Who was pretending to be the headless horseman and why in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving, a story in which Irving pokes fun at supernatural conventions, it is actually Brom Bones who pretends to be the Galloping Hessian who hurls his head at Ichabod Crane.

Ichabod Crane, the local schoolmaster, has a great desire to feed himself both sumptuous meals and old wives' tales, anecdotes of witchcraft that are full of the "direful omens and portentous sights and sounds in the air." In addition, he tries to court Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and only child of a wealthy Dutch farmer, who is one of his music students. 

Crane especially is desirous of Katrina after he rides to her father's farm and realizes that not only does Katrina possess beauty, but she has "vast expectations." The "enraptured Ichabod" rolls his eyes over lush meadows and rich fields of wheat, rye, buckwheat, and Indian corn. Further he eyes orchards "burdened with fruit." Then, he pictures himself with the "blooming Katrina" and an entire family of children. However, Ichabod is not the only one who desires Katrina.

Among these the most formidable was a burly, roaring, roystering [sic] blade, of the name of Abraham, or, according to the Dutch abbreviation, Brom van Brunt, the hero of the country round, which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood.

It is this formidable rival that has singled out Katrina for himself. And when he learns that Ichabod may interfere with his plans, he devises a scheme to frighten the schoolmaster away after Ichabod is invited to another party. This time most of the stories told are about the "favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow," the headless horseman who has been heard to patrol the countryside. Rumor has it that his horse is tethered at the graveyard. Brom claims that he saw the rider three times. Once, when he had raced with the Headless man, he beat the goblin-horse, but the "Hessian vanished in a flash of fire."  

All these tales creep into the mind of Ichabod as he recites tales from Cotton Mather when it is his turn at the Van Tassels'. Later, when Ichabod departs, he recalls the ghosts and goblins told about earlier, and he "had never felt so lonely and dismal." When he comes to the bridge, old Gunpowder refuses to cross. It is then that Ichabod sees something "misshapen, black and towering." After Ichabod gets his horse moving again, he sees what appears to be a black horseman mounted upon a black horse.

In an effort to avoid this figure, Ichabod hurries his horse. However, the phantom keeps step. When he can make out the figure riding it, he is surprised to see that the horseman has no head. Soon, this dark figure and the horse follow him, and as Ichabod spurs old Gunpowder on, the saddle slips off, only to be trampled underfoot of the pursuer. Ichabod must cross the bridge in order to escape. When he manages to get the old horse to make the crossing, Ichabod looks back and sees the Horseman actually hurling his head at him. In fact, it strikes the schoolmaster in his head, and he is sent flying into the dust.

The next morning the old horse is found grazing with the bridle under his feet and the saddle gone. The boys assemble at the schoolhouse, but no one appears. When a search party is sent out, only Ichabod's hat is found on the bank of the brook. This brook is subsequently searched, but there is no sign of Ichabod.

On the following Sunday, "knots of gazers and gossips" collect, shake their heads, and conclude that Ichabod has been carried off by the Galloping Hessian. And, since he was a bachelor, no one worries any further. Yet, whenever Ichabod's name is mentioned, and Brom Bones, who soon marries Katrina, hears the tale of the pumpkin head, he is "observed to look exceedingly knowing . . . and always bursts into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin."

chicagorilke23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Brom Bones is the headless horseman. The author alludes to this at the end of the story. Brom offers signs that he knows Ichabod's fate, such as a smile here and there. It's as if he's recalling something amusing each time people ponder the mystery of Ichabod's disappearance. The motive Brom has for disposing of Ichabod is Katrina Van Tassel. He wants to have her for his own and make her his bride. At one point both he and Ichabod compete for her affections. Though Katrina does not seem to mind two suitors, Brom eventually wins out over Crane.

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