With Halloween approaching, it seems like the ideal time to tell you the tale of how one of America’s best-loved ghost stories has its roots tied to Regency England. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a short story written by the American author Washington Irving and was published in 1820. Many of you may be familiar with the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. If you’ve never read the story, this is a quick recap.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is set in 1790 around Tarry Town (sic), New York and a secluded, nearby glen known as Sleepy Hollow. Schoolmaster Ichabod Crane comes to town and sets his sights on marrying the town heiress, Katrina Van Tassel. Unfortunately for Ichabod, he has competition for her hand from local bad boy Brom Bones. One autumn night, Ichabod attends a party at the Van Tassel’s and listens to the locals recount the tales of the ghosts that haunt the area. The most fearsome ghost is that of a Hessian trooper who had his head shot off by a cannonball during a battle in the American Revolution. Each night this Headless Horseman rides to the scene of the battle in search of his head.
As the party breaks up for the night, Ichabod fails to secure Katrina’s hand and rides from her home “heavy-hearted and crestfallen” toward his schoolhouse in Sleepy Hollow. After passing a tree supposedly haunted by the ghost of British spy Major André, Ichabod spots a large cloaked figure on horseback. He quickly realizes the man’s head is not upon his shoulders but on his saddle. Terrified, Ichabod races across the bridge adjacent to the Old Dutch Church with the Headless Horseman in hot pursuit. The specter hurls his severed head at Ichabod, and it crashes into the schoolmaster, knocking him from his horse.
The next morning, the townspeople find Ichabod’s horse wandering around the cemetery of the Old Dutch Church along with his trampled saddle, and his hat lying beside a shattered pumpkin. Brom Bones goes on to marry Katrina, and the old Dutch wives believe Ichabod was “spirited away by supernatural means.” Years later, an old farmer arrives in town and informs them Ichabod is still alive. He fled the area because he was mortified by Katrina’s rejection and feared the Headless Horseman.
So how does a ghost story that takes place in a small Dutch hamlet in New York and written by an American, have a connection to Regency England? For that, we need to look closer at the author, Washington Irving.
Washington Irving was born in New York City in 1783. At the age of nineteen, he began to write a series of satirical essays under the name Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. and published them in New York City’s Morning Chronicle newspaper. Three years later, he passed the bar exam and became a lawyer. But his love of writing continued, and he published more essays, as well as a book entitled A History of New York under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker.
In 1815 Irving went to England to try to help save his family’s floundering shipping business, but in the spring of 1818 the firm was forced to file for bankruptcy. That summer he stayed in Birmingham with his sister Sarah Van Wart and her family. One night, his brother-in-law began reminiscing about New York, and an area Irving spent time in along the Hudson River known as Sleepy Hollow. According to accounts in Washington Irving, An American Original, in the middle of the conversation Irving bolted from his chair and ran to his room, slamming the door behind him. The words to a story were coming almost faster than he could get them down on paper. The conversations about Dutch New York and Sleepy Hollow had inspired and energized him. In that one day, Irving wrote the story of Rip Van Winkle. Soon after, still at Sarah’s house, he outlined The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Feeling motivated, he decided to move to London for a time and dedicate himself to a career as a writer.
He sent a collection of short stories to his brother in New York to be published in a series of volumes in the United States. On June 23, 1819, the first volume of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. went on sale. Two thousand copies were printed and each ninety-three page book cost 75 cents, or about $11 in today’s money. The book was an enormous success. This volume contained the story of Rip Van Winkle but not The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Americans would have to wait for the sixth volume of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. to read that tale.
Meanwhile in London, Irving feared his work would be pirated by British printers, so he set out to find a British publisher to protect his interest. At the recommendation of Sir Walter Scott, Irving appealed to renowned publisher John Murray II, but his work was rejected. He also tried Murray’s former partner Archibald Constable and was rejected again. Determined to profit from his work, Irving decided to take matters into his own hands and self publish his book using John Miller’s Burlington Arcade imprint. The British edition of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., which included the first four volumes of the American counterpart, was released on February 16, 1820. This edition included the following introduction to the British public:
“The following desultory papers are part of a series written in this country, but published in America. The author is aware of the austerity with which the writings of his countrymen have hitherto been treated by British critics; he is conscious, too, that much of the contents of his papers can be interesting only in the eyes of American readers.”
Irving was wrong. He was praised by British readers and critics alike.
A month later, the sixth volume of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. was published in America. This is the volume that included The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Not long afterward, this story was released in Britain in the second volume of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.
People on both sides of the Atlantic agreed The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was Irving’s finest work. In fact it was so well received, many literary scholars believe it to be the story that propelled Irving from a man of letters to America’s first international literary celebrity. So while many people think of it as a quaint spooky story that has been immortalized in movies and TV shows, it actually is a significant work in America’s literary history.
I have one last bit of information about the connection between Regency England and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Irving’s original British publisher folded not long after his initial print run. John Murray, who had turned down Irving’s work, stepped in to buy the remainder of his stock and agreed to publish more of his work. So the man who published Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Byron’s Don Juan also published the second British volume of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., the one in that contained The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
A few more fun facts:
- In 1835, Irving eventually settled in Tarrytown and bought ten acres of land along the Hudson River. One hundred years prior to Irving’s purchase, a branch of the Van Tassel family had lived in the stone cottage that was on his property.
- Washington Irving is buried in the family plot in the Old Dutch Church cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York. That’s the same cemetery where the Headless Horseman may, or may not, have attacked Ichabod Crane.
- The idea for my first book, An Unsuitable Duchess, was inspired by Washington Irving’s life, and the story came to me while touring his home years ago. I even named my heroine Katrina.
- Butler, Joseph T., Washington Irving’s Sunnyside. 1974.
- Irving, Washington, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. 1820.
- Jones, Brian Jay, Washington Irving, An American Original. 2008.