Saturday, October 31, 2015

George Washington, Vampire Slayer!

Excuse the Halloween hyperbole but now that I have your attention I can discuss hauntings in the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies. Truth be told, had I begun the action and adventure series with a book titled, say, "The Marching Dead," I'd be on easy street today. People like to be scared and they prefer the macabre and horrifying over mundane things such as action and intrigue. Just imagine if you will, a tale of a rebel unit massacred while bivouacking at a cemetery. Only this unit of wraiths rises, Zombie-like, whenever the Cause needs them. Imagine still a team of cunning British officers desperately trying to find a way to stop this phantom army's onslaught not realizing that silver, not lead balls would do the trick... what's in your ammo box?

Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn, New York

The American Revolution has more than its share of hauntings and spooky tales. Most of these are known only locally (most hauntings are locally celebrated). And most are tied to places... a Poltergeist-like phenomena. But one legend is a national story of long standing: Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. The original story of Ichibod Crane, the superstitious schoolmaster fearful of the legendary headless horseman of the the Old Dutch Church spooked young and old alike for generations. I recall driving through the tale's setting, Tarrytown New York, with my father as a boy. I was around ten. As we drove south on NY 9, he pointed to the church and cemetery and said, "the Headless Horseman of sleepy Hollow is here, the Hessian's ghost haunts  the cemetery,"  and a chill went down my spine. It was broad daylight in the summer. Imagine how I'd feel on a dark October night? I'm not sure I knew what a Hessian was back then. But he had me at Headless Horseman. The tale evolved as new media brought the story to larger audiences and stretched the original plot to its breaking point. It has been made into radio shows, TV drama, cartoon, and recently a major film (with Johnny Depp) and then a TV series (that stretches the plot to the next galaxy).

The Headless Horseman is the iconic RevWar Spook

Ringwood Manor
The Mid-Atlantic is chock full of RevWar hauntings. In a past Yankee Doodle Spies Blog I discussed the Morris-Jumel house in New York's Harlem and the speculation and tales of its haunting. The Van Cortland Mansion, Greenwood Cemetery (ground zero for the Battle of Long Island - a place the saw the most bloodshed of the war) are other New York venues. Just across the great North River, in Passaic, New Jersey stands Ringwood Manor. This was once the home of General Robert Erskine, who was the geographer for George Washington's army. Later he ran an iron works on the grounds. He's buried near the manor house, and it's said that at dusk he sits on his grave, looking at the pond beyond. Some have reported his ghost walking the grounds, carrying a lantern.There are also French soldiers buried nearby, who fought for the American cause. They, too, come out a night and walk alongside the pond, speaking in French. The house itself is not the original but it has hauntings of its own stemming from the 19th century.

Erskine's ghost haunts Ringwood cemetery

New England, home of the Salem witch trials a century earlier, is no stranger to tales of the macabre. Boston Harbor’s scenic Long Island is home to one of the most tragic Boston ghost stories. At the close of the American Revolution's actions around Boston, the British still had several ships in the harbor, primarily to evacuate Loyal Americans who wished to depart before the rebels seized the city. On board one of these ships were William and Mary Burton. The young couple, ardent Loyalists were among those fleeing. While sailing from the harbor, a shot from the besiegers' battery on Long Island struck Mary in back of the head.

Mary Burton's ghost roams the Long Island Dunes

According to the legend, she lingered on for several days in excruciating pain before dying. In her death throes, Mary allegedly asked her husband not to bury her at sea. After she died, William returned to Long Island to fulfill his love's dying wish. He wrapped her bloodied corpse into a red blanket that Mary owned and buried her under the island's sand dunes. Her headstone was a piece of driftwood  carved with her name.  Before leaving her grave, William swore that he would return some day with a real headstone. He never did. But according to the legend, Mary still waits for him. Over the years visitors to the island report seeing a woman with pallid skin covered in mud in a scarlet cloak walking among the dunes. Many report blood on her cloak and a gaping hole in the back of her head, where the cannon fire had struck her skull.

The South is no stranger to fantastic stories and RevWar hauntings are no exception. Ground zero for this is the site of THE major event of the war itself, Yorktown, Virginia. Here, in October (hmm...) 1781, a desperate British General Charles Cornwallis led his army in the vain expectation that the Royal Navy would extract him from a land now crawling with rebel soldiers and their French allies. Weeks of siege under trying conditions would set the stage for tales of the macabre that linger to this day. The depredations and sufferings of the siege make Yorktown  frightfully haunted. From “Cornwallis’ Cave on the banks of the York River, to Crawford Road – the town is a magnet for urban legends and ghostly tales. Cornwallis’ Cave is has no specific connection to Cornwallis. But legend has it British troops took shelter in the cave to escape the incessant bombardment by Continental and French artillery.

Cornwallis's Cave

Some legends hold that the civilian residents of Yorktown took refuge there. Evidence does show that after the war the cave was probably used by smugglers. It is located along the waterfront. Perhaps they spread haunting tales to keep prying eyes from their lair? There are still reports that voices can be heard at night coming from the dark recesses of the cave. Those who follow such things believe them to be the voices of Revolutionary War soldiers, the moaning of the injured and dying hiding in the cave.

Myths are to cultures what dreams are to people. In a similar way, horror stories are to cultures what nightmares are to people. The eight year war for independence was a nightmare for all involved. The Americans who suffered in rebellion; the Loyalists who lost their homes and property; and the British who lost their empire. It is perhaps only fitting that such a war be the well-spring of myth... and of horror. Have a spooky Halloween.  Stay frightened my friends...

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