Halloween: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

United States - Scott #1558 (1974)
United States – Scott #1558 (1974)

One odd result of living in Thailand is that I have become more involved in certain Western holidays than I was when I moved away from the States. Although I’d always whole-heartedly embraced Christmas while growing up, in my adulthood living far from my family it had become a non-event. Halloween was even farther from my interests, probably since I’d stopped trick-or-treating myself around the age of 12 or 13. Of the few non-Thai special days that most Thais embrace, Halloween and Christmas seem to gain even more recognition each year (of the others, only “Western” New Year and Valentine’s Day are widely celebrated). I still have to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (in sweltering heat, I might add) but each year it seems a bit more “Christmasy” and I’ve even dressed as Santa Claus on a few occasions to give local kindergärtners a healthy dose of holiday cheer.

I think the reason that so many Thai people love Halloween is that it gives them yet another opportunity to dress up in costumes (a number of Thai holidays are like that, too). A few years ago, that meant that all the women wore short black skirts, pancaked their faces with a more-than-usual amount of whitening cream, and donned a store-bought pointy black hat. The men were a bit more creative, usually choosing between zombie or skeleton face paint with a few scars added for shock value. They would have costume parties where everybody looked basically the same other than the few invited foreign expats. Luckily, the influence of those more creative-minded foreigners has given more diversity to the costumes although Thai women still base their Halloween appearance on the standard witch model.

“What fearful shapes and shadows beset his path amidst the dim and ghastly glare of a snowy night!” by Frederick Simpson Coburn (1899). Ichabod Crane imagines a phantom at his shoulder as he walks home after an evening listening to ghost stories. Image first published as the frontispiece to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’s 1899 edition by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.
“Ichabod Crane pursued by the Headless Horseman”, by F.O.C. Darley, 1849

In fact, the Thai version of the celebration is more for adults than for kids. Some of the international schools and weekend language schools might host in-house games or costume contests for the little ones (boys are almost always Spider-Man, girls usually Cinderella or Elsa from “Frozen”), trick-or-treating for candy is rarely seen. When I taught in a large privately-owned bilingual school, there were layouts of food — fried rice, pork spaghetti were the Western consolations amongst the Thai spicy salads and curries.

For a few years now, I’ve spent Halloween re-watching a classic horror movie (“Dracula” with Bela Lagosi, “Frankenstein” with Boris Karloff being my favorites followed closely by “The Wolf-Man” and “The Phantom of the Opera” both with Lon Chaney) or Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and re-reading either “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe or “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. The latter is a gothic story by American author Washington Irving, contained in his collection of 34 essays and short stories entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.. Written while Irving was living abroad in Birmingham, England, the story was first published in 1820. Along with Irving’s companion piece “Rip Van Winkle”, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is among the earliest examples of American fiction with enduring popularity, especially during Halloween because of a character known as the Headless Horseman believed to be a Hessian soldier who lost his head to a cannonball in battle.

Irving wrote The Sketch Book during a tour of Europe, and parts of the tale may also be traced to European origins. Headless horsemen were staples of Northern European storytelling, featuring in German, Irish (e.g., Dullahan), Scandinavian (e.g., the Wild Hunt), and English legends, and were included in Robert Burns’s poem “Tam o’ Shanter” (1790) and Bürger’s Der wilde Jäger, translated as The Wild Huntsman (1796). Usually viewed as omens of ill-fortune for those who chose to disregard their apparitions, these specters found their victims in proud, scheming persons and characters with hubris and arrogance. One particularly influential rendition of this folktale was recorded by the German folklorist Karl Musäus.

Postcard showing Headless Horseman Bridge, Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, N. Y. Published by Detroit Publishing Company, circa 1913-1918. Image from the New York Public Library's Digital Library under the digital ID 56a156d0-c631-012f-4eff-58d385a7bc34.
Postcard showing Headless Horseman Bridge, Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, N. Y. Published by Detroit Publishing Company, circa 1913-1918. Image from the New York Public Library’s Digital Library under the digital ID 56a156d0-c631-012f-4eff-58d385a7bc34.

During the height of the American Revolutionary War, Irving writes that the country surrounding Tarry Town “was one of those highly-favored places which abound with chronicle and great men. The British and American line had run near it during the war; it had, therefore, been the scene of marauding, and infested with refugees, cow-boys, and all kinds of border chivalry.”

After the Battle of White Plains in October 1776, the country south of the Bronx River was abandoned by the Continental Army and occupied by the British. The Americans were fortified north of Peekskill, leaving Westchester County a 30-mile stretch of scorched and desolated no-man’s land, vulnerable to outlaws, raiders, and vigilantes. Besides droves of Loyalist rangers and British light infantry, Hessian Jägers — renowned sharpshooters and horsemen — were among the raiders who often skirmished with Patriot militias. The Headless Horseman, said to be a decapitated Hessian soldier, may have indeed been based loosely on the discovery of just such a Jäger’s headless corpse found in Sleepy Hollow after a violent skirmish, and later buried by the Van Tassel family, in an unmarked grave in the Old Dutch Burying Ground. The dénouement of the fictional tale is set at the bridge over the Pocantico River in the area of the Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground in Sleepy Hollow.

Irving, while he was an aide-de-camp to New York Gov. Daniel D. Tompkins, met an army captain named Ichabod Crane in Sackets Harbor, New York during an inspection tour of fortifications in 1814. Irving may have patterned the character in “The Legend” after Jesse Merwin, who taught at the local schoolhouse in Kinderhook, further north along the Hudson River, where Irving spent several months in 1809. The inspiration for the character of Katrina Van Tassel was based on an actual young woman named Katrina Van Tassel. Washington Irving stayed with her family for a short time, and asked permission to use her name, and loosely base the character on her. He told her and her family he liked to give his characters the names of people he had met.

Title page of the first edition of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., commonly referred to as The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a collection of 34 essays and short stories written by the American author Washington Irving. The first American edition of The Sketch Book initially comprised twenty-nine short stories and essays, published in the United States in seven paperbound installments, appearing intermittently between June 23, 1819, and September 13, 1820.
Title page of the first edition of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a collection of 34 essays and short stories written by the American author Washington Irving. The first American edition of The Sketch Book initially comprised twenty-nine short stories and essays, published in the United States in seven paperbound installments, appearing intermittently between June 23, 1819, and September 13, 1820.

The story was the longest one published as part of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (commonly referred to as The Sketch Book), which Irving issued serially throughout 1819 and 1820, using the pseudonym “Geoffrey Crayon”. With “Rip Van Winkle”, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is one of Irving’s most anthologized, studied, and adapted sketches. Both stories are often paired together in books and other representations, and both are included in surveys of early American literature and Romanticism. Irving’s depictions of regional culture and his themes of progress versus tradition, supernatural intervention in the commonplace, and the plight of the individual outsider in an homogeneous community permeate both stories and helped to develop a unique sense of American cultural and existential selfhood during the early 19th century.

From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by name of Sleepy Hollow … A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.
— Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

The story is set in 1790 in the countryside around the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town (historical Tarrytown, New York), in a secluded glen called Sleepy Hollow. Sleepy Hollow is renowned for its ghosts and the haunting atmosphere that pervades the imaginations of its inhabitants and visitors. Some residents say this town was bewitched during the early days of the Dutch settlement. Other residents say an old Native American chief, the wizard of his tribe, held his powwows here before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. The most infamous spectre in the Hollow is the Headless Horseman, said to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper that had his head shot off by a stray cannonball during “some nameless battle” of the American Revolutionary War, and who “rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head”.

“Courtship In Sleepy Hollow, or Ichabod Crane and Katrina Van Tassel” Parian ceramic by John Rogers, 1868. Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman. New-York Historical Society, 1926.33.

The “Legend” relates the tale of Ichabod Crane, a lean, lanky and extremely superstitious schoolmaster from Connecticut, who competes with Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, the town rowdy, for the hand of 18-year-old Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and sole child of a wealthy farmer, Baltus Van Tassel. Ichabod Crane, a Yankee and an outsider, sees marriage to Katrina as a means of procuring Van Tassel’s extravagant wealth. Bones, the local hero, vies with Ichabod for Katrina’s hand, playing a series of pranks on the jittery schoolmaster, and the fate of Sleepy Hollow’s fortune weighs in the balance for some time. The tension among the three is soon brought to a head. On a placid autumn night, the ambitious Crane attends a harvest party at the Van Tassels’ homestead. He dances, partakes in the feast, and listens to ghostly legends told by Brom and the locals, but his true aim is to propose to Katrina after the guests leave. His intentions, however, are ill-fated.

After having failed to secure Katrina’s hand, Ichabod rides home “heavy-hearted and crestfallen” through the woods between Van Tassel’s farmstead and the Sleepy Hollow settlement. As he passes several purportedly haunted spots, his active imagination is engorged by the ghost stories told at Baltus’ harvest party. After nervously passing under a lightning-stricken tulip tree purportedly haunted by the ghost of British spy Major André, Ichabod encounters a cloaked rider at an intersection in a menacing swamp. Unsettled by his fellow traveler’s eerie size and silence, the teacher is horrified to discover that his companion’s head is not on his shoulders, but on his saddle. In a frenzied race to the bridge adjacent to the Old Dutch Burying Ground, where the Hessian is said to “vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone” upon crossing it, Ichabod rides for his life, desperately goading his temperamental plow horse down the Hollow. However, to Crane’s horror, the ghoul clambers over the bridge, rears his horse, and hurls his severed head into Ichabod’s terrified face.

“The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane” oil on canvas by John Quidor, 1858. Currently displayed at Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Museum purchase made possible in part by the Catherine Walden Myer Endowment, the Julia D. Strong Endowment, and the Director’s Discretionary Fund, 1994.

The next morning, Ichabod has mysteriously disappeared from town, leaving Katrina to marry Brom Bones, who was said “to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related”. Indeed, the only relics of the schoolmaster’s flight are his wandering horse, trampled saddle, discarded hat, and a mysterious shattered pumpkin. Although the nature of the Headless Horseman is left open to interpretation, the story implies that the ghost was really Brom (an agile stunt rider) in disguise. Irving’s narrator concludes, however, by stating that the old Dutch wives continue to promote the belief that Ichabod was “spirited away by supernatural means”, and a legend develops around his disappearance and sightings of his melancholy spirit.

In 1997, the village of North Tarrytown, New York (as the village had been called since the late 19th century), where many events of the story took place, officially changed its name to Sleepy Hollow. Its high school teams are named “the Horsemen”. The nonprofit organization Historic Hudson Valley has held “Legend Weekend” each year since 1996 at the Philipsburg Manor House in Sleepy Hollow, featuring a rider portraying the Headless Horseman and a storyteller, Jonathan Kruk, retelling “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as an historic celebration attended by thousands.

United States - Scott #1558 (1974) souvenir page
United States – Scott #1558 (1974) souvenir page

Scott #1558 was issued on October 10, 1974, at North Tarrytown, New York. The 10-cent American Folklore stamp features a scene from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in which the infamous Headless Horseman pursues protagonist Ichabod Crane. The short story demonstrates two qualities for which Washington Irving is best known: his humor and his ability to create vivid, descriptive imagery. Designed by Leonard Everett Fisher of Westport, Connecticut, the vignette was engraved by John S. Wallace, Jr. with the lettering engraved by Robert G. Culin, Sr. The stamp was printed by the Bureau of Engraving & Printing using offset lithography for the colors yellow, orange, blue, and black while the black was engraved on the Giori press. There was a total printing of 157,270,000. The stamp measures 1.44 x 0.84 inches and has one plate number in panes of 50. “Mail Early in the Day”, “Use ZIP Code” and Mr. ZIP appear in the selvage on both the left and right side of each sheet. It is perforated in a gauge of 11.

Washington Irving was also honored on a U.S. stamp released in Tarrytown on January 29, 1940, as the first in the 35-stamp Famous Americans series (Scott #829). This was a massive undertaking for the U.S. Post Office Department and required an unexpected level of organization. There were seven categories — authors, poets, educators, scientists, composers, artists, and inventors. Each category of five has the same set of denominations (1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 cents), each a valid used rate. The 1¢ stamp paid for a letter that was dropped off at a post office to someone who had a box at the same office. The 2¢ was for local delivery. The 3¢ paid the normal non-local mail rate, and the 5¢ and 10¢ were used in combination for heavier letters and special rates. The denominations also shared a consistent coloring scheme: 1¢ is bright blue green; 2¢ is rose carmine; 3¢ is bright red violet; 5¢ is ultramarine; and 10¢ is dark brown.

United States - Scott #859 (1940)
United States – Scott #859 (1940)

United States - Scott #859 (1940) first day covers
United States – Scott #859 (1940) first day covers
Each category has its subjects arranged with the oldest birth date going on the 1¢ stamp, down to the most recent birth date on the 10¢ stamp. Each category has its own dedicated symbol in the engraving — a scroll, quill pen and inkwell for authors; a winged horse (Pegasus) for poets; the “Lamp of Knowledge” for educators; laurel leaves and the pipes of the Roman god Pan for composers; and inventors had a cogwheel with uplifted wings and a lightning flash to symbolize power, flight, and electricity. The artists and the scientists have multiple symbols. Artists have either a paint palette and brush (for painters), and the sculptors have a stonecutting hammer and chisel. Scientists had the classical symbol of their particular profession.

The 1-cent bright blue green Washington Irving stamp had 56,348,320 copies printed by the Bureau of Engraving & Printing on the rotary press, perforated 11 x 10.

Flag of the United States – 21 stars, 1819-1820

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.