The Van Tassel Family, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Washington Irving
Irving's Ichabod Crane.
Kinderhook His Home, Not Sleepy Hollow-
Other Irving Facts.
Letter to the Editor of THE NEW YORK TIMES from
Harrold Van Santvoord,
Author of "Half Holidays," a Volume of Essays, &c.
-Feb 26, 1898-
In Donald G. Mitchell's "American Lands and Letters," the first of a series of essays with which, I believe, this charming writer designs to supplement his clever etchings, "English Lands, Letters, and Kings," the author says that the leading characters in Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" were drawn from local types living near the scene of the romance. As a matter of fact, however, the materials which Irving deftly wove in the loom of his imagination into the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" were found in Kinderhook when the author of the "Sketch Book" was a guest at "Lindenwald," the home of Judge William P. Van Ness. The prototype of Ichabod Crane was a district schoolteacher, Jesse Merwin; while Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassell were local characters whose real names are known to older residents of the village. It was at "Lindenwald," subsequently the home of Martin Van Buren, that Irving wrote part of the "Sketch Book," and most of his "Knickerbocker's History of New York." Indeed, "Lindenwald has an eventful history antedating Van Buren's regime. Its walls rand with Irving's laughter long before the "Little Magician" opened its doors and stocked its cellars and sideboards for the entertainment of his political friends.
Judge Van Ness, who built "Lindenwald," was a scholar of fine attainments, a Nestor in politics, the anonymous author of "Aristides," a political pamphlet which created almost as great a stir in this country as the letters of "Junius" occasioned in Great Britain, and was also Aaron Burr's second in his duel with Hamilton. He was bound to Irving by the closest ties, that were only severed by death. Diedrich Knickerbocker reports that the Van Nesses of Kinderhook (formerly spelled "Van Nest") "were valiant robbers of birds' nests "-whence they derived the name-and they also invented the buckwheat cake. The writer does not vouch for the authority of the "Dutch Herodotus" in preferring so grave a charge; but were the assertion true, and
"Time, that on all things lays a lenient hand
Yet tames not this,"
Posterity could not afford to efface the stigma from the escutcheon of a once proud and vagrant family who made ample amends for their early misconduct by bequeathing to the world a receipt for the fragrant and famous buckwheat cake.
When Van Buren had framed his diploma, and was decoying clients into the mazes of the law, Irving was filling the role of private tutor to the Judge's nieces, the Misses Van Ness. At this time he formed a close intimacy with Jesse Merwin, the Ichabod Crane of the comic portrait in the "Sketch Book," who was also staying at "Lindenwald." It was then the custom for the district schoolteacher to "board around," and, as Judge Ness was a patron of Merwin's school, he (Merwin) came in turn to board with the Judge. Amid the pastoral scenes along the bank of Kinderhook Creek Irving and the whimsical pedagogue while away many an hour, fishing in the stream that flowed through the verdant meadows, shooting partridges and squirrels in the woods, gathering nuts and apples in the Fall, and, when the pumpkins were ripe, making raids on the farmers' cornfields; and then, during the long Winter evenings, cracking jokes nad spinning yarns with Katrina Van Tassell and Brom Bones in the quaint old Dutch kitchen of a neighboring farmhouse, before a roaring log fire.
Many believe it was Irving's original intention to locate the scene of the legend in Kinderhook. He was probably diverted from this scheme by fear of wounding the sensibilities of some of the originals of the characters that figured in the story. During his tutorship here the old schoolhouse, where Ichabod Crane flogged the alphabet and multiplication table into freckle-faced, tow-headed Dutch boys, stood almost exactly as described in the romance; and near by is a bridge identical with the one where the rattling hoofs of Gunpowder started the lizards and toads from their slumbers on the memorable night when the pedagogue was chased by Brom Bones. Among the writer's autographs is a letter from Irving to his early friend, Merwin, dated a few years before the latter's decease. Ichabod Crane had then grown somewhat stout and portly, and had acquired the habits of an easy-going man of the world.
"Your letter was, indeed, most welcome," writes Irving, "calling up, as it did, recollections of pleasant days passed together long since at Judge Van Ness's, in Kinderhook. * * * Your mention of the death of Dominie Van Ness recalls the apostolic zeal with which he took our little sinful community in hand when he put up for a day or two at the Judge's; and the wholesome castigation he gave us all on Sunday, beginning with the two country belles who came fluttering in the schoolhouse during the sermon, decked out in their city finery, and ending in the stronghold of his mansion with the Judge himself. * * * You tell me that the old schoolhouse is torn down and a new one built in its place. I should like to have seen the old schoolhouse once more, where, after my morning's literary tasks were over, I used to come and wait for you occasionally, after school was dismissed; and you used to promise to keep back the punishment of some little tough, broad-bottomed Dutch boy until I should come, for my amusement, but never kept your promise."
The author of the "Sketch Book" also refers in this letter to a mischievous prank of his youth, when he and Merwin finding John Moore the vagabond Admiral of the lake, (now "Merwin's pond,") "curled up in his canoe fast asleep, with his fishing poles stretched out in every direction, like the legs of a gigantic spider," robbed his boat of the fish, and set it adrift on the lake. John Moore was the original Dirk Schuyler, a poaching character in "Knickerbocker's History," as Irving afterward confessed.
At this period Irving must have been a singularly handsome man, if one may judge from William Sartain's fine mezzotint engraving, which is probably the most satisfactory portrait of the author of the "Alhabra" and "Sketch Book" extant. After the "Sketch Book" was published it was feared that the caricature of Ichabod Crane would occasion strained relations between the honest schoolmaster and his friend. It was in a spirit of playful humor, such as that in which Butler burlesqued his host, Sir Samuel Luke, I the character of Hudibras, that Irving caricatured Jesse Merwin, and the pedagogue seemed to enjoy the grotesque humor of the portraiture as much as the author himself. In proof of his affection he named one of his sons after his early friend, who is still living, a prosperous farmer in Illinois. The remains of Merwin repose in the village cemetery, not far from the burial plot of Martin Van Buren. A few years ago the plain slab, with its simple inscription, at the head of grave was replaced by a neat monument, and residents of the village take pride in exhibiting to strangers the grave of Ichabod Crane.
"Lindenwald," which Irving revisited, not in the role of tutor, but as an honored guest, is a stately brick mansion shaded by pines and lindens, and surmounted by a cupola overlooking the broad meadow-lands of the fertile valley of Kinderhook Creek. It stands on the old post road, not far from the site of the log school house where Irving used to wait for the pedagogue until "school was dismissed. But the banquet hall is deserted. No echo of revelry lingers there. The noisy rat-a-tap of the ponderous brass door-knocker, which erstwhile announced the arrival of a distinguished guest, is seldom heard in the neighborhood. The curtains are closely drawn, and the parlors are closed. It is the abode of two thrifty farmers, and it may be the day is not far distant when cows will graze under the lindens where "the little magician" entertained his friend.
In closing this rambling essay it may not seem amiss to add a description of the old meeting house where Judge Van Ness at one time attended service, and Martin Van Buren, in a little snuff-colored, broad-skirted overcoat was bundled into a corner of the high-backed family pew when a boy. A wealth of local traditions cluster around the sacred spot where the meeting house once stood. It is described as a snug little chapel, (residents of the village are preserving photographs of a needle sketch in a carefully executed work in tapestry,) with a high, step roof surmounted by a weathercock. It contained a wine-glass pulpit. The bell rope hung down in the centre aisle; the walls and ceilings were bare: there were no carpets on the floor; and in cold weather the congregation were kept from freezing, but not from shivering and dozing, by means of foot stoves. Alms were collected in a purse-shaped pouch attached to a long staff. Not many years ago a rural friend of the writer used one of these primitive contribution pouches for picking apples.
Among the traditions of the church is an account of a fierce warfare between the Petres and Fermors of the little settlement, which grew out of a proposition to buy a stove for the meeting house. The colony was at once divided into two hostile factions-recalling the feud in Harrisburg when the goose war waged in Pennsylvania-known as the stove party and the anti-stove party. The ladies, vain of the foot stoves or warming pans, which their negro servants were accustomed to carry into their pews every Sunday morning, raised their voices with the anti-stove cabal. But the stove party carried the day, and the stove was purchased, borne triumphantly to the church by the victorious burghers, and set up on a platform in the centre aisle. In the midst of the service on the following Sunday morning a great commotion was caused by the fainting of two spinsters, overcome by the heat and the closeness of the air. The ladies were at once carried out, lying very limp in the arms of two stalwart deacons, and smelling salts applied. "Shut off the heat or we'll faint," piped out a timid voice. Then a confused murmur arose: "Oh dear, I'm suffocating! Close the draughts! Give us air, or we'll perish!" A gallant young beau sprang upon the platform with a firm step and, screening his face with a plam-leaf fan, made a movement to close the draughts-but alas! There was no fire in the stove!
HAROLD VAN SANTVOORD.
Kinderhook, N. Y., Feb. 20, 1898.