The Origin of the Headless Horseman
- Merritt Hill and the Battle of White Plains
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This is where the Headless Horseman lost his head - somewhere near this field on the slope of Merrit Hill in White Plains, New York, about nine miles from Sleepy Hollow.  During the last week of October, 1776, this property was the site of hostilities between American and British forces during the American War for Independence.  Today, a small monument topped with an antique cannon marks the site of these events, and a sign nearby describes the historic significance of the location:

The historic sign above details a brief skirmish between American and British forces on October 28th.  But that's not the whole story - other conflicts occurred near this site in the following days, and not only with the British.  To assist in the difficult task of suppressing their rebellious American colonies, the British brought along reinforcements in the form of Hessian mercenaries from Germany, and it was one of these unlucky fellows who found himself in the path of an American cannonball that relieved him of his head.  Washington Irving refers to this incident only briefly in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," without identifying the precise location of the horseman's demise:

"It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War..."

It's entirely possible that Irving simply invented the entire incident for the sake of drama, without any knowledge of real-life events that occurred nearby.  But it seems more likely that Irving had read the journal of the American general William Heath, who described his defense of Merritt Hill on, of all possible days, Halloween: October 31st of 1776.  Jonathan Kruk can be credited for noticing a revealing passage in Heath's journal, which he quotes in his book "Legends and Lore of Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson Valley."  Heath recorded the following as his cannons opened fire at the approach of Hessian artillery:

"A shot from the American cannon at this place took off the head of a Hessian artillery-man.  They also left one of the artillery horses dead on the field.  What other loss they sustained was not known."

This is almost certainly the event that inspired Irving to weave a legend revolving around a headless Hessian on a ghostly horse.  This is especially plausible since the battlefield was close enough to have been within riding distance from Sleepy Hollow, a detail that fits the demands of the Legend, as described by Irving: "...having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head..."

But how did the unfortunate Hessian end up getting buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard at Sleepy Hollow, nine miles away?  At the time, the Old Dutch Church was the only church to be found for many miles around, so it was the only churchyard available.  But the honor of such a formal burial was rarely extended to British and Hessian soldiers, so how could one of them have been granted an exception?  Assuming that there could be any truth to the burial legend at all - which is highly questionable - Jonathan Kruk offers an intriguing backstory which, though entirely speculative, is at least an entertaining addition to the legendary heritage of Sleepy Hollow.  I wouldn't dream of giving the whole thing away, though - you can find it all in Kruk's book, "Legends and Lore of Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson Valley." 

 

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