Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in Morristown's Back Yard?

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving, completes the Halloween season with its thrilling legends of Ichabod Crane, and his ultimate doom with the headless horsemen. But could this timeless supernatural tale have some local history behind it?

As much as Irving was a one of a kind story teller, he was also an avid historical researcher. While settling down in Terry town New York at his estate, Sunnyside, Irving wrote Life of George Washington. Morristown National Historical Park’s Lloyd W. Smith library located at the headquarters’ museum, currently houses the first edition of two of the three volume set, which was printed in 1855.

Allegedly, while Washington Irving was in New Jersey conducting research for his biography Life of George Washington, he came across a local legend dating back to the time of the American Revolution. This story evolved around a Hessian soldier in the “devil’s den” area of the Great Swamp in Morris and Somerset counties. Apparently killed by the Continental Army, a Hessian soldier’s head, nearly severed from the body, remained in the saddle as the horse ran into the swamp. The horseman has been reported over the years by residents who live in the area. Could this story be the original legend of sleepy hollow?

Like all legends, there are discrepancies with this local tale. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was printed between 1819 and 1820. Life of George Washington was first printed four years before Irving’s death. This means that Life of George Washington was printed thirty years after The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But these dates do not necessarily mean that Life of George Washington took a short time to write. It is possible that before The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was published, Irving could have taken his time researching the man he was named after, George Washington. It is also possible that Washington Irving heard this story from the local town’s people while researching in New York years earlier, and did not hear it when he was in New Jersey.

When investigating this local legend for the park's newsletter, some sources that have published the article were not sure if the story was true. Shadowlands.com's audience sends in their stories to be published the shadowlands website, and so the people that run the site did not have enough manpower to research the story.

Other sources however, had not heard of this legend. The park historican herewas not at all familiar with the story. When discussing this story with a representitive from Historic Hudson Valley who runs Sunnyside, she did not find that the story was true, and believed that Irving most likely heard the tale when researching for his first book about the Hudson valley.

This last finding appears to be the true story...that its just a story.

Article by Krystal Poelstra, Museum Technician.

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