The Hudson Valley seems to have been created with autumn in mind. During October and November, the area's increasingly hostile weather and abundant cultural history blend, creating a potent sense experience. The skittering of dead leaves behind you too easily becomes the footfalls of a disgruntled spirit and the bare tree branches resemble skeletal fingers grasping for diminishing portions of daylight. Even with these natural advantages, our imaginations need fuel, and that is where ghost stories come in. Westchester's most famous ghost story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, is known around the world. Less well-known, but no less spooky, is Reminiscences of an Old Westchester Homestead by Charles Pryer.
Charles' father, John Pryer, moved the family north from New York City in 1839, and Charles was born in 1851. The Pryers descended from Norman Knights on his father's side and from some of America's earliest Huguenot settlers on his mother's side. According to the Biographical History of Westchester County, Vol. II, Charles was a conservative and a “leader in social circles, taking quite an active and prominent part in a number of societies and clubs.” He was the director of the Knickerbocker Press, a member of nearly every yacht club on Westchester's eastern shore, and a fellow of the American Numismatic and Archaeological Society. His biographer notes that “he has a fine private library and one of the most extensive collections of foreign coins in the state.” On top of all of that, he was also an author with a rich imagination full of haunting tales.
In Reminiscences, Pryer draws on his childhood in mid-19th century Westchester County. The book opens with a lamentation whose nostalgic sentiments, along with ghost stories, are present in nearly every human culture.
All things in this section have so changed, since those times so enjoyable to me, that in the now crowded and over-populated county it seems almost impossible that such a type of rural life could have existed so few years ago. But let us draw for a few moments the curtain of mist that shrouds the past, and look in the lives, traditions, and superstitions of the people of “Old Westchester” before our county was spoiled by the locomotive, the summer cottage, and, worse than all, the land speculator.
Instead of SUVs and subdivisions, Pryer's Westchester is filled with ghosts who glide across the paths of foolish nocturnal wanderers, Indian grave sites that leave those who explore them with a “crawly” feeling they can't shake off, and isolated farmhouses where doors close on their own and footsteps are heard coming from uninhabited upper floors.
And, of course, Reminiscences has the one element no Westchester ghost story is complete without: a ghost of “one of the first Dutch settlers.” This post-colonial apparition returns 200 years later “to see if the cattle and poultry had improved since he was a resident of this sphere.” Naturally, this “resident of another sphere” only appeared during the darkest hours of the worst storms and never appeared to two people at once–lest there be a corroborating witness who could dispel the incredulousness of those who listened to a hysterical neighbor swear he saw a shadowy figure carry a lantern across a recently harrowed field.
Those whose want to read Pryer's book are in luck and will not have to put a hold on the library's sole copy (which is from 1897 and doesn't circulate). Reminiscences is available digitally on the Internet Archive.
The featured image in the upper left is a detail taken from Hudson Valley Legends, a painting by Edmund F. Ward. The painting is part of the Library's collection.