Saturday, October 24, 2020
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‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is ‘America’s first ghost story’

In the New York village of Sleepy Hollow rests Washington Irving, writer of short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” published in 1820. It’s “America’s first ghost story,” according to Historic Hudson Valley VP of Communications & Commerce Rob Schweitzer.

“He was very inspired by that area. He thought of it as a dreamy landscape that had a little bit of a supernatural presence to it. And so he always was kind of thinking about that. And then when he wrote the story, he wrote it while he was actually living in Europe. But he was thinking specifically about that area at the time,” said Schweitzer, standing outside an immersive display of the Headless Horseman Bridge at The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze, a 49-night Halloween event featuring more than 7,000 illuminated jack-o’-lanterns.

“The Headless Horseman is this specter that looms in the distance or in your nightmares. It’s this perennially scary image,” said Schweitzer.

The story, set in 1790, centers around school teacher Ichabod Crane, who tries to win the affections of Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of Sleepy Hollow’s most affluent family. Ichabod gets caught up in the terror surrounding the small village, gripped by fear of a headless horseman. After he’s rejected by Katrina at a party one night, he rides home feeling dejected and encounters a rider on horseback, with his severed head on his saddle. A chase begins, and Ichabod frantically rides to the bridge near the Old Dutch Church. He was told at Katrina’s party that the headless horseman would be powerless to do harm once he crosses the bridge. Ichabod makes it safely across the bridge but to his horror, the headless horseman throws his head at Ichabod, causing him to fall off his horse. The next day, the teacher is nowhere to be found, and the only evidence left of the scene is Ichabod’s hat, saddle and a smashed pumpkin.

“What we know about Irving was that he came up here one summer because of a yellow fever epidemic in Manhattan where his family lived and they sent him up here to be safe,” said Rev. Jeffrey Gargano, pastor of the Old Dutch Church, one of the oldest continuously running congregations in the country. “And he talks about being out here in this graveyard, playing with his cousins, being chased off by the stern and mean church sextons. And he’d come out here and they’d play in these stones and run around like teenage boys everywhere will do. And he falls down right in front of a stone, looks up. And what does he see? But the name that sticks with him for a generation. And the name is Katrina Van Tassel. And he describes her in the story as being plump as a partridge, and that she had flaxen hair. And when the sun hits this stone just right late in the day, you can see in the soul effigy how plump the face is, and the carving in the hair almost makes it look flaxen. In fact, you can even see a little bit now with the sun just barely hitting it. This is where Irving got his idea for what Katrina Van Tassel, the muse in the story, looks like, from this stone right here.”

Irving is buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which overlooks the Old Dutch Church.

“One of his wishes was that when he was buried, that he’d be in a place that just kind of overlooked this graveyard that he loved so much, the serenity of this sanctuary that he loved,” said Gargano. “So he’s just up on the hill. And when you stand up there and look down, it’s just kind of this, perfect view of the church.”

The village, incorporated as North Tarrytown in the late 19th century, changed its name to Sleepy Hollow in 1996.

Sleepy Hollow historian Henry Steiner said after publication, the short story was immediately successful and said that Irving said that it was, “‘A collage of places and people that I knew at Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow.’ And he said, ‘The story is just a whimsical band that connects those descriptions.'” 

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of “America’s first ghost story.”

(Production by Hussein Al Waaile and Roselle Chen)

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