October is the month when many people enjoy spooky stories, so I decided to write about one of Washington Irving’s famous tales, first published in 1820.
Near Tarry Town is quiet Sleepy Hollow, filled with “local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions.” Dominant amongst the spirits the locals talk about is the figure of a headless man on horseback. He is said to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier who’s head was carried away by a cannon ball during the revolutionary war, and he now rides near the church yard, in search of what he lost.
A new schoolmaster came to Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod Crane was a tall, lanky man, who dressed in baggy, fluttering clothes. He had “hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves,” and “his whole frame loosely hung together.” Ichabod earned extra shillings as the singing master, attempting to teach people psalmody – how to sing psalms in church.
Ichabod often visited the homes of students who had either pretty sisters, or mothers who were good cooks. The schoolmaster was popular with the womenfolk, for he was a man of learning. He was often invited to sit by the fireside and listen to tales of ghosts and goblins. Ichabod owned a copy of Cotton Mather’s History of New England Witchcraft, and he would share his thoughts on the subject of witches.
He was a believer in ghosts and witches – especially when he had to walk home in the dark. After a night of ghost stories every sound and shadow meant danger to the gangling, timid man.
One of Ichabod Crane’s singing students was Katrina Van Tassal, the pretty daughter of a prosperous farmer. The schoolmaster was smitten by Katrina, and he longed to have a share of her father’s money.
Katrina had another suitor by the name of Abraham Van Brunt, who was often called Brom Bones. Brom was a big, strong handsome man who was used to besting his rivals through fighting. But Ichabod didn’t fight, and no man could use his fists on such a weakling and keep the respect of his neighbors, so Brom took to playing pranks on the schoolmaster. One evening Brom and a few friends broke into the schoolhouse and turned all of the furnishings upside down. When Ichabod saw the mess he thought it had been the work of witches.
Ichabod was invited to a merrymaking at the Van Tassal home, and he spent extra time brushing his only suit, and peering at himself in a piece of a broken looking glass. To impress the Van Tassals he borrowed a horse from the farmer he was boarding with. The animal he’d been lent was a “broken-down plough horse, that had outlived almost everything but his viciousness.”
Upon arriving at the festivities Ichabod found plenty of good food, and he was able to dance with pretty Katrina. He then joined a group that was telling ghost stories. Brom Bones stated that he had once had a horse race with the headless horseman, and he would have won, but when they got to the church bridge the headless man vanished in a flash of fire.
It was late when Ichabod left the merrymaking, and he didn’t like being out after dark. Who – or what – was that strange figure he thought he saw coming towards him? Could his over-active imagination be getting the best of him, or could a rival be playing a prank? If it was something more sinister, would it vanish in a flash of fire once he got to the church bridge? Would a vicious broken-down horse be a reliable steed for the frightened, superstitious schoolmaster?
My copy of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is 49 pages long, so it didn’t take much more than an hour to read. While Ichabod Crane doesn’t meet my hero standards I felt sympathy for the poor, foolish man, and wished him well – though it didn’t break my heart when he failed to marry a wealthy farmer’s daughter.
While Hollywood has upped the scary-level on modern versions of Sleepy Hollow and Ichabod Crane, Washington Irving’s original story is a slightly-spooky tale about superstitions and legends, with a dose of humor added for good measure. If you’d like to read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow you can download it free of charge at: