of Apache, attacked the post and killed or stole most of the livestock. Bent had finally had enough. He blew up the post with dynamite and with his men and what few trade goods remained, retreated to less dangerous lands. The ruins became a landmark for those few white men brave enough to venture through the hostile country.

In 1864, the New Mexico Territory government wanted to stop Indian raids along the Santa Fe Trail. To accomplish this, they sent Kit Carson and 411 heavily armed men into Texas to punish the Indians who came into New Mexico along the trail from the Texas Panhandle.  After an attack on a Kiowa village which killed several braves and women, Carson and his army set up camp among the ruins of Fort Adobe. Due to the fact that only a couple of walls were still standing, the site had become known then as Adobe Walls. The next day, on November 25, the surviving braves from the Kiowa tribe which had been attacked accompanied by additional Kiowa from other bands and a large band of Comanche attacked the men camped in Adobe Walls. With over 1,000 fighters, the Indians outnumbered the white men by more than 2 to 1, but Carson and his men were able to fight off the attack as they had 2 cannon. When the sun set, the white men set fire to their camp, mounted their horses and made a run to safety. Carson's men only suffered 3 dead and 15 wounded and Indian casualties were light as well, but when the men returned to Fort Bascom in New Mexico, Carson was hailed as a hero for leading his men in the largest battle fought on the Great Plains. The encounter eventually became known as the 1st Battle of Adobe Walls.

 Nine years later, buffalo hunters came to the plains of the Texas Panhandle. In the early 1800's, there was an estimated 50 - 60 million buffalo freely roaming the west. The Native Americans hunted them for food, clothing and other necessities. After the Civil War however, as the white man pushed farther and farther into the west, people back east demanded buffalo hide for coats and lap robes and buffalo tongue became a delicacy in restaurants. Tanneries paid $3.00 per hide and 25 cents per tongue. With a high-powered long range rifle, men like Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Wild Bill Hickock could kill as many as 250 buffalo per day and make a very good living. After skinning and cutting out the tongue, the meat was simply left to rot where the animal fell. Shooting the beasts from the windows of moving trains became a grand sport and it was not uncommon for the carcasses to be strung out beside the rails for mile after mile. As the mindless slaughter continued, the Indians watched as their main source of sustenance became more and more scarce. They reacted with more attacks on settlements, wagon trains and white travelers. The U.S. government, in turn, reacted to these hostilities with the desire to separate the Indian from white civilization by placing all Indians on reservations. To do this, the eradication of the buffalo was actively sought. 

By April 1874, several merchants from Dodge City, Kansas established a large complex very near Adobe Walls to buy and ship buffalo hides and to serve the needs of the 200 - 300 buffalo hunters in the area.  Soon afterwards, a second complex of stores was established nearby and within several months, a blacksmith shop, saloon and other stores were added. Adobe Walls was again in business and active. The remaining Indians in the area understood the post and the buffalo hunters it served were a huge threat to their continued existence.

Monument to the Indian warriors who died in the
2nd battle of Adobe Walls
On the morning of June 27, 1874, a force of 700 Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho warriors led by Comanche Chief Quanah Parker attacked Adobe Walls. The hunters and proprietors, which numbered only 28 men at the time of the attack, took refuge in two stores and a saloon. Bat Masterson and a hunter named Billy Dixon were among the men. Although vastly outnumbered, the men's superior weapons and the stout walls they sheltered behind enabled them to hold off the Indian forces for 3 days with only 4 deaths while inflicting as many as 50 deaths to the Indians.

On the 3rd day, 15 Indian chiefs and warrior leaders met for council on the side of a hill 7/8 of a mile (1,538 yards) from the post. As they sat on their horses arguing over whether to continue the battle or abandon it, Bat Masterson knowing Billy Dixon was the best long-shot among them, jokingly pointed at the Indians and said, "Hey Billy, why don't you show us how good you are? Go ahead and take a shot at those Indians with your Sharps Big-50."

Picture taken from the approximate site where
Billy Dixon took his incredible shot. The Indian he
shot was sitting on his horse on the side of the hill
in the center left.

Billy climbed up into the small loft of the store they were in, made adjustments to the long-range finder on his Sharps, took aim and fired. The heavy recoil from the gun knocked Billy backwards and he fell through the attic trap door with several boxes and other items falling on top of him. He fell onto a table which broke apart and fortunately cushioned his fall. As for the Indians, if they noticed the white puff of smoke from the loft window, they no doubt chuckled at the stupid white man wasting powder and lead due to the impossible distance. If they were quiet, 4.1 seconds later they would have heard the distant bang of the Sharps. No doubt they were shocked when 1.2 seconds later one of the chiefs was hit and knocked from his horse. They hurriedly picked up the mortally wounded chief and rode further away and behind the hill. Perhaps they considered it an evil omen or perhaps they just wisely decided they no longer wanted to try and fight against men who could shoot with such accuracy from so far away, but they gathered up their warriors and horses and rode away to fight another day. The 2nd Battle of Adobe Walls had concluded and Billy Dixon went down in history for making one of the most remarkable shots ever.

Billy Dixon
Today, nothing remains of Adobe Walls except a couple of small markers, monuments, and the lonely grave of Billy Dixon. Billy died of pneumonia in 1913 and was buried in Texline, Texas, but was dug up and reburied in Adobe Walls in 1929. Even the small fresh-water spring which had provided life-giving water to the Indians, buffalo hunters and traders has completely dried up and vanished. The site is in no danger of being found accidentally as you have to travel miles down a pot-holed, 2-lane black-topped road out of Spearman, Texas, a nice little town of 3,000 which itself is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, to a gravel road barely wide enough for 2 cars to pass each other as long as one  of you moves over on the side off the road, to a 1-lane dirt road usually not shown on even the most detailed maps. Don't even think about driving this if the ground is still wet from a rain. After about 15 miles of nothing but cows - no other cars, no people, no houses, you come to a gate across the road. The gate is not attached to a fence, it is just a gate across the dirt road blocking you from going further down the road. Right before you unexpectedly reach this gate are the monuments of Adobe Walls. 

The lonely grave of Billy Dixon
Stopping at the gate, to the left almost a mile away is the hill where the Indians thought they were safe but Billy proved they were not. While my friend and road trip partner Chip and I were there, a few cows were standing around and there were so many "cow pies" it seemed the ground was covered with them. The isolation and silence was complete with not even a plane overhead to break the peace. It was easy to picture in your mind how this place looked long ago as the landscape hasn't really changed for hundreds of years. As we walked around taking a few pictures, mostly taking in the surroundings, we hardly spoke and even when we did, it was in low voices as if it would be sacrilegious to break the church of silence and solitude we found ourselves in. 

After some time had passed, my buddy was off a ways from me absorbed in his own thoughts so I walked across the dirt road toward the Indian's hill in the distance. On a whim, I reached down and grasped a dry cow pie and heaved it toward that hill. For a couple of seconds it went flying through the air like a Frisbee and I wondered just how far that thing would go. But then a little gust of wind blew and the cow pie Frisbee wobbled in the air and fell. It rolled a little ways, but then bumped up against several of it's own kind and stopped. It was once again just another cow pie among thousands. Several nearby cows looked at me for a few seconds and then, losing interest, turned their heads and ambled away.

Getting back to the truck, I quietly asked Chip if he was ready to head back. "Yeah, I'm ready," he answered just as quietly. I opened a new package of wet wipes, cleaned my hands and started the engine. It was probably the loudest noise those cows had heard in a good many days. We pulled a u-turn and headed back the way we had come. A cloud of dust followed us as we drove down that dirt road, but there were only cows to see it.