celebrating a sense of place

As autumn fades to winter, people often entertain themselves with stories about ghosts and apparitions. One of the most famous ghost stories of the area – a tale about the Headless Hessian of the Great Swamp – has been told since the time of the Revolutionary War, and it may actually be the inspiration for one of the most famous ghost stories ever told.

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According to a documented account from the late 1770s, three Hessian soldiers were riding through an area of Basking Ridge. Hessians were German mercenaries hired to fight on the side of the British. As these three unfortunate soldiers made their way through the village, townspeople attacked them. One of the soldiers suffered a stab wound through his chest, and the second lost his arm. The third soldier got the worst of it and had his head all but severed from his body, remaining attached by only a few strands of flesh. Tangled in the reins, the Hessian’s lifeless body was carried off into the swamp, still mounted in the saddle of his white horse. The bloodied horse, which succumbed from its own wounds, was later found, but its rider was never located.

Since that day, and right up into present times, people have reported seeing the specter of a horse and its mount, a headless rider, within and along the edges of the Great Swamp – most often in an area aptly named Devil’s Den just west of the Environmental Education Center on Lord Stirling Road. I’ve actually interviewed three people who claim to have seen this frightening vision.

As I mentioned, the ghost of the Headless Hessian has been well known for quite some time, and there is reason to believe that the story may have influenced American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859). While there is a German folktale that may have helped stir Irving’s creativity, there are literary experts who believe it’s completely plausible that the source of Washington Irving’s inspiration sprang from a place closer to home.

Irving spent a good deal of his time living and working in and around New York City, and it’s thought that Irving came across the tale of the Headless Hessian while he was in Morristown on numerous occasions visiting with friends and while conducting research for his books about George Washington. Having become so enamored of the story of this unfortunate, German mercenary, Irving then took it back with him, reset it to take place in 1790 and within the Sleepy Hollow glen of Tarrytown, New York, and ultimately published his short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in 1820. Since then, this tale has grown to become an American favorite and perhaps the most famous ghost story to come out of American literature. It’s since been made into movies and television programs, but it started right here in New Jersey’s Great Swamp.

To make this even more interesting, consider this. At the time of Washington Irving, the Presbyterian Church on the Morristown Green is said to have housed documents pertaining to George Washington’s Revolutionary War encampments in neighboring Jockey Hollow, and it is purported that Irving visited the church in order to do some of his research. While there, Irving may have been inspired to arrive at one of his character’s names for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In your mind’s eye, imaging Washington Irving taking a break from his poring over the historical documents just long enough to stroll through the historic cemetery behind the church. To this day, close to the center of the graveyard stand two stones side-by-side. One is now broken in half, but both bear the inscription “Purchased by Ichabod Crane.”

You can also listen to a musical version of this story. A song titled “The Horseman” is included on my record Providence, which can be accessed and enjoyed at the following link.http://www.gordonthomasward.com/music/providence.html

The Headless Hessian​

Article and photos (except as noted)

by Gordon Thomas Ward