Sleepy Hollow, NY, Part II: It Was a Horseman, a Dead One…Headless

September 30, 2008Previously on OTIS, we found ourselves in the Hudson Valley region of New York, exploring within the real-life village of Sleepy Hollow all the landmarks that Washington Irving used in his Halloween-inducing story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. We also looked at some of the homages sponsored by the town’s citizens who are proud that the story has given them a unique identity to lord over the rest of us unliteratured unfortunates. Now it’s time to check out the area landmarks from Washington Irving’s actual life. Let’s start with his death.

If memory and that link in the previous paragraph serve me right, I left you standing on a bridge staring up at a small church...admittedly, the worst stance you could assume when you’re loitering in the territory of a demonic rider with a penchant for chopping off heads. And if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen here. Behind that small church known as the Old Dutch Church is a cemetery known as the Old Dutch Burying Ground. Here it was in the story that the Headless Horseman was thought to be buried and from which he sallied forth each night to go head-shopping. It’s also here where Washington Irving himself is buried. Sort of.

Behind the church are actually two cemeteries that, like Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow themselves, share a vague, almost useless boundary that has been the cause of more than one border war by the corpses interred therein. The three-acre parcel dates from colonial times, and the 85-acre cemetery that surrounds it is called Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. It dates back to 1849, and it is in this latter cemetery that Irving is buried. You see, not only did Irving set his characters in the Hudson Valley, he also set his own life and eventual remains there, proving in word, deed, and death how much he esteemed the place. To avoid confusion, I'll just talk about the cemetery as a single entity.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is actually one of my favorite cemeteries for merely intrinsic reasons. And by merely intrinsic I mean that even if it didn’t have the hellacious specter of a dark headless apparition that “tethered his horse nightly among the graves,” I’d still like it just for the way it is. The natural landscape is varied, with assorted hills and scenic irregularities, enough trees to drop showers of colors in autumn, and a pleasant, rock-strewn stream meandering through it. The unnatural landscape is varied as well, with much-aged tombstones, statuary, and crypts of diverse styles and stones, as well as impressive mausoleums set right into the hills. Of course, that first sentence in this paragraph is in no way meant to deny the fact that I also way dig that I had to cross a Headless Horseman Bridge to get there.

One out of the three times that I have visited the cemetery so far in my life, a table was set up in front of the gates, right beside the Old Dutch Church. On it were displayed various Headless Horseman-themed wares for sale or theft for the monied or deft-handed, respectively. They were also dispersing maps of the cemetery with directions to Irving’s and other notables’ graves. If that Brigadoon-style souvenir table isn’t there when you arrive, I’m pretty sure there are maps around. There's also a sign in the cemetery pointing the way to Irving's bones.

Irving’s grave isn't too deep in the cemetery. It's in the southern part (the north/south-running Route 9 borders the cemetery, and you can use it for your compass), directly on the border of the two cemeteries that I earlier promised to only reference as one. His plot is well-demarcated, hemmed in as it is by a black cast iron gate with Irving emblazoned on it in white. The gravestone itself is white and round like a worn tooth and is crowded on all sides by other worn teeth that aren’t as white or as round.

The cemetery also features graves from whose epitaphs Irving lifted a couple surnames for his characters in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Like the Van Tassels. No Ichabod Cranes, though. To find the man whose name he used for his protagonist, you’ll have to go to a Staten Island cemetery.

Another highlight of the cemetery can be found near the eastern border. Crossing the stream that runs through and along the cemetery, and which I guess is technically a river since it’s called the Pocantico River, is a wooden bridge that locals unofficially call the Headless Horseman Bridge.

With its crossed-stick railings, it looks just like you’d imagine the bridge would have looked in the story...that is, unless you've seen Disney’s animated version so many times that you can’t help but imagine it as a covered bridge. That and it’s wide and sturdy enough to drive a car across. It spans the same river that, just outside the cemetery gates, the original bridge from the story crossed.

If you’re a Dark Shadows fan, the cemetery boasts a holding crypt featured in the first Dark Shadows movie. Also in that vein, a mansion just down the road from Sleepy Hollow called Lyndhurst stood in for the Collinwood castle in both of the original Dark Shadow movies and is cared for by the same preservation group in charge of Irving’s home.

Irving’s home goes by the name of Sunnyside. Now, you might think that an uncharacteristic name for the final abode of a man who has terrified generations with his tale of a decapitated equestrian (I’m running out of different ways to say headless horseman), but the fact is, Irving has given posterity much more than just a headless horseman...even though he didn’t have to.

He also brought us Christmas as We Idealize It, named the New York Knicks, and gave Batman a place to call home. And that’s in addition to the as-yet-unreferenced character who overslept into the future...which now that I write it like that doesn’t seem any more special than what I do every single Monday morning.

Regardless, Sunnyside is a beautiful, large, red-roofed, cottage-like building overgrown with voluminous billows of some kind of creeper vine that can’t help but beatifically overlook the Hudson River. It’s an absolutely idyllic little place both in location and in construction that makes me ill to my stomach. If I lived in such an inspiring setting I’d prolifically write American classics, too. My beige townhouse overlooks a parking lot and more beige townhouses, and that only inspires me to imbibe the Cartoon Network and pay for wrong-address pizza deliveries.

You can only visit Sunnyside itself though the dreaded group tour, which is led by the dreaded period-costume-clad guide. However, you can drop by the gift shop that’s set a little bit away from Sunnyside without joining a tour. It’s a good place to pick up copies of his work to take back to his grave to get autographed. Outside the gift shop you’ll find a pedestal’d bust of Irving, which is a head without a body and funny enough in the context of this article to unnecessarily define. The tour of Sunnyside itself is pleasant but really exactly what you’d expect, with the highlight being the actual study where he wrote.

Other than the Irving Memorial that I've never seen because the Internet only recently told me about it, that’s pretty much all the important Irving-related stuff in the area that I know of (unless you want to drive two hours north to cross the Rip Van Winkle bridge...which is a nice drive, actually, that parallels the Hudson). However, there’re still plenty of spooky shenanigans in the area during the Fall. I can personally recommend the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze at Van Cortlandt Manor, another nearby property run by the Historic Hudson Valley organization, and the area’s Legend weekends are also a good time.

Now that my article is over, I feel better giving you the following one. It’s the website for Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and is pretty much the most informative graveyard site on the Internet. I’ve stolen tons of information from it for this article and have used it in the past to plan trips there. It’s more thorough than this post, has a larger range of pictures, and doesn’t make you want to throw pumpkins at the author’s head because he’s way overstayed his welcome on your computer screen.