No October is complete without a viewing of Tim Burton’s dreamlike Sleepy Hollow. It is Clan Cornelius’ favorite cinematic tale of the Halloween season — and the Headless Horseman has long been my favorite icon of spookiness.
Apparently, the great Frank Frazetta liked the image, too. He painted him twice:
In the original Washington Irving tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman is the shade Hessian officer whose head was carried away by a cannonball “in some nameless battle.” In the film, his corporeal demise was more … intimate.
The Hessians were German mercenaries whose contract was purchased by the British from the Prince of Hessen-Kassel in 1776 when it became apparent that considerable manpower would be required to suppress the great rebellion in the American Colonies. Most of the Hessian units were line infantry, noted for discipline and battlefield effectiveness (except when caught by surprise at Trenton. Well played, General Washington…)
They also fielded rifle-armed light infantry.
The great military artist Don Troiani has depicted Hessian Jäger (or Jäeger) skirmishers in action.
The short-barreled, heavy caliber rifle was a solid battlefield implement.
David Ross wrote a fine piece in The Journal of the American Revolution on the Hessian Jägerkorps.
They were skilled shots, self-sufficient in battle, and swift, able to efficiently load and fire a rifle, a skill which took greater dexterity than firing the muskets of the day. Most importantly, they were valiant. Though the Jäger did not play a pivotal role in the American Revolution and suffered from the defeats of their regular counterparts, the actions of the Hessian Jägerkorps as a whole positively contributed to the British war effort. This was especially true in the campaigns in New York in 1776 and Pennsylvania in 1777.
The Jäger differed in appearance from other Hessian troops, wearing a green jacket with crimson facings instead of the blue jackets of Hessian infantrymen. A Jäger company consisted of four commissioned officers, 16 non-commissioned ones, one non-combat officer, and 105 men. Unlike the disciplined line of a foot or grenadier regiment, the Jäger fought in a more scattered skirmish formation. Because of this, the Jäger had to be “good shots, agile, intelligent, and self-reliant.” This self-reliance allowed a member of the Jägerkorps the freedom to make decisions on his own during a skirmish, or during battle. Jäger were considered partisan troops. The duty of partisan troops was “to keep the enemy from his own main force…” This was a duty that Jäger would accomplish many times during the early parts of the American Revolution.
Hessian Jägerkorps operated in the “neutral land” of Westchester County (where Sleepy Hollow is located), which was haunted throughout the Revolutionary War by roving bands of guerrillas, partisans and outlaws. This theater of operations is quite fascinating to me. It wasn’t the true frontier, like the dark and bloody ground of the Mohawk Valley — but frontier conditions prevailed there.
As Irving himself wrote:
The British and American line had run near it during the war; it had, therefore, been the scene of marauding, and infested with refugees, cow-boys, and all kinds of border chivalry.
In a 1780 journal, James Thatcher wrote:
The country is rich and fertile…but it now has the marks of a country in ruins. A large proportion of the proprietors having abandoned their farms, the few that remain find it impossible to harvest their produce. Banditti, consisting of lawless villains…devote themselves to the most cruel pillage and robbery among the defenseless inhabitants between the lines. These shameless marauders have received the names of Cow-boys and Skinners. By their atrocious deeds they have become a scourge and terror to the people.
The blog OldStyleTales.com posits that Irving’s yarn had a basis in historical events:
(T)he remains of a decapitated Jäger were unceremoniously buried in the old graveyard in an unmarked plot in 1778 (today his body has finally been acknowledged with a simple brass tablet reading: HESSIAN SOLDIER). Suitably enough, the body is said to have been interred by the Van Tassel family as a surprising gesture of thanks. One winter night in 1777 a band of Tories captured the Van Tassel brothers Peter and Cornelius (ardent Patriots and leaders in the insurgent militia), torched their house, and left Elizabeth Van Tassel (Cornelius’ wife) stranded with their infant daughter Leah. Torn by pity, one of the Jägers in the party rushed into the burning house and brought back a feather mattresss and blankets to keep the two from freezing, saving their lives.
When a decapitated Jäger corpse was discovered on the side of the Post Road later that spring, Elizabeth paid for its burial. Whether the soldier was an foot soldier or a dragoon isn’t recorded, nor do we know if his ghost was ever reported stalking the shades of Sleepy Hollow. While it is difficult to find genuine folklore prior to 1820 attesting to a local belief in a Headless Horseman, Irving claims that the goblin was a genuine part of Tarrytown ghostlore.
“Follow the Indian trail to where the sun dies. To the Tree of the Dead.”
Thus spoke a hideous witch to Johnny Depp’s Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow— just after she sliced the head off a bat and turned its blood into purple smoke in some obscene conjuring.
The year is 1799, and the new American Republic is charging into a new century, led by the burgeoning metropolis of New York, where science is supplanting superstition and commerce reigns supreme. Upstate, it’s a different story. Only a couple of days’ carriage ride north of the City, Sleepy Hollow is yet an isolated vale, a farming community perpetually shrouded in mist and fog. The fashions of the mostly Dutch settlers there are some 50 years behind the times, and the legacy of the American Revolution is still very much… alive… in the form of a Headless Horseman, the deadly, broadsword-and-ax-wielding spectre of a savage Hessian mercenary officer who fell in the Western Woods back in ’79.
Sleepy Hollow is still the frontier. Log blockhouses are manned by settlers armed with an array of aged muskets. No Jaeger rifles…
One virile young man, Brom Van Brunt, seems to have upgraded his musket with an 18th Century reflex sight — which is only one of the proto-Steampunk optical devices on display. (Irving calls Brom Bones “This rantipole hero.” As in “characterized by a wild unruly manner or attitude.” What a glorious word.
Others long guns are of uncertain pedigree, mostly the offspring of the ubiquitous Brown Bess…
And perhaps a Dragoon pistol…
I may be putting more weight on this than the tale needs to carry, but I like it that the legacy of the Revolutionary War is a dark and forbidding presence. We tend to look back on that conflict through a gauzy veil of civic piety, forgetting that it was often a dirty and mean business. In New York, as it was in the southern backcountry, the Revolution was a civil war, and it was a nasty affair. Just a ways upriver from Sleepy Hollow, dark deeds were done in both the Revolution and the French and Indian War. Surely there are many unlaid ghosts from those sanguinary days.
Many a strange tale could come out of those dark forests…
Clan Cornelius is thoroughly taken by this weird tale with tangled roots sinking down into history. So much so that we wonder what lurks underneath this hoary old juniper in our own Western Woods…