Millions of people have become entranced by the new FOX show, Sleepy Hollow. It has mystery, intrigue, and, above all else, a loveable cast of characters. Turning Washington Irving’s tale of Ichabod Crane into a woven narrative of apocalypticism and American History is downright brilliant (don’t think we missed the little jab at this with Orlando Jones’ character’s last name—Frank Irving, indeed). And some of the dialogue between Crane and his co-‘Witness’ Abbie Mills (portrayed by the beautiful Nicole Beharie) is just fantastic (e.g., Crane, portrayed by actor Tom Mison, while trying on modern day attire, states aptly: “One sign of the impending apocalypse is surely skinny jeans.”). The show has me hooked and I watch it every week.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally want to throw a book at my television.
From the very first episode, it became clear that the writers and producers of the show could have checked their facts a little better. I get it, the American Continentals were fighting the British ‘Red Coats’ so they had to make all the bad guys wear red coats. But Hessians didn’t wear red coats. They had their own unique uniform—let’s stay honest here. They weren’t British, they were German soldiers from Hesse (and other principalities) and brought their own uniforms and equipment with them.
Then there is that pesky episode (‘The Lesser Key of Solomon’) where they ‘reveal’ that Crane was somehow involved with (and helped organize) the Boston Tea Party. They did get some things right: George Washington was a Colonel in the Virginia militia at the time of this incident and the writers and producers are correct that it wasn’t called the ‘Boston Tea Party’ back then (Crane rightly notes that it is more ‘festive’ than the original name for the event: ‘the dumping of the tea’).
Other than that, the team over at Sleepy Hollow gets a lot wrong. Washington would never have sent the Virginia militia to Boston and he had no authority to do so. He didn’t even know about the tea dumping until the newspapers ran the story. But the writers had to have Crane at every possible historic event related to the American Revolution and they already said that Crane was under the command of George Washington. So why not at the Boston Tea Party? Well, because math—that’s why. The Tea Party occurred in 1773. Crane couldn’t have arrived in America (by his own admission) before 1775—two years after the dumping of the tea!
‘How do you know when Crane arrived?’ you might ask. It’s true, the show never directly states what year Crane first stepped onto American soil. So am I some sort of magic history genie? No, not officially. I just paid attention to Crane’s stories. In the first episode of the show, Crane, while being interrogated by people who think he’s crazy, states: “I was a professor of history at Merton College, Oxford, when I was enlisted in the Queen’s Royal Regiment and sent to the American colonies to fight the patriots. It didn’t take long for me to have a change of heart and I defected.” It gets a little hairy here, but bear with me a moment. He states he was a member of the Queen’s Royal Regiment which historically, as a unit, did not come to the American colonies at all (and which historically, as a unit, was called the 2nd Regiment of Foot, or the Queen’s Regiment, when Crane supposedly served in it). Some of the men were drafted into other units and sent to America, but this did not happen until 1776. (Also why would a professor enlist as a common soldier in the British army?) Even if he arrived earlier, he could not have arrived until open war broke out—any time after April of 1775.
But the writers contradict themselves again. In the episode ‘The Sin Eater’, they portray the ‘British Leftenant’ version of Ichabod Crane storming into the private home of Anthony Bernard with other British regulars. Apparently Bernard has been writing treasonous Patriotic tracts under the name ‘Cicero’ and the British have a real problem with it. That this event takes place in 1776 is deduced by several key events in the episode: (1) by the pamphlet that is held up by Colonel Tarleton and (2) by the presence of ‘Colonel’ Tarleton! British Colonel Tarleton doesn’t arrive in the American Colonies until 1776, so in order for him to be there, it had to be during or after that year.
But that pamphlet is another thing all together. Using my genie powers, I noticed the pamphlet being held up by Tarleton is a mish-mosh of two historical pamphlets—one is the Patriot tract Common Sense written by Thomas Paine and the other is a Loyalist tract, Plain Truth, written by James Chalmers, shunning Paine. This might make the character of Anthony Bernard (AKA Cicero) a plagiarist, but it also makes Crane a liar (or a loon). The pamphlet has a date of printing at the bottom (taken directly from Plain Truth) that is plainly ‘1776’ (well, actually, it reads MDCCLXXVI—but it’s the same thing). So how could Crane be working for Washington (and the Rebellion) in 1773 (the whole Boston Tea Party thing) when, at the time, he was likely still in Great Britain teaching at Oxford and, even so, he was still a British Leftenant in 1776 (the year he switches sides and ‘turns his coat’ from red to blue)! Crane can’t seem to remember any of the history of which he supposedly was a part. He thinks he was at the Tea Party before he even arrived in America.
Incidentally, Banastre Tarleton arrived in America as a junior officer and did not become a Lieutenant-Colonel until the summer of 1778. So if Tarleton is indeed a Colonel, then the flashback that Crane is describing has to be even more years removed from the dumping of the tea in Boston, and also well after Crane “defected.” Depending on where this event takes place – a New York or New Jersey (1776-1777), Pennsylvania (1777-1778), or Massachusetts (1775-1776), even more might be wrong with the historical accuracy of this event.
That’s not even the worst of it. Crane had ‘died’ (used loosely) in 1781 and was buried in a cave for over 200 years. Yet somehow he acts as if he knows something about the 2nd Amendment, which did not exist as a thing until 1787. You know what I’m talking about; that whole Constitutional Convention shindig where the Amendment was proposed and debated. Yeah, that happened 6 years after Crane had been slain by the Horseman and put underground. Yet somehow, when Abbie (forgetting history herself) makes a note about it, he remarks “There was concern among us that it could lead to perverse consequences.” Wait, what? Full stop. Who is this royal ‘us’ of which he speaks? Who would Crane have talked to about the 2nd Amendment during or before 1781? I know, I know…math. But how hard is it to subtract 1787 from 1781 to figure out that, wait a minute, maybe Crane wouldn’t know anything about this? Is it really that important to just shove Crane everywhere in American founding history without checking to see if his backstory—a vital part of the show!—is consistent?
This may all seem like nit-picking (and maybe it is a little—though for a more in-depth discussion of the history behind these events, see my post here). But the writers seem to be taking too many liberties with the backstory and, in their effort to put Crane’s hands in all the pudding, they’ve left history on the side of the road. That’s a real shame. I love this show, and this pains me to say. We, the viewers, are suspending disbelief about almost everything the show throws at us for an hour—magic, witches, golems, the sand man. We shouldn’t have to be asked to pretend that they’re getting the history right on top of it all. Not in our advanced technological age with quick access to the information highway.Television programs leave impressions; getting the information correct is not just a responsibility, it is a vital key towards educating the public about a very important time in America’s past, especially when portrayed through the lens of a television drama -because unlike your classmates that fell asleep in your 9th Grade history class, people will actually be paying attention to the television program.