“. . . in the days of our nation’s birth-throes he was a brave man who passed the cottage of the witch, even in the daytime. A hundred years ago the people took witches seriously.”–Chronicles of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow
Until very recently, the written record of Sleepy Hollow’s reputed witch consisted entirely of seven short paragraphs in Edgar Mayhew Bacon’s 1897 book Chronicles of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. Bacon, an author and historian, separates this tale from the eight historical chapters of Chronicles under a ninth chapter titled “Myths and Legends.” Whether he believed there any truth to the matter he does not say. It is striking, though, that Bacon, files it under myths rather than the chapter on local conditions during the American Revolution.
In a region abounding in local historians and folklorists, the lack of any other historical reference to Hulda in particular or a local witch in general is a glaring absence. Bacon himself never identifies the source of the Hulda story so it is fair to say it originates with publication of Chronicles of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. And so Hulda remained from 1897 until 2011 when a cottage industry sprung from this short vignette.
Since 2020 two different entertainment productions have created a backstory for Hulda that includes a husband, seven years as an indentured servant in a colonial Dutch household, training by an enslaved African woman in the arts of herbal healing, captivity among the Wappinger band of Native Americans, the near-miraculous ability to cure malaria not once but twice, a small and secretive circle of trusted friends, and a swashbuckling chase scene worthy of Lara Croft.
In 2019 the congregation of The Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns installed a newly carved monument in the yard of the Old Dutch Church recording her curriculum vitae in stone: “Hulda of Bohemia. Died c. 1777. Herbalist, Healer, Patriot. Felled by British while protecting the Militia. Buried here in gratitude for her sacrifice.” And just like that Hulda became a real, historical figure.
Despite her ever expanding résumé of modern exploits, the original Hulda story is poignantly beautiful in its simplicity. After the break is Bacon’s complete 1897 rendition of the tale of Hulda, The Witch.
HULDA, THE WITCH
Reference has been made to the cottage of Hulda, which was not far from the Spook Rock. To-day nothing is left of that humble habitation but a few stones in the side of an alder-covered bank, and the trace of a path leading to a walled spring. But in the days of our nation’s birth-throes he was a brave man who passed the cottage of the witch, even in the daytime. A hundred years ago the people took witches seriously.
Hulda was a Bohemian woman, who came without references or kin and settled in the midst of conservative folks who were familiar with each other’s grandparents. To be a stranger was to be open to suspicion ; to be alone was not respectable. Acting upon a well-known principle, recognized in most rural communities, the newcomer is held to be guilty till he has proved himself to be innocent.
Hulda gathered herbs, “simples,” in the mill woods ; she knew where the boneset grew, and vervain, and mandrake, and calamus. Her cabin was full of the sweet odor of plants a-drying ; specifics for colds and fevers and the unsophisticated pains and aches of simple folk. She wove baskets, too, and was wise, as a woman ought not to be. Rumor, as busy in Sleepy Hollow in 1770 as she is in 1897, said that the witch had commerce with the Indians who came occasionally into this region from far up the State, and exchanged with them secrets of black art and “yarbs.”
A tapu, as effectual as ever existed in the South Sea islands, cut this woman off from human intercourse, and when the war came she, alone, had no friend to discuss her hopes or tell her fears to. From first to last the neutral ground got the worst of the Revolution. Friends and foes struggled across it and fought or fled back again. Every crime in the calendar was committed in the names of King and Congress alike, till the harried remnant of the people sat among their denuded fields and depleted barns, and faced starvation and sickness with such stoicism as they could muster. Sometimes an undetected hand left dainties that were hard to procure, on the door-step or the window-sill of some house where want and pain had settled together ; but the donor was invisible.
In those days men patrolled the highways to intercept the cattle-thieves that ran off their stock, and as the population became smaller, the women sometimes took their places with flint-lock and powder-horn. Hulda, the witch, presented herself for this service, but no one wanted her companionship. At last one day a force of British landed from one of the transports that had sailed up the Hudson and commenced a march which was to bring them, by means of the King’s highway, to the rear of Putnam’s position, at Peekskill. As they marched in imposing array a volley greeted them from behind walls and tree-trunks. It was Lexington repeated in Westchester County. Not to be repulsed this time, Hulda fought with her neighbors, using her rifle with great effect, so that she was singled out for vengeance ; and before the redcoats retreated to their boats they had, by means of a sortie, overtaken and killed the witch.
Animated by a new respect, those who had seen her fight avowed that, witch or no witch, she had earned a right to Christian burial. Reverently they carried her to her cabin, and while there discovered between the leaves of her Bible (?) a paper informing them of a little store of gold that she desired to have distributed among the widows whose husbands had fallen for their country.
Hulda’s grave, it is said, is close by the north wall of the old church, as though her neighbors, having done her what despite they could during her lifetime, were desirous to atone after her death by an exhibition of hearty respect.