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Features: Fortean Traveller


Sleepy Hollow, Westchester County, New York

J E Barnes takes a literary journey to the scene of Washington Irving’s most celebrated story, and finds that the spell of the past hangs over Sleepy Hollow even today.

In his 1819 story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, Washington Irving described a bucolic little village in memorable terms: “If ever I should wish for a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley… A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and pervade the very atmosphere… certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air.”

Readers of Irving’s evocative prose will be delighted to learn that the landscape he described still exists, and in so unaltered a form that its preservation would seem to prove his belief that “time, which changes all things, is slow in its operations on a Dutchman’s dwelling.” 1

Surprisingly, Sleepy Hollow is located no more than 45 minutes by car or train from midtown Manhattan; the village is easily reached by taking the Metro North Railroad from Grand Central Station to the Philipse Manor stop (.00 [£7.60] round trip). Disembarking, you will be only a pleasant seven minute walk from the Old Dutch Churchyard. To make the most of your visit, jaunts to neighbouring Tarrytown and Irvington are recommended.

A few caveats: while the villages of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown exist virtually back to back, Irvington, where Irving’s home Sunnyside is an important attraction for several reasons, is four long miles (6.4km) to the south and not merely over the next hill as tourist brochures suggest (pedestrians take note). Resource materials that advise disembarking at Tarrytown should be ignored, as an enormous boarded-up strip mall, a deserted parking lot, and other uninviting examples of urban sprawl surround the station. And you won’t find the promised fleets of all-hour taxis waiting to whisk you to your destination unless your arrival happens to coincide with a weekday rush hour. The old, architecturally interesting downtown section where Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown overlap consists of an economically depressed area as ominous as any in the South Bronx, and should be avoided for safety reasons.

Despite their evident sense of pride in the place, I have found that the local people are remarkably unknowledgeable about the fundamentals of the village. Though the Horseman Diner on North Broadway is only a brief stroll from the Old Dutch Churchyard, none of its employees had an idea of where the Churchyard was located when I asked, and several denied there was a cemetery in the vicinity at all. When asked about the name of the diner, one waitress thought that it had something to do with a recent film.

Even a brief survey of the valley’s history suggests that Irving’s Dutch peasants weren’t imagining things. There is hardly an outcropping, island, stretch of road, mansion (whether mouldering or studiously maintained), or hedgerow in the Hudson River Valley that doesn’t have a long-standing reputation for being vigorously haunted. Irving’s folkloric headless Hessian soldier isn’t the valley’s only ghostly rider: Fishkill has a headless horseman of its own, and Leeds a silent phantom mounted on a black mare. For the last 200 years, the Town of Lloyd has hosted a lake-haunting grey lady. Dutchess County has a spectral fiddler, and the Old Albany Post Road a “giant spirit pig” notorious for splitting into sections so that it is able to pursue vehicles from ahead and behind simultaneously.

The spirits of dead women glide through the passageways of local estates (or their remains): Estherwood, Wilderstein, Beechwood, and the Octagon House. 2 Tiny Bannerman’s Island, with its striking castle ruins, has had a continuous reputation for over 400 years of being haunted. A “ghost train” carrying the corpse of Abraham Lincoln has been reported passing along the Hudson’s eastern shore at regular intervals since 1865, 3 and near Marlboro, a phantom Dutch sloop has repeatedly been seen navigating the river during the Full Moon. Since the time of the first European settlers, Dunderberg Mountain, which directly overlooks the river near Stony Point, has been reputed to be the abode of a mischievous goblin that delights in conjuring thunderstorms and manifesting physically to terrified sailors. 4 Ghosts of Revolutionary soldiers and British spies abound. Reports of wizards and witches of all varieties and temperaments have been plentiful too. Not surprisingly, Indian curses have been layered over the region for centuries.

Pirates, including one-time “Island of Manhattoes” resident Captain Kidd, are believed to have hidden their treasure here. The valley has had its own resident cannibal, though the individual in question, Oscar Beckwith, never got further than frying up his victim’s liver in a skillet. 5 Since the 18th century, the landscape has been home to every kind of prophet, seer, mystic, eccentric, crackpot inventor, freebooter, wayward millionaire, visionary, utopian idealist, and all-American dreamer.

Not to be outdone, other fortean phenomena have been in full evidence and fine feather: “pterodactyl-like creatures” have been reported flying in the skies overhead, 6 and lake monsters have also been sighted infrequently. From 1982 to 1995, the lower valley hosted an array of spectacular UFO sightings that caught the attention of Dr J Allen Hynek and were reported by an estimated 7,000 people. 7 “As big as a football field”, silent, and prone to hovering, the objects bore striking resemblances to those two ‘black ops’ phantom mares, the TR-3B Black Manta and the stealth blimp.

Irving is rightfully acknowledged as the father of Hudson River Valley folklore (as well as of American literature), but the area also has vivid connections to other figures of fortean interest. After a walking tour from the Bronx to Mamaroneck, Edgar Allen Poe set his hallucinated ‘Ulalume’ “in the misty mid region of Weir,” a reference to Hudson River School painter Robert Walter Weir and to “the ghoul haunted woodland” beloved of both. At 42, Aleister Crowley briefly took up residence on isolated Esopus Island. Contactee George Van Tassel of Giant Rock fame was a descendant of the Van Tassel family made famous in Irving’s tale. Still thriving, today the Van Tassels proudly claim George as one their own.

Once you’ve stepped off the train at Philipse Manor, follow the main residential road southeast about 500 yards (460m). The cow- and goat-occupied pasturelands of the Philipsburg Manor Upper Mills will shortly be on your left, and, as you approach the North Broadway intersection, the Old Dutch Church across the highway on the right. This crossroads is important, since it is the original site of “Ichabod’s bridge,” the actual historic structure the schoolteacher was attempting to reach on the night of his famous fictional ride. A plaque naming it “Sleepy Hollow Bridge” now commemorates the spot; a short, woefully inadequate wooden bridge (actually a part of the Philipsburg Manor Upper Mills) rests alongside it to aid the imagination. Beneath both runs the gurgling Pocantico River, now little more than a stream, but strong enough 300 years ago to repeatedly burst the dam that fuelled the Manor’s gristmill (in fact, the Old Dutch Church was built after a Philipse family slave dreamt the flooding would stop only when a church was erected on the river’s banks). It is these very waters that are fruitlessly dragged for Ichabod’s body at the story’s conclusion.

The concrete and wooden bridges, the Pocantico, and Philipsburg Manor in the near distance represent happy tangible facts, because so little about Sleepy Hollow, both the place and the story, is verifiable or agreed upon. The dates that the burial ground was established, the Old Dutch Church built and services first held there are all wildly disputed, as are the date of the first European settlement in Tarrytown, and the exact location of Major Andre’s capture (and thus ‘Major Andre’s Tree’). Was a superstitious belief in a headless Hessian mercenary already prevalent in the area before the publication of Irving’s story? Some people think so. Though Irving partially adapted a story by German writer Karl Musaus (1735-1787) for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, both Tarrytown and Kinderhook partisans claim Ichabod and Katrina were based exclusively on residents of their own communities.

An antiquarian’s dream, the Old Dutch Church – now a National Historic Landmark – and the Old Dutch Churchyard – one of the oldest in America – are as magnificent and evocative today as they were in Irving’s time. And, by American standards, each was already old then. One need only look at 19th century Currier & Ives prints to see how little, if at all, each has changed. At present you can stand in the churchyard looking south and view the burying ground and church exactly as it was depicted by Arthur Rackham in the illustration ‘Reciting for their amusement all the epitaphs on the tombstones’ that he created for a 1928 edition of the story. The oldest surviving tombstones date from the 18th century. Composed of reddish-brown sandstone, many are carved with ‘spirit effigies’, little winged heads that adorn the top of the stone and represent the passing of the soul into heaven. The inscriptions generally reflect a sombre humility, but others subtly mock the reader across the ages: “I Was Once What You Are, And What I Am, You Will Be,” states one sardonically.

Though the Old Dutch Churchyard covers only three well-tended oblong acres (1.2 hectares), it appears much larger, partially because the equally beautiful but more dramatic Sleepy Hollow Cemetery borders it directly to the east, just a few steps away, across a gravel path. Among those interred in the churchyard are such notables as militia member Abraham Martlings, Colonel James Hammond, war heroine Elizabeth Van Tassel, the unnamed folkloric Hessian soldier who became the fictional Headless Horseman, and Hulda the Witch, who was despised for trading with the Indians and for living in isolation in a cabin in the woods. However, when the American Revolution broke out, Hulda took up her rifle and offered her services to the very people who had shunned her; she was mortally wounded in the battle, but not before killing several British soldiers. When a bible was found in her home, and a will leaving what gold she had to the local women who had lost their husbands during the fighting, it was decided she should be interred in the churchyard, though in an unmarked grave at some distance from the others. 8

In both the Churchyard and the vast 85-acre (34-hectare) Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (Irving’s final resting place), the spell of the past, and of timelessness, is unusually potent. A drowsy, supernatural influence does seems to hang over the combined space; the effect is strengthened by the twisting lanes, the ornate statuary, the rise and fall of the land (the cemetery is structured around a system of rising tiers), the view of the Hudson River and the lower Catskills in the distance, the ancient mausoleums and trees, and the more recent 19th century crypts of white marble, some of which are larger than a small house. Looking right and left, turning this way and that, one is constantly in awe. The elaborate American Revolution and Civil War memorials mesh comfortably with the Romantic-style design of the cemetery (which resembles nothing so much as the background of a late Gainsborough painting), and a breathless silence hangs over everything. Chances are that you will encounter another person only at a distance; grave-stepping families of deer are commonplace, but human visitors are not.

Visitors who would like to know what Sleepy Hollow looked like at the time of Ichabod’s lonely journeys – or where Hulda lived – can visit the 860-acre (350-hectare) Rockefeller State Park Preserve, which lies behind the cemetery. The preserve’s main entrance lies elsewhere, but it is officially accessible via a back pathway if one follows the Pocantico – which abuts the cemetery – in an easterly direction. Dark, overgrown, confusing, primordial, and deserted – if beautiful – the labyrinthine preserve should be entered cautiously and never later than mid-afternoon. One humid summer morning, deep within it, I found myself on a narrow path with honeysuckle vines growing on either side in enormous profusion. After half a mile (800m), able to see nothing but more white blossoms ahead, I had to return the way I had come, so heavy and stifling was the odour of the flowers. No wonder those Dutch peasants were seeing visions and hearing music in the air, I thought.

The Philipsburg Manor Upper Mills is a pastoral historical attraction (.00 [£4.30] admission) reflecting life as it was lived in the 18th century. The sugar-trading Philipse (originally Flypse) family originally owned over 56,000 acres (22,660 hectares) in the area – the entire Pocantico River Valley – but lost everything during the American Revolution when Frederick Philipse III sided with the British. Guests can tour the manor house and grounds, watch the gristmill in operation, and observe the costumed staff demonstrate life as it was lived in the period.

The Historical Society of the Tarrytowns, at 1 Grove Street in Tarrytown, is housed in a striking old mansion that resembles nothing so much as the Bates home in Hitchcock’s Psycho. There is a room dedicated to Major Andre’s capture, a revolving series of clothing and weaponry exhibits, and an excellent library and archive. During one visit, I met a young blonde woman poring through the dusty volumes, pencil in hand. She turned out to be a Van Tassel, studiously researching her lineage. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable, and willing to answer questions at length; on the basis of an hour’s conversation, Maryanne Marshall, one of the directors, graciously offered to give me a tour of the area by car, which I gratefully accepted. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 2 to 4pm.

Sunnyside, Irving’s small estate on the banks of the Hudson, has had a chequered history and is well worth a look. After the Indians were tricked into trading away the land upon which the mansion stands, Irving wrote that the tribe’s “wizard sachem” laid a curse over the area. Part of the enchantment was cast over the Indians themselves, causing them to fall into a drowse among the “rocks and recesses of the valley, where they remain asleep to the present day”. Later, after being rebuffed by the Dutch, English settlers living in Connecticut laid a “plague of witchcraft” on the vicinity. Wolfert Acker, the first European to own and build on the land, subsequently had to “fight off witches and warlocks” that “would whirl about upon the weathercocks and scream down the chimneys.” Unlucky even in death, “according to local gossip,” Acker’s ghost still haunted the apple orchard at the time of Irving’s residence. 9

Most importantly, the tract of land in question was also the site of the Van Tassel farm, the very farm that Ichabod gleefully visits on the fatal night of his flight from the headless horseman. Thus, a walk north on Broadway from Sunnyside to Tarrytown, past Patriot’s Park (with its monument broadly marking the spot of Major Andre’s capture, which Ichabod fretfully passes before encountering his adversary), and northeast to the Old Dutch Churchyard replicates Ichabod’s wild ride exactly. Although markers named in the story, such as Wiley’s Swamp, no longer exist, the significant landmarks do. I deduced this through careful reading, a lot of hiking, and trial and error. While others, I’m certain, have reached similar conclusions, they do not appear to have left any records of them.

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Sleepy Hollow
Harvest effigy, Philipsburg Manor. Image: J E Barnes
Sleepy Hollow
18th century grave with crowned ‘spirit effigy’. Image: J E Barnes
  Sleepy Hollow
The Old Dutch Church as it appears today. Image: J E Barnes
The Old Dutch Church
The Old Dutch Church in an 1867 Currier & Ives lithograph
  Sleepy Hollow
'Headless Hoseman of Sleepy Hollow' by George Washington / Allston Jenkins 1840-65
Author Biography
J E Barnes is a freelance writer and a painter with a longstanding interest in paranormal phenomena. He currently lives in New York City. This is his first article for FT.


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