drawing of the headless horseman holding a pumpkin and riding a horse through the woods

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

by Washington Irving
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At the end of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the author gives several possible explanations for what happened to Ichabod Crane. Use specific details from the text that support the inference that the "headless horseman" was a trick played on Ichabod to scare him away from Sleepy Hollow.

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We know from the text that Ichabod Crane was superstitious: not only do ghost stories frighten him, but after his disappearance, the local residents find in his home a "History of Witchcraft,” and a "book of dreams and fortune-telling." Anyone who knew him could easily have played on his fears and superstitions to drive him away. We know too that a "shattered pumpkin" was found near Crane's hat on the road to the church after he vanished.

Crane, a school teacher and outsider in the established community, had entered into a rivalry with Brom Bones to marry the wealthy Katrina Van Tassel. Brom wedded Katrina after Crane left, would smile knowingly when people told Ichabod's story, and would "laugh" at the part about the pumpkin. All of these clues suggests that Brom played the role of trickster, using a ruse to convince the susceptible Crane that he was the headless horseman. Crane would have taken the pumpkin in Brom's lap for his head. Clearly, the ruse worked—unless you believe the folktales that said there was a headless horseman. 

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At the end of Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Ichabod Crane disappears after he is frightened by the headless horsemen.  A search turns up the saddle of Ichabod's horse, his hat, and a pumpkin.

One old farmer claims that Crane has moved to a distant part of the country where he has become a lawyer, a politician and a judge. 

The old women of the town believe that Ichabod has been "spirited away by supernatural means."

Brom Bones, who was Ichabod's rival for the hand of the beautiful Katrina, "was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin."  This, of course, supports the theory that the Headless Horseman was none other than Brom Bones hiding his head under his coat and displaying a pumpkin in its place. 


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Ichabod Crane was well known in the community to believe in witches and goblins and the story of the Headless Horseman. He had a copy of Cotton Mather's book on witchcraft and:

His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spellbound region.

No doubt Brom Bones knew about his wild imagination and figured he could pull off a great prank and get rid of his rival for Katrina's hand in marriage.

There is a lot of foreshadowing about Brom Bones and his skill as a horseman, plus Brom told the story of having escaped the Headless Horseman himself, so he was familiar with the particulars of the legend and how to pull off such a prank.

He was famed for great knowledge and skill in horsemanship, being as dexterous on horseback as a Tartar.

Also, Brom was a big jokester, so it makes sense he would pull a prank on Ichabod:

He was always ready for either a fight or a frolic; but had more mischief than ill-will in his composition; and, with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humor at bottom. 


He was, in fact, noted for preferring vicious animals, given to all kinds of tricks, which kept the rider in constant risk of his neck, for he held a tractable well-broken horse as unworthy of a lad of spirit

When Ichabod leaves the Van Tassel farm dejected because Katrina has spurned his advances, he sees the Headless Horseman at the very same bridge where Brom told his story of escaping the Horseman:

He affirmed that, on returning one night from the neighboring village of Sing Sing, he had been overtaken by this midnight trooper; that he had offered to race with him for a bowl of punch, and should have won it too, for Dare-devil beat the goblin horse all hollow, but, just as they came to the church bridge, the Hessian bolted, and vanished in a flash of fire.

When Ichabod is chased by the ghost, he says:

He recollected the place where Brom Bones’s ghostly competitor had disappeared. “If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.”

Finally, after Ichabod disappears, whenever the story comes up, Brom Bones knows more than he is telling:

Brom Bones too, who shortly after his rival’s disappearance conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.

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