I am an unabashed fan of badly realized history in books, TV and movies. I started my U.S. survey this semester with the opening scenes from National Treasure, I legitimately enjoy Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy (though, to be fair, the history in that is spot-on, with the exception of the witches, demons and magic bits) and, predictably, I really liked the new Sleepy Hollow TV series premier. It’s not that I think that badly done history is something that ought to be celebrated, its that a lot of the romanticized historical genre (in which historians lead dramatic and dangerous lives, or in which discovering something about the past is crucial to the advancement of the plot) seem to willfully get things wrong (again, Harkness is the exception here). The opening of National Treasure for example, involves one Charles Carroll, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland, as the keeper of a long-held secret clue to find a treasure originally hidden by the Freemasons (who, apparently, morphed from the Knights Templar, but I’ll leave the problems with that to a medievalist). So quoth the film:
“It didn’t reappear for more than a thousand years when knights from the First Crusade found hidden vaults beneath the Temple of Solomon. You see, the knights who found the vaults believed that the treasure was too great for any one man, not even a king. They brought the treasure back to Europe and took the name… the Knights Templar. Over the next century, they smuggled it out of Europe and formed a new brotherhood known as the Freemasons, in honor of the builders of the Great Temple. War followed. By the time of the American Revolution, the treasure had been hidden again. By then, the Masons came to include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere. They knew they had to make sure the treasure would never fall into the hands of the British, so they devised a series of clues and maps to its location. Over time the clues were lost or forgotten, until only one remained. And that was the secret that Charles Carroll entrusted to young Thomas Gates.”
The problem? Charles Carroll was a Catholic – the richest Catholic in Maryland, in fact. He would not have been a Freemason. It’s not like there weren’t myriad other ways to start the story in National Treasure. The hoarded gold could have been taken from Spanish privateers, or (as in the sequel) some kind of Aztec treasure. So, my friends and colleagues have asked, what? Bad movies, bad TV shows are made all the time with less than plausible premises. But I think that the willful manipulation of history – what seems to be the intentional getting-it-wrong, is often quite revealing. In setting up National Treasure the way they did, the writers were implicitly making an argument about the long, noble and storied history of the United States – tying American liberty to the glory of the crusades to the nobility of the Templars to the antimonarchicalism of the Freemasons. Much of this is just flat-out wrong, but it’s wrongness serves a rhetorical purpose, and stakes a particular claim about America’s place among other glorious causes.
So, when I came across Sleepy Hollow yesterday, I was quite taken with the myriad things that show got wrong, and wonder what that wrongness means about the kind of American myth the writers are trying to tell. (As a totally un-ironic and genuine aside, I’m thrilled that the main character is a woman of color – and that her superiors are, respectively, an African-American and Latino man – and that none of this is treated as surprising or weird within the world of the show. It’s sad that having a diverse cast is a cause for celebration, but there it is) Perhaps the biggest error from an historical perspective is that Ichabod Crane’s wife is (a) a real witch, (b) was apparently burned for witchcraft in 1782 and then (c) buried in a church graveyard with a notice to the effect of her witchery on her tombstone.
The witch trials at Salem took place about 100 years earlier, and while people accused of witchcraft were still being killed in Europe in the 1740s, formal trials in America had ceased by the beginning of the 18th century. On top of that, people who were excommunicate, which I’m fairly sure being convicted of witchcraft would have made Crane’s wife, didn’t tend to get church burials. Ultimately, this piece of anachronism is sort-of solved by the fact that Crane’s wife isn’t really dead, but trapped in a witchy forest, and in her grave is the horseman’s skull, which must be kept from him at all costs.
But, by creating a world in which witch burnings continued into the early republic, the show’s writers seem to be suggesting two things. The first, is that the world of early America was less rational than we tend to think, and that the Hudson River Valley was particularly irrational. The second, is that the problems of Colonial America persisted at least until after the Revolution, and with the re-awakening of the Headless Horseman in 2013, into the present day. Or maybe they just thought being accurate wouldn’t make such a good story – but I still think that these inaccuracies, willful or no, paint a very interesting picture of Colonial/Revolutionary America, and tell us something interesting about American historical memory.