What “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” Tells Us About Contagion, Fear and Epidemics

Washington Irving fled New York because of a yellow fever epidemic. Twenty-two years later, his classic story spoke to the chaos of his youth

A yellow fever epidemic may have planted the seeds of inspiration for Washington Irving's iconic tale of the a headless horseman. (Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)
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A mysterious plague with no known cause. An indiscriminate infection that holds a community captive. Sound familiar? It did to Washington Irving, too. Irving, a native New Yorker, made his first trip up the Hudson River to Tarrytown in 1798, at age 15.

At that time, New York City was in the grip of its tenth epidemic of yellow fever, a viral disease that killed 5,000 residents of Philadelphia in a single year and was on track to do as much cumulative damage in New York. Yellow fever, which is spread by mosquitoes, was poorly understood at the turn of the 19th century. Medical professionals speculated that it was caused by slum conditions in city centers (including landfill and stagnant water—this was closest to the mark). They blamed West Indian refugees and shipments of rotten coffee. They even pointed the finger at the luggage of foreign sailors. The epidemics exacerbated post-colonial racial prejudice and encouraged xenophobia; Philadelphia built the nation’s first quarantine station in response to a 1793 outbreak.

Yellow fever threw a bright light on economic inequality in the affected cities: families with the means to do so, like Irving’s, fled the “miasmic” urban environment for more healthful climates. Families that could not afford to seek “pure air” suffered not only from the virus, but from the terror of their neighbors: infected neighborhoods were marked with yellow flags or roped off, and few doctors were willing to treat the disease, the symptoms of which included the kind of bleeding and vomiting best left to horror films.

These were the conditions that brought a teenage Irving to Tarrytown, in Westchester County, to stay with his friend James Kirke Paulding. The young writer, as Brian Jay Jones notes in his biography, was smitten by both the pastoral tranquility of the Hudson Valley region, and its less-than-tranquil ghost stories. And it was here that Irving supposedly first heard the rumor of a headless Hessian buried near the Old Dutch Church, who “rode forth to the scenes of battle in nightly quest of his head,” as he would later write in his most famous tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In truth, the ancestry of Irving’s Headless Horseman is not so easily traced—Sir Walter Scott deserves some credit for the hellish equestrian, too—but knowledgeable readers can find Irving’s own youthful experience of plague written upon every “bewitched” surface of the fictional village of Sleepy Hollow. (The real-world town of North Tarrytown renamed itself “Sleepy Hollow” in honor of Irving’s story in 1999.)

In the nearly 200 years since Washington Irving published his most famous tale, the name of the imaginary hamlet has become synonymous with Halloween. At first glance, this conflation makes perfect sense: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” published in 1820, was America’s first ghost story, and the Headless Horseman, everyone’s favorite pumpkin-brandishing decapitate, was decidedly the new nation’s first ghost. But Irving’s spooky story of the ill-fated Yankee schoolmaster Ichabod Crane never actually mentions Halloween—for the simple reason that the holiday was not yet celebrated widely in the United States, and would not be for nearly a century more.

Why does “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” remain the original American fright-fest, inspiring interpretations and homages from Disney and Tim Burton to Kanye West to FOX? The answer has less to do with pumpkins or decapitated soldiers—and everything to do with Irving’s language of pestilence.

The story’s narrator, a Dutch historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker, describes the “sequestered glen” of Sleepy Hollow as a place with “contagion in the very air… it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land.” Natives and newcomers alike were susceptible to this airborne infection, which caused them “to walk in a continual reverie.” Their somnambulance is “unconsciously imbibed by anyone who resides there for a time…however wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region[.]”

Ichabod Crane, who is himself a “newcomer,” is described as being far and away the most afflicted by this “visionary propensity”; he is addicted to scary stories and trades anecdotes out of Cotton Mather’s History of New England Witchcraft for the haunted local histories told by his Dutch hosts. The “pleasure in all this,” the narrator Knickerbocker warns, “…was dearly purchased by the terrors of his subsequent walk homewards.”

In Irving’s Sleepy Hollow the Dutch community can “vegetate,” to use Knickerbocker’s word—or better still, incubate—nurturing its visions and “twilight superstitions” without the interference of history.  The town’s collective sickness has made it into a time capsule—each day, nothing changes; each night, the Horseman comes. But the ending of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” offers a kind of vaccination : a way to leave contagion behind – and superstition, too.  After attempting to court a local heiress, unlucky Ichabod is chased down by the headless Hessian (or believes he is), and vanishes in the night, leaving only his horse and a smashed pumpkin behind.

The residents of Sleepy Hollow are convinced that the Horseman has made off with Crane’s head, but the narrator offers another possibility: that Crane may not, in fact, have perished by pumpkin, but instead recovered from his visions sufficiently to leave town under his own steam and take up work elsewhere as a “Justice of the Ten Pound Court”. The appealing ambiguity of this ending is often lost on those who adapt the story for movies, television or other media. It’s more cinematically satisfying to see the Horseman as the culprit behind Crane’s disappearance; “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” depends on its famous villain, after all. In truth, it’s not the Horseman or the hoax that we should fear, but the contagion that grips Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod's flight, far from being an act of cowardice, gave him back his life.

Just underneath the ghostly narrative that so many Americans know and love, a darker, an infinitely scarier story is being told, beside which the fear of a “goblin trooper” pales in comparison. If we read a little more carefully, we’ll find a history lesson embedded in the Halloween tale, a reminder to contemporary readers that the pathologies of the past were just as terrifying as our own modern plagues—and just as cloaked in mystery and misunderstanding.

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