This being the Halloween season, I'm up to my keister in work, so I typically set up posts in advance and use the "scheduling" option. I also rely a lot on posting videos. This being the Halloween season, and me living in the Hudson River Valley, I typically put up one or two posts about Sleepy Hollow this time of year. Today's post features Edward D. Venturini's 1922 silent film The Headless Horseman, an adaptation of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow starring Will Rogers as Ichabod Crane. The film is overlong, and this particular video has a repetitive soundtrack, but it captures nicely the "Dutch vs English" subtext in the original story:
At the fifty-seven-and-a-half minute mark, there is a brief shot of laughing African-American children watching Ichabod Crane dancing... this seemingly out-of-place scene is actually straight out of Irving's original:
And now the sound of the music from the common room, or hall, summoned to the dance. The musician was an old grayheaded negro, who had been the itinerant orchestra of the neighborhood for more than half a century. His instrument was as old and battered as himself. The greater part of the time he scraped on two or three strings, accompanying every movement of the bow with a motion of the head; bowing almost to the ground, and stamping with his foot whenever a fresh couple were to start.
Ichabod prided himself upon his dancing as much as upon his vocal powers. Not a limb, not a fibre about him was idle; and to have seen his loosely hung frame in full motion, and clattering about the room, you would have thought Saint Vitus himself, that blessed patron of the dance, was figuring before you in person. He was the admiration of all the negroes; who, having gathered, of all ages and sizes, from the farm and the neighborhood, stood forming a pyramid of shining black faces at every door and window, gazing with delight at the scene, rolling their white eye-balls, and showing grinning rows of ivory from ear to ear. How could the flogger of urchins be otherwise than animated and joyous? the lady of his heart was his partner in the dance, and smiling graciously in reply to all his amorous oglings; while Brom Bones, sorely smitten with love and jealousy, sat brooding by himself in one corner.
While certainly not up to modern standards of propriety, this passage is pretty tame by the standards of Irving's time. I'm willing to cut "Uncle Wash" some slack regarding his racial attitudes- he was a product of his time, and in comparison to most of his contemporaries, he seems to have been innocuous. More importantly, this passage underscores the fact that people of African descent have been part of the American fabric since before the U.S. existed. The heart of "Sleepy Hollow Country" is Philipsburg Manor Upper Mills, a food-processing complex (featuring a mill, a dairy, and a bakehouse) that was operated by twenty-three slaves (listed by name along with the cattle and silverware on an inventory drawn up by a probate court when Adolphe Philipse died intestate). Irving makes mention of the mill-pond on a couple of occasions in his story:
The schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle of a rural neighborhood; being considered a kind of idle gentlemanlike personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains, and, indeed, inferior in learning only to the parson. His appearance, therefore, is apt to occasion some little stir at the tea-table of a farmhouse, and the addition of a supernumerary dish of cakes or sweetmeats, or, peradventure, the parade of a silver tea-pot. Our man of letters, therefore, was peculiarly happy in the smiles of all the country damsels. How he would figure among them in the churchyard, between services on Sundays! gathering grapes for them from the wild vines that overrun the surrounding trees; reciting for their amusement all the epitaphs on the tombstones; or sauntering, with a whole bevy of them, along the banks of the adjacent mill-pond; while the more bashful country bumpkins hung sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and address.
The end of the story describes the re-routing of the roadway to its current position by the Philipsburg Manor millpond:
The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire. The bridge became more than ever an object of superstitious awe, and that may be the reason why the road has been altered of late years, so as to approach the church by the border of the mill-pond. The school-house being deserted, soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue; and the ploughboy, loitering homeward of a still summer evening, has often fancied his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.
While I prefer the Walt Disney version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, even though I'm no Disney fan, this silent version of the "legend", with all of its flaws, does include an African-American presence which has largely been erased from the history of the North.