“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving is one of the most well-known and widely recognized fables connected with Halloween. Unfortunate school teacher Ichabod Crane is first rejected at a Harvest party by his love, Katrina Van Tassel, and on his way home is followed and assaulted by the mysterious Headless Horseman who rides throughout town with only a carved jack-o’-lantern on his shoulders, searching for his lost head or the head of another to replace it. To add insult to injury, Ichabod is never seen again and Katrina marries the other man who had been his rival for her love, Brom Bones.
This story has been widely adapted in the nearly two centuries since it was written, most recently in the current TV show “Sleepy Hollow,” and is one of the best known American folk tales. When I started to do some digging into the background behind the story, however, it surprised me to learn just how much of his story Irving based on popular myths or in some cases, real people.
Two men were the basis for his ill-fated hero, Ichabod Crane. One was a U.S. Army officer by the name of Ichabod Crane and the other was a schoolmaster living in Kinderhook, NY named Jesse Merwin, who was a friend of Irving’s. Surprisingly enough, by all accounts Crane hated being associated with the tale and tried to avoid it, while Merwin enjoyed the role that he played.
Kinderhook, where Irving met Merwin, was also one of the places the village of Sleepy Hollow was reportedly based upon. In 1820, when the story was published, there was actually no town in the Hudson Valley named Sleepy Hollow. Years later, North Tarrytown changed its name to Sleepy Hollow, much to the chagrin of Kinderhook, who had still been vying for the honor of being the basis for the village.
Demonic and terrifying horsemen are a fairly common trope throughout many folklores around the world. For example, the Irish Dullahan is said to carry a whip that is actually a human skull and if anyone sees it killing another, the Dullahan will throw a bucket of blood on the unfortunate eyewitness and mark them for the next murder. There’s also a story of a Wild Huntsman in Germany, who raced around forests on horseback with a pack of deadly hounds, chasing down anyone who got in their way. What’s particularly interesting to note is that there’s no proof that Irving had access to these tales before he wrote “Sleepy Hollow,” meaning that he could have come up with the idea of the Headless Horseman himself or it could have had its start in local legends that Irving heard while living in the area of the Hudson Valley.
The Horseman, my personal favorite character in the tale, was said to be a Hessian soldier in the Revolutionary War who had his head blown off by a cannonball—hence why he was looking for a new one. Irving himself had been born only in 1783, but he had served as an aid to New York Governor Daniel D. Tompkins and through his job met many soldiers, including the namesake of Ichabod Crane. Given that the story came out less than 50 years after the Revolutionary War, it’s no surprise that Irving chose to villify a Hessian; the modern day equivalent would be having a decapitated Nazi for a story written in the late 1980s or early 1990s, as Nazis continue to be popular choices for antagonists in fiction today.
Does knowing that these people who the tale was based on actually existed make the story any less creepy? Or does knowing this somehow make it more real, and more frightening, darlings?
What’s your favorite Halloween folk tale? Tell us in the comments or tweet us @litdarling.
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