"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 trouble life, I know of none more promising than this little valley."
- Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"
Old Dutch Church, built in 1685, Sleepy Hollow, New York
The Old Dutch Church, fastened from ancient fieldstone, sits on a hill overlooking such modern nuisances as gnarled traffic and a comparatively garish gas station. It is like a beacon that draws you in as you drive by; its stories begging to be told, yet most remaining cloaked and buried within the mute mouths of those who rest eternally nearby. The church is a stubborn guardian of the old days; days when Dutch and French were spoken in this valley and revolutionary battles fought nearby. It is a keeper of old secrets. Perhaps some of those secrets are fused into the stone and mortar and glass and wood. On the grounds are buried not only regular townsfolk, but a witch and a headless Hessian. This is the place where legends and folklore have bloomed and flourished, and all within the shadow of the 17th century copper church bell.
It was when Washington Irving was a child that he first heard the locals talk of a Hessian solider who saved a Sleepy Hollow boy from a burning house, while he was stationed in the area during the Revolutionary War. A few weeks later the Hessian was decapitated by a cannonball and his earlier good deed earned him the the honor of being buried in the old church's burying ground. He did not rest in peace, it seemed. Obsessed in his pursuit to be reunited with his missing head, the locals claimed the the specter of the headless Hessian wandered the hollow at night, on a giant black stead, searching, but never finding, that which he longed for most.
The mystery and magic of this place, its folklore, grabbed hold of young Washington's imagination. So much so that when he grew into adulthood he penned The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, thus assuring this quiet little village would be known throughout the world for centuries to come.
Where the headless Hessian, the inspiration for the Headless horseman, lies is anybody's guess. There was never a marker placed on his grave. Same goes for the witch. You will, however, find plenty of Van Tassel gravestones. Washington was a frequent visitor to the old church graveyard, rambling around the stones that immortalized the lives of those who rested below. The inspirations for Katrina Van Tassel and Brom Bones lie here, as do many others. Washington soaked in the folklore and stories of this place. The old graveyard was his quiet, contemplative place; his place where ideas, fiction mingled with legend, percolated and formed fleshed out stories. Stories filled with cowardly, superstitious school teachers, rich, pretty, young girls, and rowdy, but well-liked alpha males.
Washington would have been well-acquainted with the Dutch soul effigies that are carved into the stones. Unlike the harsh Purtian imagery of skulls and skeletons carved in many Boston area graveyards, the Dutch preferred the chubby-cheeked image of a resurrected soul.
Just beyond the Old Dutch Church burying ground is the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The two graveyards are connected, though not affiliated. In that cemetery, on a hill overlooking the church and hollow he made world famous, Washington Irving is buried.
It was November when we strolled through the Sleepy Hollow cemeteries. Autumn was in its peak. To quote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, "It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day; the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance." I had been there many times before, and each time I am struck at the serenity and awe that settles into my bones. It is a feeling of encompassing stillness, and a deep sense of appreciation for the art of the memorials and the nature that encircles this place. It is easy to see how Washington's creativity was stirred in such a place as this.
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery meanders over hills, with distant views into New York City and the Tappan Zee Bridge. As you come down a hill, you come upon a pretty, little river that gurgles and churns with life, and spanning that river is the Headless Horseman bridge.
Washington Irving described this very place in his Sleepy Hollow tale, "A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquility."
Whenever I come to this bridge, I try to imagine the clopping hooves of a muscular black stead, the steam shooting from his nostrils. I try to imagine the panicked, quick intake of breath of a cowardly school teacher, as he realizes all of his fears have not been unfounded. And I try and see the horrifying specter of a calm, yet determined solider, seeking a replacement for his long-lost head. For this is the place where Washington wandered, where images, thoughts, and folklore collided in his imagination and new legends were born.