In honor of the Halloween season, the Dominion Post and the Aull Center are proud to bring you a special audio piece of a spooky story from Morgantown history.
What follows is a transcript of the audio piece.
NARRATOR: From the Dominion Post and the Aull Center in Morgantown, this is Haunted History Month. I’m your host Chris Schulz.
It’s October and for many of us that means only one thing, Halloween season. Scary movies, costumes, candy, and of course spooky stories, so we’ve got a treat for you, no tricks here.
Throughout the month of October, our friends at the Aull Center are presenting Haunted History month, a series of events related to all things, spooky, spectral and mysterious from Morgantown and West Virginia history. The Dominion Post is proud to be partnering with the Aull Center to bring you the scariest of these local stories. I invite you to join me on this terrifying trip.
Now I know I just said we would focus on local stories, but our first episode actually takes place in the Hudson river Valley in New York. This story has an interesting connection to the Morgantown area, but more on that in a moment.
To kick off Haunted History Month, the Aull Center’s Nathan Wuertenberg is putting on a Halloween war game of the battle of White Plains. I’ll let Nathan explain to you what that means.
NATHAN: A war game recreates a historical battle with a 3D terrain table, and we combined that with miniature soldiers. We try to recreate the conditions of the historical battle and allow some room for creativity so that people can try and sort of change the historical course of the battle, make different decisions from those that the historical commanders made and basically try and pull apart why ,uh, the tactical and strategic decisions that those commanders made were made.
NARRATOR: Nathan chose the battle of White Plains for his Halloween war game because it is connected to a ghost story that has been told around campfires for nearly 200 years. It might be the American Halloween story. I am talking, of course, of the Headless Horseman, made famous by Washington Irving in his tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” For those of us who might be a little foggy on the details of this classic tale, Nathan has a quick recap.
Nathan chose the battle of White Plains for his Halloween war game because it is connected to a ghost story that has been told around campfires for nearly 200 years. It might be the American Halloween story. I am talking, of course, of the Headless Horseman, made famous by Washington Irving in his tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” For those of us who might be a little foggy on the details of this classic tale, Nathan has a quick recap.
NATHAN: In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a Hessian officer is beheaded by a cannonball and roams the the area of Sleepy Hollow in search of revenge and in search of his dismembered head.
NARRATOR: Hessians were German soldiers that fought with the British during the Revolutionary War.
NATHAN: There is a sort of stereotype about these troops that they’re mercenaries, you know, that sort of brutal and, and bloodthirsty. And that’s not really the case. They have the same military training as the British, they’re not soldiers of fortune or anything of that nature, but they get a certain reputation during the Revolutionary War and, and for long afterwards. And that’s part of what no doubt convinced Irving that a Hessian officer would be a good villain for his story.
NARRATOR: Irving didn’t just make up the gruesome origins of his Headless Horseman, he actually drew from local lore and history in the real town of Sleepy Hollow, New York, just up the Hudson river from New York City. Here’s Nathan again.
NATHAN: The Battle of White Plains is the most likely battle upon which Washington Irving based his tale of the Headless Horseman. Headless horsemen are a motif in a lot of European folklore and he no doubt heard of those sorts of stories, but there are also specifics to the Battle of White Plains that probably drew his attention.
For one, there is an account from General William Heath that a Hessian artilleryman was actually beheaded by a cannonball in the battle. Heath published his, his memoir, which included that account in 1798. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” that includes the Headless Horseman, wasn’t published for another 22 years. So that gives Irving ample time to have heard that story. The other thing is that you know, Irving actually spent time in Sleepy Hollow.
NARRATOR: So, we know that Washington Irving spent time in the Sleepy Hollow area. And White Plains, where the battle took place, is less than 10 miles away. Irving very probably knew about the beheaded Hessian soldier, but how has all of this connected to Morgantown?
NATHAN: Well, so there was actually someone from Monongalia County at the battle. This particular individual grew up on what is essentially the site of Morgantown itself. His name was Benjamin LeMasters and he served in the 1st Virginia Regimen, but his father, Isaac LeMasters sold Zackquill Morgan 220 acres of land that became the town of Morgantown.
And so the LeMaster’s family settled at the approximate site where Decker’s Creek meets the Monongahela river. So Lemasters enlists on October 1st, 1776 and marches directly to New York where the Continental army under George Washington is. And his first experience of battle is the Battle of White Plains.
NARRATOR: Going to war in the colonial era was a very different experience from what it is today. Besides the obvious things like equipment, soldiers like LeMasters weren’t really soldiers at all, especially when compared to the British and the Hessians.
NATHAN: LeMasters wouldn’t have received much formal training as a soldier up to that point. Generally rebel troops were needed so desperately at the time that they didn’t get anything like the sort of boot camp experience that we think of today. They would have been expected to already know how to use their gun and they wouldn’t have had any uniforms. So it would have been difficult to identify each other in battle.
There’s this idea that British troops are sort of a superhuman, the best military around back then. That’s the idea. They’re certainly better trained than the, the rebels were. So the rebels would have had to deal with, you know, artillery fire and musket fire in massed volleys from infantry, infantry men who had received considerably more training than they had.
NARRATOR: A war game is an opportunity to bring a historic event to life. But it’s also a way for us to really understand what happened there and what it meant for the people involved.
NATHAN: I think that they give you a deeper understanding of military history and a lot of people think that military history isn’t something that’s necessarily important to study anymore, but I think it, it’s, it’s a major part of many historical processes and I think that it’s something that people should find important. You know, there are people dying as a result of these battles and uh, you know, that merits a certain amount of our attention.
NARRATOR: You can check out the Halloween war game this Saturday, October 5th starting at 1:00 PM at the Aull Center. For more information about other Haunted History Month events at the Aull center, be sure to check them out on Facebook at facebook.com/aullcenter. That’s A-U-L-L Center, with no spaces.
Special thanks to Nathan Wuertenberg.
Music this week is from filmmusic.io. The songs, “Lightless Dawn” and, “Ghost Processional” are both by Kevin MacLeod, and used here under the Creative Commons license.
That’s all for this week’s episode. Join us next week as we explore the story of Mothman.
Thanks for listening.
This has been Haunted History Month, brought to you by the Dominion Post and the Aull Center in Morgantown, West Virginia.