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. His haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the vicinity of a church at no great distance ... 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 headless horseman has appeared in many forms of literature throughout history and throughout the world. Many countries have their own unique version of the legend in which some form of the headless horseman appears. In the United States, various states have their own version of a headless horseman tale.
The more noted and recognizable headless horseman of today imitates the one that appears in Washington Irving's short story, which was published in 1819. The story is set in America, within a 1790's Dutch settlement that residents nicknamed “Sleepy Hollow”. Its protagonist is a schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane, whose apparent demise results from a meeting with the horseman. The horseman himself is allegedly a Hessian soldier from the Revolutionary War who was decapitated by a cannonball and now roams Sleepy Hollow on the back of his horse, with his severed head resting upon the pommel of his saddle. He is therefore also called the 'Galloping Hessian'. The Horseman is said to be incapable of crossing the bridge at the town entrance (a possible reference to the belief that ghosts cannot cross water), although he is shown throwing his head across a river to strike down Ichabod Crane. Ichabod's fate is left ambiguous; some of the background characters allege that he has been "carried off" by the Horseman, while others suggest that he has been frightened out of the county by the ghost and by the prospect of facing his landlord, later to become a lawyer in Philadelphia. Some too say that Ichabod was still alive, married to widow in distant county. It is implied later that the Horseman was in fact Brom Bones, Ichabod's rival for the hand in marriage of the local beauty Katrina van Tassel, who imitated the legend of the Galloping Hessian on purpose to kill or frighten away his competitor. The fact that a shattered pumpkin is found beside Ichabod's abandoned hat supports this, in that the pumpkin may easily have been used to simulate the Horseman's severed head. Intriguingly, there is no mention of a severed head in the story heard by Ichabod, though it is prominent in his own encounter with the horseman.
Other adaptations include collections of short horror stories such as The Headless Horseman: And Other Ghoulish Tales, poems such as The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight: More Poems to Trouble Your Sleep, and even plays such as The Mystery of the Headless Horseman. In A Hollow Sleep by Chris Ebert, the Horseman is given an identity of "Heinrich Luneberg" and his origins explored. The story is told from his perspective (appearing in the book Ophelia and Other Weird Tales).