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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Is "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" a true story?

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"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is fictional, but the story contains characters, locations, and incidents which are inspired by real people, places, and historical events.

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Although much of Washington Irving's classic American short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is purely fictional, there are certain characters, locations, and incidents in the story which are inspired by real people and real places with which Washington Irving was familiar, as well as by documented historical events.

For example, there was a real Ichabod Crane, from whom Irving took the name of the lanky, superstitious Connecticut schoolmaster who comes to teach in Sleepy Hollow, encounters the Headless Horsemen, and is never seen again. The real Ichabod Crane was Colonel Ichabod B. Crane, a career military officer who served in the War of 1812. He died in 1857 and is buried in Springville Cemetery on Staten Island, New York, where Irving might have seen his grave.

It has also been suggested that during the War of 1812, Irving, an aide-de-camp to the Governor of New York, visited Fort Pike on an inspection tour at the same time that Colonel Crane was stationed there. Although there is no documentary evidence that the two men ever met, Irving might well have known Colonel Crane's name from the fact that Colonel Crane was in charge of harbor defenses at the fort.

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is set on "the eastern shore of the Hudson" near a market town "which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town." There is a real New York town of Greenburg, of which Tarrytown is a village, which is located on the eastern shore of the Hudson River, about 25 miles north of New York City. Irving's home, "Sunnyside," where he lived from 1835 until his death in 1859, is located on the Hudson River in Tarrytown.

"Sunnyside" was owned at one time by the Van Tassel family, a real family who had lived in the Tarrytown area since the early 1600s. The Van Tassels were also founding members of the Old Dutch Church, possibly the unnamed church to which Irving refers in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

Irving is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, renamed from Tarrytown Cemetery, which is adjacent to the churchyard of the Old Dutch Church.

At the time Irving wrote "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" there was no town or village named Sleepy Hollow. What is now Sleepy Hollow was actually the village of North Tarrytown until 1996, when the residents voted to change the name of the village to Sleepy Hollow.

As for the Headless Horseman, there is a legend that there was a Hessian soldier—the horseman in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is called "the Hessian," the "Hessian trooper," and the "Galloping Hessian of the Hollows"—who was decapitated by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War at the Battle of White Plains, New York, in 1776.

In the Memoirs of Major General William Heath, there is an entry for November 1, 1776, which notes that "a shot from the American cannon at this place took off the head of a Hessian artillery-man." This occurred about ten miles from Sleepy Hollow.

According to legend, Elizabeth Van Tassel had the headless body buried in the Old Dutch Church churchyard, in memory of another Hessian soldier who saved Elizabeth and her infant daughter from their burning house.

Washington Irving so deftly interwove fact and fiction into "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" that the fictional characters, locations, and events of the story have become part of the local and national folklore and are often accepted as historical facts.

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What is "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" based on?

There is a long list of potential antecedents that may have inspired the well-read Irving when composing his short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Tales of headless horseman stretch back to the Middle Ages, with the Irish and Dutch legends of “Gan Ceann” or “Dullahan,” a dark rider who travels with his head in his hand and bodes ill for anyone who sees him. The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also features a headless horseman. After the Green Knight loses his head to Sir Gawain's swift stroke, he merely picks it up and rides off. An old German poem called "The Wild Huntsman," later adapted by Sir Walter Scott, centers around a headless horseman as well.

Irving's most immediate source for his famous rider, however, is probably the tale of a Hessian soldier who was decapitated by a cannonball during the 1776 Revolutionary War battle of White Plains. The soldier was buried in the Old Dutch Church cemetery in Sleepy Hollow near Tarrytown, New York, but legend says that his spirit did not rest. He continued to ride at night, looking for his lost head. At least two contemporary historical sources verify the fact that a Hessian soldier really did lose his head at White Plains. Irving lived in Tarrytown as a young man and was certainly familiar with the story.

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