Category Archives: today in history

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.

Not Fade Away

winterdancepartyposter1959February 3, 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the day a single engine Beechcraft Bonanza B35 airplane plummeted to the earth in a frostbitten cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa. On board were three musicians who, only a few hours earlier, had rocked the stage in Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom: Ritchie Valens, J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Buddy Holly.

I’m nowhere near old enough to do the whole “Where were you on the day the music died?” thing (to put it in equally iconic musical terms, I was born eight years later, the summer Sgt. Pepper came out), but as a biographer – and because it’s just plain fascinating – I’m always interested in seeing how iconic events were reported in their time, before events could be colored or tainted by hindsight, adulation, and wishful thinking.

Years ago, I went to the library and pulled the microfiche of the February 4, 1959 Albuquerque Journal and several other papers to see how the crash was being reported by the media — which at that time had only a yawning interest in what it considered the passing fad of the fledgling rock and roll scene. The crash received quite a bit of coverage, with most newspapers going with the UPI story, which devoted the first third of its coverage to an almost clinical description of the crash and the crash site (the UPI reports, for instance, that the plane “skidded across the snow for 558 feet”).

Given what we now know and accept as their relative places in the rock’n’roll pantheon, what’s really interesting is how little ink Buddy Holly earns in the press coverage. That’s probably because, of the three performers killed, Holly – whose “I Guess It Doesn’t Matter Any More” had made it to number 13 in January – hadn’t had a monster hit since September 1957, when “Everyday” peaked at #3 (incredibly, five months earlier, “It’s So Easy” had stalled out at a rancid #82). Meanwhile, Richardson’s “Chantilly Lace” had hit #6 the previous summer, while Valens’ “Donna” was sitting at number 4 on the charts the week he was killed – Valens, in fact, gets most of the column inches, where his death is grieved as the loss of “the next Elvis Presley”:

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Fifty years later, even as all three can be assured of their iconic stature, we’re still fascinated by the poetic tragedy of that winter morning — thanks in no small part to Don McLean, who gave the moment a nearly Biblical heft in “American Pie.” We play the “what if?” game — especially with Holly, who seemed to be bending and breaking the rules of rock and roll almost daily.

And like any good iconic moment in time, there always seems to be a new legend or rumor associated with it. As recently as two years ago, the body of Richardson was exhumed to try to put to rest one of the Great Conspiracies tying together two odd elements of the crash: the discovery in the cornfield several months later of a gun registered to Buddy Holly, and the fact that Richardson’s body was found farther away from the crash site than the others. The rumor was that Holly’s gun had accidentally discharged during takeoff, killing the pilot and causing the crash – a crash Richardson survived, before staggering away from the plane and dying of exposure.

To the dismay of conspiracy theorists everywhere, forensic anthropoligst Bill Bass, who performed the autopsy on Richardson’s remains, concluded that, “He did not crawl from the plane. He died of massive fractures.”  Sorry.

Take a moment today to think about Buddy, Ritchie, and J.P. But more than anything, don’t think of the way they died; remember the way they lived, and the music they loved.

A love for real not fade away.