Secrets of the Sleepy Hollow Burying Grounds

(Above, the Old Dutch Church of Tarrytown, now Sleepy Hollow, c. 1901)

Hands up if you’re sick of summer! (puts hand way, way up)

Well, I have to say it’s actually kind of a cozy day today here in Chicago. We had rain during the night, and now it’s very dark and spooky—which we love, right?

And which is why this is the perfect day for us to shake off summer and head—at least in our minds—to one of the quintessentially autumnal places in America: Sleepy Hollow, New York, which is the inspiration for one of our earliest and most popular fragrances, which I'll be talking about a little later.


I didn’t realize that my neighborhood here in Chicago actually has a connection to Sleepy Hollow. If you’ve ever spent time in or lived on the north side of the city here you are probably all too familiar with Irving Park Road, one of the four lane main streets that runs west from Lake Michigan all the way to the western suburbs.  Well little did I know it was named for Washington Irving after he visited here, and we have a local Washington Irving School as well.

Irving was one of the most influential and celebrated American authors even in his time, and he was vocally supportive of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. So you can say that the core of our American Gothic heritage has a lot to thank Irving for, even beyond his own ample contributions to the body of work. 

Along with penning his popular short stories, Irving traveled widely and wrote a number of travelogues—including a great one about his travels through the then-"Indian Country" of the American prairie—and biographies, including a multi volume set on his namesake, George Washington.  His work was not just voluminous but acclaimed. In fact, he was the first American writer to receive the stamp of approval from European critics, making him the earliest stateside writer who could travel abroad and be welcomed with open arms into the highest literary circles.  

Irving also wrote a lot of commentary and "letters to the editor" type of things--he loved to be involved in conversations and community--and much of what he wrote became widely quoted. He coined the name “Gotham” as a nickname for New York City as well as the phrase “the almighty dollar."

Despite the wealth of material he produced, Irving's most famous work--though most have never heard its title--is The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.  It's not the name of the volume, but the stories it collects, that continues to make Irving one of the most beloved of all American writers. For the book includes both the story Rip Van Winkle and the matchless American ghost story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.


Meander with me in your mind, if you will, along the Hudson River into the picturesque hills of upstate New York.  Arguably one of the most scenic spots in the nation, the region inspired Washington Irving to go on and on (and on) about it in the opening pages of his beloved classic tale. Having first arrived here as a teenager while escaping a yellow fever epidemic in New York City, the first sight of the Valley left an indelible impression on the mind of the future American literary master, who reckoned:

 If ever I should wish for a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.

But Sleepy Hollow wasn’t always the name of this—well, sleepy—hamlet. In fact, until as recently as 1996 this pretty little settlement—founded by Dutch immigrants some four hundred years ago--was called North Tarrytown.. Until, that is, the wise residents decided that name was much too un-Romantic for a village with such a towering place in the American imagination.

Indeed, imagination is key in talking about Sleepy Hollow—both the place and the story—, for this is a magical place, stoked with ample fuel for one of the greatest imaginations to come out of the Catskill region.

It’s not certain what influenced Irving to pen his infamous yarn about a headless horseman, but traditional folklore of the area may have provided the spark. Since the Revolutionary War, upstate New Yorkers had told the tale of a Hessian trooper who was killed during the Battle of White Plains in 1776, decapitated by a Yankee cannonball.  This was one of the German mercenaries who aided the British during the America Revolution.  According to the story, his brothers in arms left his decimated head on the battlefield as they whisked the remainder of his body away.  While the body of the Hessian rider was later interred, no one ever bothered to retrieve the remains of his lost head. And so he rides the Hudson Valley even now, a lighted Jack O Lantern upon the stump of neck, searching in fury for his missing cranium.

hessians sleepy hollow

(Above, Hessians retreating at the Battle of White Plains, 1776)

The idea of a headless horseman likely hailed from the Irish and Scottish background of some early upstate New Yorkers, thought the area was predominantly settled by the Dutch. For the Irish and Scots both host horror legends of decapitated warriors on horseback.  The dullaham or dulachan—“dark man”—is a demonic fairy of Irish legend, generally portrayed on horseback, carrying its head under one arm.  Scots, too, have long told of a countryman decapitated in a clan battle on the Isle of Mull.

While some historians believe it was these local legends and folk myths that inspired Irving, others wonder if his Halloween classic has its roots in the work of Sir Walter Scott, a writer friend of Irving who translated the German poem, The Wild Huntsman, a work which tells of a hunter who becomes the hunted—pursued by the devil in punishment for his misdeeds (evocative, to be sure, of the hapless schoolteacher stalked by a looming Horseman). 


They say that the Headless Horseman who lost his life—and his head—in the American Revolution was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the two and a half acre burial ground at Sleepy Hollow’s Old Dutch Church. Established in 1685, the church is the oldest operating church in New York State and one of the oldest in the United States, with summer, Easter and Christmas Eve services still going strong.  Its builder was Frederick Philipse, a local lord whose manor lands sprawled across the lower Hudson Valley. A carpenter, Philipse worked himself on the building, toiling alongside enslaved men, constructing the pulpit with local timber and helping to carry the huge fieldstones that would become the church walls. When he died, he was buried under the church floor, and thirteen of his family members would eventually join him there.

(Left,  Philipsburg Manor House, home of Lord Philipse, builder of the Old Dutch Church)




Adjacent to the Old Dutch Church burying ground is the newer Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Well, sort of newer.  Founded in 1849, it was established directly as a result of Washington Irving’s insistence that the area needed more burial space.  Originally named Tarrytown Cemetery, the name was changed—also directly as a result of Irving’s efforts—when the author wrote to the editor of Knickerbocker Magazine to urge the change to a name more befitting the slumbering souls of his beloved corner of the world.  

Like many places in these parts, the Sleepy Hollow burying grounds own an impressive history. General George Washington himself rested here in 1781 with his troops during the Revolutionary War.  It wasn’t the first time the site played a part in the American Revolution; the year before, John Andre—a British officer—was hung for treason here, in a tree just behind the church.  The tree was struck by lightning in 1801, twenty years before Andre’s body—which had been buried beneath it—was sent to England for permanent burial.  (Probably for the best, as the Englishman’s captors are interred here still, along with a number of other Revolutionary War soldiers.)

This stones here read like a Who's Who of American wealth and Influence. Among the names you'll find are those of Andrew Carnegie and William Rockefeller, Ellizabeth Arden, Samuel Gompers, Walter Chrysler, Brooke Astor, and other notables.

But it’s not these graves that the throngs of visitors flock to when visiting the two burial grounds of Sleepy Hollow. Rather, they go in giddy search of those related to Irving’s classic tale, seeking out the internments of the Van Tassels (including that of Catriena Van Tassel, below), the Pauldings and—of course—the Irvings themselves, whose family plot is a point of pilgrimage for countless fans each year.

(Left, frontispiece illustration from the 1899 publication of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

But don’t look for the grave of Ichabod Crane in this atmospheric spot. The real Ichabod Crane is buried in Staten Island’s Asbury Cemetery.  A graduate of West Point, Crane fought in the Mexican-American War and owned a farm on State Island in his retirement. Although he was a contemporary of Irving (they met during the War of 1812) and lent his name to the writer’s character, the real inspiration for the lanky schoolteacher of Sleepy Hollow was a man named Jesse  Merwin, the schoolmaster at Kinderhook, north of Sleepy Hollow.  After their initial meeting, Merwin and Irving became fast, close friends. The modern school that replaced Merwin’s schoolhouse in Kinderhook is known today as the Ichabod Crane school.


An increasing number of visitors to the Sleepy Hollow cemeteries also believe another important character from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is interred here: a woman called Hulda of Bohemia. Some think Hulda was the “High German doctor” who—Irving wrote--bewitched this region with a “drowsy, dreamy influence . . . .” For while some believe Irving invented the character, an 1897 book by Edgar Mayhew Bacon seems to back up her existence.  Bacon writes in his Chronicles of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow that the woman lived in the woods near the settlement, close to but apart from the Dutch, and today visitors to Sleepy Hollow can follow a sign along “Witch’s Spring Trail” to Spook Rock, where her cabin allegedly stood. 

Hulda died defending Sleepy Hollow when the British arrived in 1777, and the grateful town—once highly suspicious of her “witchy” ways—gave her a Christian burial, though it would be centuries before a proper headstone was erected.  It’s a beauty, though.  Carved in colonial style, the stone features a winged skull above the words:

Hulda of Bohemia
died c. 1777.
Herbalist, Healer, Patriot.
Felled by British while protecting the Militia.
Buried here in gratitude for her sacrifice.


The formula for Ghost Ship’s Sleepy Hollow fragrance is all fall.  I had one purpose in creating the blend:  to capture the autumnal atmosphere of Irving’s ghost story in olfactory form, weaving in elements that would evoke the Feast of All Hallows year ‘round.  Sweet autumn fig, black tea (perhaps brewed on the schoolhouse stove), the allspice swirled into colonial New York’s pumpkin pies and hot toddies . . . these were natural choices for a perfume that winds through the day on a misty fog of lingering ylang-ylang.

In these dog days of summer, I hope the smell of it transports you—as it always does me—straight into the haunting heart of America’s greatest—and oldest ghost story . . . and the region that proved, for its author and for many, love at first sight.


Be sure to visit this week's chat on our Ghost Ship Fragrance YouTube Channel, watch the video and answer the question there for a chance to win a full bottle of any of our handmade niche fragrances!

Thanks for opening this bottle with me. See you next week!



Take 25% off full bottles of Sleepy Hollow this week--and get a free 5 ml rollerball with each full bottle, too!








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