Sleepy Hollow: Some Historical Perspective


January 27, 2014
by Thomas Verenna Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

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.

Click to enlarge. Photo courtesy of author.
Click to enlarge. Photo courtesy of author.

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.


  • I enjoyed your article but, sad to say, I’ve seen Hollywood bend History in virtually everything they do. A writer will tell you that the essential goal is to tell a great story and, to a certain extent, that’s true. He/she will go on to say, if you want history read a history book. Unfortunately, the history that series and movies teach are what viewers, especially of middle/high school age, absorb and believe is history. What does creep into these ‘entertainment’ programs are the political/editorial views of writers/directors/producers, which are easy to espouse–no research necessary. One hopes that a series like ‘Sleepy Hollow’ will provoke interest in the history of the period and more reading. Those lucky readers will find that real history is every bit as entertaining as the Hollywood contrivance and more so.

  • Thank you for these insights! It is true that the entertainment industry often changes, gently said, the documents from which they adapt. But as a teacher who knows the impact of media on students, I caution that further care be taken in the portrayal of historical facts as well as moving from the page to the stage regardless of the genre. Thanks, Tom, for the insights.

  • What a superb deconstruction and sharp eye you have. I’ve not seen Sleepy Hollow yet and I’m not 100% sure I want to after reading about the clangers you highlight! A professor of history at Merton would today award Mr Crane an F for fail.

    It seems TV and Movie producers seem to work under the maxim “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”. And I’m not sure I agree with the view “well at least it gets people interested”. Surely there’s enough drama and plot in the facts as we best know them; why do they seem bent on allowing these laughable errors?

    Anyway, I’d rather like to see a drama about Benedict Arnold; now can you imagine the twists and turns there! A sort of Revolutionary Breaking Bad if you were.

  • Glad you noticed these too (though I didn’t think Washington held a militia commission for some time before the outbreak of the war after earlier resigning his commission?) Nevertheless, I enjoyed learning that the Boston Tea Party was just a distraction concocted by Sam Adams and Ichabod Crane so Crane could steal some kind of relic or talisman or whatever that in British hands would allow them to “win the war” – a war that would not start for another year and a half!

    One I’ll add is that Crane first met his wife when acting as a messenger carrying the resolves of the First Continental Congress to New York (so late 1774, maybe early 1775). But earlier we were told he first met his wife while he was still serving under Tarleton (as you say, apparently some time in 1776).

    I was pleasantly surprised to see Edward Rutledge make the cut for one of the episodes. Not the most well known signer, and not from New York or Boston, which is where everyone else is from and everything else took place on the show.

  • Great job, Thomas! Hollywood’s habit of changing events (along with altering the time-space continuum) is ruled by the show biz axiom “IJMD” (“It’s Just More Dramatic”). Watching a TV show such as “Sleepy Hollow” or watching a film such as “The Patriot” with you would be hilarious. Aside from hushed discussions about myth busting and laughing, I’d never get my popcorn eaten. Very enjoyable article, Thomas, or as the review headline would go: “History Detective Digs Up the Hollow With Truth”. Your piece was very fun reading!

  • Interesting article. I too love the show, but what bothers me most is Crane’s lack of shaving. Even during the flash-back scenes, no matter which army he’s in, he has a nice scruffy beard. It works in the modern scenes, but looks completely out of place in the flashbacks when everyone else around him is clean-shaven.

    1. While I love the beard and don’t want him to shave it …ever, he shouldn’t have one.. In the 1700s, it was rare for a man to have a beard. I’m glad I’m not the only one who is bothered by this inconsistency

  • Nice article, even though I don’t watch the show. But I’m passing it along to some of those who do. One note: though pronounced Leftenant by the British, it is still spelled Lieutenant.

  • Thanks everyone; glad you enjoyed the article! Hope to write up some more soon, presuming that the editors here will take them.

  • Thank you for this interesting article. I too watch the show and enjoy seeing the rev war period on TV. The Patriot did get me interested in the rev war/colonial era so if this show does get others interested or if hudson valley historical sites receive more visits, I am all for it. With that said, it is too bad they don’t stick to the true history. Too often the facts are twisted for various reasons and the casual history enthusiasts take these twisted facts as gospel. I hope this new series by AMC, Turn shows the true history as the truth would make for the best viewing.

  • On a less historical note, the production team also did not do any research on basic climate/weather patterns. In one of the final episodes for the season it is Christmas time, yet there are green leaves on the trees, no snow on the ground, and hardly anyone is wearing a jacket. Sleepy Hollow is supposedly located in Upstate New York. Living in Western New York, I can assure you, at Christmas time, there is snow on the ground, we can see our breath outside, and there is not a leaf to be seen. However, the most important thing that can be extracted from all of this is the booming ratings the show is receiving. The ratings of Sleepy Hollow played a factor in AMC’s new show “Turn” making its debut in early April. It shows an explosion of interest in the Revolutionary War. Although Sleepy Hollow may not be historically accurate, it does provide a spark of interest for people. Hopefully that will translate into further study by the general public and not stop at just the tv shows.

    1. That last sentiment is one I share and it is precisely the motivation that moved me to write the article. Hopefully those with enough interest will find my article interesting and useful.

  • Silly historian, the Hessians’ red coats don’t matter…The only coat that matters is Ichabod’s! That is SOME coat! It will lead many, many girls to study history. 🙂 The show has gotten you to think and to look (up facts), and the inconsistencies will challenge your fellow watchers to do some research, too. It’s almost better to have some inconsistencies…? People are flying to the internet and to their Bibles to see if certain events really happened or are prophesied and to see if particular characters really lived, fought, signed, attacked, wrote, and whatever else! As Martha Stewart says, It’s a good thing!

    1. I remembered my personal perfect example–Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing) as The Man from Atlantis! He got lots of girls interested in archaeology and wondering exactly where to find Atlantis! 🙂

      1. Mary, thanks for the comments. I’m afraid I have to disagree. if someone is only into archaeology because they (a) believe Atlantis is a real thing and (b) want to use the field of archaeology to prove their belief in a historical Atlantis, then that isn’t good at all. Those are the wrong reasons to be a historian.

        The same is true for movies like the Patriot and shows like Sleepy Hollow; if someone is learning their history from these dramas, then they’re doing it wrong. Shows like Sleepy Hollow (which, again, I love) don’t concern themselves with education, but with ratings–which is why they portray Ichabod at every event they can that will generate attention and interest and also why the chronology is so horrible. Yet there are those who will, nonetheless, believe it is historically plausible.

        And I would add that getting history correct *does* matter. It matters because history is a record of society’s deeds, of their good and bad actions. They are the memory of culture, humanity. Would you agree is someone said your memories don’t matter? That the chronology of events aren’t important? I doubt that you would. No one with any sense would disregard the importance of their memories and rightly so! History is that important. And history as it exists is interesting, moreso than any fiction I can assure you.

        1. I am on the same team with you! 🙂 Sometimes, though, things that aren’t right make people mad enough to do a little extra research. Or hearing a tidbit gets someone to ask, “Did that really happen? Did that person really sign that or say that?” I saw it happen one day (years before Sleepy Hollow) when a 4th grader consulted her parent’s college level history textbook for some information on Patrick Henry. She was outraged because the book had glommed his Stamp Act speech, that he gave in Williamsburg in 1765, together with his Liberty or Death speech, that he gave in Richmond in 1775. After that, she was a girl on a mission–to check every fact in every book and to alert the whole wide world to the truth! Guess what she is doing these days? She is a brain surgeon! So, she did not go into history, but the mistake she found in that college textbook surely contributed to her ability to question, research, and study.

  • It’s clear this article hit a nerve. If anyone is inclined to see a fictional movie about how the clash of entertainment and facts is confronted of SWEET LIBERTY, starring Alan Alda, Michelle Pfeifer, Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins. The synopsis: An award winning historian’s book is being filmed as a Hollywood movie.
    New DVD, $10; used DVD $3; getting to watch this film, priceless.

  • As winter continues to chill just about everyone, it’s times like this we look forward to spring (and baseball season for me). On April 6, 2014, there’s another event to which we might all look forward, the series premiere of “Turn” which is based upon Alexander Rose’s “Washington’s Spies The Story of America’s First Spy Ring.” It stars Jamie Bell (any relation to J. L. Bell?) and will portray the primary members of the ring. A trailer is available at I look forward to a review or 2 and numerous comments, if this article is any indication of interest in movies and the War.

    1. Not that anyone will see my comment at this late date, but I was brought to this site by the review of AMC’s “TURN.” (Except the title is spelled with a backwards “N”! How edgy.) That show purports to be Based On History–and the writer of the Real History Book shows up on TV to ensure we believe. Your reviewer points out the many ways in which the show departs from the facts–yet seems to encourage watching the thing.

      Sorry, the loony fantasy of Sleepy Hollow plunged me deeply into Revolutionary history & TURN is laughably bad. We’re supposed to take it as The Real Story of the Culper Ring–yet the chronology is off by several years. However, your reviewer was far more forgiving than this fellow. Verenna noticed the setting does not resemble the Hudson Valley–the show was shot in a film production center in Wilmington, South Carolina. Yet the other writer did not complain that TURN was shot in balmy Virginia–hardly recreating the times that tried men’s souls…

      The long hiatus during Sleepy Hollow & afterwards has inspired me to find the true story behind those times. (Or stories. Not every historian agrees on every detail.) I’ve enjoyed my studies & will continue–for all its joyful silliness, the show gets some things right. But TURN–not billed as a fantasy–plays havoc with history & the result is dull. It inspires the watcher to wonder “When does Mad Men start?”

  • So it was just announced that Timothy Busfield was cast to play Benjamin Franklin starting in the second episode of the 2nd season.


    “Fans will discover that Crane (Tom Mison) reluctantly apprenticed under Franklin before he awoke in present day upstate New York.”

    This is frightening. I’m terrified how they plan to work Franklin into the already botched time-line. Apparently the producer has “read a lot of biographies” on Franklin–but he does know that Franklin wrote an autobiography, right? Well, I guess we’ll have to see how this season shapes up and hopefully they are being more considerate towards the historical timeline than they were with the first season!

  • Hi Thomas,

    I doubt that they will try to get any of the history correct. I rather see correct history but with this show, I do not expect or watch it for that reason. Hopefully people watching the show, come on this website to read all the great correct history offered.

    Brian Mack

    1. Hard to say; my thinking was that when the show was presumed to be canceled before it even aired (executives at Fox didn’t think the show was going to do very well), they probably never cared about the fact that the show was internally inconsistent and externally inconsistent with history. But now that the show has progressed to a new season and it is highly anticipated, does that make them reconsider the progress from here? That is what I want to know–that upon learning of its large following, did the producers start to care? Maybe they did.

      1. Well apparently Franklin taught Crane at Oxford. Doesn’t look good.

        You give them too much credit. They just don’t care about the history that gets in the way of the story.

        1. Ok, nevermind. I went back with the subtitles on. Franklin says “Clearly they never taught you to tie a knot at Oxford.” If you just listen to him it sounds like he says I instead of they.

          Still not optimistic.

  • The most problematic bit of history was Franklin doing the electricity experiment post 1775. And, if you go back through my article above, Crane could not have turned coat and joined the Americans until sometime in 1778 (because of Tarleton’s rank in the show). So they legitimately portray Franklin, in a field (the actual experiment was in the Christ Church spire in Philadelphia) post 1778, which would be hard since, you know, he was in Paris at the time negotiating the alliance and a treaty. He would not return to the United States until 1785, and by that time Crane was already in the ground. So, no, there is no way Crane could have apprenticed under Franklin after his turn. It boggles the mind.

    What is more infuriating for me, perhaps, is the claims that the writers and producers read “biographies” on Franklin and yet, somehow, missed his 9 year stay in France during that crucial time when Crane was in America. And there can be no doubt that Franklin indeed was speaking with Crane post 1778, since he called Crane “one of us, an American”. So did they actually bother reading about Franklin or, conversely, did they just stop after the introduction?

  • Hi All,
    Well, this show just got interesting! Will be interested to see where they go with it! Happy Watching!

  • It would be nice if they would do an initial timeline, outline of the backstory before filming instead of making it up as they go along. Some shows are very good at this, they plan ahead and care about continuity, and those are always better shows to watch, especially for those of us who know history.

    If Buffy can keep their timelines straight, Sleepy Hollow should be able to.

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