The Headless Horseman may be Westchester’s most famous legend, but Hulda the witch made her mark during the Revolutionary War.
Each October, roughly 100,000 visitors flock to Sleepy Hollow to take part in spooky walking tours, glowing jack-o-lantern displays, haunted hayrides, and more. They’re drawn by the serene Hudson River village’s most famous celebrity: the Headless Horseman.
The Headless Horseman was the creation of author Washington Irving for his short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Despite his cameo appearance at the end of Irving’s tale, the Headless Horseman is still a household name more than 200 years later.
Arguably Sleepy Hollow’s best-known legend, he’s not it’s only one. Long before Irving penned his Legend, Sleepy Hollow was home to Hulda the witch.
A Bohemian immigrant, Hulda lived alone in a cottage in the woods. Her knowledge of medicinal herbs and frequent trade with the native peoples made her the object of much suspicion among the Dutch villagers. “He was a brave man who passed the cottage of the witch, even in the daytime,” wrote historian Edgar Mayhew Bacon in Chronicles of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow.
Located between the forward posts of British and Patriot forces during the Revolutionary War, Westchester County was known as “neutral ground.” Both sides made use of its vulnerability, depleting its inhabitants of their crops, cattle, and anything else they could get their hands on.
As the population dwindled from starvation and sickness, baskets of herbal remedies and provisions started appearing on the doorsteps of those particularly hard hit. Assuming Hulda to be the donor, the villagers turned the gifts away.
When Hulda took up her rifle to join her neighbors in fending off marauders, she was once again rebuked. The Dutch preferred going it alone to accepting help from the village witch.
One day, British troops crossed through Sleepy Hollow, and Hulda responded to the general alarm. She took out several British soldiers before being mortally shot.
The villagers brought her body back to her hut where, much to their surprise, they discovered a Bible. Inside, written in rudimentary Dutch, Hulda had willed what little gold she had to the widows of the American Revolution.
Perhaps to make up for the way they had treated her, the community gave her a Christian burial. But because she was a witch, they laid her to rest in an unmarked grave in an isolated area of the Old Dutch Burying Ground.
“More and more people are getting to know about Hulda partly because Sleepy Hollow became more well-known after the name change from North Tarrytown to Sleepy Hollow,” say historian of Sleepy Hollow, Henry Steiner.
Not only is she the subject of Hulda: The Other Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a one-woman show which plays throughout the month of October, she’s also celebrated with an evening of lantern-lit walking tours and campfire stories as part of Hulda’s Night at Rockefeller State Park Preserve.
In 2019, in a ceremony presided over by Reverend Jeffrey Gargano, pastor of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, Hulda was honored with a memorial headstone reading: Hulda of Bohemia. Died c. 1777. Herbalist, Healer, Patriot. Felled by British while protecting the Militia. Buried here in gratitude for her sacrifice.
There are other landmarks for visitors interested in Hulda’s story. Bacon writes that Hulda’s cottage was nearby Spook Rock, which is located on the Rockefeller State Park Preserve. “From there, we can look up and see what they’ve named Hulda’s Glen” where Hulda’s cottage is assumed to have stood, says Steiner.
Battle Hill, widely thought to be where Hulda met her end, is also the location of the Headless Horseman bridge, Ichabod Crane’s destination as he fled his headless pursuer.
“Like with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, we’re given real places that will anchor the story,” Steiner says of Hulda’s tale. But is Hulda, like the Headless Horseman, a fable?
The most detailed source on Hulda is longtime Tarrytown resident and historian Edgar Mayhew Bacon. “Bacon is the source for a lot of this,” Steiner says.
Known for his doggedness in ensuring the accuracy of any fact before committing it to paper, Bacon relegated Hulda’s story to the section of his book titled “Myths and Legends.” “So he’s not even making a claim that any of it is true,” Steiner says. “He’s just sort of saying that this is a story that was in circulation.”
But an absence of tangible evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that Hulda herself didn’t exist.
“There were many skirmishes around Westchester County, and there are records where there were landings of British troops,” Steiner says. It is feasible for someone like Hulda to have gotten caught up in any one of them.
Her status as a non-Christian and a witch may have kept her burial from being notated in church records. And since her grave was unmarked, her existence can’t be proved…or disproved.
“I don’t know,” Steiner says when asked whether he believes Hulda actually existed. “I don’t guess that she did. But she could have.”