One of the true joys of having more than a day off work at a time is the privilege to spend days reading. Although I read on the bus as a matter of course, it is a defined time, and editing isn’t as much reading as most people think it is. While doing research for my Sleepy Hollow paper, the question naturally arose: where did Washington Irving get the idea for the headless horseman? According to Irving’s biographers, the story was not an uncommon one. Headless ghosts are not unique, and he wrote the story while living in Europe as part of the serialized Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. There is no practical way to know where he first heard the story. During my research I heard of a local source: Legends and Lore of Somerset County (New Jersey), by Michael Haynes. In this little compendium of stories of my current county, there is a claim that Irving learned about the story right here in New Jersey, where a traditional headless ghost rides. Again, it is impossible to say where he got the idea, but people like to feel that their local traditions are important enough to engage a major writer’s imagination.
Haynes presents several other regional tales that may rival the Jersey Devil and give ghosts a location just down the road. I suspect most places have tales of ghosts and mysterious beasts. It is always interesting to find out about those lurking in your own neighborhood. Scholars are now beginning to turn their attention to the sanctity of space. Location is very important to mobile beings like ourselves. The place where we find ourselves becomes “our place” and with the patina of time, often a personally sacred space. Tales of what happened here often take on the cast of the supernatural.
Local history has always held a deep fascination for me. Any region that I know, in a sense, intimately, is a region that has become part of my personal history. My region of Pennsylvania, for example, defines me although neither of my parents, or their parents were born in that state. And Massachusetts, Michigan, Scotland, Illinois, Wisconsin, or New Jersey, places I’ve lived, have become somehow alive with history. Legends and Lore of Somerset County contains tales that are not always believable in the workaday world we inhabit, but that’s the beauty of sacred space. Going beyond the mundane is entirely the point. Although Washington Irving may or may not have first heard of the headless horseman here, we have that legend, and there’s only so much that history can do to remove such a claim.