Every true Westchesterite knows the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the tale of the Headless Horseman galloping off into the night clutching his own head, written by our very own Washington Irving. But Ichabod Crane and the gang are fictional characters, based on German folk tales. After researching the dusty tomes at the Westchester Historical Society and libraries around the county, we found some legends and characters that prove the old adage that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.
The Story: Cannibal albinos in Westchester? Stop in front of the red house on Buckout Road in West Harrison and—we dare you—beep the horn three times, and…flesh-eating albinos will come out and attack you. Why? Maybe they’re angry. After all, three women accused of witchcraft in the 1600s were burned at the stake right around here. Don’t believe it? Three Xs mark the spot where they died—on a hill overlooking the cemetery—and, if you drive over the spot, strange things are certain to happen to you. But, if that’s not enough to scare you, the ghost of Mary Buckhout (same name, different spelling), who hanged herself from a tree in the area, occasionally returns, dressed all in white. Yikes!
The Truth As We Know It: Indeed, people were burned as witches in the 1600s, but there is no historical data to prove that three Buckout-area women met that fate, or that Mary Buckhout hanged herself there. Albinos are extremely rare; the idea of a “cult” of them in Westchester—cannibals no less—is downright silly. So how did the legends start?
No one knows for sure. Perhaps it’s a result of the general feeling of spookiness the place evoked before development in the late 1990s. Then, Buckout Road was a two-mile stretch of very winding road in a remote, woodsy area with few houses and two ancient cemeteries, both with a history of grave-robbings and vandalism.
“The cemeteries used to be big party spots,” says Eric Pleska of White Plains, who is so fascinated by the legends that he created a website about Buckout Road (www.bedofnailz.com/buckout). “I think some of the people who lived in the area made up stories to scare kids away.” It backfired. Kids today still dare each other to explore the area and come back scared out of their wits!
While the Buckout legends are just that, some nasty things really did occur on the road, perhaps creating a creepy karma that lingers on to this day. According to the book Eight Who Were Hanged in White Plains, on New Year’s Day, 1870, Isaac Buckhout invited a neighbor and his son to tea. While his wife, Louisa Ann, was serving refreshments, Isaac excused himself for a moment and came back with a double-barreled shotgun. He killed Alfred Rendell, wounded the son, then crushed his wife’s skull with the gun. He had suspected his wife had been cheating on him, but not with either of his victims. After three trials, he was convicted of murder and hanged.
The Story: The stranger was first noticed around 1858, an itinerant wanderer dressed year-round in a patched leather suit, estimated to weigh about 60 pounds. Every 34 days, he walked a clockwise circuit of approximately 365 miles from Westchester to Putnam to Connecticut, spending nights in some 100 caves along the route. (Oddly, it’s been reported that his ghost has been seen lurking around Buckout Road.)
The Leatherman was considered harmless, although he was known to shake his cane and shout unintelligible words at the children who occasionally threw rocks at him. He would stop in a different locale each day and come to the kitchen door of farmhouses, looking for food. In A History of the Town of Lewisboro by the Lewisboro History Book Committee and historian Alvin R. Jordan, Miss M. Louise Bouton, born in 1889, recalled that the Leatherman “came around once a year…always to the east side of the house. He would knock on the leader drainpipe. Mother would give him coffee and some sandwiches. He would say, ‘Thank you so much, lady,’ but never look at you. He was dressed all in brown leather. No one was afraid of him.”
The Truth As We Know It: Yes, there was a Leatherman, but what was his story? We’ll never really know, but the general theory is that he was a Frenchman (either Jules Bourglay from Lyon or Jules LeClerc from Aix-en-Provence) who left his homeland because of a broken heart. One tale has him engaged to the daughter of the wealthy owner of a leather factory, where he worked. When Jules accidentally burned the factory down, he fled to America in disgrace. Another version has the fiancée’s father unhappy about the romance, but willing to give young Jules a year working in the factory to prove himself. He did not succeed, and, mysteriously, the fiancée died in a fire that destroyed her father’s home.
A 2004 column in the Lewisboro Ledger by Maureen Koehl suggests that perhaps it was the Leatherman’s family who owned the factory and that he fell in love beneath his station in life. His father, this story goes, opposed the match, the girl disappeared, and Jules became convinced his parents had had her murdered. He left France for America, never to return.
The Leatherman was found dead in a cave in Briarcliff in the winter of 1889; he is buried nearby at the Sparta Cemetery in Ossining. The Trailside Museum at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in Cross River has an exhibit about the Leatherman; one of his caves can be seen in the reservation, near Honey Hollow Road.
The Story: Nautical maps today still mark the location of these infamous rocks in the middle of Long Island Sound, halfway between New Rochelle and Sands Point. Some folklore claims the rocks were so named because of all the ships wrecked against the dangerous reef before a lighthouse was installed there in 1850. Another legend has it that during the Revolutionary War, the British executed prisoners by chaining them to the rocks at low tide, leaving them to die by drowning. Local fishermen have claimed to have seen ghosts of the victims in the area.
The Truth As We Know It: The rocks exist. There is no solid historical evidence to support or dispute the legends.
The Story: Sarah Bishop, who showed up in the Salems around 1780, lived in a six-foot-square cave with a rock ledge as a bed in what is now known as Mountain Lakes Camp in North Salem. She survived on berries from the woods, vegetables from her garden, and water from a nearby spring. For 30 years, she wandered back and forth from North Salem to South Salem and as far East as Ridgefield, Connecticut. She was said to have dressed in fine silks, though, when attending church in South Salem.
The Truth As We Know It: This is another tale of blighted love. It is thought that Sarah Bishop fled Long Island after suffering a severe personal tragedy; perhaps she had been engaged to a sea captain lost at sea or driven from her family home by plundering British soldiers, who may or may not (depending on the story) have compromised her virtue.
According to A History of the Town of Lewisboro, she was variously described as “a slender young woman of fair complexion and graceful figure” and as a “thin, ghostly, old woman, bent and wrinkled”…who walked with a “gliding, noiseless movement, which seemed to ally her to the spirit world.” Living in a cave will do that to you. She died in a snowstorm in 1809 or 1810.
The Story: Granny Brown lived near the eastern end of Ridgefield Avenue in South Salem shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War and, according to historian Maureen Koehl in Lewisboro Ghosts of Past and Present, was the only “certifiable” witch in Lewisboro’s history. After all, Granny was believed to have had magical powers and farmers’ wives were afraid to deny her any request, for fear their cows would run dry or give birth to stillborn calves. According to Sergeant Jeremiah Keeler, who lived in the big white farmhouse at the corner of what is now Routes 35 and 123, the only way to stop her hexing was to cut off a calf’s tail. He tried this, and the next day Granny Brown showed up in town with her hand all bloody and bandaged. She said she’d caught her finger in a door latch, which cut it off, but the feisty old war veteran Keeler thought otherwise. He was certain that his cow-tail-cutting trick caused Granny to lose her finger!
Don’t believe she was a witch? Legend has it that a witch could not die as long as someone was watching. When Granny took sick, the good wives of the neighborhood, even though she was nasty and universally disliked, kept watch and looked in on her daily. One day, Granny asked the woman sitting with her to fetch her a cool drink of water from the well outside. When the neighbor returned to Granny’s bedside, the old woman had died.
The Truth As We Know It: Odds are good Granny was simply a cantankerous, old busy body without any magical powers but lots of really bad karma.
The Story: A small Pelham farmhouse was reputed to be inhabited by the ghost of Anne Hutchinson, who was murdered in what is now Pelham Bay Park in New York City, near City Hall, by Native Americans in 1643.
It’s not clear why her spirit chose that house—she never lived in Pelham—but the book Legends, Traditions, and Superstitions of Westchester by Charles Pryer (Knickerbocker Press, 1890) tells of rattling crockery, flickering lights, strange voices, visions of a beautiful, dark-haired, sad-faced woman in the window, and other spooky phenomena that made it impossible for anyone to spend more than one or two nights in the house.
At one point, an out-of-town farm couple, clueless about the house, came to stay. When the farmer came back for his noontime meal, he dismissed his wife’s tale of strange goings-on as the product of an overactive imagination. That evening, though, when he sat down to a fire and a smoke, suddenly there was a loud crashing sound overhead from an unoccupied room. Then the doors began to open and slam violently. But when he saw the ghostly apparition with the sad, beautiful face and dark hair walk through a wall right in front of him, he finally believed his wife. They did not stay the night.
The Truth As We Know It: There are no such things as ghosts. Right?
For more Hudson Valley lore, visit Legend Weekend at Sunnyside and Philipsburg Manor from October 27 to 29.