December 1, 1859: An Icon Is Laid To Rest

One hundred and fifty years ago today, American writer Washington Irving was laid to rest at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York. 

Irving had died at his home at Sunnyside three days earlier, felled by a heart attack on the evening of November 28, 1859, at the age of  76. News of his death traveled rapidly down the Hudson River, and was carried by the newly installed telegraph to newspapers across the country.  “Washington Irving is dead!” wrote the editors of the Milwaukee Sentinel. “Who is there that the tidings did not touch with profound sorrow?”

While it is difficult to appreciate Irving’s place in literature and popular culture today, in 1859, Irving embodied both.  As the Father of the American Bestseller, and the creator of literary icons like Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle, Irving was the nation’s most familiar author.  A friend to presidents, kings, artists, and writers, his death was felt, and noted, around the world.

And his funeral?  It was officially An Event. On December 1, 1859, Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow were swathed in black. Mourners stepped off the train platform at Irvington — formerly the town of Dearman, but renamed years earlier in Irving’s honor — under a black-draped sign.  Businesses in Tarrytown shuttered their windows for the day. The courts in New York City closed deferentially, allowing government officials to attend Irving’s funeral.

At 12:30 p.m., as church bells gonged in New York City, a line of carriages — containing Irving’s body, his family, his doctor, and pallbearers — pulled away from Irving’s home and headed slowly up the road to the Old Dutch Church at Tarrytown.  At the conclusion of the services, Irving lay, as he had requested, in an open casket, allowing more than a thousand mourners to file past and pay their respects.

Irving’s casket was then placed in a coach at the head of a procession of 150 carriages, which slowly made its way up the sloping hill adjacent to the church, toward the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. “It is a thing that lies near my heart,” Irving had once said of the cemetery. “I hope, some day or other, to sleep my last sleep in that favorite resort of my boyhood.”

The weather that afternoon was, perhaps fittingly, “exquisite.” As hundreds of mourners surged upagainst the iron fence surrounding the gravesite, hoping for a good look, Irving was lowered into the ground, in the spot he had so carefully chosen next to his mother.

Irving was buried beneath a simple headstone, engraved only with his name and dates of birth and death. There is no epitaph.  As I always tell audiences, he has left it for you to discuss and decide his legacy.

In a December 15 speech before the Massachusetts Historical Society, Irving’s friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow urged his audience to “rejoice in the completeness” of Irving’s life and work, “which, closing together, have left behind them so sweet a fame, and a memory so precious.”

“We feel a just pride in his renown as an author,” continued Longfellow, “not forgetting that, to his other claims upon our gratitude, he adds also that of having been the first to win for our country an honourable name and position in the History of Letters.”

Not bad for the dreamy son of a middle class merchant.

2 responses to “December 1, 1859: An Icon Is Laid To Rest

  1. This was a fantastic piece. You should write a book.


  2. On Dec. 21, 1859, Rebecca Gratz wrote to her brother Ben, “Our friend Washington Irving has descended to the Tomb full of honors and glory! alas how few of his early friends are left to give a heart offering to the general mourning….”

    She had given her own “heart offering” a few years before when after her brother Jo had seen Irving at Saratoga, she reported that Washington was “as bright, kind and agreeable as ever.”