Losing our heads
Last updated 10/19/2021 at Noon
No October is complete without a viewing of Tim Burton’s dreamlike “Sleepy Hollow.” It is Clan Cornelius’ favorite cinematic tale of the Halloween season — and the Headless Horseman has long been my favorite icon of spookiness.
In the original Washington Irving tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the Headless Horseman is the shade of a Hessian officer whose head was carried away by a cannonball “in some nameless battle” of the American Revolution. In the film, his corporeal demise was more … intimate.
The Hessians were German mercenaries whose contract was purchased by the British from the Prince of Hessen-Kassel in 1776 when it became apparent that considerable manpower would be required to suppress the great rebellion in the American Colonies. Most of the Hessian units were line infantry, noted for discipline and battlefield effectiveness (except when caught by surprise at Trenton. We might have to revisit that at Christmastime…)
They also fielded rifle-armed light infantry. David Ross wrote a fine piece in the Journal of the American Revolution on the Hessian Jägerkorps.
“They were skilled shots, self-sufficient in battle, and swift, able to efficiently load and fire a rifle, a skill which took greater dexterity than firing the muskets of the day. Most importantly, they were valiant. Though the Jäger did not play a pivotal role in the American Revolution and suffered from the defeats of their regular counterparts, the actions of the Hessian Jägerkorps as a whole positively contributed to the British war effort. This was especially true in the campaigns in New York in 1776 and Pennsylvania in 1777.”
Hessian Jägerkorps operated in the “neutral land” of Westchester County (where Sleepy Hollow is located), which was haunted throughout the Revolutionary War by roving bands of guerrillas, partisans, and outlaws.
In a 1780 journal, James Thatcher wrote: “The country is rich and fertile…but it now has the marks of a country in ruins. A large proportion of the proprietors having abandoned their farms, the few that remain find it impossible to harvest their produce. Banditti, consisting of lawless villains…devote themselves to the most cruel pillage and robbery among the defenseless inhabitants between the lines. These shameless marauders have received the names of Cow-boys and Skinners. By their atrocious deeds they have become a scourge and terror to the people.”
The blog OldStyleTales.com posits that Irving’s yarn had a basis in historical events:
“(T)he remains of a decapitated Jäger were unceremoniously buried in the old graveyard in an unmarked plot in 1778 (today his body has finally been acknowledged with a simple brass tablet reading: HESSIAN SOLDIER).
Suitably enough, the body is said to have been interred by the Van Tassel family as a surprising gesture of thanks.
One winter night in 1777 a band of Tories captured the Van Tassel brothers Peter and Cornelius (ardent Patriots and leaders in the insurgent militia), torched their house, and left Elizabeth Van Tassel (Cornelius’ wife) stranded with their infant daughter Leah.
Torn by pity, one of the Jägers in the party rushed into the burning house and brought back a feather mattress and blankets to keep the two from freezing, saving their lives.
“When a decapitated Jäger corpse was discovered on the side of the Post Road later that spring, Elizabeth paid for its burial. Whether the soldier was a foot soldier or a dragoon isn’t recorded, nor do we know if his ghost was ever reported stalking the shades of Sleepy Hollow. While it is difficult to find genuine folklore prior to 1820 attesting to a local belief in a Headless Horseman, Irving claims that the goblin was a genuine part of Tarrytown ghostlore.”
I may be putting more weight on this than the tale needs to carry, but I like it that the legacy of the Revolutionary War is a dark and forbidding presence. Especially in these fraught times, it is good to remember that American history has always been filled with disunity, contention, and strife — not to mention some scary folk.
We tend to look back on our founding through a gauzy veil of civic piety, forgetting that creating the American nation was quite a dirty and mean business. In the New York of “Sleepy Hollow,” as it was in the southern backcountry, the Revolution was a civil war, and it was a nasty affair. Surely there are many unlaid ghosts from those sanguinary days that haunt us still.