Welcome everyone, I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.
I took a road trip along the Hudson recently, and was struck by two things. First was the antiquity of the region, with architecture and atmosphere more appropriate to the 19th Century. But unfortunately it is mostly antiquity without affluence. Not only has time bypassed the hamlets dotting the riverside, but prosperity as well, leaving behind strips of picturesque decay. Which feeds into the second thing that struck me: just how fiercely the region clings to its paranormal heritage.
There wasn’t a town that I passed through, not one café or gift shop or bookstore that didn’t reference a ghost story or a grave marker or a nearby haunting. Apparently, the Hudson Valley is awash in the supernatural, and has always been so. Shapeless objects and mysterious masses inhabiting the roads; figures in black lurking about old houses; wailing women in white; soldiers afoot and on horseback without any heads; spook rocks, spook hollows, and spook woods; ghost ships on the river, including Henry Hudson’s Half Moon; Hudson’s ghostly crew haunting the Catskill mountains, keeping company with trollish imps like the Heer of Dunderberg, who calls down the storm winds and lightning on unwary river travelers. And this doesn’t take into account earlier folklore of the Native Americans or the later traditions of African slaves and successive immigrant groups. Up and down the Hudson, east of the river and west, from Albany to Manhattan, spook lore thrives.
So why is the paranormal so prevalent in the Hudson River Valley? Well, thanks to those aforementioned local bookstores—always treasure troves of neato local history no matter where you visit—I found possible answers in one book called Possessions, The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley, in which author Judith Richardson asserts:
“The rapid rate of development, and thus of obsolescence, and the frequent social shifts, bestowed on the region a large number of ‘pasts’ in a relatively brief period, providing a plethora of raw material from which hauntings could emerge, while also effectively foreshortening historical time so that even recent events seemed remote.”
To put it more simply, Richardson asserts that the hauntings are largely a byproduct of rapidly successive waves of migration and displacement, and people embrace the ghost lore as a solid, if tenuous link to a sketchy past, to give them a sense of place and heritage. It’s an interesting theory, and Richardson certainly cites ample evidence to support it in the course of her book.
But shifting population patterns and lost histories notwithstanding, the roots of this rich paranormal tradition can be traced back to a much more simple literary source: the works of Washington Irving. And if you’re like most people, any thoughts you have about Washington Irving are likely to begin and end with the following passage:
“On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless!—but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle! His terror rose to desperation; he rained a shower of kicks and blows upon Gunpowder, hoping by a sudden movement to give his companion the slip; but the spectre started full jump with him. Away, then, they dashed through thick and thin; stones flying and sparks flashing at every bound.”
Gunpowder is Ichabod’s horse, by the way. And The Legend of Sleepy Hollow turned Washington Irving into America’s first international literary superstar; he was lauded by the likes of Charles Dickens, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As a result, the Hudson Valley region became synonymous with hauntings and ghosts. And the fad never wore off. In fact, as the Spiritualism movement grew in the mid-19th Century, so to did Irving-centric supernatural tourism along the Hudson, even as other local industries declined.
What became lost in all this is that Irving was primarily a satirist; Ichabod Crane is a perfect case in point. While modern popular adaptations cast the schoolmaster in a sympathetic light, Irving’s depiction of Ichabod Crane is as a disingenuous and opportunistic Connecticut Yankee who feels contempt for his Dutch neighbors while casting a covetous eye on their prosperous homesteads and pretty daughters—a sentiment that no doubt echoed the feelings of many New Yorkers at the time, faced with a massive migration of New Englanders after the Revolutionary War.
It is far more likely that the greedy Ichabod was set upon not by the headless ghost of a Hessian soldier, but by his local nemesis Brom Bones in disguise, and run out of town. Irving frequently hinted at such logical explanations in his ghostly tales, but simply admonished readers to draw their own conclusions.
Irving also found fertile ground the Hudson region’s historical transience, putting out a collection of local stories and lore under the pseudonym Goffery Crayon, and recounting various so-called histories as found among the posthumous writings of Diedrich Knickerbocker, an old Dutch settler; and even these imaginary authors would relate their tales as second or third hand information. This obfuscation was certainly deliberate on Irving’s part, to give the stories a more mythic quality and to allow a more tongue-in-cheek interpretation that better fit his satirist’s sensibilities.
This combination was wildly successful, since Irving’s work was embraced by just about everyone, socially high and low, in America and in Europe. In fact, it was a bit too successful. The Headless Horseman and Rip Van Winkle—Irving’s second most enduring fictional character—became so enmeshed in the Hudson’s regional identity that the author has been increasingly eclipsed by his own creations. As the 20th Century progressed, Irving’s role had gone from inspired creator to mere chronicler of legends that were in circulation well before he came along and wrote them down.
But while Irving did borrow liberally from the Dutch and German folklore that had been the fireside currency of the region’s immigrants, he recast it indelibly into the American consciousness. And his legacy still thrives.
Just travel along the east side of the Hudson. The town of Kinderhook claims to be the true historical inspiration for Irving’s fictional Sleepy Hollow; but go 100 miles downriver and you’ll find wind up in North Tarrytown, which officially changed its name to Sleepy Hollow in 1996, based on the location described in the actual story. The entire tourism industry of the Catskills relied heavily on Rip Van Winkle related tours well into the latter part of the last century.
And though they may start with Irving, the ghost stories in no way end with him. There have been tales circulating for centuries about a spectral women in white, in and around the town of Leeds in Green County on the west side of the river. Depending on who tells the story, she either an American Indiain, or a black slave or a Hessian servant or a Scottish immigrant or a poor white girl who was unjustly killed by being dragged to her death behind a horse.
Creepier still is the fact that the legend seems to derive from an actual case. The details are sketchy, but there was a young woman named Anna Dorothea Swarts who was so murdered in the area in the late 1700s, and her murderer was never brought to justice. Since then she has been said to make various appearances by the house of the man who murdered her, either in tow behind a giant white steed with firey eyes, screaming for help, or sitting on a rock outside his house with a lit candle on each finger, wailing wildly or letting out a hysterical laugh. She has been the bane of late night drivers and solitary travelers, manifesting on roads, along side streams and in the woods surrounding Green County and beyond.
And so the wisps and apparitions endure, solid as the bedrock that underlies the counties and mountains in which they roam, drawing substance from all comers, whether they be Native Americans or Dutch settlers, English colonists or American revolutionaries, male or female, black or white. So much fact and fiction, legend and lore, traditions and retellings swirl around the Hudson, like the currents of the river that bore them, seemingly without end.