Sleepy Hollow, a remembrance by Washington Irving is a short article which first appeared in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1839. Unlike Irving’s more well-known short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Sleepy Hollow is autobiographical in tone. He explored the area as a teenager – a valley of the Pocantico River near Tarrytown, New York, and eventually settled and spent the remainder of his years nearby.
Writing in an introduction from a reprinting of the story in 1996, Henry Steiner, Village Historian of Sleepy Hollow states that “At the close of his narrative, Irving anticipates a time when change will have so completely altered Sleepy Hollow that cramped historians will doubt that it once existed at all.” Irving need not have worried. While it’s sometimes hard to see it beneath the asphalt, the signs and the traffic, the threads of history still bubble up from time to time to the surface.
“In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town. Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquillity.”
I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud, for it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New York, that population, manners, and customs remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved. They are like those little nooks of still water, which border a rapid stream, where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor, or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current. Though many years have elapsed since I trod the drowsy shades of Sleepy Hollow, yet I question whether I should not still find the same trees and the same families vegetating in its sheltered bosom.”
It is remarkable that the visionary propensity I have mentioned is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by every one who resides there for a time. However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions.
From the Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving
I believe it was the very peculiarity of the name, and the idea of something mystic and dreamy connected with it, that first led me, in my boyish ramblings, into Sleepy Hollow. The character of the valley seemed to answer to the name; the slumber of past ages apparently reigned over it; it had not awakened to the stir of improvement, which had put all the rest of the world in a bustle. Here reigned good old long-forgotten fashions; the men were in homespun garbs, evidently the product of their own farms, and the manufacture of their own wives; the women were in primitive short gowns and petticoats, with the venerable sun-bonnets of Holland origin. Each small farm had its prolific little mansion, teeming with children; with an old hat nailed against the wall for the house-keeping wren; a motherly hen, under a coop on the grass-plot, clucking to keep around her a brood of vagrant chickens; a cool stone well, with the moss-covered bucket suspended to the long balancing pole, according to the antediluvian idea of hydraulics; and its spinning-wheel humming within doors, the patriarchal music of home manufacture.
“His greatest treasure of historic lore, however, was discovered in an old goblin-looking mill, situated among rocks and water-falls, with clanking wheels, and rushing streams, and all kinds of uncouth noises. A horse-shoe, nailed to the door to keep off witches and evil spirits, showed that this mill was subject to awful visitations. As we approached it, an old negro thrust his head, all dabbled with flour, out of a hole above the water-wheel, and grinned, and rolled his eyes, and looked like the very hobgoblin of the place. The illustrious Diedrich fixed upon him, at once, as the very one to give him that invaluable kind of information, never to be acquired from books. He beckoned him from his nest, sat with him by the hour on a broken mill-stone, by the side of the waterfall, heedless of the noise of the water, and the clatter of the mill; and I verily believe it was to his conference with his African sage, and the precious revelations of the good dame of the spinning wheel, that we are indebted for the surprising though true history ofIchabod Crane and the headless horseman, which has since astounded and edified the world.”
“But I have said enough of the good old times of my youthful days; let me speak of the Hollow as I found it, after an absence of many years, when it was kindly given me once more to revisit the haunts of my boyhood.”
“Contrary to my apprehensions, I found it but little changed. Perhaps the wizard spell of ancient days still reigned over the place, binding up the faculties of the inhabitants in happy contentment with things as they had been handed down to them from yore. There were the same little farms and farm-houses, with their old hats for the house-keeping wren; their stone wells, moss-covered buckets, and long balancing poles. There were the same little rills, whimpering down to pay their tributes to the Pocantico; while that wizard stream still kept on its course, as of old, through solemn woodlands and fresh green meadows: nor were there wanting joyous holiday boys, to loiter along its banks, as I had done; throw their pin-hooks in the stream, or launch their mimic barks. I watched them with a kind of melancholy pleasure, wondering whether they were under the same spell of the fancy, that once rendered this valley a fairy land to me. Alas! alas! to me every thing now stood revealed in its simple reality. The echoes no longer answered with wizard tongues; the dream of youth was at an end; the spell of Sleepy Hollow was broken!”
From Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving
The area now known as Sleepy Hollow was first inhabited by native Americans, called quite simply Americans by the earliest Dutch settlers. According to Indian lore, the region was considered haunted even then. The first Europeans here were of course from Holland, and according to some theories, the name Sleepy Hollow originally came from the Dutch for “quiet harbor,” referring to its location on the Hudson River. It’s entirely possible however, that the publication of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow first gave this more famous name to the region. Certainly the first recorded mention of the name is in Irving’s story.
When you turn onto Route 9, traffic thins out for a bit before hitting Tarrytown, which though still retaining the village feel you would expect, is often congested and incredibly noisy. The border between Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow isn’t immediately obvious, as Sleepy Hollow was until just a few years ago simply called North Tarrytown. A keen eye will pick out the Headless Horseman on the street signs, as well as a few other more commercial usages of Sleepy Hollow’s most famous denizen of the night.
Eventually the road splits, just as it did in Irving’s tale and you find yourself crossing the Pocantico, and there on the right, as ominous as you’d imagine is the Old Dutch Church, and the magic begins to take over.
Irving’s story doesn’t really delineate the boundaries of Sleepy Hollow, and you never really know when you’re entering or leaving it today. Beyond the church the landscape turns more rural, dominated in part by the Rockefeller Preserve, with it’s miles of trails which allows you once again to be swallowed up by the magic that once was Sleepy Hollow.
The great gathering place of Sleepy Hollow, in those days, was the church. It stood outside of the Hollow, near the great highway; on a green bank, shaded by trees, with the Pocantico sweeping round it, and emptying itself into a spacious mill-pond. At that time, the Sleepy Hollow church was the only place of worship for a wide neighborhood. It was a venerable edifice, partly of stone and partly of brick, the latter having been brought from Holland, in the early days of the province, before the arts in the New Netherlands could aspire to such a fabrication. On a stone above the porch, were inscribed the names of the founders, Frederick Filipsen, a mighty patroon of the olden time, who reigned over a wide extent of this neighborhood, and held his seat of power at Yonkers; and his wife, Katrina Van Courtlandt, of the no less potent line of the Van Courtlandts of Croton, who lorded it over a great part of the Highlands.”
The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. It stands on a knoll, surrounded by locust-trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent, whitewashed walls shine modestly forth, like Christian purity beaming through the shades of retirement. A gentle slope descends from it to a silver sheet of water, bordered by high trees, between which, peeps may be caught at the blue hills of the Hudson. To look upon its grass-grown yard, where the sunbeams seem to sleep so quietly, one would think that there at least the dead might rest in peace. On one side of the church extends a wide woody dell, along which raves a large brook among broken rocks and trunks of fallen trees.
From the Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving
Behind the church, and sloping up a gentle acclivity, was its capacious burying-ground, in which slept the earliest fathers of this rural neighborhood. Here were tombstones of the rudest sculpture; on which were inscribed, in Dutch, the names and virtues of many of the first settlers, with their portraitures curiously carved in similitude of cherubs. Long rows of grave-stones, side by side, of similar names, but various dates, showed that generation after generation of the same families had followed each other, and been garnered together in this last gathering place of kindred.”
From Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving
The Old Dutch Church, was financed by the treasure of Frederick Philipse I, Lord of Philipse Manor, who owned all the lands stretching from Spuyten Duyvil, now in present-day Riverdale in the Bronx to the Croton River. Spuyten Duyvil likely meant “spinning devil” or “devil’s whirlpool” in the old Dutch language, though it’s hard to say with any certainty as various spellings have been used over the years. There is an old tale of how Peter Stuyvesant, the peg-legged governor of New Amsterdam received intelligence that the British were set to invade Manhattan. He sent for Anthony Von Corlaer to spread the word to the northern part of the island and give warning. At the edge of the island on the banks of the Harlem River, Anthony called for the ferryman on the other side, but received no answer. Undeterred, Anthony plunged into the river and began to swim. About halfway across, according to legend, the Devil pulled him under, who Anthony fought and eventually escaped his grasp. Despite having broken free, he was worn out from the effort and drowned there.
Fredrick was from the Friesland region of Netherlands, and settled first in Flatbush on Long Island, becoming a tavern owner after working his way up from nail salesman. Fredrick’s most astute move though was marrying a rich widow, which allowed him to purchase land on the mainland, in what is now Westchester county, and brought several of his friends from Long Island with him, lured by the promise of free land and low taxes.
Frederick Philipse built a plantation on the shores of the Hudson at Sleepy Hollow, turning it into a major stop for sea trade and the center of his world-wide shipping operation. Philipse’s Westchester empire was built on the backs of slaves from Africa, and the manor was one of the largest slave-holders in the northern colonies. In 1750, some twenty-three slaves worked the house and lands.
Today Philipsburg Manor marks the beginning of the still mystical area of Sleepy Hollow. Restored and operated by costumed tour guides, a visit takes one into the world of colonial America. With a working farm, animals unique to that period of history, a 300 year old manor house and working grist mill, slave garden and quarters and 18th century barn, it’s as close as we’re likely to come to stepping into the world of Baltus and Katrina Van Tassel.
Fredrick’s workers finished construction on the Old Dutch Church in 1685, which sits on a high knoll almost directly across from the mill pond where Ichabod Crane courted his sweethearts in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s thought that construction took quite some time, and for some time the structure stood unfinished. The dam which held the mill pond in check had become a problem, as several times the Pocantico overran its banks in flood and caused the dam to burst. Legend has it that one of Fredrick’s slaves came to him and told him of a dream he had, in which the church was finished and no more did the dam burst. Inspired, Fredrick had the church finished without delay, and true to prediction, the dam suffered no more problems.
The walls of the Old Dutch Church are roughly two feet thick, and constructed of local field stone, and in many ways, the church has been unaltered over time. The tiny church bell was cast in Holland in 1685 and richly decorated with bands of gargoyles, birds and animals, and still rings out over the surrounding area.
Early members of the congregation are buried in the Old Dutch Burying Ground, which is adjacent to but not a part of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the final resting place of many notables such as Andrew Carnegie, Walter Chrysler and Washington Irving himself.
The Old Dutch Burying Ground is a tranquil treasure of early American and colonial era history. The tombstones found there are not only historical records of some of the earliest families of the area, but curious works of art as well. Most of the early stones are of red sandstone, and typically carved with the names and dates, an epitaph and quite frequently, winged effigies. Several are inscribed in Dutch, reflecting the language common to the area until about 1800. The earliest stones date to the mid 18th century, though field stones mark the location of earlier graves, and quite likely there were many 17th century graves here as well, their markers long gone as they were likely carved from wood.
One famous tombstone found in the Old Dutch Burying Ground itself, is that of Abraham Martling, believed to be the inspiration for Brom Bones, Ichabod Crane’s nemesis in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Brom is of course short for Abraham, and Martling lived on Beaver Hill which overlooks the Sawmill River valley. He was born about 1763, and was a member of the militia and later the Continental line in the American Revolution. In November, 1777, he and several other men of the neighborhood executed a daring raid on the residence of General Oliver Delancey in New York City, using British guard boats which they managed to steal from the landing near Wolfert’s Roost, the original Van Tassel house in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He continued to serve throughout the war, and was at Yorktown when Cornwallis surrended, ending the conflict.
Martling was a strong, muscular man who rode a black stallion which was said to be faster than any other in Sleepy Hollow. So in essence, not only was Martling presumed to be the inspiration for Brom Bones, his horse was the inspiration for Brom’ horse, Daredevil. Martling was a blacksmith, who frequently did work for Irving. His son, also named Abraham was Irving’s cobbler. It is reported that when Irving published the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Martling heard that he was the inspiration for Brom Bones, he threatened to thrash Irving if ever he came across him.
Fans of the old television series Dark Shadows will note, that in the film version of the same name, the crypt of Barnabus Collins was the receiving crypt in Sleepy Hollow cemetery, where corpses were once held when the ground was too frozen to dig graves. Collinswood in the same film was set in Lyndhurst Castle, which you pass on Route 9 just south of Tarrytown.
The schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle of a rural neighborhood; being considered a kind of idle, gentlemanlike personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains, and, indeed, inferior in learning only to the parson. Our man of letters, therefore, was peculiarly happy in the smiles of all the country damsels. How he would figure among them in the churchyard, between services on Sundays; gathering grapes for them from the wild vines that overran the surrounding trees; reciting for their amusement all the epitaphs on the tombstones; or sauntering, with a whole bevy of them, along the banks of the adjacent millpond; while the more bashful country bumpkins hung sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and address.
It was often his delight, after his school was dismissed in the afternoon, to stretch himself on the rich bed of clover bordering the little brook that whimpered by his schoolhouse, and there con over old Mather’s direful tales, Cotton Mather’s “History of New England Witchcraft, until the gathering dusk of evening made the printed page a mere mist before his eyes. Then, as he wended his way by swamp and stream and awful woodland, to the farmhouse where he happened to be quartered, every sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited imagination,–the moan of the whip-poor-will from the hillside, the boding cry of the tree toad, that harbinger of storm, the dreary hooting of the screech owl, or the sudden rustling in the thicket of birds frightened from their roost.
The neighborhood is rich in legendary treasures of the kind. Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered, long-settled retreats; but are trampled under foot by the shifting throng that forms the population of most of our country places. Besides, there is no encouragement for ghosts in most of our villages, for they have scarcely had time to finish their first nap and turn themselves in their graves, before their surviving friends have travelled away from the neighborhood; so that when they turn out at night to walk their rounds, they have no acquaintance left to call upon. This is perhaps the reason why we so seldom hear of ghosts except in our long-established Dutch communities.
The immediate cause, however, of the prevalence of supernatural stories in these parts, was doubtless owing to the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow. There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land. Several of the Sleepy Hollow people were present at Van Tassel’s, and, as usual, were doling out their wild and wonderful legends. Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major Andre was taken, and which stood in the neighborhood. Some mention was made also of the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow. The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.
From the Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving
Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow it is true, is steeped in ghost stories and fantastic tales. One such legend is of the white lady of Raven’s Rock. I spent a long afternoon trying to navigate the back trails of Rockefeller Preserve in search of this landmark, to get a shot for Jonathan Kruck’s forthcoming book on the legends of Sleepy Hollow and environs, and in doing so, found out how frightening Ichabod’s nightly walks must have been. The forest is thick, the ground hilly and even in the twentieth century, there is a fair amount of wildlife scampering about.
The legend takes many forms, but the one that sticks with me is of a woman, engaged to be married to a local boy, who was out on her way to meet the young fellow. The gentleman was accosted by British soldiers, one of whom secretly wanted to enjoy the affections of the young lady. For one reason or another, it became known that the young man was on his way to meet her, and he was dispatched from this earth by the jealous redcoat. His killer and the other soldiers went searching for the young lady, found her and informed her of her young lover’s fate. She fled from the soldiers and deeper into the forest. Meanwhile, night was coming on, and with it a raging snow storm. Eventually she escaped, but found herself far from home, and according to legend, dressed only in a white dress. Seeking shelter she descended the slopes of Kykuit hill, till she found herself at Raven Rock, a rock formation which overlooks the Sawmill River below. Huddling against the rocks, she eventually died of exposure. It is said that on snowy nights, she can still be seen wandering the slopes of the hillside or atop Raven Rock, calling out for her young lover.
On a whim I decided to take the biker’s and jogging trail which skirts the Sawmill River. After a bit of a walk, I realized that Raven’s Rock must be somewhere above me. Now I love the past and antiquities in general, but I’m not too ashamed to admit that with the help of the iPhone’s GPS and a photocopied map and the written account of the arrest and transportation of the British Spy, Major Andre, I soon realized that I was no more than twenty or so yards below Raven’s Rock. A short climb up the hills, a few slices to the legs from briars and a really impressive case of poison ivy later, I found myself sitting beside the brook at Raven’s Rock, no doubt very close to where the young lady of legend had perished.
There is a magic to finding a place of legend, seemingly long lost. I sat in the silence for a long time, thinking of the legend, and wondering how a spot which was known to every resident of the vicinity a little over 200 years ago, had managed to get itself lost, especially when scores of bikers and joggers pass each day, along with probably tens of thousands of cars. Probably because in this day and age, people forget to look up.
Old Baltus Van Tassel was a perfect picture of a thriving, contented, liberal-hearted farmer. He seldom, it is true, sent either his eyes or his thoughts beyond the boundaries of his own farm; but within those everything was snug, happy and well-conditioned. He was satisfied with his wealth, but not proud of it; and piqued himself upon the hearty abundance, rather than the style in which he lived. His stronghold was situated on the banks of the Hudson, in one of those green, sheltered, fertile nooks in which the Dutch farmers are so fond of nestling. Sleek unwieldy porkers were grunting in the repose and abundance of their pens, from whence sallied forth, now and then, troops of sucking pigs, as if to snuff the air. A stately squadron of snowy geese were riding in an adjoining pond, convoying whole fleets of ducks; regiments of turkeys were gobbling through the farmyard, and Guinea fowls fretting about it, like ill-tempered housewives, with their peevish, discontented cry. Before the barn door strutted the gallant cock, that pattern of a husband, a warrior and a fine gentleman, clapping his burnished wings and crowing in the pride and gladness of his heart,–sometimes tearing up the earth with his feet, and then generously calling his ever-hungry family of wives and children to enjoy the rich morsel which he had discovered.”
It was one of those spacious farmhouses, with high- ridged but lowly sloping roofs, built in the style handed down from the first Dutch settlers; the low projecting eaves forming a piazza along the front, capable of being closed up in bad weather. Under this were hung flails, harness, various utensils of husbandry, and nets for fishing in the neighboring river. Benches were built along the sides for summer use; and a great spinning-wheel at one end, and a churn at the other, showed the various uses to which this important porch might be devoted. From this piazza the wondering Ichabod entered the hall, which formed the centre of the mansion, and the place of usual residence. Here rows of resplendent pewter, ranged on a long dresser, dazzled his eyes. In one corner stood a huge bag of wool, ready to be spun; in another, a quantity of linsey-woolsey just from the loom; ears of Indian corn, and strings of dried apples and peaches, hung in gay festoons along the walls, mingled with the gaud of red peppers; and a door left ajar gave him a peep into the best parlor, where the claw-footed chairs and dark mahogany tables shone like mirrors; andirons, with their accompanying shovel and tongs, glistened from their covert of asparagus tops; mock- oranges and conch-shells decorated the mantelpiece; strings of various-colored birds eggs were suspended above it; a great ostrich egg was hung from the centre of the room, and a corner cupboard, knowingly left open, displayed immense treasures of old silver and well-mended china.
From the Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving
Wolfert Ecker was the grandfather of Catriena Van Tessel. Formerly of New York City, Wolfert moved to Tarrytown and built a house on the banks overlooking the Hudson, hoping to escape from the noise and commotion of the world. According to Irving, “He was a worthy, but ill-starred man, whose aim through life had been to live in peace and quiet. For this he had emigrated from Holland, driven abroad by family feuds and wrangling neighbors. It was his doom, in fact, to meet a head wind at every turn, and be kept in a constant fume and fret by the perverseness of mankind. At the time when the province of the New Netherlands was wrested from the domination of their High Mightinesses by the combined forces of Old and New England, Wolfert retired in high dudgeon to this fastness in the wilderness, with the bitter determination to bury himself from the world, and live here for the rest of his days in peace and quiet. In token of that fixed purpose he inscribed over his door (his teeth clenched at the time) his favorite Dutch motto, “Lust in Rust,” (pleasure in quiet). The mansion was thence called Wolfert’s Rust–(Wolfert’s Rest), but by the uneducated, who did not understand Dutch, Wolfert’s Roost; probably from its quaint cock-loft look, and from its having a weather-cock perched on every gable.
Wolfert’s luck followed him into retirement. He had shut himself up from the world, but he had brought with him a wife, and it soon passed into a proverb throughout the neighborhood that the cock of the Roost was the most henpecked bird in the country. His house too was reputed to be harassed by Yankee witchcraft. When the weather was quiet every where else, the wind, it was said, would howl and whistle about the gables; witches and warlocks would whirl about upon the weather-cocks, and scream down the chimneys; nay it was even hinted that Wolfert’s wife was in league with the enemy, and used to ride on a broomstick to a witches’ sabbath in Sleepy Hollow. This, however, was all mere scandal, founded perhaps on her occasionally flourishing a broomstick in the course of a curtain lecture, or raising a storm within doors, as termagant wives are apt to do, and against which sorcery horse shoes are of no avail. Wolfert Acker died and was buried, but found no quiet even in the grave: for if popular gossip be true, his ghost has occasionally been seen walking by moonlight among the old gray moss-grown trees of his apple orchard … from Wolfert’s Roost, by Washington Irving.
Wolfert’s Roost, in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow became Katrina’s father’s farm, the Van Tassel residence. In reality, it was the residence of Jacob Van Tassel during the American Revolution. The area around Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow was bitterly contested, and was the subject of frequent raids, on both sides. According to Irving, “Jacob Van Tassel was a prominent man in these belligerent operations; but he was prone moreover, to carry on a petty warfare of his own for his individual recreation and refreshment. On a row of hooks above the fireplace of the Roost, reposed his great piece of ordnance; a duck, or rather goose gun of unparalleled longitude, with which it was said he could kill a wild goose half way across the Tappan Sea.”
Van Tassel’s orneryness landed him in trouble with the British, and he soon found himself locked away in a New York dungeon for most of the war, his house a shell of its former self after a infamous raid, which left the Roost a smoldering ruin. Once again, according to Irving writing in Wolfert’s Roost , “in the mean time the Roost remained a melancholy ruin, its stone walls and brick chimneys alone standing, the resorts of bats and owls. Superstitious notions prevailed about it. None of the country people would venture alone at night down the rambling lane which led to it, overhung with trees and crossed here and there by a wild wandering brook. The story went that one of the victims of Jacob Van Tassel’s great goose-gun had been buried there in unconsecrated ground.”
Wolfert’s Roost was rebuilt after the war, and it was here that Irving’s fictional narrator of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Diedrich Knickerbocker (also based on a real life character, from the family of Abraham Martling), came across the stories which were to make Irving famous. “Here then did old Diedrich Knickerbocker take up his abode for a time,” wrote Irving, “and set to work with antiquarian zeal to decipher these precious documents, which, like the lost books of Livy, had baffled the research of former historians; and it is the facts drawn from these sources which give his work the preference, in point of accuracy, over every other history. Momentoes of the sojourn of Diedrich Knickerbocker are still cherished at the Roost. His elbow chair and antique writing-desk maintain their place in the room he occupied, and his old cocked hat still hangs on a peg against the wall.”
And it is here that the story of Wolfert’s Roost takes perhaps a veiled, autobiographical turn. Irving continues, “Reader, the Roost still exists. Time, which changes all things, is slow in it operations on a Dutchman’s dwelling. The stout Jacob Van Tassel, it is true, sleeps with his fathers; and his great goose-gun with him: yet his strong-hold still bears the impress of its Dutch origin. Odd rumors have gathered about it, as they are apt to do about old mansions, like moss and weather stains. The shade of Wolfert Acker still walks his unquiet rounds at night in the orchard; and a white figure has now and then been seen seated at a window and gazing at the moon, from a room in which a young lady is said to have died of love and green apples.”
For indeed Wolfert’s Roost does still exist, though no longer the charming, compact cottage it originally was. In 1835, Irving bought Wolfert’s Roost and renamed it Sunnyside, where he lived with his three nieces until his death in 1859. Writing in Wolfert’s Roost, Irving tells the tale in once more, fictional terms of how he had once visited the place with Mr. Knickerbocker, “Proud of having associated with a man who had achieved such greatness, I now recalled our early intimacy with tenfold pleasure, and sought to revisit the scenes we had trodden together. The most important of these was the mansion of the Van Tassels, the Roost of the unfortunate Wolfert. Time, which changes all things, is but slow in its operations upon a Dutchman’s dwelling. I found the venerable and quaint little edifice much as I had seen it during the sojourn of Diedrich. There stood his elbow-chair in the corner of the room he had occupied; the old-fashioned Dutch writing-desk at which he had pored over the chronicles of the Manhattoes; there was the old wooden chest, with the archives left by Wolfert Acker, many of which, however, had been fired off as wadding from the long duck gun of the Van Tassels. The scene around the mansion was still the same; the green bank; the spring beside which I had listened to the legendary narratives of the historian; the wild brook babbling down to the woody cove, and the overshadowing locust trees, half shutting out the prospect of the great Tappan Zee.”
“As I looked round upon the scene, my heart yearned at the recollection of my departed friend, and I wistfully eyed the mansion which he had inhabited, and which was fast mouldering to decay. The thought struck me to arrest the desolating hand of Time; to rescue the historic pile from utter ruin, and to make it the closing scene of my wanderings; a quiet home, where I might enjoy “lust in rust” for the remainder of my days. It is true, the fate of the unlucky Wolfert passed across my mind; but I consoled myself with the reflection that I was a bachelor, and that I had no termagant wife to dispute the sovereignty of the Roost with me.”
“I have become possessor of the Roost! I have repaired and renovated it with religious care, in the genuine Dutch style, and have adorned and illustrated it with sundry reliques of the glorious days of the New Netherlands. My sanctum sanctorum is the chamber once honored by the illustrious Diedrich, and it is from his elbow-chair, and his identical old Dutch writing-desk, that I pen this rambling epistle. Here, then, have I set up my rest, surrounded by the recollections of early days, and the mementoes of the historian of the Manhattoes, with that glorious river before me, which flows with such majesty through his works, and which has ever been to me a river of delight.”
From Wolfert’s Roost,” by Washington Irving
By 1859, author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. noted that Sunnyside had become “next to Mount Vernon, the best known and most cherished of all the dwellings in our land”. Though Irving never married, he was henpecked lovingly by a gaggle of nieces who lived with him, and whom he doted over, despite frequent complaints about how much they cost him. According to legend, on the night of November 28, 1859 Irving prepared for bed and told the housekeeper “Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night! If this could only end!?”There’s still an orchard in the back yard, and the spring still bubbles up at the foot of the house. Operated by Historic Hudson Valley, the house gives an insight into the life of Washington Irving, complete with much of its original furnishings. It is said that at times one or more of the three nieces can still be seen, tidying up the place. In addition, several female guests, whilst taking the tour of the house have reported being pinched on the bottom, which is attributed to the spirit of the writer himself, who is also seen loitering about the place from time to time.
Another of his sources of fearful pleasure was to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and spluttering along the hearth, and listen to their marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or Galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him. He would delight them equally by his anecdotes of witchcraft, and of the direful omens and portentous sights and sounds in the air, which prevailed in the earlier times of Connecticut; and would frighten them woefully with speculations upon comets and shooting stars; and with the alarming fact that the world did absolutely turn round, and that they were half the time topsy-turvy!
All these, however, were mere terrors of the night, phantoms of the mind that walk in darkness; and though he had seen many spectres in his time, and been more than once beset by Satan in divers shapes, in his lonely perambulations, yet daylight put an end to all these evils; and he would have passed a pleasant life of it, in despite of the Devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was–a woman.”
“Among the musical disciples who assembled, one evening in each week, to receive his instructions in psalmody, was Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and only child of a substantial Dutch farmer. She was a blooming lass of fresh eighteen; plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father’s peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations. She was withal a little of a coquette, as might be perceived even in her dress, which was a mixture of ancient and modern fashions, as most suited to set off her charms. She wore the ornaments of pure yellow gold, which her great-great-grandmother had brought over from Saardam; the tempting stomacher of the olden time, and withal a provokingly short petticoat, to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round.
From the Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving
As a young man, Irving would often sit in the Old Dutch Church and think, and it was one of those days when he happened to look out the window and notice an interesting effect on one of tombstones. Going out to investigate, he noted that the setting sun was casting shadows on the face inscribed on one of the stones, which gave it a realistic look. The tombstone was that of Catriena Ecker Van Tessel, whose name he anglicized in his story to Katrina Van Tassel. It is thought that Irving took the actual character from Catriena’s niece, Eleanor Van Tassel Brush, or Laney as she was known, as Eleanor’s life and the description of her character seems to more closely match the fictional Katrina, and shared the same surname as Catriena.
The incident which inspired Martling and his associates to take revenge upon the British was a raid on Wolfert’s Roost, the ancestral home of the Van Tassel family. Irving wrote in the short story “Wolfert’s Roost” Eleanor’s father Jacob was away, imprisoned by the British in New York following a raid on a British vessel on the Hudson, or Tappan Zee sea as Irving was want to call it.
“The cock of the Roost being captive, there was none to garrison it but his stout-hearted spouse, his redoubtable sister, Nochie Van Wurmer, and Dinah, a strapping negro wench. An armed vessel came to anchor in front; a boat full of men pulled to shore. The garrison flew to arms; that is to say, to mops, broomsticks, shovels, tongs, and all kinds of domestic weapons. Above all, a vigorous defence was made with that most potent of female weapons, the tongue. Never did invaded hen-roost make a more vociferous outcry. It was all in vain. The house was sacked and plundered, fire was set to each corner, and in a few moments its blaze shed a baleful light far over the Tappan Sea. The invaders then pounced upon the blooming Laney Van Tassel, the beauty of the Roost, and endeavored to bear her off to the boat. But here was the real tug of war. The mother, the aunt, and the strapping negro wench, all flew to the rescue. The struggle continued down to the very water’s edge; when a voice from the armed vessel at anchor, ordered the spoilers to desist; they relinquished their prize, jumped into their boats, and pulled off, and the heroine of the Roost escaped with a mere rumpling of the feathers” … From Wolfert’s Roost, by Washington Irving.
Eleanor lived to be 97 years old, and is buried as well in the Old Dutch Burying Ground.
“The dominant spirit that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the vicinity of a church at no great distance. Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak.”
From the Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of those pieces of fiction that is easy to forget it’s fiction. The problem can be compounded by the fact that the location, and in some cases, the names, if not the actual characters once existed.
One of the quests which Jonathan Kruck and I set for ourselves was to find the spot where the headless Hessian likely lost his head. Based on the historical records and some archival writings, Jonathan had sussed it out that the battle had to be the Battle of White Plains, as there were very few battles in the immediate vicinity which had both Hessian soldiers and cannons.
The Battle of White Plains was fought mainly on the highlands overlooking the village of White Plains on Chatterton Hill. Today, White Plains is a bustling little city, and the highlands are populated by houses. The British and Hessians were stretched in a line at the foot of the hill, and decided the plan would be to cross the Bronx River and outflank the Colonial Army’s right. Jonathan had found an entry that stated that after crossing the Bronx River, the British and Hessians faced withering cannon fire from the colonials, and that in addition, many of their soldiers were killed by their own cannon. So it was likely here that the Hessian and his head became two distinctly separate entities.
There are no signs saying “the British crossed here,” and very few landmarks from the battle at all. And Jonathan seemed to be getting discouraged, finally suggesting that perhaps we could just find a good spot along the river and take a photo, which would likely be as good as any. “No,” I replied. “We both know the story is fiction, and even though it’s fiction, we’re both anal retentive enough that we’re not going to be satisfied until we find the exact spot where the horseman lost his head, even if it means still finding his still steaming blood spilled upon the ground.”
And so we searched on, until we finally found the spot which just felt right, and seemed to match the historical record. And sitting by the banks of the Bronx River, which turned out to be surprisingly serene, secluded and quiet, a sense of magic descended upon us.
It’s this magic in which Irving’s story is imbued. It’s fiction, but it feels like truth.
The Van Tassels continued to suffer indignity at the hands of the invading British it seems. One day in November of 1777, the farm and residence of Cornelius and Elizabeth Van Tassel was attacked and sacked by British and Hessian regulars. The Van Tassels put up a fight, which only incensed the attackers, who set fire to the farmhouse, after capturing the inhabitants. Whilst watching the flames catch and then consume, Elizabeth in a panic, noticed that their baby girl by the name of Leah, was not with them. Grief-stricken, she ran towards the burning house, intended to enter and search for her baby. Her flight was thwarted by a Hessian soldier, who quietly escorted her to an adjacent shed, where the baby was found, wrapped up in a blanket, unharmed.
The family was so thankful to the soldier, that later, when a headless Hessian soldier was found in Sleepy Hollow, they insisted he was given a decent burial in the Old Dutch Burying Ground, on the off-chance that it was the soldier who had helped them. No headstone was allowed for the soldier, but it’s said that the open ground on the lawn without headstones is the final resting place of the headless Hessian, and the birthplace of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.
The Pursuit of Ichabod Crane
Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. Such was one of the favorite haunts of the Headless Horseman, and the place where he was most frequently encountered. The tale was told of old Brouwer, a most heretical disbeliever in ghosts, how he met the Horseman returning from his foray into Sleepy Hollow, and was obliged to get up behind him; how they galloped over bush and brake, over hill and swamp, until they reached the bridge; when the Horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton, threw old Brouwer into the brook, and sprang away over the tree-tops with a clap of thunder.
This story was immediately matched by a thrice marvellous adventure of Brom Bones, who made light of the Galloping Hessian as an arrant jockey. He affirmed that on returning one night from the neighboring village of Sing Sing, he had been overtaken by this midnight trooper; that he had offered to race with him for a bowl of punch, and should have won it too, for Daredevil beat the goblin horse all hollow, but just as they came to the church bridge, the Hessian bolted, and vanished in a flash of fire.
All these tales, told in that drowsy undertone with which men talk in the dark, the countenances of the listeners only now and then receiving a casual gleam from the glare of a pipe, sank deep in the mind of Ichabod. He repaid them in kind with large extracts from his invaluable author, Cotton Mather, and added many marvellous events that had taken place in his native State of Connecticut, and fearful sights which he had seen in his nightly walks about Sleepy Hollow.
It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travels homewards, along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above Tarry Town, and which he had traversed so cheerily in the afternoon. The hour was as dismal as himself. Far below him the Tappan Zee spread its dusky and indistinct waste of waters, with here and there the tall mast of a sloop, riding quietly at anchor under the land. In the dead hush of midnight, he could even hear the barking of the watchdog from the opposite shore of the Hudson; but it was so vague and faint as only to give an idea of his distance from this faithful companion of man.
All the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon now came crowding upon his recollection. The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky, and driving clouds occasionally hid them from his sight. He had never felt so lonely and dismal. He was, moreover, approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid. In the centre of the road stood an enormous tulip-tree, which towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood, and formed a kind of landmark. Its limbs were gnarled and fantastic, large enough to form trunks for ordinary trees, twisting down almost to the earth, and rising again into the air. It was connected with the tragical story of the unfortunate Andre, who had been taken prisoner hard by; and was universally known by the name of Major Andre’s tree. The common people regarded it with a mixture of respect and superstition, partly out of sympathy for the fate of its ill- starred namesake, and partly from the tales of strange sights, and doleful lamentations, told concerning it.
As Ichabod approached this fearful tree, he began to whistle; he thought his whistle was answered; it was but a blast sweeping sharply through the dry branches. As he approached a little nearer, he thought he saw something white, hanging in the midst of the tree: he paused and ceased whistling but, on looking more narrowly, perceived that it was a place where the tree had been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare. Suddenly he heard a groan–his teeth chattered, and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze. He passed the tree in safety, but new perils lay before him.
About two hundred yards from the tree, a small brook crossed the road, and ran into a marshy and thickly-wooded glen, known by the name of Wiley’s Swamp. A few rough logs, laid side by side, served for a bridge over this stream. On that side of the road where the brook entered the wood, a group of oaks and chestnuts, matted thick with wild grape-vines, threw a cavernous gloom over it. To pass this bridge was the severest trial. It was at this identical spot that the unfortunate Andre was captured, and under the covert of those chestnuts and vines were the sturdy yeomen concealed who surprised him. This has ever since been considered a haunted stream, and fearful are the feelings of the schoolboy who has to pass it alone after dark.
As he approached the stream, his heart began to thump; he summoned up, however, all his resolution, gave his horse half a score of kicks in the ribs, and attempted to dash briskly across the bridge; but instead of starting forward, the perverse old animal made a lateral movement, and ran broadside against the fence. Ichabod, whose fears increased with the delay, jerked the reins on the other side, and kicked lustily with the contrary foot: it was all in vain; his steed started, it is true, but it was only to plunge to the opposite side of the road into a thicket of brambles and alder bushes. The schoolmaster now bestowed both whip and heel upon the starveling ribs of old Gunpowder, who dashed forward, snuffling and snorting, but came to a stand just by the bridge, with a suddenness that had nearly sent his rider sprawling over his head. Just at this moment a plashy tramp by the side of the bridge caught the sensitive ear of Ichabod. In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.
The hair of the affrighted pedagogue rose upon his head with terror. What was to be done? To turn and fly was now too late; and besides, what chance was there of escaping ghost or goblin, if such it was, which could ride upon the wings of the wind? Summoning up, therefore, a show of courage, he demanded in stammering accents, “Who are you?” He received no reply. He repeated his demand in a still more agitated voice. Still there was no answer. Once more he cudgelled the sides of the inflexible Gunpowder, and, shutting his eyes, broke forth with involuntary fervor into a psalm tune. Just then the shadowy object of alarm put itself in motion, and with a scramble and a bound stood at once in the middle of the road. Though the night was dark and dismal, yet the form of the unknown might now in some degree be ascertained. He appeared to be a horseman of large dimensions, and mounted on a black horse of powerful frame. He made no offer of molestation or sociability, but kept aloof on one side of the road, jogging along on the blind side of old Gunpowder, who had now got over his fright and waywardness.
Ichabod now quickened his steed in hopes of leaving him behind. The stranger, however, quickened his horse to an equal pace. Ichabod pulled up, and fell into a walk, thinking to lag behind,–the other did the same. On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless!–but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle! His terror rose to desperation; he rained a shower of kicks and blows upon Gunpowder, hoping by a sudden movement to give his companion the slip; but the spectre started full jump with him. Away, then, they dashed through thick and thin; stones flying and sparks flashing at every bound. Ichabod’s flimsy garments fluttered in the air, as he stretched his long lank body away over his horse’s head, in the eagerness of his flight.
They had now reached the road which turns off to Sleepy Hollow; but Gunpowder, who seemed possessed with a demon, instead of keeping up it, made an opposite turn, and plunged headlong downhill to the left. This road leads through a sandy hollow shaded by trees for about a quarter of a mile, where it crosses the bridge famous in goblin story; and just beyond swells the green knoll on which stands the whitewashed church.
An opening in the trees now cheered him with the hopes that the church bridge was at hand. The wavering reflection of a silver star in the bosom of the brook told him that he was not mistaken. He saw the walls of the church dimly glaring under the trees beyond. He recollected the place where Brom Bones’s ghostly competitor had disappeared. “If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.” Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath. Another convulsive kick in the ribs, and old Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash,–he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider, passed by like a whirlwind.
From the Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving
Today the route of Ichabod Crane from the Van Tassel’s farm is pretty much lost, though it’s a safe bet that much of it occurred along what is now Route 9. Even the location of the famous bridge is now changed, further downstream than where it once crossed the Pocantico River. And yet enough of it remains to get a sense of distance, and when the mood is right, an oppressive sense that one is being followed. Though of course that mood is most likely to be felt more from an internal longing than outside influences. And of course, the tale is fiction – or is it? Either way, to get a feel of old Sleepy Hollow one should keep to the side roads, or dispense of roads altogether and take to the trails. Sleepy Hollow today can best be felt in the depth of the forest, when the path has grown confusing. It can also be felt at Philipsburg Manor and its living history, or at the quiet repose of Irving’s home Sunnyside. And of course, it’s easy to feel in the shadow of the Old Dutch Church, or the silence of the Old Dutch Burying Ground, or the depths of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery at twilight.
Or perhaps it’s not necessary to travel to Sleepy Hollow at all to find it. You can find it anywhere, on a lonely country lane as the fall night air bites lightly at your skin, when the breeze blows with a hint of winter, and the sounds of the night begin to close in and form shapes around you. Sleepy Hollow is a place that stirs the imagination, and perhaps it was from the mind of an antiquarian by the name of Irving, that it came to be. And a place which lives in the imagination, can never pass away.
“I have thus endeavored to give an idea of Sleepy Hollow and its church, as I recollect them to have been in the days of my boyhood. It was in my stripling days, when a few years had passed over my head, that I revisited them, in company with the venerable Diedrich. I shall never forget the antiquarian reverence with which that sage and excellent man contemplated the church. It seemed as if all his pious enthusiasm for the ancient Dutch dynasty swelled within his bosom at the sight. The tears stood in his eyes, as he regarded the pulpit and the communion-table; even the very bricks that had come from the mother country, seemed to touch a filial chord within his bosom. He almost bowed in deference to the stone above the porch, containing the names of Frederick Filipsen and Katrina Van Courtlandt, regarding it as the linking together of those patronymic names, once so famous along the banks of the Hudson; or rather as a key-stone, binding that mighty Dutch family connexion of yore, one foot of which rested on Yonkers, and the other on the Croton. Nor did he forbear to notice with admiration, the windy contest which had been carried on, since time immemorial, and with real Dutch perseverance, between the two weather-cocks; though I could easily perceive he coincided with the one which had come from Holland.”
I had heard enough! I thanked my old playmate for his intelligence, and departed from the Sleepy Hollow church, with the sad conviction that I had beheld the last lingerings of the good old Dutch times, in this once favored region. If any thing were wanting to confirm this impression, it would be the intelligence which has just reached me, that a bank is about to be established in the aspiring little port just mentioned. The fate of the neighborhood is, therefore, sealed. I see no hope of averting it. The golden mean is at an end. The country is suddenly to be deluged with wealth. The late simple farmers are to become bank directors, and drink claret and champagne; and their wives and daughters to figure in French hats and feathers; for French wines and French fashions commonly keep pace with paper money. How can I hope that even Sleepy Hollow can escape the general inundation? In a little while, I fear the slumber of ages will be at end; the strum of the piano will succeed to the hum of the spinning wheel; the trill of the Italian opera to the nasal quaver of Ichabod Crane; and the antiquarian visitor to the Hollow, in the petulance of his disappointment, may pronounce all that I have recorded of that once favored region, a fable.”
From Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving
Real ghost stories and the places that inspired them