The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Headless Horseman

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“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving, was first published in 1820. While “Rip Van Winkle” is perhaps the more popular of the author’s works, “Sleep Hollow” and the tale of the “Headless Horseman” is alw

This wondrous and spooky tale is set in the late 18th century in the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town, in a secluded glen aptly named Sleepy Hollow.

Like many remote towns in this place and time, the country folk of this land are given to fantastic beliefs in ghosts and evil spirits, and most every fireside gathering invariably becomes the stage for blood-curdling stories of the weird and ghoulish, many invoking the famous legend of the Headless Horseman.

Central to this tale is one Ichabod Crane, a tall and long-limbed, highly superstitious traveling schoolmaster from Connecticut, who despite his numerous shortcomings, nonetheless seems quite taken with himself. 

As was customary with many such educators of these times, Ichabod led a roving life, boarding with the farmers whose children he taught.  And since he brought new gossip from the places he’d visit, his periodic stays were more than welcomed by the town’s housewives.  Adding to his particular appeal was his ability to enliven the long wintry evenings around the fireplace with direful stories of witchcraft.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Ichabod is in competition with one Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, the town miscreant, for the hand of the beautiful and bewitching Katrina Van Tassel, the 18-year-old daughter of a wealthy farmer named Baltus Van Tassel.  Ichabod has become enraptured with the fair Katrina during their weekly singing lessons, with Ichabod making frequent unscheduled visits to the farm; visits neither old Van Tassel nor his busy housewife objects to despite the obvious conflict it presents.

“Brom Bones” (nick-named for his Herculean physique) is known throughout the village for his feats of strength, recklessness as a horseman, and ever-readiness for fun or a good fight (and often brags about it).  The townspeople tend to look upon Brom favorably, however, viewing his wild pranks with more playful good-humor than disfavor. 

Brom Bones, of course, immediately takes exception to Ichabod’s advances on the fair Katrina, declaring a deadly feud.  And while Ichabod is able to avoid the physical confrontation Brom prefers, he nonetheless becomes the object of continual persecutions by Brom and his cohorts.

One dark Autumn night, Ichabod attends a party at the Van Tassel residence, arriving on a borrowed horse named Gunpowder, a young and spirited horse who has Ichabod’s nerves thoroughly rattled by the time he arrives. 

At the party, Ichabod, Katrina, and the guests enjoy a large feast of cakes, pies, fruit, broiled, smoked and roasted meats, after which, Ichabod enjoys Katrina's company on the dance floor, while from the corner, Brom sits seething at the two.

After the dance, everyone sits down to retell scary stories about ghosts and goblins, which leads--as it often does--to the legend of the “Headless Horseman," a terrifying headless figure believed to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper who had his head shot off by a stray cannonball during the American Revolutionary War, and who now springs forth from the church graveyard on a powerful black charger with glowing red eyes at midnight carrying his detached head in one hand, while accosting unsuspecting night-travelers. 

It is said that he can never cross the old town bridge, however, so if victims can make their way there, they are safe.

About midnight, Ichabod leaves the party, shaken by the story but even more so by the prospect of riding the rambunctious Gunpowder home. 

As he makes his way through the darkness, he is suddenly confronted and then pursued by the infamous “Headless Horseman,” who chases him to the bridge at the end of town where he tosses what Ichabod believes to be his head.  Terrified out of his wits, Ichabod rides off into the darkness.

The next morning, Gunpowder is found at his master’s house without Ichabod, forcing the townspeople to go in search of the missing schoolteacher.  Near the bridge, they discover Gunpowder’s saddle, Ichabod’s hat, and a few yards away, the remnants of a shattered pumpkin.  Everyone suspects that Ichabod has met with foul play, and most likely at the hands of Brom Bones.

Even so, with Ichabod out of the picture, Brom is free to marry Katrina.

Several years pass when an old farmer returning from New York brings surprising news. 

He reports that Ichabod is still alive, but that fear of the goblin and shame at his dismissal by the heiress had caused him to flee; that in another part of the country he now teaches school, studies law, and has become justice of the "Ten-pound Court." 

The old Tarry Town wives, however, maintain to this day that Ichabod was taken by the Headless Horseman.  And many gruesome tales of the teacher’s fate are still told round the wintry firesides of Sleepy Hollow.

(Disclaimer: This is admittedly my personal interpretation of this Washington Irving classic.  It should in no way be considered the optimal or even the only interpretation of this wonderous tale.)

References:

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving

Images via wikipedia.org unless credited otherwise

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4 comments

James R. Coffey
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Posted on Dec 2, 2010
Phoenix Montoya
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Ron Siojo
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Natasha Head
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