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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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The Truth Behind the Legend: Historical Inspirations for Irving's Horseman-Haunted Sleepy Hollow

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” remains one of the most pervasive and intriguing ghost stories of all time, and the primary reason for this are its deep roots in possibility –

its uncommon connection to real people and places. Dracula and The Phantom of the Opera have lasted so long for similar reasons, but while debates surround the historical connections of those novels, no one debates that Sleepy Hollow is a real place. The sternly beautiful church peering from its perch above the black waters of the Pocantico River, the rust-colored grave markers of the Van Tassels and Martlings, the still shades of the Rockefeller State Preserve, the gloom of Raven Rock, and the rolling hills of the Old Albany Post Road speak to the story's authenticity. When you read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" it feels oddly true -- there is no better word for it -- grounded in a reality of place, culture, and history, and for good reason. While the tale of a comical schemer scared straight by a goblin rider is largely an Americanization of three European folk tales (Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter,” Bürger’s “The Wild Huntsman,” and Musäus’ “The Legend of Rubezahl”), its setting, details, and characters are faithfully shaped out of post-Revolutionary Westchester County.

In this article I’ll plunge deep into the historical inspirations behind the “Legend,” including the surprising real-life Ichabod’s race with a sheeted horseman, the local details of the actual Headless Horseman (including his military context), the two still-standing houses that inspired the Van Tassel Manor, and some of the genuine ghost stories that Washington Irving snuck into his story – tales which Tarrytown locals still murmur at Halloween.




(All military paintings by Dan Troiani)

"Hessians" were German soldiers loaned from the prince of Hesse-Kassel to augment foreign countries’ armies. Hesse-Kassel was a small, forested state in Central Germany with little industry, so it relied on its soldiers-for-hire to boost the otherwise weak, agrarian economy. The soldiers were absolute professionals – raised to fight from youth – and were amongst the best trained fighters in the world.

They most famously partook in the battles of Long Island (where they terrified the Americans with their skill and ferocity), Bennington (where they were massacred by vengeful militiamen), and Trenton (where their sleeping garrison was overwhelmed in an early morning raid that turned the tide of the war). 30,000 Hessians fought in the war, and earned the fear and loathing of Patriot families who saw them as a soulless killing machines driven by greed rather than virtue (although in reality, the prince -- not the soldiers -- pocketed King George's cash).

The Headless Horseman is only described as a "Hessian trooper" -- a mounted soldier. The Hessian forces had several units of light dragoons who frequently scoured the chaotic no-man's land of Westchester County, including rebel-infested Sleepy Hollow. These dragoons were part of the Jäger Corps (pronounced “YAY-gur,” meaning “huntsman” or “ranger”). Rangers wore dark green uniforms with apple-red lapels, green vests, and leather breeches with tall, black boots. Rangers in the dragoon unit were armed with a curved 33 inch-long steel saber weighing just under three pounds, a brace of pistols, and a carbine flintlock rifle.

The Headless Horseman is usually depicted in a fluttering black or scarlet cape, but this, more than anything else, suggests that the rider who chases Ichabod is Brom in disguise and not the ghost of a dragoon. Dragoons on patrol were very unlikely to wear capes or cloaks, which restricted movement, became entangled in trees and brush, and were too clumsy for these high energy scouts. Instead of a cape, the Horseman would most likely have either worn an overcoat or buttoned up his heavy, wool uniform jacket to keep out the cold or rain.

These soldiers were expert scouts, specializing in shock tactics, reconnaissance, raiding, and guerrilla warfare. Along with British light infantry, Hessian dragoons terrorized Patriots living in Westchester County with their hit-and-run tactics, speed, aggression, and horsemanship.

We know virtually nothing about how the Horseman died. Irving only notes that his "head was carried away by a cannonball during some nameless battle." There has been a spirited campaign by some commentators who argue that this “nameless” battle was the Battle of White Plains (28-30 October 1776) -- fought ten miles away from Sleepy Hollow just before Halloween.

One oft-cited report from the battle tells of a Hessian artilleryman who was decapitated by one of Alexander Hamilton’s cannon, and this is certainly interesting, but Irving likely means exactly what he says, and since he later refers to the “Battle of Whiteplains,” I hardly think he imagines this well-known clash between Washington, Howe, and thousands of combatants to be a "nameless" footnote in history (nor would the braggadocious veterans at Van Tassel's party who loved describing their roles in the battle).

During the war a small cannon was installed and fortified on a slope beside the churchyard (today called Battle Hill) overlooking the Albany Post Road (modern Route 9). Although no major battle ever took place under its watch, it was used to frighten off British and Hessian raiders from time to time. My own inference is that Irving in