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 Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," what do the villagers think the headless horseman is doing out at night, and why is he in such a hurry?

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The headless horseman in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow " is the ghost of a Hessian soldier. Hessians were Germans who were hired by the English to fight against the Americans in the Revolutionary War, and they had the reputation for being fierce and ruthless fighters. Because the Hessians...

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The headless horseman in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is the ghost of a Hessian soldier. Hessians were Germans who were hired by the English to fight against the Americans in the Revolutionary War, and they had the reputation for being fierce and ruthless fighters. Because the Hessians were on the enemy side in the war and frightening warriors, it is no wonder the story of a Hessian ghost on horseback would raise fear among the superstitious in Sleepy Hollow.

According to the legend, this Hessian had his head blown off by a cannonball "in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war." The head rolled away, and therefore the ghost rides out to the scene of the battle every night searching for his lost head. He has to gallop away hurriedly before the sun rises because he is a ghost and can only come out at night. The ghost earns the alliterative title of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.

Ichabod Crane, who loves fairy and ghost stories, particularly enjoys hearing this tale told by a fire with roasted apples on a cold night. Because he is superstitious, he partly believes the tale is true.

Brom Bones finds out about this superstitious streak and uses it against his rival. Brom wants to marry the lovely Katrina, which means getting Crane out of the way. Using his wits, the red-blooded, all-American Brom, who knows fact from fantasy, concocts a fake headless horseman to frighten the gullible Crane into fleeing from Sleepy Hollow.

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In Washington Irving’s 1820 story of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the local townspeople regularly discuss the terrifying figure who haunts their village at night.  Sitting around the local pub, people could be heard sharing scary stories and describing the ghostly figure in their midst:

“The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the headless horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.”

That the horseman was active at night -- which is only appropriate when the topic is horror and there is a cemetery nearby -- is evident in the stories the townspeople tell each other about the fates befallen some of their own.  In the following passage, Irving relates the headless horseman’s routine as described by villagers:

“The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. This was one of the favorite haunts of the headless horseman; and the place where he was most frequently encountered.”

Regarding the apparent hurry in which the Headless Horseman appears to always be, Irving’s villagers suggest that the horseman’s identity is that of a Hessian mercenary killed during the Revolutionary War, and who is in a perpetual rush to return to his grave:

“. . . 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."

 Not unlike the legend of vampires, the horseman apparently can function only at night, and must return to his burial site before the appearance of the Sun.

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