Ichabod Crane: the Capital Region connection


Ichabod Crane just sounds scarier than Jesse Merwin.

By Carl Johnson

Washington Irving, perhaps the first great American writer, is still well-remembered in his Hudson Valley haunts. Irving created Rip Van Winkle, the legend of the Headless Horseman and more. His home along the river in Tarrytown, "Sunnyside," is a tourist attraction, and in 1996, North Tarrytown decided to rename itself Sleepy Hollow.

It is said that it was among the old Dutch of Tarrytown that Irving first heard the tale of the ghost of a Hessian soldier who had lost his head to a cannonball during the Revolution. But it was in the Columbia County village of Kinderhook, that Irving found his model for Ichabod Crane, the timid schoolteacher who is frightened off by the headless apparition.

A native of Manhattan who spent time in the lower Hudson Valley, Washington Irving was one of America's first international celebrities. His books sold well here and in Europe, and he served as the inspiration for a generation of authors to follow, including Hawthorne, Melville, Longfellow and Poe. While living in England, he served the United States government for a short time, and became friendly with Martin Van Buren, the Kinderhook native then in the service of Andrew Jackson.

In their later years, with Irving living at Sunnyside and Van Buren in his Kinderhook home Lindenwald, Irving was a frequent visitor. But he had been to this home many years before, around 1809, when it was owned by Judge William Van Ness. Van Ness was a famous lawyer of the day, was a circuit judge for the Southern District of New York, and, perhaps most famously, was Aaron Burr's second in his duel with Alexander Hamilton. It was as a guest and tutor in the Van Ness home that Irving became acquainted with Jesse Merwin, a local school teacher. In a letter to Merwin years later, Irving regrets that the old schoolhouse had been torn down, "where, after my morning's literary task was over, I used to come and wait for you, occasionally, until school was dismissed. You would promise to keep back the punishment of some little tough, broad-bottomed Dutch boy, until I could come, for my amusement -- but never kept your promise." [Editors: because that's creepy.]

Despite being deprived of the joys of witnessing corporal punishment, Irving did not forget the teacher Merwin. He took the name Ichabod Crane from an army captain of his acquaintance, whom he met in Sackets Harbor during his service with Governor Tompkins in 1814. But any doubt as to the real origin of the schoolmaster, "an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity" who could be startled by fireflies "sparkling most vividly in the darkest places," was put to rest by a notation Irving made upon a letter received from Merwin in 1851: "From Jesse Merwin, the original of Ichabod Crane." In response, he wrote a letter to his old friend that will conjure familiar images for those who have read The Headless Horseman:

"Do you remember our fishing expedition, in company with Congressman Van Allen, to the little lake a few miles from Kinderhook; and John Moore, the vagabond admiral of the lake, who sat crouched in a heap in the middle of his canoe in the centre of the lake, with fishing-rods stretching out in every direction like the long legs of a spider? And do you remember our piratical prank, when we made up for our bad luck in fishing, by plundering his canoe of its fish when we found it adrift? And do you remember how John Moore came splashing along the marsh on the opposite border of the lake, roaring at us; and how we finished our frolic by driving off and leaving the Congressman to john Moore's mercy, tickling ourselves with the idea of his being scalped at least? Ah, well-a-day, friend Merwin, those were the days of our youth and folly."

Just up the Post Road from the old school stood the Luykas Van Alen house, which is there to this day. The house is thought to be the model for the home of the Van Tassel family, of which the eligible maiden Katrina Van Tassel was the object of Ichabod Crane's longing. "It was one of those spacious farmhouses, with high-ridged but lowly sloping roofs, built in the style handed down from the first Dutch settlers; the low projecting eaves forming a piazza along the front, capable of being closed up in bad weather." Though the teacher and the house may have been of Kinderhook, the story and the girl were of Tarrytown, where a young lady named Eleanor Van Tassel Brush may have bewitched the author and others with "a provokingly short petticoat, to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round." This "blooming lass of fresh eighteen; plump as a partridge" became immortalized as Katrina Van Tassel, object of the hapless Ichabod's affections.


ahh! great feature! I was just there a few days ago! i love, love, love the legend of sleepy hollow...it's nice to learn a bit of history behind the story. :)

Excellent story, I have been to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where Irving is buried and have heard more about the story of the Headless Horseman. The caretaker at the cemetery took me to the double grave of Cornelis van Tassel and his wife Elizabeth Storm and told me there were actually three people buried in the grave. This came about because during the Revolution the British and Hessian soldiers had come to this particular van Tassell house to burn it down. One of the Hessian soldiers noticed a sleeping baby in the house and violating his orders, he removed her and hide her outside. The mother saw the buring house and came running to save her baby. The soldier grabbed her and pointed to where he hid the baby. Soon after this event, the soldier was killed in a battle and the van Tassel family learning this, claimed the soldiers body and placed him in their grave. This became know of the people in the community. Years later when Washington Irving heard of this, he used the soldier in his story. You see, this soldier who had saved the baby was killed when a cannon ball struck him in the head, decapitating him. I don't know if his head was ever found but he would become famous as the character Irving described as ... the headless horseman.

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