Hudson Haunts and Valley Spirits

“In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town.”

Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

There are few places in America better suited for conjuring the spirit of Halloween than the Hudson Valley. And really, given the traffic between the city and Sleepy Hollow, one scarcely gets there any quicker than would Ichabod Crane traveling by horse. Despite that, once you depart the interstate and wander off along the smaller roads, it’s really easy to lose oneself amid the trees, country lanes, and delightfully spooky fall atmosphere. This is the birthplace of the American ghost story, and the final home of the father of those ghost stories, Washington Irving, whose most famous tale lent its name to north Tarrytown — now known as Sleepy Hollow.

But far more than the Headless Horseman haunts this Hollow. And as for the other kind of spirits — well, according to Washington Irving, Tarrytown got its name because the men of the village would tarry for so long at the local tavern rather than going home. Or so he heard. So saddle up your horse, arm yourself with a charm against curses (apple brandy should do nicely), and join us as we take a ride across the covered bridge into haunted Tarrytown for another evening of boo-zy tales.

The Tale: The Dwerg of the Hudson River

Humans have been plying the waters of the Hudson for so long that it has collected more legends and spectres than a good many oceans and seas. It is a fickle river, prone to unpredictable currents and sudden turns in weather that can cause a cold, damp mist to roll in seeming out of nowhere. Both of these, so the legends claim, are the work of the souls of those whose lives the river has claimed over the centuries. One spirit of particular note is the dwerg, or water imp, of skipper John Coleman, who sailed with Henry Hudson and drowned in the river to which his boss would lend his name. A captain who does not tip his hat to the spirit of John Coleman, which resides in the river somewhere around near Donderberg Mountain, will face the dead man’s wrath, which comes in the form of storms and unexpected waves.

The Spirit: Something to steel you against the clammy chill as you pilot your tugboat up the Hudson, through the mist of early morning. The Hudson Valley is cider country, so might we recommend you raise a tin mug of spiced rum cider to old John Coleman?

(Adapted from a recipe by Jenny Bullistron on Honey and Birch)

  • 1.5 oz spiced rum
  • .5 cup spiced apple cider
  • .5 cup hard cider
  • 2-3 dashes lemon bitters

Fill a tin mug (the more battered, the better) with ice. Pour the spiced rum and spiced apple cider over the ice, and then stir well. Top with hard cider and lemon bitters. 

The Tale: Ghost Pirates

Although “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” are Irving’s two most famous tales, I myself am partial to Tales of a Traveler, a collection that is brimming over with ghosts, pirates, and ghost pirates. And the lower Hudson has seen its share of ghost pirates. Among the most famous is the spectral scallywag Captain Kidd. He and the crew of his ship Adventure Galley are said to linger long after death underneath Bear Mountain Bridge, just a stone’s throw north of Tarrytown. There, they have been searching for buried treasure since before they died.

The Spirit: There’s no better or simpler drink for treasure hunting with ghost pirates than a Dark and Stormy. But avast! There’s a rum company out there that will threaten legal action for suggesting a rum (and ginger beer) other than theirs will make the cocktail. But we’re talking ghost pirates here, who bow to the law of no man, so let’s just call it a Hudson Valley Ghost Pirate.

  • 2 oz. rum
  • 3 oz. ginger beer. As Captain Kidd lived for a time in lower Manhattan, we suggest Q, made just across the river in Brooklyn.
  • 1/2 oz. lime juice

Combine the rum, the ginger beer, and the lime juice in a tall glass full of ice cubes and stir. Garnish with a lime wedge.

The Tale: Benedict Arnold’s Spy

John André was a British Army officer and co-conspirator with America’s most famous traitor, Benedict Arnold. He was captured in what is today called Patriot’s Park, in the heart of Tarrytown, where now stands a monument to his capture. He was, of course, executed, and legend has it that his ghost still haunts the grounds of the park, galloping about and weeping over the mistakes that led to his capture and eventual hanging. In fact, it is the very tulip tree in front of which André was outed as a spy that Ichabod Crane rides nervously past on that fateful night that brought him face-to-face —er, so to speak — with the Headless Horseman. And the bridge which spans the sinister creek that still trickles through the park? Well, we shall cross that bridge soon enough.

The Spirit: To ward off the ghost of a Revolutionary War spy, we need a libation preferred by a Revolutionary War hero. Far north along the Hudson sits the outpost Fort Ticonderoga, itself no stranger to mysterious haunts. It was captured by Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys. A legend less creepy than that of ghosts claims that Allen’s favorite tipple was a classic colonial cocktail called the Stone Fence.

  • 2 oz applejack
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • 5 oz apple cider

Add all ingredients to a rocks glass over ice. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.

The Tale: Washington Irving’s Sunnyside

“They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.”

Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Just south of downtown Tarrytown is Sunnyside, the estate at which Washington Irving spent his later life. A bachelor until the end, he lived in this quiet — until they put the railroad tracks in his front yard — country house overlooking the Hudson River with his elder brother Ebenezer (no relation to Scrooge, though Charles Dickens was a guest at the house) and an assortment of nieces and servants. Some say the house where he died (and which, today, contains almost all the original furnishings) is where he remains still, walking the halls along with the ghosts of his nieces, who are known to tidy up a bit after the house, now a museum, closes. They say Washington’s ghost will occasionally pinch your bottom.

But even in Washington’s time, the house was said to be haunted by a mysterious woman who haunted the farm’s orchard, as well as the ghost of the original owner. And while the Metro North rail line that was constructed, much to Washington’s chagrin, between his porch and the river, may seem a less picturesque setting for a ghost than one would hope, fear not: Even the train tracks are haunted, as every April 25th, the ghostly funeral procession for assassinated President Abraham Lincoln trundles down the old line.

The Spirit: Another of Irving’s most famous characters was Washington Irving’s Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictional author of the satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York. So, obviously, the only proper way to toast the ghost of America’s first professional writer, the father of the American ghost story, and the biggest superstar of his day, is with the cocktail named after his famous creation, the Knickerbocker.

(from David Wondrich, via Esquire)

  • 2.5 oz golden rum
  • 1.5 teaspoons raspberry syrup
  • .5 teaspoon orange curaçao
  • .5 oz lime juice

Add all ingredients to a shaker filled with cracked ice and shake well. Place the squeezed-out shell of half a lime in an Old-Fashioned glass and pour the drink in, ice and all. Garnish with a few blackberries and serve with a straw.

The Tale: The Headless Horseman

“The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head.”

Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

And so it comes to this, the tale of horror and doom that casts its long and surprisingly festive shadow across all Tarrytown, the story that brings thousands upon thousands of visitors to the small town every year to bask in its macabre glory. The haunts of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman, the vengeful ghost of a Hessian mercenary who was made shorter by a head during the Revolutionary War, are strewn across Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, from the Old Dutch Church and adjacent cemetery where the Horseman is said to rise, to the old bridge in Patriot’s Park where the hapless Ichabod first becomes aware of a spectral presence following him through the night, to the various bridges that claim to be the one across which the Horseman flung his deadly Jack O’Lantern. One needn’t seek out the Horseman in Sleepy Hollow. He’ll find you.

But if you need to choose, make it the Old Dutch Church and the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. It’s positively crawling with creepy tales, not to mention the grave of Washington Irving himself, several prominent members of the Van Tassel family (yes, they were and still are real; one even works as a guide at the cemetery), the crypt of Dark Shadows television show vampire Barnabas Collins, and the spot at which the Ramones filmed the music video for Pet Sematary. But most haunting of all is the patch of land in which no one has been buried, and no one ever will, for it is on that spot that the Horseman rises for his midnight ride.

The Spirit: Ichabod Crane didn’t make it out of this tale without getting a pumpkin to the face, and neither shall you. Exhausted by your ordeal, winded by your desperate flight from the Horseman, wind down with an Autumn Blaze Pumpkin Ale from nearby Captain Lawrence Brewing.

“In one part of the road leading to the church was found the saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses’ hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin.”

Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

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