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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In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," who do the villagers believe the Headless Horsemen is, and how did he lose his head? What do the villagers think the horseman is doing out at night? Why is the horseman in such a hurry?

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The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. [...] Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak.

  • The villagers believe the horseman is a Hessian (a German mercenary hired by the British) who lost his head when it was blown off by a cannonball in the American Revolution.
  • The villagers believe the horseman is searching for his lost head. He goes to the scene of the battle, but also searches along the nearby roads.
  • The horseman is in a hurry so that he can get back to the churchyard, the site of his grave, before daybreak. The exact reasons for this are not specified, though it can be assumed that the ghost is compelled by supernatural powers or rules to do so.
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