Sleepy Hollow: More Macabre Than I Knew

October 23, 2012 — There is a sound that is only spooky in Sleepy Hollow: the galloping of horse hooves. This Hudson River Valley village is the land of the Headless Horseman, and I’ve already shown you a lot of it. But not all.

Our trip to Sleepy Hollow this year was of a slightly different texture than usual. Ostensibly, the purpose was to make a book appearance for The New York Grimpendium. Realistically, of course, it was just to return to Sleepy Hollow.

My talk was held in the Washington Irving Memorial Chapel in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, right where Irving himself is buried. It was a small chapel, but worth seeing for its stained glass windows depicting the author. I’ve always thought statues are the ultimate tribute to a person, but I might change that assessment as a result of seeing that they can somehow still elevate a non-religious figure to holy.

The event was nice, intimate, and I got to meet some really cool people who really made my day. After the presentation Jim Logan, a friend of mine who works for the cemetery, took me to the cemetery office and asked if I was up for a massacre and a familicide. I checked my watch. It was five o’clock somewhere.

So we were off to find the funeral remains of some intense local tragedies.

First was the Sleepy Hollow Massacre.

Now, the Sleepy Hollow Massacre, like so many massacres before and after it, is a bit of a misnomer. Only two people died. But the dictates of hyperbole, righteous anger, and succinctness demand it be called a massacre. Also because the word massacre just happens to be a really fun word to say, despite what it means.

In this particular massacre, which took place on New Year’s Day in 1870, a 50-year-old area man of ill repute named Isaac Van Wart Buckhout killed his wife, another man, and terribly wounded that man’s son…for no good reason.

What is known is that he invited the man, Alfred Rendall, and his family to his home. Alfred and his son Charlie were the only Rendalls able to accept the invitation. When they arrived, they were treated as honored guests…until Buckhout went to his room, grabbed a shotgun, blew Alfred to the afterlife, shot Charlie in the head, and then clubbed his own wife to death with the empty gun.

See? Makes even hellspawn holy.
Charlie survived, but it’s the only salvage in the story. No one knows why Buckhout went on his rampage. Some say it’s because he was a sore loser, having lost at cards to the Rendalls at a Christmas party the week previous. Others say that his wife was unfaithful and that he blamed the Rendalls for some of it since they harbored one of her paramours. Whatever the reason, it’s not on par with an almost triple murder.

After a couple of years of mistrials and trials, Buckhout was finally hanged. The two Rendalls in the story are buried in Sleepy Hollow with the rest of their family, their death dates a good 34 years apart.

Their story is overshadowed by a headless Hessian with a Jack-o-lantern.

Next, Jim took us to the graves of the Strong family.

Mason Strong was a 50-year-old engineer and architect on Wall Street. He was wealthy, and he had a family that included a wife and four children, who ranged in age from eight to sixteen.

Like the Rendall tragedy, this one happened around Christmas. In December of 1919, Strong attacked his own family with an axe and then killed himself directly after with a razor across his throat in what the New York Times called a “maniacal insanity.”

Washington Irving Chapel
The youngest two of the four children, 14 and 8, survived, and when they were found in the house afterward, they merely explained, “Everybody’s sick.”

After those two stories, I’m inclined to agree.

The whole thing took place in a still-standing house in nearby Passaic, New Jersey, but the victims and the murderer can all be found in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

They share a single plot, a single headstone bearing all their names, and a single death year. The latter is the only clue that the idyllic Strong grave hides bizarre and unexplained horrors.

The worst part of the story to those of us insulated from its direct effects by a century’s worth of time is that nobody knows why Strong picked up (and dropped) the axe. It just happened. Like the extinction of the Tasmanian wolf. Like the discovery of the Americas. Like last year’s Halloween snow. It just happened.

I don’t mean to be painting the tour Jim was giving us as a bummer. In fact, it was a blast. Crisp Autumn weather, beautiful red and gold foliage, and the specter of the Headless Horseman always looking over our shoulder. Tragedy plus time equals a good story. I don't make the rules.

Jim topped off the mini-tour with a visit inside an amazing and old family mausoleum for an up-close experience I rarely get, even after visiting scores ands scores of cemeteries over the years. I need to network better.

So the moral of this story is that I came to Sleepy Hollow with a book full of the macabre thinking I was going to show the place a thing or two about the grim. And then the village humbled me.

But I kind of expected that. As many times as I’ve been to Sleepy Hollow, it has yet to disappoint. But then again, we’re talking about a town where even the recycling bins are labeled with a headless spook. That kind of town ain’t never going to be disappointing.

In a mausoleum...

You thought I was joking...

More Sleepy Hollow on OTIS:

My first post on Sleepy Hollow