I recently spent an afternoon at the historic Old Dutch Church Burial Ground in Sleepy Hollow, NY intent on walking the (replacement) bridge of the Headless Horseman, made famous by the brilliant Washington Irving, author of America’s first ghost story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. (I highly recommend the audible version. It’s super creepy and makes you feel like you’re Ichabod Crane with the thunderous storm of galloping hooves baring down on you, raising the hairs on the back of your neck as you feel yourself being overtaken by a goblin.)
My mission in standing in the center of the Headless Horseman bridge, and looking in both directions, was to test my efforts at casting a spell from the most haunted landscape in America. It felt like a scientific experiment. And since I planned on seeing Hamilton the next evening, I decided to cast the spell in rap.
What’s the likelihood that a spell would actually work? (It was January 24, 2020, the middle of the impeachment trial, so I wanted to feel hopeful that something would remove our president since it was painfully clear the Republican Senators would acquit.) Was a 50% chance of success too optimistic?
But the deeper question as I stood on the bridge, closing my eyes and uttering the magical spell to myself, then walking the grounds for several hours, was why are these three acres so spooked? What’s the force that knots so many key figures and game-changing moments to a single dot on our giant global map?
Was the beautiful stretch of land, caught between the Pocantico River and the Hudson, 21 miles north of Manhattan, an ancient Native American burial site? From a botanic perspective, it certainly appears to be a natural wonder, even in the dead of winter, so would likely have been sacred to Native Americans. In fact, there appears to be a magnetic force that pulls people to this beautiful haven, it’s certainly sucked me in.
So lets take note of the short list of those who have trodden these sacred grounds:
- Henry Hudson himself apparently stepped ashore in Sleepy Hollow.
- 50 plots were already imbedded on the hill when Frederick Philipse began construction of the Old Dutch Church in 1682.
- The Headless Hessian who lost his head in the Battle of White Planes, 1776.
- British spy Major Andre, accomplice to American traitor Benedict Arnold (who turned over General George Washington’s fortifications of West Point to his British handler Major Andre) was captured near the Headless Horseman bridge, hanged & buried a few hundred yards down the way in a shallow grave beneath a Tulip Poplar tree, October 2, 1780.
- George Washington and his troops stopped by in 1781
- The Van Tassells are a most mysterious addition to the list. The family lineage is rooted in Westchester County and began when Dutchman Cornelis Janezan Van Texel arrived in New Amsterdam (now known as Manhattan) in the mid 1600’s and married a Montauk Indian Princess named Catoneras, daughter of a Montauk Sachem. The Van Tassels inspired Washington Irving in his Legend of Sleepy Hollow and several Van Tassel headstones are prominently displayed in the front row of the historic section in the Old Dutch Church Burial Ground.
- Washington Irving and many members of the Irving family tree.
- And a long list of famous American capitalists, some who made their fortunes building the transcontinental railroad, and others in the auto industry, but all were drawn to this bewitching location along the Hudson and are interred here.
I should research how many of those buried in the historic section — the area where several who served in Revolutionary War were laid to rest — died from a pandemic. The Bubonic Plague of the late 1600’s perhaps, (when the Old Dutch Church was first built, and had 50 graves already in existence when Frederick Philipse began construction) to smallpox and cholera in the next century.
There are likely many who fell to pandemics, considering how young they were when they passed.
Oh no, I hope my rap spell didn’t take on a mind of its own and dig up any of these scary venom. Can spells do that? I should have been more specific and less vague.
Sleepy Hollow is only a stones throw from New Rochelle, just 22 miles. Even less as the crow flies. And only a long series of wiggles for the microscopic nematodes buried in the soil amidst all these ancient graves. The little critters can easily find their way across town undetected along the underground network of roots in Westchester County. There’s a whole other empire under our feet, and all around us actually, with conquering armies battling vicious enemies intent on staking their claim to new territories. The natural world certainly is a marvel, an alternate universe, hiding in plain sight, rallying the brave to fend off invaders and demons and fight it’s many wars. ~
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