Headless Horseman (Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

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The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (1858) by John Quidor.

The Headless Horseman is a fictional character from the short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by American author Washington Irving. The story, from Irving's collection of short stories entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., has worked itself into known American folklore/legend through literature and film. It is generally about a Headless Horseman.


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, along with 34 other of Irving's essays. The story is set in New York, within a 1790s Dutch settlement that residents nicknamed “Sleepy Hollow”. Its protagonist is a schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane, whose unknown final fate results from a meeting with the horseman.

The horseman himself is allegedly a Hessian soldier from the American 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 Ichabod was still alive, that he had been frightened out of the county by the ghost (and by the prospect of facing his bad-tempered landlord) and was pursuing a successful legal career in a distant part of New York (in the Disney animated film, he is supposed to have married a wealthy widow).

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 frighten and chase away his rival. 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).

The Headless Horseman is also a novel by Mayne Reid written in 1865 or 1866 and is based on the author's adventures in the United States.

Popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  • Battle, Kemp P. Great American Folklore. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1986.
  • Crooke, William, Popular Religion and Folk-Lore of Northern India (Dehli: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1896 [1893]), Vol. I, p. 258. (This book carries an extensive chapter on the Rakshasa, as well.)
  • Hallenbeck, Cleve and J.H. William. Legends of the Spanish Southwest. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1938.
  • Irving, Washington, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (New York: Signet Classics, 1981 [1820]), pp. 330–331.
  • Leach, M. The Rainbow Book of American Folk Tales and Legends. New York: The World Publishing Co., 1958
  • The Legend of Sleepy Hollow(1820);(Marvel) Uncanny Tales #22, July 1954.
  • Winkle, Michael D. Here Comes a Chopper to Chop Off Your Head
  • Hayday, Andria; William Connors, Bruce Nesmith, James Lowder (1991). Darklords. TSR. ISBN 1-56076-137-7.

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