Old Grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

The face of the red sandstone grave marker may be slowly flaking away, but the memory of Catriena Ecker van Tassel will live forever. In Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, hapless schoolmaster Ichabod Crane is smitten by the comely 17 year old Katrina van Tassel, but he must compete with town thug Abraham ‘Brom Bones’ van Brunt. Folklorists say that the character Katrina van Tassel is based on Eleanor van Tassel Brush, although the character’s name is based on Eleanor’s aunt Catriena Ecker van Tassel. Her grave is without a doubt the most visited grave in the Old Dutch Burying Ground. The area around Catriena Ecker van Tassel’s grave is peppered with other members of the van Tassel family. The latin inscription, Mors Vincit Omnia, topping her gravestone translates to “Death Conquers all”. (Stories in Stone New York. A field guide to New York City area Cemeteries and their residents by Douglas Keister)

Irving describes Katrina as follows:

Among the musical disciples who assembled, one evening in each week, to receive his instructions in psalmody, was Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and only child of a substantial Dutch farmer. She was a blooming lass of fresh eighteen; plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father’s peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations. She was withal a little of a coquette, as might be perceived even in her dress, which was a mixture of ancient and modern fashions, as most suited to set off her charms. She wore the ornaments of pure yellow gold, which her great-great-grandmother had brought over from Saardam; the tempting stomacher of the olden time, and withal a provokingly short petticoat, to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round.

Note the winged head on the gravestone. According to Angels and Ghosts:

On the East coast of the United States, skilled artisans were hired by people in the 1600 and 1700s, often before their deaths, to create elaborate gravestone carvings. New England cemeteries, consequently, are reknowned for having an abundance of burial sites with winged cherubs and souls adorning the markers of the deceased.

Prior to winged souls and flying cherubs decorating graveyards, however, morbid ideas of death were carved into markers for about 60 years. These ‘death heads’ were just as significant as the ‘soul effigies’ and ‘winged cherubs’ that would eventually follow; for all of these types of stone carvings reveal a shift in American culture away from dogmatic religious beliefs to more of a free spirit mindset. This change in gravestone carvings began around 1630 and continued through the 18th century. People were moving away from condemning Puritan beliefs that focused more on frightening ideas of eternal suffering, namely Hell. The populous was preferring a non-condemning take on the afterlife, something more spiritual, let’s say.

Early Winged Gravestone Art

The first carvings that were made were not the pleasant winged cherub or human faces. Preceding the lighter, angelic facial expressions were carvings of skulls or even skulls with crossbones. These skull motifs are known as ‘death’s heads’ – non-religious symbols found on the markers that sometimes bore wings. Skulls were prominent on gravestones between 1630-1690. The messages of the skeletal iconography seem to suggest that whatever happens to the soul after death was not known, as far as its journey or fate; but death had come calling for its victim – that was certain. The wings, when used, however, also might have conveyed the hope of rescuing the dead from the earth plane, or even hell, taking them up into the heavens and a higher estate.

Winged Cherubs on Cemetery Stones

Cherubs eventually began to replace the skulls, beginning in the 1690s, as a way to indicate a childlike innocence, a higher wisdom about life, and, of course, the hope of a resurrection and an afterlife. Cherubs with wings, essentially angels, were much more soothing than skulls and bones to say the least. And the new, positive outlook on the afterlife began to show in headstone epitaphs, too. Positive sayings began replacing grim warnings used in the past.

These ‘winged effigies’ might look like angels, but they often were artist depictions of either cherubs or, possibly, the human soul. When we look at the faces between the wings, we might catch the artist imagining the person’s soul (think human face here instead of a chubby little angel face) being lifted upward to the heavens. Along with the carving of the soul, at times, the shape of the stone or the carving itself indicated an archway, or entrance path, into the afterworld.

Taken with an Olympus OM-D EM-10 and Panasonic Lumix G Vario 14-42 f3.5-4.6 II

Rockwood Hall Revisited

View of the Hudson River from near the ruins.

I was chatting with a friend who once lived in Sleepy Hollow (or North Tarrytown as it was then). Somehow the conversation turned to some ruins, which she described as being next to an IBM facility and which had a some point burned down. Since I’m always interested in ruins I decided that I’d see if I could identify the site, and perhaps visit it. I ‘googled’ IBM sites with possible ruins near to them. The only one that seemed to almost fit the bill was Rockwood Hall, which I’ve posted about many times before (see here).

The only problem was that Rockwood Hall had not burned down. Rather the then owner John D. Rockefeller Jr. had most of the property’s buildings razed, including the mansion in 1941-42. In late 1946, the Rockwood Hall property was proposed for the location of the United Nations headquarters. John Jr.’s son Laurance Rockefeller sold some of the property to IBM in 1970. IBM’s property was later bought by New York Life, followed by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the current owner. The remaining property was sold to New York State at a significantly reduced price to become parkland within Rockefeller State Park.

In trying to find information on the property I found numerous mentions of the mansion having burned down. Perhaps at some point there was a fire on the property and seeing the blackened vegetation visitors might have assumed that the house had burned down.

Taken with an Olympus OM-D EM-10 and Panasonic Lumix G Vario 14-42 f3.5-4.6 II

Helmsley Mausoleum Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Once they are buried, most people stay put. Such was not the case for Harry Helmsley, who was born in Bronx, New York. His formal schooling ended in high school, but he got into the real estate business at age 16 and eventually became a broker. With shrewd investing he built a real estate empire that included lofts, large residential developments, offices and hotels. When he died his empire, including interests in the Empire State Building, One Penn Plaza, and numerous hotels, he was worth approximately $1.7 billion. In 1938 he married Eve Ella Sherpick Green but divorced her in 1971. In 1972 he married Leona Mindy Roberts.

Leona Helmsley was born Lena Mindy Rosenthal in Marbletown, Manhattan, to Polish-Jewish emigrants. She attended high school in Manhattan but dropped out to seek her fortune in real estate. She married Leo Panzirer in 1938, divorcing him in 1952. She then married Jospeh Lubin, divorced him, married him again and divorced him again. Her real estate career kicked into high gear in 1964 when she started selling condominiums and co-ops. She met Harry Helmsley in 1968 and joined one of Harry’s firms in 1970. After they were married, she devoted most of her time to managing the hotels. She was known as a demanding boss, which earned her the notorious title of the “Queen of Mean”. She was famously quoted as saying “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes”. Her tax-evading ways caught up with her. She was convicted of federal income tax evasion in 1989 and served 19 months of a 16 year sentence.

When Harry died in 1997, his body was placed in the Helmsley Mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Harry reposed quietly for a few years, but Woodlawn began building a community mausoleum just across the way from the Helmsley mausoleum. The community mausoleum was designed to give the not-so-well-to-do the opportunity to opt for above ground burial. In 2004 Leona Helmsley sued the cemetery for $1.50 million, claiming that the community mausoleum spoiled the “open view, serenity and tranquility” that she it had previously enjoyed. After some legal machinations, all was forgiven and Leona actually gave money to the cemetery’s preservation fund.

She soon found a large plot at Sleepy Hollow high on a hill overlooking the Pocantico River and the Rockefeller estate. That suited her just fine. The 3/4 acre plot assured that nothing could be built nearby. She spent $1.4 million dollars to build a 1,300 square foot Greek Revival style mausoleum and set aside $3 million for perpetual care and maintenance. Helmsley’s will specified that $12 million be set aside for the care of her dog, a puffy Maltese called Trouble, and that Trouble, who died in December 2010 be buried beside her in the mausoleum when she dies. Her request may encounter a small hiccup. New York State law prohibits the burial of pets in human cemeteries. But there are always the iconoclasts who see laws not as edicts carved in stone, but as mere suggestions…And the executors of the estate do have a key to the mausoleum.

The interior of the Helmsley Mausoleum contains three stained glass windows depicting the the New York skyline. Harry’s sarcophagus is inscribed “I wait for the time we can soar together again”. Leona’s is inscribed “I never knew a day I did not love you”. (Stories in Stone New York. A field guide to New York City area Cemeteries and their residents by Douglas Keister).

Taken with a Sony A6000 and Canon 50mm f1.4 LTM lens (I think).