Headless Horseman Blog

About historic Sleepy Hollow and its environs…

The Holiday Fish …or… Mutants in the Hudson

By Henry John Steiner

Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

Introducing the tomcod

Before we suburbanites came to Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, and the other river towns, there were the millionaires—our neighborhoods are carved from their estates.  Before them, there were farmers—they displaced (to put it nicely) the Native American farmer/hunters who inhabited these lands for thousands of years. But even before the native people there was the humble tomcod, swimming in the Hudson.


Sleepy Hollow’s December Fish

December has long been the month for tomcod (Microgadus tomcod), also known as the Atlantic tomcod, tommy cod, frostfish, poulamon (French), or winter cod. I wonder how many hungry, bygone residents of our community have sustained themselves on tomcod when there was little else at hand? Few of us give these small creatures a passing thought, or even know that they exist at all. Be that as it may, they are out there now, along the edge of the Hudson—a modest little fish. It is described as an “in-shore fish,” rarely swimming into deep water, sticking to shallows, estuaries, and tributaries. And it loves the cold, being able to tolerate extremely cold temperature and significant fluctuations in water salinity.


Native American Fish Fire-17th century

The similarity and dissimilarity of the tomcod to the codfish

A first sight the tomcod appears to be a miniature codfish. Like the cod, it has a marked “overbite,” with the upper jaw protruding beyond the lower. Both types of fish share a small barbel or filament projecting downward from the chin; both fish also display a pale lateral line along the sides. The most obvious differences between the adult tomcod and the adult cod have to do with size and girth. The tomcod is very much smaller; in fact the record weight of this species is little more than a pound and a quarter, whereas the record size of an Atlantic cod was in excess of 200 pounds before it was commercially fished to less gargantuan proportions. Also, the tomcod is considerably more slender than the cod. There are other subtle differences too. At the risk of getting too technical, in the tomcod the origin of the first dorsal fin aligns approximately with the midpoint of the pectoral fin, while in the codfish this point aligns further forward on the pectoral fin. Additionally, the tomcod’s caudal fin (or tail fin) is more rounded than that of the cod and the tomcod’s eyes are smaller in proportion to the whole.


The Mouth of The Pocantico River in Late Fall

In recent Hudson River lore

In the past six years, there has been important scientific news that affects the desirability of tomcod as quarry. I will get to that in a moment, but first let us reflect a bit on how our community related to the fish in decades gone by.

Whatever local knowledge one needed about fishing—or tomcod—once safely reposed with the late Tony Morabito. Tony was the proprietor of the now extinct Hudson Valley Rod and Gun Shop, formerly located on Beekman Avenue in Sleepy Hollow. He was born-and-bred in Sleepy Hollow and was one of the last to know anything about the lore of tomcod fishing in the Hudson River towns. He and his family fished here and catered to local fishermen for two long generations.


Tony Morabito

Years ago when I first approached Tony on the subject of tomcod, I think he was a little surprised at my sudden curiosity about the “December fish.” It had likely been a long time since anyone had raised the subject with him. Within the last fifty years the tomcod season still figured on the fishing calendar, but today I imagine it would be a rare occurrence to spot even one hardy fisherman angling for them.

There was a time when I carried with me the impression that the best time to hunt tomcod was at night. Tony corrected my notion, indicating that there was nothing magical about nighttime fishing in this case, “When people got out of work it was dark at this time of year—so they fished after sunset.” According to Tony, Thanksgiving signaled the beginning of the season for tomcod, and the season continued until the Hudson iced over. They begin to spawn in late November with their numbers increasing during December. The height of egg production is in January. Their eggs are laid in salt water or brackish water in stream mouths or estuary shoals.


Kingsland Point in the Cold

Local old-timers can still envision the General Motors workers of another era donning their hats and gloves after sunset, grabbing their fishing gear, and heading across the railroad tracks to the Hudson River shoreline. As trains clattered along in the darkness, dosing commuters glanced out of the windows to catch glimpses of silhouetted figures. The tomcod fishermen warmed themselves over driftwood fires lighted in dented, rusty, fifty-gallon drums. During the 1950s, many of the workers at GM were French Canadians who already possessed a well-developed appreciation for this sleek little fish. It was a love they carried with them from their home fishing grounds in Quebec.


GM Workers

I think it was Tony who told me that, in season, tomcod frequent docks and other kinds of under-water structure. To catch them one needs bait, some small hooks, and a lightweight rod. The preferred baits are bits of sandworm or clams. In olden days often two hooks were used to form a tandem rig. The angler must be sure to hide the hook with the bait—evidently the little fish have a well-developed sense of smell that warns them away from metal. A small weight takes the rig to the bottom, and then it is raised up very slightly. When you feel something dancing gently at the end of your line, it is time to pull up.

What emerges looks like a miniature codfish but unlike the imposing cod the tomcod seldom weighs more than a pound. The fish look olive-brown to green on top, with paler coloring underneath; the sides are darkly mottled with spots and blotches.


The Hudson Icing Over

These days anglers have fewer options about what to do with their catch. They can let their fish go, or take them home and put them in an aquarium to watch them for a day or two. In years gone by you could also eat them, but today it is plainly not advisable to eat tomcod from the Hudson River. In the old days, Tony prepared his catch by heading and gutting them, and then frying them in breadcrumbs. I also came across an old Native American recipe that called for simmering the fillets in water seasoned with salt and diced onion.

The tomcod—a mutant rock star

For a number of decades, one of the major concerns with the health of the Hudson River has been the presence of a toxic, chemical pollutant, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The lion share of this pollution originated from two General Electric plants which dumped PCBs into the river in the period from 1947 to c1976. For State of New York advice on what Hudson River fish to eat and what not to eat, see this easy-to-read state pamphlet at:


Hudson River fish contain PCB contamination to a greater or lesser degree. The toxins present in certain species are more likely to be a threat to humans whom consume them. Particularly dangerous are high-fat bottom-dwellers such as eels and catfish. Certain people are more at risk to the effects of eating PCB-affected fish: women of childbearing age and children under fifteen years of age.


The Mutant Rock Star

These days the tomcod is not a very prominent “sports fish,” nor is it considered commercially significant. Most consumption of tomcod is by the anglers who catch them and, as a result, state advisories do not feature specific information about the fish, but tend to lump them in the category known as, “all other species.” But the tomcod is not just another species. Since 2011 it has emerged as a kind of evolutionary rock star. A study from that year published by researchers from New York University and Boston University revealed that tomcod are the first known vertebrates to manifest high-speed, evolutionary, genetic adaptation. In other words, what normally takes vertebrates millennia to accomplish the tomcod has done in the course of half a century. The little fish is a scientific and natural marvel—a natural marvel living under unnatural environmental pressures.

So what has the tomcod done in record-time to the awe of modern science? It has produced with “lightning speed” a genetic modification or mutation, one that favorably affects the fish’s resistance to PCBs. Tomcod in the Hudson River overwhelmingly bear this genetic mutation, and this how it works. Virtually all tomcod in the Hudson River are missing two amino acids in their AHR2 protein. The AHR2 receptor mitigates toxicity in early life. The missing amino acids interfere with the metabolizing of the toxic compound PCB. This enables the fish to store unusually great numbers of PCBs in its fat without becoming ill. Good news for tomcod, bad news for humans who eat tomcod.


The Hudson River’s Tappan Zee

Tomcod range from Virginia to Newfoundland; only Hudson River tomcod appear to have this mutation in such overwhelming numbers. One source suggests that 99% of Hudson River tomcod are “mutants,” whereas only about 5% of Long Island Sound tomcod possess the mutation. This means that the survival rate of Hudson River tomcod to PCB exposure has significantly improved; it also means that that people and fish (such as striped bass) that consume the tomcod are potentially at greater risk. One could say that,more than ever, humans ought not consume tomcod taken from the Hudson River.

So now rather than hunt and eat tomcod, we can hunt and admire them. They go back a long way with us… or we with them. We always knew there was something special about them; we just didn’t know what other special qualities they possessed. No matter what your holiday traditions, it is unlikely that they predate December dinners that human beings have long taken near the Hudson with tomcod as a table offering. This was one of the legacies we were given as residents of the lower Hudson Valley, and with any luck one day it will be a legacy we can enjoy again.

A happy holiday season to all!


©2007-2016 Henry John Steiner

Monhegan Island — an addendum to the Rockwell Kent post

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

Native Tarrytown artist, Rockwell Kent, was both a productive artist and a talented writer.  From time to time I enjoy dipping in to his wonderfully descriptive and often provocative prose.  The other day I stumbled upon his short account of his first visit to Monhegan Island in Maine.  It is taken from his 1955 autobiography, It’s Me O Lord.  In it Rockwell Kent conveys the excitement and anticipation he felt as he stepped ashore and began to explore the island as a young artist in the summer of 1905.  I have never been to Monhegan Island, but Rockwell Kent’s description coupled with his many paintings of the island makes his experience there startlingly vivid for me:



The Island, 1905

Monhegan! We’ve reached the harbor’s mouth; we’ve entered it; we’ve reached the wharf; we’re moored; I’ve jumped ashore. My bag in hand, I race up the hill, and race along the road to the old Brackett House. Two minutes in my room to get out of—what did Miss Libbey call it?—my “stylish suit,” and into an unstylish one; and like a puppy let out of his pen I’m off at a run to see, to climb, to touch and feel this wonder island that I’ve come to.

Hugging the harbor shore, I reached the island’s southwest end where the surf makes suds around the Washerwoman Rock or breaks on Norman’s Ledge; then o to the gully of Gull Rock, and over it to climb the smooth, bald, winter-surf-washed rock itself; and on to Burnt Head; and then down and over a broad waste of boulder-strewn, bare granite ledges to climb the headland, Whitehead, and from its hundred-and-fifty-foot height look far out to sea toward Africa and England. It was so vast, so beautiful that clear blue day, with the green grass and dandelions at my feet! And Blackhead, its twin headland seen from there in all its mass and dignity of form, Blackhead, its dark face splotched with gleaming guano! Then on again over the intervening minor headlands and the gullies tangled with the debris of fire and storm, and through such tangles up and over Blackhead; and down again—real climbing now to pass the rocky gorges—to the massive giant granite cube of Pulpit Rock. And then at last, like a quiet passage in a thunderous symphony, a sheltered harbor after storm, the gentle, grassy slopes of Green Point, still thickly starred with the blossoms of strawberries to be. And the seal ledges and their happy denizens—sunning themselves or slithering and diving off the rocks as though in sport, the water dotted with their almost human heads. Then on to Deadman’s Cove and its lone fish-house outpost of the settlement. And always, looking inland from the shore there was the dark spruce forest, another world, a deeply solemn world that I should come to know.

Unlike most New England villages, Monhegan had no plan, no straight, broad, elm-bordered avenue faced by the houses in their white-fenced yards; there was no avenue, there were no trees, there were no picket fences. No one had ever “laid out” Monhegan; it just grew. And past the random houses wandered a narrow road, a track first worn there by the oxen of other days and now kept open by the one-horse, drop-axle wagon that was the island’s sole conveyance.


The harbor of Monhegan was formed by an adjacent smaller island, stark, treeless, whale-back-shaped Manana, and lay open to the southwest wind and seas. On the Monhegan shore of the harbor, and mainly clustered around the wharf and two small beaches, stood the fish houses, most of them two-storied structures with runways leading to the lofts. Unpainted and weather-beaten, they proclaimed to eyes—and nose!—the island’s industry. So too did every foot of intervening ground occupied, as it was in summer, by the drying-flakes for cod, and by the pyramids of lobsters traps and heaps of painted buoys withdrawn for the season.


Monhegan: its rockbound shores, its towering headlands, the thundering surf with gleaming crests and emerald eddies, its forest and its flowering meadowlands; the village, quaint and picturesque; the fish houses, evoking in their dilapidation those sad thoughts on the passage of time and the transitoriness of all things human so dear to the artistic soul; and the people, those hardy fisherfolk, those men garbed in their sea boots and their black or yellow oilskins, those horny-handed sons of toil—shall I go on? No, that’s enough. It was enough for me, enough for all of my fellow artists, for all of us who sought “material” for art. It was enough to start me off to such feverish activity in painting as I had never known.

[From Rockwell Kent’s, It’s Me O Lord]

Captain Mackenzie’s Sleepy Hollow Home

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

Talented, well connected, intelligent, mild, affable, diligent, pious, and, above all—controversial.   All these things could be said of the man whose order inspired Billy Budd, the dark, short masterpiece of American literary giant, Herman Melville. Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie was born in New York City and began his naval career before he was twelve years old. During the last eight years of his life, 1840-1848, he made his home at the northern limits of Sleepy Hollow. Today that place is called Rockwood Hall or Rockwood.


Mackenzie the Writer

Mackenzie was a productive writer and an accomplished naval officer. His literary friends included Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Fennimore Cooper (until Mackenzie and Cooper fell out). A few hundred yards to the south of Mackenzie’s Sleepy Hollow farm was the estate of the wealthy and influential newspaperman, James Watson Webb—a place that was once called Pokahoe, or later, the Fremont estate. Ocean-going writer, Richard Henry Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast, was another literary acquaintance of the commander. Mackenzie’s second in command at the most critical moment of his career was Guert Gansevoort—the cousin of American novelist Herman Melville—author of what many scholars believe to be the “Great American Novel,” Moby Dick.

Washington Irving in later years

Washington Irving in later years

It was in Spain between 1826 and 1827 that Mackenzie began close friendships with Washington Irving and American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. With Irving, Mackenzie discussed the notion of turning his personal journal of Spain into a first book. Irving endorsed the idea and the result was A Year in Spain (1829). Irving would generously assist the younger author in producing a successful London edition of the book. America’s leading author of that age actually took pen in hand to make stylistic improvements to Mackenzie’s manuscript. Irving wrote to his friend that these changes were “petty corrections which will be of service to you hereafter in point of style.” The unselfish Washington Irving, acting as a copy editor! But Irving had already garnered a service from his friend; Mackenzie, then a lieutenant in the U. S. Navy, had provided Irving with valuable nautical information to be used in an ambitious biography of Christopher Columbus.

The Navy and Marriage

Commodore Matthew C. Perry

Commodore Matthew C. Perry

Mackenzie’s naval and political circle was prominent and influential. It included his brother-in-law Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Secretary of the Navy Abel Upshur, and Mackenzie’s brother John Slidell, a leading congressman, senator, and diplomat. Commodore Perry had married Mackenzie’s older sister Jane, in 1814, and it appears that through this marriage tie Mackenzie had sailed, as a twelve-year-old midshipman, with both Commodore Perrys—Matthew C. Perry and Oliver Hazard Perry. The latter of the two was a national hero, the victor of the decisive naval Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.

On October 1, 1835, Mackenzie himself married Catherine Alexander Robinson, the daughter of Morris Robinson, a prosperous New York City banker and lawyer. They lived together in Manhattan, and during the late 1830s Mackenzie was assigned to several lengthy voyages far from home—his travels took him from Russia to Brazil. His record shows that during this time he acquitted himself well under challenging circumstances. Upon his return to New York he and his wife Catherine decided to look for a home in the country north of Manhattan. They chose to settle down on a Hudson River farm just north of today’s Sleepy Hollow.

The view southwest from roughly where Mackenzie's farmhouse stood

The view southwest from roughly where Mackenzie’s farmhouse stood

The Mackenzie farm at Rockwood was formerly part of the expansive Gerard G. Beekman farm. In that day the Beekman place comprised most of what we know today as the incorporated Village of Sleepy Hollow. In early 1840, Mackenzie purchased roughly twenty acres from Cornelia Beekman (the widow of Gerard G. Beekman) to establish his family’s small holding on the Hudson River’s Tappan Zee. His friend, Washington Irving, had bought a riverside home only five years earlier; “Sunnyside” stood just four miles to the south. The family of Commodore Matthew C. Perry and Mackenzie’s sister, Jane, owned the portion of Rockwood immediately north of Mackenzie’s farm.

The farmhouse of Alexander and Catherine Mackenzie was evidently located very near the scanty remains (still visible) of the William Rockefeller mansion at Rockwood Hall. According to Washington Irving the farmhouse was neat and modest in size, and another visitor, Dr. Francis Lieber, noted that a window of the house, “looks upon the noble Hudson, down nearly to N. York…” Dr. Lieber was a nineteenth-century German-American jurist and political philosopher whose work on the rules of war was to serve as the basis for what we know as the Geneva Convention.

Mackenzie’s social connections and excellent naval record led him to steady promotions—not easy in time of peace—midshipman, lieutenant, and commander. His literary career also continued under good sail: A Year in Spain (1831), Popular Essays on Naval Subjects (1833), Spain Revisited (1936), The American In England (1836), The Life of [John] Paul Jones (1841), The Life of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (1841), and The Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur (1946).

Home at Sleepy Hollow

When Washington Irving visited the Mackenzie farm in 1841, he was impressed by the domestic industry of Mackenzie and by the hospitality, beauty, and unpretentious nature of Mackenzie’s wife. He also, in a letter to one of his nieces, remarked on the humbleness of the couple’s abode. Of Mrs. Mackenzie’s generous spirit and readiness to receive family members for extended stays at her modest home, Irving wrote, “One would think her mansion was as large as her heart….” Indeed, an American naval officer did not earn much in 1841, yet the Mackenzie’s farmhouse was a happy, contented home. Irving noted, “…he only wants a little money to make him one of the happiest of mortals. Indeed, when I saw him seated by his fireside, with his wife beside him and his bright-looking child on his knee. I would not have exchanged his lot for the richest man of my acquaintance….”

“The Somers Affair”

Midshipman Philip Spencer

Midshipman Philip Spencer

But that was 1841. In 1842, something was to occur that would cast a cloud on the remainder of Mackenzie’s life. There is an ominous foreshadowing of events to come in Mackenzie’s first book. A brief portion of Mackenzie’s Spanish travelogue and its sequel display an unusual—one might say—morbid interest in public executions. He described a public hanging in the following terms. “It was sure to be a spectacle full of horror and painful excitement…. I felt sad and melancholy, and yet, by a strange perversion, I was ready to feel more so.” The action that Mackenzie took in 1842 would shock the American public in a way unknown since the 1804 death of Alexander Hamilton at the hands of Aaron Burr; the public would not experience such shock and outrage again until the death of Lincoln in 1865. The episode of Mackenzie’s life alluded to here is known in American history as the “Somers Affair.”

In December of 1842, Mackenzie ordered, without trial, the execution of Philip Spencer, the eighteen-year-old son of the United States Secretary of War. Philip Spencer was hanged on the high seas, charged with conspiring to mutiny. Incredible as it seems, the youth’s father, John C. Spencer, was a sitting member of President John Tyler’s cabinet. The father, stern and testy, was considered one of the most gifted attorneys of his time. Before becoming secretary of war, the elder Spencer had served as an able special prosecutor, a member of Congress, speaker of the New York Assembly, and New York Secretary of State. He would subsequently serve as United States Secretary of the Treasury. How did the son of such a man come to be hanged for mutiny?

Secretary of War, John Canfield Spencer

Secretary of War, John Canfield Spencer

Young Philip Spencer was a troubled youth, sullen, unruly, difficult, and with an appearance that was noted for two unusual features, a disproportionally large nose and eyes that diverged to the sides. It was said that he had a tendency to become intoxicated when on shore leave and to behave churlishly with his peers. Spencer was once described as the least popular midshipman in his naval squadron, and he was avoided by other junior officers. In spite of being unruly and problematic, Philip was shielded by his superiors. He was more than once saved from dismissal from the service by senior officers, who were naturally cautious of Spencer’s politically formidable father. Even Commodore Matthew Perry, the brother-in-law of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, ruled that the youth be given yet another chance, thus setting up Mackenzie, the youth’s future commander, for a giant career misstep. Mackenzie proved himself to be no coddler of the strangely eccentric young man.

Prior to directing Philip Spencer into the navy as a midshipman, Spencer’s father had attempted twice to start his son off in college, first at Geneva College and then Union College. In neither case did Philip make any academic headway, so the father withdrew him from one college after the other. It seems that Philip Spencer’s one college achievement was the founding of a fraternity—Chi Psi—and during his college days the youth continued to expand his interest in pirate stories.

While on the maiden voyage of Mackenzie’s ship, the Somers, the intransigent midshipman spoke secretly to a few members of Mackenzie’s crew about a real or fancied design to take over Mackenzie’s ship, the U. S. Brig of War, Somers. Mackenzie later stated that he felt bound to take the threat seriously due to the crowded conditions on the vessel and uncertainty about exactly how much Spencer had corrupted the crew. After a brief informal investigation at sea, Mackenzie ordered the hanging of Spencer and two of the young man’s alleged co-conspirators. Two weeks later the Somers landed in New York.

Execution of the three alleged mutineers on the Somers

Execution of the three alleged mutineers on the Somers

A naval inquiry cleared Mackenzie, after which a court martial found Mackenzie not guilty of murder and other charges, but the verdict of Mackenzie’s well-disposed peers fell far short of endorsing his conduct, and questions lingered. Why had the ship’s captain not brought the suspects back to New York? Why had he not allowed them a trial before hanging them? Mackenzie pleaded the difficulty of the moment and a conviction that the plot would be successful if strong action was not taken immediately. His cadre of very young junior officers had concurred with their captain’s decision, but possibly under pressure from their captain. The ship’s log testifies that there was an abnormally high number of floggings administered to the crew during this overcrowded first voyage of the Brig of War Somers, causing us in the twenty-first century to wonder whether the captain of the ship may not have been sadistic and mentally unstable. Yet even Richard Henry Dana, who wrote the most famous call for humanitarian nautical reform in the interest of American seamen, said of Mackenzie after the Somers Affair that he carried “every mark of a humane, conscientious man.”


Novelist Herman Melville whose work "Billy Budd" was based on the Somers Affair

Novelist Herman Melville whose work “Billy Budd” was based on the Somers Affair

In the April of 1843, Mackenzie was found not guilty, and he went home to Sleepy Hollow. The harsh memories of the “Somers Affair” began to fade. His friends closed ranks and sent him their good wishes, but others voiced their dissatisfaction with the trial’s outcome. Mackenzie settled down to write the biography of naval hero, Stephen Decatur, which was published in 1846. He planted more trees and shrubs at his Hudson River farm and socialized with his prestigious circle. No doubt he visited his brother-in-law, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who owned the next parcel of land to the north, between the small hamlet of Archville (where the Old Croton Aqueduct crosses Route 9) and the Hudson River.

In October, 1846, Washington Irving, came to call again. America’s aging man of letters was newly returned from his assignment as United States Ambassador to Spain. He wrote of Mackenzie’s farm, “The house [was] more respectable in appearance than I had supposed it capable of being.” Mackenzie was “likely to have a poor man’s fortune, a house full of children.” His farm, then as now, offered its superb views of the Hudson River. The Hudson River Railroad had not yet come through but was expected soon. The Old Croton Aqueduct had been completed just four years before. When Irving stopped by the commander was absent. He had been sent on official business to Havana, to participate in secret talks with the once-and-future Mexican dictator, Santa Anna. Apparently Mackenzie’s fluent command of Spanish recommended him for the job. During the same fall of 1846, Mackenzie’s former command, the Somers, sank in a gale while performing blockade duty off Vera Cruz, in the Mexican War.

The wreck of the Somers during the Mexican War

The wreck of the Somers during the Mexican War

In 1847, Mackenzie himself served in the Mexican War, returning home in the spring of 1848. He died a few months later, on September 13, 1848, while out on horseback. He was forty-five. Edgar Mayhew Bacon, an early historian of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, relates that Mackenzie suffered a heart attack while riding in Sing Sing (Ossining) and the horse returned home with its dead master upon it. His funeral was held at St. Marks Church in Manhattan two days after his death.


Period map showing Mackenzie's parcel labeled as "E. Bartlett"

Period map showing Mackenzie’s parcel labeled as “E. Bartlett”

Mrs. Mackenzie and her five children left their farm on the Hudson and went to live with relatives in Morristown, New Jersey. Exactly how the Sleepy Hollow farm was disposed of is not clear. We find maps showing that, within two or three years, a new owner named Edwin Bartlett had taken possession of the place. One local history indicates that the Bartlett family lived briefly in the old farmhouse, until the completion of a new, more substantial residence near it. The property then came into the hands of Bartlett’s business partner, the great railroad builder, William Henry Aspinwall—the businessman behind the construction of the Panama Canal. Aspinwall’s son, General Lloyd Aspinwall, is said to have been the next owner. The estate was purchased (apparently upon the sudden death of Lloyd Aspinwall) in 1886 by William Rockefeller, brother and business partner of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. William Rockefeller (according to a website at the Rockefeller Archives) either had his mansion built from scratch or substantially modified the existing mansion which had been created earlier for Edwin Bartlett.

Two of the Mackenzie sons became military officers. The eldest of the Mackenzie children, Ranald Mackenzie, became a noted Union cavalry general during the Civil War. He is reputed to have been the most effective general in the West during the Indian Wars of the latter nineteenth century. He was also reputed to be an arch-disciplinarian whose troops referred to him as “the perpetual punisher.” Ranald’s younger brother, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, Jr., became a lieutenant commander in the U. S. Navy. He was killed in battle, leading an attack against natives on the Island of Taiwan (then known as Formosa) in 1867. The chain of events that lead him into action is known as the “Rover Incident.”

In considering Alexander Slidell Mackenzie and the Somers Affair, we are left with a number of questions that are difficult to answer. Among them: Was Mackenzie justified in his actions? Was Philip Spencer genuinely plotting a mutiny? How did the Somers Affair color the relationship between Mackenzie and his brother-in-law (and neighbor), Matthew C. Perry? How did life unfold for Mrs. Mackenzie after the death of her husband, and what kind of help did she receive raising her five children? What became of Mackenzie’s grave at Saint Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery? The Mackenzie home was apparently too diminutive to appear on period maps; was it already standing when Mackenzie bought the property, or was the home built at the time of the Mackenzie’s purchase of the land?


©2006-2016 Henry John Steiner

Open Houses at the Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse

Open Houses at the Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse in 2016

With Sleepy Hollow Village Historian Henry John Steiner

Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse

Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse

Alternate Sundays,  May – October 2016

2016 Open House Dates:

May 8, 22                  August 14, 28

June 5, 19                  September 11, 25

July 3, 17, 31              October 9, 23

Dates may be subject to change due to weather or other unforeseen circumstances, so please check the Sleepy Hollow Tarrytown Community Channel on Facebook for confirmation that the lighthouse will indeed be open . The website can be found at:


Lighthouse Tours between 1 PM – 3 PM. The lighthouse can be accessed through Kingsland Point Park, Sleepy Hollow, which is adjacent to the Phillpse Manor Metro North Train Station. There is usually a per-car parking fee for entering Kingland Point Park. Folks interested in touring the lighthouse should walk along the path around the former GM site to the lighthouse. The lighthouse is a 6-story structure, which was decommissioned about 1960 and once served as living quarters for its past lighthouse keepers. There are narrow spiral staircases that lead to the bell deck, which offers spectacular views of the Hudson River and Palisades, as well as the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge.

Bring your own lunch, if you wish, to enjoy at the park. There are picnic tables, a playground, and bathroom facilities at Kingsland Point Park.

Admission to the lighthouse is by donation. Suggested donations are $2/adult; $1/child over 5 years

Come dressed for the weather and in sturdy, comfortable shoes.

There may be a lot of walking involved.


The Mystery of “M. E. J.” or Insanity, Suicide, and Grief in the Gilded Age


By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

About 9:30 PM, Friday night, June 20, 1891, a home owner named Abraham Anderson saw her walking by his house in Croton. Whether she walked directly to the Hudson River, or waited until morning is unclear. Shortly after 9 AM, Philip Schnell arrived at his waterfront brickyard and noticed a woman’s straw hat and veil out on the dock. He dragged the water with a rake and discovered the clothed body of a “handsome” young woman.

Our ideas of the 1890s in America tend to call up images of decadence and high living among the “captains and kings” of industry and society. There is, however, another less familiar side to that picture, one that reveals the lives of workers and “ordinary people.” These are lives referenced in the period literature of novelist Theodore Dreiser and journalist Jacob Riis among others. The Gay Nineties predated the development of modern psychiatry and the use of antibiotics; it was the height of the industrial revolution, confronting Americans with accelerating social changes.

The Mystery Woman, M.E.J.

The Mystery Woman, M.E.J.

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Native Son—Rockwell Kent

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

The solitary figure in an austere landscape is the emblem of Rockwell Kent’s rugged individualism. Kent’s work is homage to the mystic power and beauty found in both man and nature. The “elemental” reigned supreme in the artist’s view of life, nature, and his art. One familiar example of this theme is the bookplate he designed for the Warner Library about 1947. A man stands, book in hand, near the crest of a hill; the wide Tappan Zee and the hills of Nyack lie in the background. This image and Kent’s distinctive artistic style were etched into my memory from the time I first borrowed a book from the Warner Library as a young child. As I recall, there was a time when Kent’s bookplate was pasted into the endpaper of nearly every book in the library.

 The scenes of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown are no match for the stark drama of Tierra del Fuego, Alaska, Newfoundland, and Greenland, which fills much of Kent’s work, but these Hudson Valley hills served as the artist’s spiritual incubator. The man was a set of contradictions, a sociable introvert, a cantankerous sentimentalist, a mix of Victorian formality and radical non-conformity, an avowed socialist whose patrons included corporations and the wealthy. This strange mix would lead to a kind of artistic and political rejection during his lifetime; some might call it a suicide, others a crucifixion.

young Rockwell Kent

Young Rockwell Kent

Rockwell Kent was born in Pocantico Hills on June 21, 1882 in the gatehouse of the Grosvenor Lowery estate, “Solitude.” Kent’s father, Rockwell Kent, Sr., was a young partner in Lowery’s prestigious law firm. Kent’s mother, Sarah Ann Holgate, was the estranged adoptive daughter of James Banker, a very wealthy associate of Commodore Vanderbilt. Kent wrote in his book, It’s Me O Lord (1955), that his parents met at the Lowery estate when James Banker asked his adoptive daughter to accompany him at a meeting with Lowery and Thomas Edison, regarding one of Edison’s inventions. The Lowery estate was near the end of Copcutt Road in Pocantico Hills. Sarah grew up amid the luxuries of the Banker estate which was located next to Sunnyside, but she thwarted her adoptive father’s wishes when she chose to marry Rockwell Kent, Sr.

It is not clear whether Sarah was a formally adopted by Banker. Sarah Holgate’s parents were still living, but she was sent to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle, James and Josephine Banker. The Bankers’ son had died in childhood. Sarah recalled that Mrs. Banker would have preferred taking in her younger sister, Ellen Josephine Holgate (the artist’s “Auntie Jo”).  James H. Banker was vice president of the Bank of New York and an associate of Cornelius Vanderbilt in the formation of the New York Central Railroad, among other projects.

The Kents were married in New York on July 17, 1881. Rockwell Kent, Sr. had been born in Brooklyn in 1853 and was to become a partner in the firm of Lowery, Stone, and Auerbach.  A year after the artist’s birth, the Kent family purchased a neo-Tudor house on Cobb Lane at the east corner of Oak Avenue where they lived affluently. Kent later wrote, “What home, sweet home that was to us!” When Kent was five, his father died of typhoid fever after returning from a business trip to Honduras. This left Sarah Kent with three children (Rockwell, Douglas, and Dorothy) and no income. Ironically, she would have inherited half a fortune two years earlier had she remained on good terms with her now-deceased adoptive father, James Banker. Banker had died in 1885, and Rockwell Kent later asserted that his mother had once actually been written into Banker’s will as heir to half his estate. According to Scharf’s history of Westchester County, Banker was said to be one of the wealthiest men in New York prior to the Panic of 1873. The Banker mansion and estate had previously belonged to Moses Hicks Grinnell (d. Nov. 1878) who was married to a niece of Washington Irving.

Sarah’s family was regularly exposed to the grudging patronage of her widowed adoptive mother, Josephine Banker. Kent wrote that Mrs. Banker was, “more… a niggardly patroness of poor relations than a woman reunited to a niece who had for years been as a daughter. Clara Ann Holgate, Sarah Kent’s natural mother, came to help with the household and the raising of the children.

Moby Dick illustration by Rockwell Kent

From Rockwell Kent’s illustrated version of Moby Dick


The Kent household was reduced to a kind of gentile poverty, but Rockwell was nonetheless sent to private schools. He recalled lonely early years; his mother did not want him to socialize with children from town, and few other peers availed themselves. He excelled in penmanship and mechanical drawing. At ten years of age, he was sent to a “strict” boarding school in Sleepy Hollow. Dr. John M. Furman had taken over the Irving Institute at the corner of Elm and Pocantico Streets in 1891. Kent recalled, “I don’t think it was much of a school, either by what it stood for or what […] it accomplished.” On Sundays the Kents attended services at Christ Church in Tarrytown. There, Rockwell took Sunday school lessons with Mr. Humphreys, the cashier of Tarrytown National Bank.

By 1893 it appears that the Kents’ Cobb Lane house had changed hands. Whether the family continued to live there as tenants or moved to some other house in the neighborhood is unclear. In 1895, at the age of thirteen, Kent boarded at Horace Mann School in New York. That summer his mother’s sister, “Jo” Holgate, a talented amateur artist, invited him to Europe for an art tour that included London, Dresden, and The Hague. Ellen Josephine Holgate was once an art student of Abbott Thayer. According to Scott R. Ferris, she introduced Kent to Thayer and also arranged for Kent’s first one-man show at Clausen Galleries in New York. Ferris’ essay, “Generations: The Artistic Heritage of Rockwell Kent,” provides an interesting examination of artistic impulse and practice among Kent’s descendants; Resource Library Magazine, November 18, 2002.

Two years after his European trip with Auntie Jo, Rockwell Kent was helping to augment family finances by hand-painting ceramics, a technique he learned in Dresden with Aunt Jo. The pieces were sold at the Tarrytown Woman’s Exchange.

In the summer of 1898, the teenager found work under the kind and guiding hand of William Humphreys, his erstwhile Sunday school teacher. Kent was paid three dollars per week as a summer worker at the Tarrytown National Bank, corner of Orchard and Main. In his 1955 autobiography he recalls, “Typewriters and adding machines may at that time have been in general use, but not in Tarrytown.” One day the sixteen year old was asked to deliver a stack of papers to the village treasurer on Main Street. Kent managed to lose several thousand dollars of negotiable coupons on his two-block journey. Although the coupons were later recovered, the incident cast a gloom on the youth’s banking prospects.

Mrs Kent's Home on Wilson Park Drive, Tarrytown

The Tarrytown home Sarah Kent had built about 1904, Photo, Henry John Steiner.

In 1900 Kent won a four-year scholarship to Columbia University’s School of Architecture, but he would not finish his course of study there. In 1903 Sarah Kent received a small inheritance from her former adoptive mother, more than enough to build a house, still standing, at 209 Wilson Park Drive in Tarrytown; the house was completed in 1904. The design of the house involved an architect friend of Kent’s named Ewing; the commission was said to have launched Ewing’s firm Ewing and Chappell, where Kent earned some money as a draughtsman.

Kent shares details of a chance encounter about this time with John D. Rockefeller, Sr., his “next-door neighbor once removed.” The young man was walking his mare toward the Rockefeller trails and happened to pass the richest man in the world while he was in the act of putting on one of his golf greens. Rockefeller looked up and said, “Will you please get off the grass.” Kent observes that the request, though politely framed, was clearly a command. Coincidentally, it was in 1904 that the artist attended his first socialist meeting, joining one of the two socialist “locals” in Tarrytown. It was also in 1904 that Kent sold his first painting.

Garage apartment built by Rockwell Kent

Garage apartment built by Kent behind house of Sarah Kent, about 1937. Photo, Henry John Steiner.

The budding artist studied under a number of masters, summers with William Merritt Chase (1900-1903), Abbot Thayer (1903), and Robert Henri (1905). It was Henri who invited the artist to Monhegan Island, ten miles off the coast of Maine, where Kent would remain for most of the next six years, painting, lobstering, and running an art school. In 1908, he married Kathleen Whiting, a relation of artist Abbott Thayer. Kent and Whiting would have five children together: Rockwell III (b.1909), Kathleen (b.1911), Clara (b.1913), Barbara (b.1915), and Gordon (b.1920). In 1914, the family settled briefly in Newfoundland, but Kent’s penchant for flaunting his fluency in German, learned in childhood from an Austrian nanny, got him deported.

Rockwell Kent was divorced twice and married three times. His wives were Kathleen Whiting (1908-1925), Francis Lee (1926-1939), and Shirley (Sally) Johnstone (1940). Kent was an avid traveler, but in 1927 established a permanent homestead on a farm in AuSable, New York. Kent’s small-scale commercial dairy farm (200 acres) was named Asgaard Farm. His political views led to a boycott that resulted in Kent’s transfer of the dairy business to the farm’s employees in 1948. The house was destroyed by fire in 1969 and rebuilt. Buying the AuSable farm and home did not deter Kent from sailing himself to Greenland in 1929 and surviving a shipwreck on its cold and desolate shore. He traveled there on two other occasions in the 1930s.

Kent's Bookplate for the Warner Library

Kent’s Bookplate for the Warner Library

Kent’s mother died in 1947, the year she presented the Warner Library with Kent’s bookplate mentioned in the first paragraph of this piece. It is not clear how much time in the intervening years he spent in Tarrytown. One source tells us that in 1937 he built an apartment for his daughter, Clara, behind his mother’s Wilson Park home; Clara was apparently the only one of Kent’s children to live locally. After the death of Sarah Kent, Clara and her husband, Charles A. Pearce (a partner in the publishing firm of Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, one of Kent’s publishers), moved with their two daughters to 145 Neperan Road in Tarrytown. The house was previously owned by “Auntie Jo” Holgate. (Holgate was already living there in 1915 according to a local directory.) The Neperan Road house was sold in 1971. We find that Kent’s daughter Clara died locally in 1975, at 40 Pintail Road. It appears that in 2003 Clara’s daughter, Ellen, was an artist living in Missouri; she was raised in Tarrytown and at one time alluded to a severing of relations between her mother and her grandfather, Rockwell Kent. Sarah Kent’s house on Wilson Park Drive was bought by the James Buckley family and then by the Philip Dodge family, who sold it in 1989.

The home of "Auntie Jo" on Neperan Road, Tarrytown

“Auntie Jo” Holgate’s house on Neperan Road, later occupied by

the family of Clara Kent Pearson. Photo, Henry John Steiner.

In 1948, Rockwell Kent ran as a congressional candidate for the National Labor Party. In 1950, the U. S. government revoked his passport, and in 1953 he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A protracted court battle ensued, resulting in a 1958 Supreme Court decision to reinstate Kent’s passport. Two years later the defiant artist donated a major collection of his work to the Soviet Union.

“After many years of declining reputation in this country and unsuccessful attempts to find a home for the Kent Collection, Kent gave his unsold paintings—the majority of his oeuvre—to the Soviet Union, where he continued to be immensely popular.” This according to archivists Catherine Stover and Lisa Lynch, “A Finding Aid to the Rockwell Kent Papers, ca. 1840-1993, in the Archives of American Art.” The Kent Collection is said to include more than 80 paintings and 800 watercolors.

In 1967, Rockwell Kent was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. He died in Plattsburgh, New York, in 1971, and was buried at Asgaard Farm. Kent was a prolific artist and writer. His papers are deposited in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. One of his paintings hangs in The Warner Library at Tarrytown.

Moonlight Sleigh Ride by Rockwell Kent

Winter scene of Asgaard Farm


©2006-2016 Henry John Steiner



The Last Days of Washington Irving

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York


A Genius for Writing

Washington Irving

Washington Irving


I tend to see Washington Irving as a master of Literature’s Classical Age as well as its Romantic Age. His style might be called a hybrid of those two epochs. It is difficult to say exactly how Irving emerged in Federal America with such a strong and polished voice on only a basic education. He seemed to have been born fully-formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, a product of the American consciousness, but with unmistakable British overtones. These he took no pains to conceal. I think Irving can hardly be censured for turning to British models when we consider the spare American literary legacy that was his—the moralizing of Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin. Washington Irving’s youthful, satirical writings in Salmagundi and Knickerbocker’s History of New York displayed a brilliant and confident style indebted to Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, and perhaps Pope and Johnson. Those who do not think of Irving as also a Romantic need only turn to his writings on the Hudson River and spirit of Christmas. His achievement was greatly admired by the writers of his time, both home and abroad.


The Last Hours

Sunnyside Brook a.k.a. Biseghtick Creek (by Lossing)

Sunnyside Brook a.k.a. Biseghtick Creek (by Lossing)

At about eleven o’clock in the morning on Monday, November 28, 1859, Washington Irving went for a walk along the Sunnyside Brook outside his home. He returned to the house experiencing his now chronic difficulty with breathing and with depression. A favorite neighbor, Mrs. H___, dropped by for a short chat. Irving had his midday dinner with the rest of his household, and he napped a while before teatime. In the late afternoon he was still depressed, but he conversed with his brother, his nieces, and his nephews as they all admired the sunset from the first-floor windows at Sunnyside. Irving retired to his bedroom about 10:30 P.M. and was preparing for bed when he gasped, clutched his left side, and fell backward, unconscious. The family called a local doctor and tried to revive Irving, but to no avail. America’s most famous author was dead.

Washington Irving had returned to the United States in September of 1846, after serving four years as U. S. Minister to Spain. He was sixty-three years old at that time, and he retired permanently to his home at Sunnyside. His older brother, Ebenezer, and some of Ebenezer’s family had resided there since joining Irving in 1838.


Illness and the Final Book

Irving's Study

Irving’s Study

The writer had one more ambitious literary project in mind, a biography of George Washington. This was to be Irving’s main literary occupation during his final twelve years. By the time the task was done, Irving was extremely nervous and exhausted—incapable of any further creative effort during the last six months of his life. He was habitually an attentive, lively, and entertaining correspondent, but in his last months he was seldom calm enough to write to even his best friends. This was not the Washington Irving that the public loved and regarded so highly; neither was it the relaxed, easy-going man so well known to his family and intimate friends.

Although Irving managed to complete his Life of Washington, the question could be asked, “Was it necessary?” He had previously shown himself to be an accomplished biographer, producing excellent biographies of Oliver Goldsmith and Christopher Columbus, yet, the new work was certainly not one that demanded Irving’s unique abilities. There were other writers who were capable of slogging through the mountain of data required to produce a biography of Washington, and regrettably the enterprise failed to reconnect Irving with his long since faded interest in the creative, the fictional, and the personal in his work. The biography of Washington, though displaying many emblems of Irving’s famous style, was soon to be superseded by more modern and “scientific” biographies.

In conversations with his nephew, Pierre, Washington Irving seemed convinced that the protracted effort of writing the five-volume biography of George Washington had shattered his nerves. In December of 1858, about one year before Irving’s death, he invited his nephew, Pierre M. Irving, and Pierre’s wife, Helen Dodge Irving, to join the extended family assembled at Sunnyside. Irving was nervous, sleepless, and short of breath. Pierre Irving had assisted the writer with various literary projects and the younger man was extremely helpful to his uncle during the writing and publishing of the George Washington biography. During his lifetime Irving selected Pierre to be his own official biographer, and Pierre recorded much of what we know of Irving’s last months and days.


Hounded and Unsettled



For so much of his life, Irving was nearly unflappable, good-natured, and easy-going, but in his last year, we find him being “careful of myself.” He was fearful and unsettled at night, often requesting his nephew or one of his nieces to sit with him or read to him late at night. For months he refrained from visiting New York City. Although he willingly received visits from family and close friends, he was uncharacteristically reluctant to see strangers, not trusting his own agitated state. Still, he received them. The unannounced autograph hunters were a petty but frequent annoyance. Irving usually accommodated them, unless he felt too nerve-wracked to hold a pen.

In the spring of his last year, Irving told his nephew that it is “so singular and unaccountable that [I] should be distressed in this way.” He observed that he had no worries, nothing on his mind, no financial concerns, and no concerns about his literary achievements. Those who are familiar with Irving’s life and works may also find this condition unaccountable. We may understand that, at this point, the man was nearing the end of his life, but he did not appear to suffer from great physical impairment. Yet, it does appear that there may have been a connection between his frayed nerves and his disabling attacks of asthma. Pierre occasionally overheard his uncle mutter a wish that it all would end.

By September of 1859, Irving felt well enough to visit a friend in Orange County. He also took the train to the New York City one day. In this month the author would receive as many as twenty visitors on a given day. Pierre and the other family members were willing to shield Irving from the onslaught of well-wishers and autograph seekers, but it seemed unclear to them how much emotional stress the famous author could endure. Typically evenings at Sunnyside saw the author playing whist, backgammon, and chess with family members. During the day Irving was fond of visiting the gardener’s house and talking with the gardener’s children.

Christ Episcopal Church (in Tarrytown) was another regular part of Irving’s routine. He served as a warden and vestryman, attending Sunday services and weekday vestry meetings. Gone were the days when he would walk the two miles to the brick church, he now regularly took a carriage when leaving the grounds of Sunnyside.


The Final Days

Irving's Grave

Irving’s Grave

Three weeks before his death, Irving visited New York City for the last time. During the month of November, he was still receiving brief visits from literary admirers, and he was still troubled by insistent autograph seekers. He also continued to experience chronic asthma.

When Washington Irving died at the age of seventy-six, New York mourned. Flags throughout the city were hung at half-mast, banks closed for the day, and a large number of people traveled to Tarrytown on December 1st to attend the funeral—a warm, Indian summer day. Nearly a thousand people who could not fit inside Christ Church crowded outside. A procession of 150 carriages escorted the body to the Irving plot in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Irving had stipulated that the bulk of his estate would go to his aged brother, Ebenezer, and those of Ebenezer’s daughters who were as yet unmarried. When Pierre M. Irving completed his uncle’s biography, in 1863, the earnings from Washington Irving’s literary works during and after his life, were tallied at $240,000—a sum unprecedented for an American writer at that time.


©2005-2016 Henry John Steiner


“Seven Dollars in My Pocket”


By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

Some time between 1796 and 1797, eighteen-year-old James Kirke Paulding boarded a market sloop at Tarrytown with seven dollars in his pocket. He was headed for Manhattan to seek his fortune. Paulding was a homegrown Tarrytowner, and he knew the people and the landscape by heart. His family lived by Tarrytown Bay. The Pauldings were forced to flee from Tarrytown during the Revolutionary War years and settle into self-imposed exile in northern Westchester. James K. Paulding was born at Great Nine Partners near Peekskill, in 1778.

In early times there were two local Paulding households of note. One was the childhood home of John Paulding, the leading captor of Major Andre; the other was the childhood home of James K. Paulding, Secretary of the Navy and literary collaborator of Washington Irving. John’s father owned a farm “overback,” near the Sawmill River, on the site of the Con Edison facility. James’ father owned a large colonial dwelling located “under the hill,” at the bottom of Franklin Street. The two fathers were in fact brothers, Joseph, who lived overback, and William, who lived under the hill.

If James K. Paulding had never done another thing in his life, he would have earned at least a footnote in history by introducing young Washington Irving to the Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow region in 1798. It was Paulding who served as Irving’s guide to the region, exposing him to people and places that would be turned into “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” roughly twenty years later. Paulding’s family was connected to Washington Irving’s by the 1794 marriage of Paulding’s older sister, Julia, to Irving’s oldest brother, William.

By his own testimony James K. Paulding’s childhood in Tarrytown was not a happy one. His family was financially ruined by the Revolutionary War years. His father, William, was a leading Tarrytown businessman, an important Westchester political leader, and a ranking military figure; by the end of the war he was bankrupt and imprisoned for debt. It was James K. Paulding’s job, at six or seven years of age, to bring his jailed father fresh clothes and other articles. The boy rode to the log prison in White Plains each Saturday on an old, borrowed horse. In 1785, the prison burned down and the father walked home, remaining free and without further trouble from the (apparently sympathetic) authorities.

Before the war, in 1767, the father had located his growing family to Tarrytown after making a small trading fortune—some say illicitly—on the Island of Hispaniola and in Manhattan. William Paulding’s family moved into a new, large home at the southwest corner of Water and Franklin streets, just a few paces from Tarrytown Bay. There, amid a small cluster of waterfront homes, Paulding also owned a store and wharf, keeping up a good trade between local farmers and Manhattan. During the war, William Paulding was made a colonel and appointed the commissary for New York State, north of Kingsbridge. This job proved to be a nearly impossible one, and he resorted to using his own credit to finance the needs of the army. That is apparently what landed him in prison for debt.

With the father in prison, his wife, Catharine Ogden Paulding, vigorously applied herself into the considerable task of supporting her family of nine children. She managed to hold on to her home by getting friends to buy it and then mortgage it back to her. She sewed from dawn to dusk, and saw to it that most of her children had, at least, some schooling. James later wrote, “[She worked] with a cheerful alacrity that diffused itself over the whole house…. All that I have ever been I owe to her.” He recalled that, at times, there was barely enough food for all.

Unlike his friend, Washington Irving, James K. Paulding carried from boyhood a distinctly anti-British bias, common to Westchester families that had survived the terrors of the “Neutral Ground.” James’ maternal grandfather, it is said, was permanently handicapped by the cruelty of British soldiers.

As a boy, James became a dreamer and a loner. His older brothers were sent to school in New Jersey, and he lamented that had no friends of his own age. He later wrote, “I grew up to the age of seventeen or eighteen, a sheer, abstract man—a being of thought rather than action.” The insolvency of the family meant that most of their books were taken for debt, but young James immersed himself in the scattered few that remained.

During ages six to nine (1784-1787) James was sent for instruction to the Sleepy Hollow School, which was a kind of log hut that stood about two miles north of his home. He walked there alone each day. Later it was agreed that he would live for a time with his overback relatives, who were obstensibly located closer to the school. At his uncle’s house, James’ only child companion was a little girl who could not speak.   He recalled that one-day he and his fellow students arrived at the schoolhouse only to find the schoolmaster permanently gone. This individual appears to have been the very Samuel Youngs who is credited with inspiring the fictional schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane. Paulding remembered that his schoolmaster departed to fill the much more lucrative (and perhaps prestigious) job of county surrogate judge; Youngs did in fact become the county surrogate, but not until twelve years after the time mentioned by Paulding. Yet, the new surrogate of 1787, Philip Pell, could not have been the Sleepy Hollow schoolmaster that Paulding remembered.

All told, the three years of schooling cost the Paulding family fifteen dollars. Returning home, James K. Paulding’s unhappy childhood continued, “From the experience of my early life I never wish to be young again… My life at Tarrytown after leaving school was weary and irksome. The present was a blank and the future almost a void.” He distracted himself by hunting and fishing in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, “I spent my time in reading, or roaming at random and unpurposed, through the beautiful romantic scenes which surrounded our poor, yet pleasant abode.” The book that had the greatest impact on him during these years was Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World.

It is likely that Paulding first met Washington Irving during the 1794 wedding of their siblings at Tarrytown. Irving would have been eleven at the time, Paulding—sixteen. Who knows whether they found anything to talk about? But four summers later, they were fast friends and destined to remain so. Paulding guided young Irving to the Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown haunts that he had frequented as a lonely child. That was only a year after Paulding had left home for Manhattan with seven dollars in his pocket.


Paulding’s career would bring him affluence, fame, and influence. He and Irving progressed from the funny, sneering “bad boys” of their early, literary partnership, “The Salmagundi Papers,” into two of the most respected literary voices of the early United States. Paulding was to head the U.S. Navy during the Van Buren years. He finished his days on his own Hudson River retreat, “Placentia,” at Hyde Park on the Hudson River—dying a few months after the death of his life-long friend at Sunnyside.


©2008-2016 Henry John Steiner

Just In… A Note from the Past… Rockwood Hall

Rockwood Hall about 1911

Rockwood Hall about 1911

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

My friend Ed Murphy just sent me a message from Las Vegas.  It’s always great to hear from him, because, whenever Ed gets contemplative about his hometown, he generally fills in another piece of the Sleepy Hollow picture.

Rockwood Hall is one of Sleepy Hollow’s wonderful scenic assets, and a favorite with many of us:

“As a child I lived in Philipse Manor, and my parents were members of Rockwood Hall [Country Club] during the short period it was a country club. My Mom, Aunt and Uncle played golf there in the season. My Mom taught me to ski on one of the hills south of/and overlooking the future area of the IBM [now New York Life Insurance] parking lot, which of course was not there in the 1930s.

The brook-side trail was always a delight in the spring with Dog Tooth Violets and Jack-in-the-Pulpits and the gurgling brook dashing downhill to join the Hudson. The stables were in operation for a couple years and we rode a little. All the estate buildings [of the Rockwood Hall estate] existed in those days. I left the area in 1945 after high school and joined the Marine Corps as the war [WWII] was on. I frequently returned to the area to visit my parents and friends and always took time to walk the trails and dream of days gone by while on the property.

The house at the bottom of Arch Hill [on Route 9 — the old stone gatehouse] was occupied by a golf pro for many years, and his daughter, Patricia, attended Pocantico Hills Grammar School. I think his name was Cecceli, but my spelling is questionable. As I remember his name was Pat…”


©2015 Henry John Steiner

The Celebrated Wife — At Home in Sleepy Hollow

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York


Years ago, I got tired of writing about prominent nineteenth century males. The women were out there somewhere, but they often operated behind the scenes. How do you write about nineteenth century women if they are required to live in the shadows of men? Jessie Benton Fremont provided an unheard of solution; she wrote about herself and her life.

This woman led a momentous, varied, and courageous life in which her finances swung between wealth and poverty. In the end, she was forced to support herself and her family by writing. Jessie spent some of her happiest years and most stressful days in Sleepy Hollow.

She was the favorite child of powerful U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton. As a child she lived a privileged life between family homes in St. Louis, Washington, and Lexington, Virginia. Jessie was frequently at the White House and familiar with the most influential figures in American politics. She had the run of the Library of Congress where the librarian often asked her for advice on new acquisitions.

Her father, Senator Benton, was very attentive to Jessie, sharing with her his dreams for the American West. By 1840, at the age of sixteen, Jessie had thoroughly adopted her father’s great political, expansionist aspirations and passions. In 1841, she made a love-match with the man who would become a prime instrument of America’s “manifest destiny,” a young army second lieutenant of little means and illegitimate birth, John C. Fremont.

Jessie was smart, pretty, determined, and madly in love with this army engineer. The lieutenant was a geographer who, when they met, had just returned to the nation’s capitol from explorations in the West. Through the influence of Jessie and her father, Fremont was to be placed in charge of his own groundbreaking western expeditions. As important as the expeditions were the reports that Jessie and Fremont produced—Fremont dictating and Jessie editing and refining. She encouraged her husband to inject his personality and feelings into these reports, rather than fashion them as dry scientific documents. The reports were widely distributed and extremely influential. Jessie’s work was uncredited.

At the outset of Fremont’s first California expedition, Jessie remained in St. Louis to relay essential correspondence to her husband’s forward, departure base. On receiving a recall ordering Fremont back to Washington, she sent a special messenger to her husband urging him to depart immediately. Fremont departed, and, as a result, he made the important survey of the Pacific coast that facilitated his conquest of California in 1846. Later, when gold was discovered in California, hoards of Americans and Europeans used the reports created by Jessie and Fremont to find their routes into the West.

Two of their children died in infancy. When Fremont was court-marshaled and resigned from the army in 1848, Jessie became one of the first U.S. women to settle in California. In 1856, Fremont ran for president and according to his biographer, ”Jessie played only a [slightly smaller] part in the campaign than her husband; ‘Fremont and Jessie’ seemed to constitute the Republican ticket…”

At the outbreak of the Civil War, President Lincoln appointed Fremont Commander of the West. Jessie was the “gatekeeper” of her husband’s headquarters at St. Louis and, later, at Wheeling, West Virginia, which earned her the derisive nickname of “General Jessie.” Lincoln referred to her unpleasantly as “a woman politician.”


Toward the end of the war, the Fremonts bought a townhouse in New York City and a country house in Sleepy Hollow. (Some dramatic modifications were made to the once stately house in the twentieth century.  The photo above — taken in the 1980s — is not indicative of either its original condition or its current condition.)  The estate was already named Pokahoe, a large stone house on 100 acres. It is still standing — but substantially modified— in Sleepy Hollow Manor. John Fremont first saw the estate in 1856 while visiting newspaperman James Watson Webb for the purpose of discussing Fremont’s presidential bid.

The Fremonts resided at Pokahoe from October of 1865 until early 1875. In her letters Jessie writes, “We are exactly in Sleepy Hollow….”   “My visiting list for the summer is just twenty-five miles long for the Hudson is a great street and people dine and visit by rail when they are past driving limits.”

She tried to entice one visitor by writing, “We have a peaceful empty country house here—only an hour from New York, and the four in hand [carriage] I spoke of has been on duty for me and is in full train for you if you would come. This is one of the most healthy of places—an old pine and hemlock forest growth, on sandy soil, facing north towards the Catskills and having the salt water of the Hudson (here three miles wide)… We have our morning paper by 8 a.m. and our evening paper 6 p.m. and we can shut out all this represents as easily as we can get at it.” She wrote to her “dear old friend” Kit Carson, when he was dying, urging him to stay with them.

They were millionaires at the time, but their life at Pokahoe was affluent, not lavish. There was a large, well-stocked library, and above the mantle was Bierstadt’s, “The Golden Gate at Sunset,” also fine portraits of Jessie and John. They had servants, a gardener and a French chef. There was a Steinway piano, dogs, horses, and boats. When they first arrived in Sleepy Hollow, the Fremonts had three children—a grown daughter and two sons, eleven and fourteen. The family enjoyed ice-skating on the pond, sailing, and croquet.

As time went on and John Fremont embarked on a large, ill-fated railroad venture, Jessie worried about their economic future and their children’s security. When Fremont’s wealth vanished in the Panic of 1873, Jessie wrote to a friend “This place is worth three hundred thousand, but for want of six thousand I shall lose it.” The Fremonts were forced to sell most of their possessions to pay their business debts. The auctioneer came to Pokahoe, and before long Ambrose Kingsland had added it to his wide domain.

Jessie became a professional writer to support the family; she wrote articles for magazines and her memoirs. Fremont had a brief stint as Territorial Governor of Arizona, but before, and after that time, the family was force by their poverty from one home to another. In 1890, Jessie ended up in Los Angeles for—health reasons—while Fremont traveled to New York, chasing fleeting business opportunities. There he died suddenly at a boarding house.


Jessie’s tombstone at Rockland Cemetery


Jessie Benton Fremont survived her husband by twelve years, living modestly in a cottage provided by the “women of Los Angeles.” Her home was called “a Mecca” for notable visitors, and, in 1901, President McKinley went there to call on her. She died on December 27, 1902 and was buried beside her husband at Piermont, New York. The plot was donated by an admirer from that village.



©1999-2016 Henry John Steiner


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