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Headless Horseman is really buried in Sleepy Hollow

Historic marker at the Headless Horseman Bridge
Historic marker at the Headless Horseman Bridge
Rich Grant

A popular Halloween costume in Denver this week will be the Headless Horseman, but few people wearing that outfit realize how some parts of the famous story are based on fact.

The Headless Horseman chases Ichabod Crane
The Old Dutch Church

According to the old New York legend, a Hessian soldier in the American Revolution was stationed in the village of Sleepy Hollow, where he managed to save a young child from a burning house. A few weeks later, the soldier was decapitated by a cannonball, but because of his good deed, the citizens decided to bury him on the grounds of the Old Dutch Church. However, the soldier’s ghost was unhappy, and each night he would leave the cemetery and roam the countryside on a giant black steed, searching for his missing head.

That's how author Washington Irving heard the story when he visited the village of Sleepy Hollow as a boy, and how he later presented it in his 1820 classic tale of horror, the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

A visit to the village of Sleepy Hollow, located 25 miles north of New York City, offers an opportunity to see many of the sites associated with the legend. Built in 1685, the Old Dutch Church is still standing and is oldest church in New York. George Washington once stopped here, and the surrounding Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is one of the most famous in the state, filled with everything from 250 year-old graves of Revolutionary War soldiers to the grave of Andrew Carnegie. Free tours are offered on weekends.

On the tour, it turns out that a headless Hessian soldier really was buried on the church grounds. The soldier has no gravestone, but sitting right next to the pretty church is the grave of Eleanor Van Tassel Brush, who was the inspiration for Katrina Van Tassel in Washington Irving’s story.

According to the tale, a new schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane, came to the village and fell in love with Katrina, the beautiful daughter of the town's richest citizen. This doesn't go over well with her current suitor, the town daredevil, Brom Bones (who was based on Revolutionary War hero Abraham Martlings, also buried near the church).

Ichabod eventually proposes and is rejected by Katrina. Dejected, he sets out on a dark ride home, when he hears something behind him. Turning, he sees an apparition of a rider on the horizon. Silhouetted against the sky is a rider -- with no head. Thus begins a desperate race to the cemetery bridge, which according to the legend, the Headless Horseman could not cross.

The original bridge is of course long gone, but nearby, there is now a beautiful wood bridge that has come to be known locally as the Headless Horseman Bridge. An official NY state historical marker even shows the spot.

Once he became a popular author, Washington Irving moved back to the area and lived in nearby Irvington in a cottage called Sunnyside. Today you can tour the house where he wrote many of his classic books. Appropriately, Washington Irving was buried just a short walk from the Old Dutch Church, the site that inspired his most famous story.

If you really want to experience the horror of the famous chase with the Headless Horseman, Philipsburg Manor is located across the street from the Old Dutch Church. This is an historic working farm and gristmill depicting what life was like in 1750, when the plantation was worked by 23 slaves. But every October, Philipsburg is turned into Horseman’s Hollow – an elaborate outdoor “hunted house” in which the entire plantation is overrun by creatures, the undead and the insane in a town driven mad by the Headless Horseman. Heads will definitely roll.

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