On Oct. 27, we’re scaring ourselves silly with our annual extravaganza, the Hallowe’en Family Party. This year, we’re celebrating the exhibition Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere with pony rides, a pumpkin patch, a statue costume contest, and much more. (Buy your tickets today!) In honor of the spooky season, we’re bringing back a golden oldie from History Detectives: the history behind the classic scary story by Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
The origins of the 1820 tale—about a hapless hero named Ichabod Crane and his run-in with a terrifying figure known as the Headless Horseman—are shrouded in mystery. One theory is that the character was inspired by the German folktale “The Wild Huntsman,” which Irving may have heard while traveling abroad. In the story itself, Irving describes the Horseman as “the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried off by a cannon-ball in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War,”[i] a bit of fictionalizing about the German troops who were hired by the British that might have some basis in fact.
Historical documentation of such a Hessian soldier does exist. In 1798, Major General William Heath published a memoir of his Revolutionary War experiences that included an account of the Battle of White Plains in New York, which took place, coincidentally, in late October of 1776. On November 1, 1776, Heath wrote in his journal that, “a shot from the American cannon at this place took off the head of a Hessian artillery man.”[ii]
White Plains happens to be located less than 10 miles from Tarrytown, a village right next to the real Sleepy Hollow. And whatever the story behind the Horseman, there’s no doubt that Irving found much inspiration in this corner of the Hudson River Valley. Irving first visited Tarrytown as a teenager in 1798, when a yellow fever epidemic was raging in New York City, and his family had fled to escape infection. Young Irving was enthralled by Tarrytown’s Dutch character. The town reminded him of a bygone era, and he recounted many of its quaint customs years later in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Visiting Tarrytown was a formative experience for Irving. The idyllic countryside captured his imagination. Its hidden valleys and meandering streams had an air of mystery. Irving recalled hearing many legends and ghost stories. “Villagers spoke in hushed whispers of the strange cries heard in the woods where the captured British spy John Andre had been hanged.”[iii] If the Headless Horseman himself remains a mystery, there’s no doubt that Irving’s sojourn in the Hudson River Valley inspired many of his spellbinding tales.
[i] Neider, Charles ed, The Complete Tales of Washington Irving (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), p. 32.
[ii] Heath, William, Memoirs of Major General William Heath (New York: William Abbatt, 1901), p. 73.
[iii] Jones, Brian Jay, Washington Irving: The Definitive Biography of America’s First Bestselling Author (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2011), p. 11.