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Stanford Report, October 29, 2003

'Restless history' of Hudson Valley led to ghost stories galore


When you walk around the back of your house late at night and small shadows twitch and an unexpected breeze sends dry leaves skidding across the pavement, take comfort in where you are: the San Francisco Bay Area.

A region of such rapid change and new technologies must be inhospitable to ghosts -- unlike, say, the shadowy trails and ancient dells of the old Hudson River Valley, where longstanding cultural traditions and sleepy, rustic towns have made spectral traffic on nighttime roads the supernatural equivalent of El Camino Real at 5 p.m.

But wait a minute: The Hudson Valley, where the headless horseman roamed and Rip Van Winkle overslept, was also once a place of rapid industrial, territorial and demographic change, according to English lecturer Judith Richardson, who takes a scholarly interest in spooks. Her first book, Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley, was published this month, just in time for Halloween, by Harvard University Press.

"Hauntings are by no means limited to 'isolated hollows,'" Richardson writes. "In defiance of conventional wisdom, they often appear in places where social change threatens to obliterate any sense of historical continuity."

Richardson was raised in Haverstraw, a town along the Hudson River in the shadow of the ghost-infested mountain High Tor and a short distance upriver from Sleepy Hollow.

"I grew up in a neighborhood of people acutely attracted to spooky things," Richardson said. "It saturated the soil of that part of the world." As a graduate student at Harvard, she read Washington Irving stories and Henry James' The American Scene, an impressionistic and critical reflection on his birthplace, and became intrigued with how both writers dwelt on the region's legacy of drastic social change and hauntedness. (Richardson confessed, however, that her fascination with the study of hauntings may hark back to a much earlier age: About three months ago, her mother showed her an eighth-grade report she had written on ghosts.)

The result of Richardson's ghostly investigations is a highly readable, critical exploration of historical records, folklore and literature that casts light on a region densely populated by shadows. Among other things, she examines the geography, culture and history of the land; the influences of popular storytellers, such as Irving, and European and American Indian legends; the peculiar and often shifting character of local ghosts; and the social and political functions of hauntings.

Historical discontinuity

"The restless history of the region ... created a sense of social and historical tenuousness that was crucial to producing ghosts," according to Richardson.

Ghosts' "lack of definition or identifiers" make them readily malleable, she adds, and hence ideally suited for the Hudson Valley, which experienced jolting change during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, with multiple waves of immigrants -- Dutch, Germans, French Huguenots, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Belgians, African slaves, Scottish, English and Irish; rapid industrialization; and territorial disputes, not to mention a tourist industry hungry for the gothic romance of ghost stories.

The constant change led to "repeatedly and cumulatively obscuring the regional past and undermining historical understanding," Richardson explains. Not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of ghosts wandering the footpaths and bridges of the Hudson Valley are the spirits of dead hitchhikers, gypsies, pirates, itinerant musicians and, especially, peddlers, who "were closely intertwined with anxieties over transience, mutability and historical uncertainty." Similarly, the waves of new inhabitants seemed to invigorate the telling of ghost stories, ensuring they remained in circulation for generations.

One of the most famous tales of the region, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," in fact turns on an encounter between two outsiders: the interloping New Englander, Ichabod Crane, who, Richardson reminds us, arrives in town with a head full of ghost stories "amid the suggestive landscapes, hazy history and somewhat 'peculiar' people along the Hudson"; and the ghoulish horseman, the "ghost" of a Hessian soldier who, while fighting, had his head removed by a cannonball. "In essence, a Hessian killed in the Revolutionary War seems to have little to do with either the Dutch or the Yankee protagonist in Sleepy Hollow, and is thus all the more strange and frightening as something whose relevancy cannot be gauged," she writes.

Irving borrowed the headless horseman from German folktales -- indeed, many of his stories owe a debt to foreign-born ghosts -- but not all such regional hauntings are cross-cultural productions. Many can claim the Hudson Valley as their rightful birthplace, which, unfortunately, often requires a gruesome end.

Dragged to death

What little we know of Anna Dorothea Swarts comes from an 18th-century bill of indictment, which Richardson discovered in the library of the Greene County Historical Society in Coxsackie, N.Y. Sometime before 1755, a wealthy Catskill landowner, William Salisbury, acquired Swarts as a servant. That year, he tied her to his horse and she was subsequently dragged to death.

But she did not rest in peace. In 1824, Col. William Leete Stone, editor of a New York City newspaper called the Commercial Advertiser, visited the newly opened Catskill Mountain House resort and, while in the vicinity, heard of a local haunting that he later related for his newspaper:

"Sometimes sighs and lamentations were heard in the air, like the plaintiveness of the soft whistling wind. ... A white horse of gigantic size, with fiery eyeballs and distended nostrils, was often seen to run past the fatal spot, with the fleetness of wind, dragging a female behind, with tattered garment and streaming hair, screaming for help. At other times the horse would appear to drag a hideous skeleton, clattering after him, half enveloped in a winding sheet."

Although the case against Salisbury was dismissed, it appears the story serves a kind of public judgment against him -- "to indicate guilt, and to frighten and admonish the community that has allowed the injustice," Richardson writes. But this is also a case in which local political and social forces shaped the story's telling and central figure, who at times is cast as a Scottish or German servant or a slave of mixed African and American Indian ancestry, as in the 1862 novel The Sutherlands. "Written on the verge of the Civil War, the novel employs the ghosts of Leeds in an antislavery agenda, one that seems directed against Northern complicity," according to Richardson.

Geographical advantage

Bay Area residents, however, may take solace in the local landscape, which is decidedly less spooky ("spook" is a Dutch word for spirit or ghost, Richardson notes) than the Hudson Valley's sheer cliffs, ravines, gnarled cedars and swamps intermingled with creeks and rivers with comforting names like "Sparkill," "Wallkill," "Saw Kill" and "Murderer's Creek."

So pity Charles Gilbert Hine, an early 20th-century insurance magazine editor from Newark who once found himself wandering after dark in Ulster County after having indulged in some ghost stories: "Even he who is not in all things too superstitious," he writes, "can hardly help peering curiously into the dark places as he pushes through the shades of night along a strange and quiet country road."

Richardson is scheduled to give a talk, "Ghosts and Cultural Memory," at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 11 in the Stanford Humanities Center. The event is free and open to the public.


Judith Richardson