My father told me his version of the story as we drove up from the Bronx. It was more suspenseful than the story told in Tim Burton's current revisionist slasher flick, and creepier than the original Washington Irving tale. It went like this: Ichabod Crane was an evil schoolteacher who mooched off all of Sleepy Hollow's villagers. After a night of drinking and stuffing himself at the house of one generous farmer, Crane swayed home along a path bordering the town's churchyard. That's where the Headless Horseman, on his black steed, ran him down and lopped his head off with a sword. Ichabod, though?being the ornery bastard that he was in this version of the story?wasn't done yet. His headless corpse rose to its feet as the Horseman was in the act of retrieving Crane's head and jamming it onto his own neck stump. The two cut a deal. In exchange for the new head, the now formerly headless Horseman gave Crane the reins to his steed, then walked off into the night, presumably satisfied. Ichabod Crane, then, was now the new Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow, and every night he rose from the cemetery looking for another suitable head to replace the one he'd traded away. Such was his curse.
I doubt that I've ever been as compelled by a story since. I've run through my father's tale in my mind a thousand times. Where or how my father came up with his rendition I have no idea. He obviously wanted to scare the hell out of me, and it worked. I've been so fascinated by the story that, motivated by having seen the Burton film, I went up last week to visit Sleepy Hollow to see if much has changed since my last visit there and if the legend of the Headless Horseman still means something to the townsfolk.
To get to Sleepy Hollow you drive up the Saw Mill River Pkwy., which runs by its namesake puddle of a river and cuts through a depressed Yonkers industrial zone. Yonkers is a bleak town. The buildings fade away as the road passes into Dobbs Ferry, where the woods are thicker but all the trees are still bare. Everything was gray and brown. Even the sky's blue was washed out.
I took the exit for Tarrytown, which is just south of Sleepy Hollow. (Sleepy Hollow used to be called North Tarrytown. It reverted to its historic appellation in 1996.) The road runs along the picturesque Tarrytown Lakes. The area's about 15 miles from the Bronx, but it might as well be 100 miles and 100 years away. The pine woods are thick along the lake; the beautiful Rockefeller estate sprawls on the hills above. Turning into Tarrytown proper?which in Irving's story supposedly got its name because men from other hamlets liked to tarry at the town's sleepy pubs?you see the old quaintness. Rambling wood-frame homes with widow's walks are still there looking over the river, dominating the postwar ranch houses.
I turned right onto S. Broadway and passed Main St., which runs perpendicular to S. Broadway, then passed a gloomy public library and a park called Patriot's Park on the left, which is where the British agent Major Andre was apprehended by John Paulding and his fellow patriots back in Revolutionary days. Finally I encountered a carved wooden posting: "Welcome to Sleepy Hollow/Settled in 1640." On the next corner is Sleepy Hollow High School, with a sign out front: "Home of the Horsemen," and with a depiction of the Headless Horseman holding a jack-o'-lantern.
But Sleepy Hollow's a bit strange. At first glance the town has a nice feel to it?all that cozy Hudson Valley charm. It made me picture burning leaves and roasted apples on cold nights?all that Norman Rockwell shit that, growing up in the Bronx, I never got to live. But whatever its initial charm, the reality of Sleepy Hollow is that it's a depressed and gritty village, and it hasn't been helped by the fact that the huge General Motors plant that occupied the riverbank there closed a couple of years ago (the plant was recently demolished). I drove down Beekman Ave., the town's main street. There's an imposing old apartment building there called the "Van Tassel," which was interesting because in Irving's story Ichabod's love interest is named Katrina Van Tassel.
Down a long hill on the right sat the church and graveyard that are the genesis of the Headless Horseman legend. Frederick Philipse, the patroon who owned the region back in the colonial days, built the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow in 1697. Behind the church are the Old Dutch Burying Grounds of Sleepy Hollow. That's where the Headless Horseman begins his nightly ride. I pulled into the empty parking lot at 4:10. A sign informed me that the gates close at 4:30. I had 20 minutes before I'd get locked into the Horseman's lair.
Autumn twilight's the most ominous time you can think of. But if you want to fully appreciate a graveyard, that's the time to go. I drove through hills rolling down into wooded glens where there rushed a brook through what looked like the heart of an ancient forest. Marble headstones were worn away from 200 or more years of facing storms blowing off the Hudson. The graves bore old New York names like Bing, Brown, Barton, Parsons, Harper and Storm. A big collection of dead Knickerbockers. Six white-tailed deer nibbled on the grass in front of Anne Busby's grave. She died in 1870.
I got lost driving through the cemetery and found myself on small dirt roads that kept going around in circles. I felt some panic with the gate-closing deadline over my head, but I couldn't help being in awe of the cemetery. I stopped to marvel at the greened-over bronze rails that bordered patriarchal graves. As 4:30 struck I turned onto a paved road and sped to the gate. I laughed as I imagined hearing the clip-clop of a horse's hooves behind me. I made it out of the cemetery and parked in front of the gates and walked along a grass lane that borders the stone wall of the churchyard. The track ran into the coming night and I remembered standing there with my father as he told me that this was where the Headless Horsemen rode before turning down a street that led to the river.
I drove around Sleepy Hollow again. It really is kind of gritty. On the west side, near the river, there's a tight section of wood-frame homes and apartments that form a little Hispanic neighborhood. Neat bodegas and old cars line the street. I turned down Devries Ave. and came into a lit parking lot next to a ballfield. Ten Mexicans were playing a spirited game of volleyball. As I approached, three men peeled off and started to back away. I held my hands out in a peaceful gesture and asked if they knew of any sightings of the Headless Horseman. I got back quizzical looks. ¿Que?
I drove back up the avenue and passed an older white guy out raking leaves into the gutter. He looked the part of a Westchester County homeowner, and damn proud of it. I asked him if he ever saw the Headless Horseman.
With a grunt he said, "Headless Horseman? Nah. But I tell you, I've seen a lot of ball-less wonders in this town. Does that count?"