I have always loved scary stories. From watching Scooby Doo religously every afternoon at my grandma’s house to reading my first horror novel (“It” by Stephen King) when I was in 4th grade, I was born a connoisseur of the frightening. I remember one of the most interesting and terrifying stories to me was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. My first exposure to it was through the Disney movie “The Adventures of Icabod and Mr. Toad” – a movie that was one half “The Wind in the Willows” and one half “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Through the silly, soft lens of Walt Disney, that version wasn’t nearly as horrifying as later adaptations, but it sparked some kind of real fear in me as a child – and I loved it.
Everyone knows the story of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow with its tale of Ichabod Crane the slight, yet smart, schoolteacher, and the menacing Headless Horseman. But I wonder how many people know that its author, Washington Irving, drew inspiration from real-life events that took place in and around Tarrytown, New York.
The story takes place in the late 1700s in a fictional city called “Sleepy Hollow” which is near Tarrytown, New York. A school teacher by the name of Ichabod Crane comes to town from Connecticut and finds himself at odds with a local by the name of Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt over a woman named Katrina. Meanwhile, the ghost of a soldier who lost his head to a cannonball during the American Revolution haunts the area every night in search for his missing head. And should anyone interrupt the Headless Horseman on his quest to find his head, they are killed. One night, as he was leaving a party at Katrina’s home, Ichabod found himself face-to-face (so to speak) with the Horseman, never to be heard from again.
The Hudson River Valley, where Tarrytown is located, has a large Dutch population and much of that ‘old country’ folklore finds its way into the stories of Washington Irving. In fact, there is a German legend of the Headless Horseman that has been said to influence the Dutch tales. In one tale, he’s called “The Wild Huntsman” who chases people who have committed terrible crimes through the woods at breakneck speeds.
Irving writes in the story that there is a bridge near an Old Dutch Burying Ground where, legend has it, that if the Horseman attempts to cross it, he will disappear in a great “flash of fire and brimstone.” However, it proves to be not the case as the Horseman races across the bridge and throws his decapitated head at Ichabod. What happens next, is a mystery, but Irving writes that the old Dutch wives will tell the tales and create the legend that Ichabod was “spirited away by supernatural means.”
In reality, the late 1700, near the end of the Revolutionary War, the Hudson River Valley area was equivalent to the wild west – an area of law breakers and law makers, rife with rivalries and fighting between British loyalists and American raiders. Also, the area was known for its abundance of Hessian Jagers – German mercenaries who were contracted by the British Empire to serve during the American Revolutionary War. These Hessians, in addition to being known for their ruthlessness, were also known for their sharpshooting and horsemanship skills.
The area residents, who, as I mentioned, were predominately Dutch settlers, did not care much for these German mercenaries and told the tales of the ruthless German horsemen who killed without discretion. At one point, a headless corpse of a Hessian soldier was found in the area and later buried by a local family in an unmarked grave in the Old Dutch Burying Ground.
But what about Ichabod Crane? There was an acutal Ichabod Crane who was a military man - a Marine and an Army officer – who served in the War of 1812. Washington Irving met the real Crane at Fort Pike in Sackett’s Harbor, New York in 1814 and was immediately inspired by his name and character. Although, the soldier was nothing like his namesake school teacher.
However, the mannerisms and the behavior of Ichabod Crane are said to be inspired by a friend of Irving’s from Kinderhook, New York. The teacher, Jesse Merwin, was originally from Connecticut and moved to Kinderhook to teach school. Unlike Major Crane, Mr. Merwin was proud of his association with the story.
One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered about the story of Sleepy Hollow is that the town itself wasn’t an actual place until just recently. Well, the location existed, just not in name. In the story, Irving states Sleepy Hollow is “perhaps about three miles” from Tarrytown in “a little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world.” The village of North Tarrytown has claimed to be the inspiration for the story for as long as the story has been written, however, many believe that Irving based his story on Kinderhook, where he met his friend Jesse Merwin. It wasn’ t until 1996 when the North Tarrytown officially adopted the name Sleepy Hollow in honor of the story.
It’s in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where Washington Irving is buried along with other famous names like Andrew Carnegie, Walter P. Chrysler, Brooke Astor and Elizabeth Arden.
Not that long ago, I took a trip to New York and stayed in Tarrytown. Our first stop was Sleepy Hollow and it’s every bit as perfect as you’d imagine it to be from the story. At first sight, it’s a beautiful and postcard-perfect New England town that feels like an ancient forest growing in the hills. But at night, the picturesque facade drops and every face becomes ominous, every noise becomes a bellow, nothing is what it seems. The night is darker and you feel like someone or something is just waiting two steps behind you.
It’s not that difficult to imagine or to understand just how Washington Irving found such profound inspiration for one of America’s most horrifying tales in such a small and beautiful town.