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Washington Irving Brought Horror and Tourism to Westchester

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Horseman illustration by AdobeStock/Michele Paccione; mask photo by AdobeStock/Leigh Prather

Two full centuries ago, in a stroke of commercial genius, Washington Irving created a spectral character who instantly became a staple of supernatural fiction and a gift that has never stopped giving. The author introduced him this way:

The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head.

The main protagonist in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was, of course, Ichabod Crane, the geeky schoolteacher who is afraid of his own shadow. But the fulcrum of the story is the bloodcurdling Horseman — the supposed ghost of a Hessian solider who, in some forgotten battle of the Revolutionary War, was decapitated by a cannonball and spends eternity roaming the countryside astride a black “goblin horse.”

The Headless Horseman is a quintessential horror archetype, an ingrained cultural image as essential to the annual observance of Halloween as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is to guiding Santa’s sleigh.

Irving wrote a lot of popular stuff, but it’s not a stretch to say the Headless Horseman helped make him an international star. He had a bevy of famous literary friends and admirers — one of them being Mary Shelley, who gave the world Frankenstein in 1818. Incidentally, she supposedly had the hots for Irving, but the confirmed bachelor resisted her charms.

At about 10,000 words, Irving’s Gothic tale can be read in a matter of minutes. (Shelley’s monster mash was more than four times longer.) But size hardly matters, at least in terms of impact.

It’s fitting that Irving coined the phrase “almighty dollar,” because largely thanks to him, the region’s seasonal Halloween-themed events have brought millions of dollars into the coffers of local businesses and indispensable nonprofit organizations, like Historic Hudson Valley, which last year attracted 120,000 visitors to The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze at Van Cortlandt Manor, in Croton-on-Hudson.

An exponential growth in tourist revenue can be traced back to 1996, when the old industrial village of North Tarrytown — once the home of a General Motors plant — solved an identity crisis by adopting “Sleepy Hollow” as the municipality’s official name. Irving’s drowsy “sequestered glen” was transformed into what a New York Times article dubbed “The Headless Horseman Industrial Complex.” Today, Sleepy Hollow is a bona fide Halloween mecca, albeit a distant second to Salem, MA, where 20 people — including an ancestor of mine — were executed in 1692 for allegedly practicing witchcraft. (Like all things that draw paying crowds these days, the Sleepy Hollow juggernaut is threatened by a very real horror: the coronavirus. I’ll get back to that in a minute.)

Photo by Stefan Radtke

“In his time, the immortal Irving witnessed devastating yellow fever and cholera epidemics that killed thousands. What would he make of the mysterious coronavirus?”

It should be mentioned that Sleepy Hollow drew visitors long before it was a lucrative brand. During Irving’s lifetime, uninvited sightseers and day-trippers frequently dropped in at his picturesque home by the Hudson, the multi-gabled Sunnyside. In 1869, 10 years after the writer’s death, a summer renter of Sunnyside bitterly complained of “intrusive and pertinacious tourists” who “poke their noses into everything,” even the wall ivy, which they “carry off…as relics, like so many leaf bearing ants.”*

One intruder declared he would not be denied a brush with greatness. “I have come all the way from St. Louis, sir, and I cannot go back without looking through the immortal Irving’s house and grounds.”

In his time, the immortal Irving witnessed devastating yellow fever and cholera epidemics that killed thousands. What would he make of the mysterious coronavirus? Though he was kind, genial, and exuded conviviality as a party host, he also had common sense and probably would adhere to the rules of social distancing. Certainly, he would gently discourage that fan from St. Louis from barging into Sunnyside unannounced.

And as a responsible citizen, he would likely approve of current plans to cancel or modify a plethora of popular seasonal events that bring so many people to Sleepy Hollow and other Hudson River towns. Indeed, an ambitious 18-month celebration marking the bicentennial of the publishing “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was launched on Irving’s birthday in 2019, but it lost momentum when the pandemic struck in the spring, according to Sleepy Hollow Village Administrator Anthony Guaccio.

“In April, we were scheduled to have an academic conference using the hotels,” Guaccio said. “We were going to get some scholars who know about Washington Irving. Unfortunately, we had to cancel that.”

So this year’s celebration will be different. But Guaccio was optimistic that next year will be “bigger and better.”

As Irving himself might say, it’s better to err on the side of public health than that of the almighty dollar.

* The source of a reference to uninvited guests at  Sunnyside is George Templeton Strong’s diary, Vol. 4, 1820-1875


The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at edit@westchestermagazine.com