The 2019 sandstone grave stone of the Edgar Mathew Bacon character Hulda The Witch.
Folklore,  Witches and Witchcraft

Hulda the Witch of Sleepy Hollow

“. . . 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

Hulda the witch of Sleepy Hollow has over the last decade performed a most difficult feat: she has transformed from a minor fictional character into a real person, complete with a headstone in a place of honor at a local church.

Until very recently, the historical record of the alleged witch of Sleepy Hollow consisted entirely of seven short paragraphs in Edgar Mayhew Bacon’s 1897 book Chronicles of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. Bacon, an author and amateur historian, separates this tale from the eight historical chapters of Chronicles under a ninth titled “Myths and Legends.” Bacon clearly intends the reader understand that maybe once, long ago, a person like Hulda may have been rooted in some semblance of truth. Or perhaps not. Hulda the witch, in Bacon’s telling, is clearly a myth.

Put another way, to assume Hulda the witch is real a reader must also accept the reality of the other tales with which she is lumped: a ghostly woman in white wailing at Raven Rock, celestial maidens descending from the sky to dance on Spook Rock, and a phantom Dutch sailing ship plying the Hudson River off Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow.

Sleepy Hollow Country abounds in local historians and folklorists, so the lack of any other historical reference to Hulda in particular, or a local witch in general, is a glaring absence.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 reasonable to say he made it up. Writing 120 years after the ostensible death of the mythic witch, he very obviously had no access to first hand accounts of any proto-Hulda.

Hulda the Witch in the 20th Century

And so Hulda the witch remained from 1897 until the mid 20th century when she began to make intermittent appearances in local newspapers. Writing a 1954 series of articles on “Myths and Legends” for the Tarrytown Daily News, Gene Chillemi mostly stuck with Bacon’s original tale. He did, however, give Hulda a skill with languages that has been picked up by most subsequent retellings: “Her knowledge of languages gave her easy converse with Indians.”

In 1975 Hulda made another appearance in Tarrytown Daily News in an article that was part of a series for the national Bicentennial celebration. In “Was Hulda witch or heroine?” In it Mrs. Jack A. Dorland (Byrl Brown Dorland) presented a major upgrade to Bacon’s sparse tale. Represented by the Daily News as a factual article “researched” by Dorland, the article is largely her own invention. She introduces a small cast of supporting characters: Mynheer Requa who discovers Hulda’s hut hidden in the woods, Reverend Ritzema who orders his flock to shun the suspected witch, and Old Ben, the church sexton whom she quotes.

“Things looked really bad. The redcoats out-numbered us three to one. We were getting the worst of it. About this time, Hulda appeared, carrying her musket. She tool a place in the front line. She fought better than a dozen of us. She renewed our courage. On that day, Hulda the Witch turned the tide for us.”

Old Ben, sexton of the Old Dutch Church, Tarrytown Daily News, November 28, 1975

Hulda the witch then languished in relative obscurity again for another 36 years.

Hulda the Witch Becomes “Mother Hulda”

Then in 2011 a cottage industry sprang forth from Bacon’s short vignette. Her first major step toward becoming a real person came when storyteller Jonathan Kruk’s published Legends and Lore of Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson Valley. No longer simply Hulda the witch, Kruk wove an origin story for “Mother Hulda”, based “on Dorland, Bacon and other sources.” Putting a sheen of authenticity on his own embellishments, Kruk states without evidence that none other than Washington Irving himself learned of Hulda while visiting the Old Dutch Church in his youth.

In Kruk’s version, Hulda the witch gains a significant backstory. She is either a widow of a Native American or perhaps a former captive of a local tribe. She has a thriving trade in baskets, furs and herbal medicines, a regular route which stretched from Tarrytown to White Plains. She becomes a renowned healer whose gifts of cures were reciprocated privately with manufactured goods like sewing needles, cookware and lamps. And she picks up a foil in the form of a local clergyman, Reverend Ritzema, who decrees from his pulpit that the suspected witch must be shunned.

While Kruk retains Bacon’s telling of the skirmish between local militia and British Redcoats in which Hulda plays a defining role as a sharpshooter, he adds a chase scene in which she deliberately leads the British away from town. As with Bacon’s original, Hulda sacrifices her life for her neighbors and is buried in the yard of the Dutch Reformed Church in an unmarked grave.

Hulda the Witch, Action Hero

Since 2020 two different entertainment productions have added their own embellishments to Kruk’s backstory. One runs in the woods of Rockefeller State Park Preserve and the other at the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow.

Hulda’s Night in Rockefeller State Park Preserve weaves an elaborate backstory to the fictional Hulda.

These new details of Hulda’s life include 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 (one cure being a Native American sachem’s son), persecution by Domine Johannes Ritzema of the local church, a secret society of trusted friends, swashbuckling chase scenes worthy of Lara Croft Tomb Raider, and a climactic moment when she all but single-handedly rescues the American Revolution from collapse.

A Headstone for Hulda the Witch

In 2019 the congregation of The Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns installed a newly carved monument near the north wall of the Old Dutch Church. It records 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 the witch of Sleepy Hollow became a real, historical figure although there is no historical or archaeological evidence she ever existed.

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.

The 2019 sandstone grave stone of the Edgar Mathew Bacon character Hulda The Witch.
The 2019 sandstone grave stone of Hulda The Witch stands near the north wall of the Old Dutch Church. Created by local stone carver Robert Neal Carpenter, the soul effigy is in the style of John (or Johannes) Zuricher, a leading colonial gravestone carver. 


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.

Jim is superintendent of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where he has researched the cemetery’s history for more than 20 years. He draws on an extensive collection of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown historical resources for the material on Sleepy Hollow Country.