Fact-Checking Sleepy Hollow’s Portrayal of the American Revolution

If you’re like me (and god help you if you are), you tuned in weekly to watch the new FOX show, Sleepy Hollow.  The show had me hooked and I watch it every week (the new season in now months away).

But that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally want to throw a book at my television.

(Addendum: Read my ‘Short’ on this show at the Journal of the American Revolution for the summary and then return here for the details)

With the very first episode, the show had me foaming at the mouth because the writers apparently couldn’t be bothered to look at a Bible–which is a rather serious criticism because half the story line has the two stars starring into one.  Over and over again we would hear ‘Revelations’ this and ‘Revelations’ that…etc.  Begging your pardon, but, it isn’t ‘Revelations‘ (plural);  it is singular: ‘Revelation’.  That’s it, just the Book of Revelation–just one giant revelation (it may contain many prophecies–but it’s all part of just one revelation).

I can forgive them that mistake, if only because so many people misconstrue it in the same way that the writers probably never bothered to check themselves.  And thankfully they were goodly enough to correct themselves when they re-aired an encore presentation of the show a few weeks later (someone artfully removed the ‘s’ from the audio).  But it becomes a problem when the writers seem to have continually missed out on opportunities to check themselves over pretty elementary information.

The Boston Tea Party…in Virginia?


The ‘Boston Tea Party’ featured in Episode 4, ‘The Lesser Key of Solomon’, of Season 1.

For example, in the episode ‘The Lesser Key of Solomon’, we learn that Ichabod Crane was around for the Boston Tea Party.  Now, according to Crane in the show, Colonel Washington was responsible for the Boston Tea Party and dispatched Virginia Militia to the docks to capture an item from Hessian mercenaries.  If you’re not sure what is wrong with this picture, well–everything.  This would be fine as a standalone thing, but the timeline is really, really off.  I mean, really off.  

For those who don’t know, the Boston Tea Party did not happen during the Revolutionary War.  It is associated with it because it is considered to be one of the prime displays of colonial insurrectionist attitudes towards the crown and parliament but it occurred in December of 1773, over one year before the first shots of the war would be fired at Lexington and Concord.  There had not been a Continental Congress yet and for most people, the word ‘Independence’ was rarely spoken outside of close friends and even then only occasionally.  George Washington was still a Colonel in Virginia (the only part of this historical footnote that the writers get correct) and had no command over anything outside of his particular command.

Colonial politics were extremely complicated, but the notion that Washington could just sent troops to Massachusetts is bizarre.  Washington had no authority to send any troops to Massachusetts–in fact, had he sent troops there, it might have been viewed by the provincial government there as a territorial threat and could have been met by military opposition.  Something similar happened in Pennsylvania actually–plots of land in Wyoming Valley were  sold by the King of England to both settlers of Connecticut and Pennsylvania.  Naturally, land disputes erupted  between people claiming ownership of particular tracts and all of them having legal documents which proved their claims.  Militia from both colonies were called out at one point and a small skirmish ensued which has become known as the Pennamite-Yankee War (and in a sense, it was a war between Pennsylvania and Connecticut).  See, for example, the Battle of Rampart Rocks. It was so bad that, following the Revolutionary War, the newly established federal government had to step in and settle the matter (the land being enveloped by Pennsylvania is now Luzerne County).

Incidentally, Washington would have had to move his troops through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and a good portion of the New England colonies in order to get his men to Massachusetts–unless he used a ship.  But one might imagine how that would look–a Virginia ship with a large amount of Virginia militia on board armed trying to land at the harbor.  I think all semblance of a plot dissolves at that point (landing a ship would not be a stealthy maneuver at all).

Crane in Two Places

Then there is that little bit of oddity: Why is Crane working with Washington in 1773?  The problem is clear to those who know the chronology of the war.  He states plainly in other episodes that he arrived with the British to quell the Rebellion as a Regular officer.  In fact in the pilot episode, during his interrogation, he goes on record stating:

My name is Ichabod Crane. 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.

First, this could not have been before 1775–when open war and rebellion broke out.  Second, and incidentally, the Queen’s Royal Regiment (2nd Regiment of Foot) did not take part in the American Revolution.  During the whole war, it stayed on the other side of the ocean.  So what exactly is he doing in the colonies in 1773 as a member of the Virginia Militia under Colonel Washington?  

To make matters more problematic, in the episode ‘The Sin Eater’, Crane is captured by fellow Masons and forced to give the detailed account of his time working for the British.  But this isn’t before 1773–it is during the American Revolution.  In fact, around the year 1776.


Ichabod as a British Leftenant.

How do we know this?  Well, first there is the fact that he states he is under the direction of Colonel Tarleton (apparently he was ‘recommended to him’ by… ?) who did not himself arrive in the American colonies until 1775.  He also mentions the King’s Quartering Act (which must be the revised version of 1774, one of the Coercive Acts–the earlier version isn’t relevant to the show at all), and he talks of ‘both sides’ (so the war is broken out).

But there is a much more humorous and direct way to know we’re in 1776 here…

Cicero the Plagiarist! 

But we’ll get to that in a moment.  There is a more pressing and interesting issue to raise.  In the episode mentioned above (‘Sin Eater’), Tarleton enters the home of a freed slave named Arthur Bernard.  He is accused of authoring a pamphlet which I only saw briefly onscreen but it looked vaguely familiar.


Screenshot of the pamphlet.

Apparently Arthur Bernard is Cicero, but if this is the case, it doesn’t bode well for Mr. Bernard’s ethics since it is almost entirely plagiarized!  I didn’t really get a look at the document until I rewatched the episode (on FOX.com), and lo! I recognized the document–it is actually two different documents.  The irony here is that the top and bottom sections are from one document written not by a Patriot–of which Arthur Bernard is being accused–but by a Loyalist to the crown!

The tract Plain Truth, shown as the title in the above still, was actually written by Loyalist James Chalmers against Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.  As it were, parts of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense make’s up the middle section of the tract held up by Tarleton in the show:


Click to embiggen; note the tract from the show (middle), the real pamphlet Plain Truth (left) and Paine’s Common Sense (right).


Enlarge by clicking through; the only original part of the document is the bit that says ‘By Cicero’ and the addition of ‘The’ in the title!

Now the interesting bit.  Since the faux document in the show is copied from these two original documents, both written around the same time in the same year, the bottom of the tract in the show contains the date mark from the original Plain Truth: MDCCLXXVI (1776).

Maybe Mr. Bernard was just trying to throw off the readers so they wouldn’t know which side he actually supported?  I want to really like this show, so I’m just going to accept that as truth and move on.

You clever, clever man...

You clever, clever man…

That issue aside, we now have clear evidence that Crane was in the employ of the Crown in 1776–by his own words he came here to the American continent as part of the troops to stop the Patriots with fellow British soldiers in 1775 (there about)–and prior to this he was a professor at Oxford.  So, again, we must ask: Why is he in Boston in 1773 working for Colonel Washington in the militia?

So clearly the writers did not bother to really make any solid timeline for Crane’s background and instead opted to just throw him haphazardly into any and all important events from the eighteenth century because math.

Crane and Aramaic

In the latest episode (as I write this article), ‘The Vessel’, Ichabod and Abbie watch a video file of an interrogation of a demon who utters some words, to which Crane seems to be recognize and claims that it is Aramaic, which he translates as ‘Ancetif will not be defeated!’  But as my colleague Steve Caruso points out, “Well… it wasn’t “Ancient” Aramaic, but Eastern Neo Aramaic (i.e. Modern Aramaic), either Assyrian Neo-Aramaic or Chaldean Neo-Aramaic.”  He also has a nifty picture:

Sleepy Hollow - Ancetif Will Not Be Stupified - smaller

So unless Crane learned modern Aramaic in the last 100 years, his translation should have been different (see Steve’s translation above).  But as we all know–Ichabod was under ground in a tomb.  So, as the kids say, what’s the deal, yo?  It may behoove the producers to learn the difference between ancient and modern Aramaic and, might I suggest they use my colleague Mr. Caruso who runs an entire business as a consultant on Galilean Aramaic and produces these awesome fine wares featuring Galilean Aramaic? (Plug, plug!)

The 2nd Amendment in 1781?

Also in last night’s episode, Abbie is portrayed as someone who apparently doesn’t get history.  She’s right in line with Ichabod Crane though, which is weird because as a guy who is claiming to be an eyewitness to the American Revolution, he gets a lot wrong.  Another issue that the writers should have considered more carefully is the date that Ichabod died in relation to things like the Constitution.  In the show, Abbie makes a casual remark about the 2nd Amendment to which Ichabod responds, “There was concern among us that it could lead to perverse consequences.”  Wait…wha?

The Constitutional Convention did not exist as a thing until 1787, when at that point the various amendments were proposed and debated.  Crane supposedly died in 1781 fighting Hessians, so…where did he get the notion of an Amendment, let alone the very specific 2nd one?  How does he even know about the Constitution?  Did he read up on it when he returned or does is just walking around without any idea how the government works? ‘Cause I dunno if anyone’s told him yet.

And who is this ‘us’ he talks about?  Who was he conversing with about the 2nd Amendment in 1781?  As the Constitutional Convention came about due to a very narrowed set of events set in motion with a tax rebellions in Massachusetts after the war, it is downright impossible that he could have known anything about a federal constitution–it would have been completely foreign to him prior to his awakening in our modern era (and a quick stop at a Barnes and Noble).   And even as a friend of George Washington’s, it is unlikely he would have been involved in the debates had he lived until 1787.


Look, I don’t want this to dissuade you from liking this show.  I love it, I really do.  I just hope next season the writers really pay more attention to the details.  They need to remember that what their portraying, as fantastical and imaginary as it is, is still a version of actual historical events.  Surely the Virginia Militia were not present at the Boston Tea Party, but the Tea Party did happen at the harbor in 1773.

This is not something to be brushed aside.  Getting the chronology of the war right is not just an idle complaint–it is the most simplest way to keep their narrative believable.  We, the viewers, are suspending disbelief for an hour so we can enjoy a fantastic story.  Let’s not make it harder to do that by adding in completely horrible fact-checking on top of it.  Seriously, Google is your friend.  Five extra minutes of Googling a date can only help solidify a strong backstory for Crane. Instead we are left with a lot of cringe-worthy errors and holes in the plot and Crane’s sensibility and credibility is leaving us (it makes you wonder, maybe he is a crazy person after all).  The Revolutionary War links are some of the best parts of the show; really they should have a honest-to-goodness Revolutionary War historian, trained at a research institution, present on set to advice the producers and writers on the series of events that they wish to incorporate into the drama.

One response to “Fact-Checking Sleepy Hollow’s Portrayal of the American Revolution

  1. Pingback: Sleepy Hollow: Some Historical Perspective | Journal of the American RevolutionJournal of the American Revolution·

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