The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, John Quidor (1858)
Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day
Today's Musings, History & Folklore
“On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless!--but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle!”
~ Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, 1820
Headless horsemen were staples of Northern European storytelling, featuring in German, Irish, Scandinavian, and English legends, famously included in Robert Burns's poem "Tam o' Shanter." The addition of a pumpkin for the missing head is a decidedly New World twist! The Legend of Sleepy Hallow takes place in the late 1700s in the little village of Sleepy Hollow, located near Tarrytown, New York. A school teacher by the name of Ichabod Crane comes to town from Connecticut and finds himself at odds with the town rowdy, Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, competing for the favour of local beauty Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of a wealthy farmer. The superstitious Ichabod is consumed with dread over of tales of a local spirit, said to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier who lost his head to a cannonball and allegedly haunts the area at night in search of his missing head. One night, leaving a party at Katrina’s home, Ichabod finds himself face-to-face with the Horseman, pumpkin head in hand, and disappears from Sleepy Hollow, never to be heard from again! In 1996, North Tarrytown officially adopted the name of Sleepy Hollow in honor of the story. Washington Irving himself is buried in Sleepy Hollow's cemetery! 🎃
"Such heaped-up platters of cakes of various and almost indescribable kinds, known only to experienced Dutch housewives! There was the doughty doughnut, the tenderer oly koek, and the crisp and crumbling cruller; sweet cakes and shortcakes, ginger cakes and honey cakes, and the whole family of cakes. And then there were apple pies and peach pies and pumpkin pies; besides slices of ham and smoked beef; and moreover delectable dishes of preserved plums, and peaches, and pears, and quinces; not to mention broiled shad and roasted chickens; together with bowls of milk and cream, all mingled higgledy-piggledy, pretty much as I have enumerated them, with the motherly teapot sending up its clouds of vapor from the midst — Heaven bless the mark! I want breath and time to discuss this banquet as it deserves, and am too eager to get on with my story. Happily, Ichabod Crane was not in so great a hurry as his historian, but did ample justice to every dainty.
-Washington Irving, Sleepy Hollow (1820)
For a seasonal dance leading up to Hallowe'en, we have a namesake dance for a classic early American ghost tale, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," by Washington Irving, which takes as its setting, the countryside around the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town (historical Tarrytown, New York), in the Hudson River Valley, not long after the American Revolution.
In Judith Richardson's book Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley, she writes that in 1815, while in a tough financial spot, Irving travelled to England to learn from the established literary circles there and perhaps get a much-needed boost to his career. He would remain in England for many years, writing his famous stories of “Rip Van Winkle” in 1817 and “Sleepy Hollow” in 1819.
Richardson believes that Irving's writing was particularly shaped by the romanticism of English writers such as Samuel Coleridge and Walter Scott, who was a prominent figure in Irving’s life, becoming a mentor to him and a life-long friend. "Irving infused his native region with ghosts, sprites and spirits … all transplanted, as it were, from the Scottish Highlands by the author."
The story takes place in the secluded glen of Sleepy Hollow where the ghost of the Headless Horseman, said to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper who had his head shot off by a stray cannonball during "some nameless battle" of the American Revolutionary War, "rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head". The "Legend" relates the tale of Ichabod Crane, a lean, lanky and extremely superstitious schoolmaster from Connecticut, who competes with Abraham "Brom Bones" Van Brunt, the town rowdy, for the hand of 18-year-old Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and sole child of a wealthy farmer.
After having failed to secure Katrina's hand during a harvest party at the Van Tassel's home, Ichabod rides home "heavy-hearted and crestfallen" and encounters a cloaked rider. Unsettled by his fellow traveler's eerie size and silence, the teacher is horrified to discover that his companion's head is not on his shoulders, but on his saddle. The pair race to the bridge adjacent to the Old Dutch Burying Ground, where the Hessian is said to "vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone" upon crossing it. But by the time they reach the bridge, the horseman rears up and hurls his severed head at Ichabod.
The next morning, Ichabod has mysteriously disappeared from town, leaving Katrina to marry Brom Bones, who was said "to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related."
For a clever theme party menu based on the description from the above passage describing the feast at the Van Tassel's, click the 2006 sculpture of Ichabod Crane being chased by the Headless Horseman, which now resides outside the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, south of the Old Dutch Church, in Westchester County, New York.