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What Inspired 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow'?

October 10, 2019 in History

By Lesley Kennedy

The classic short story is considered an example of early American folklore. But tales of headless horseman have been around since the Middle Ages.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow resurfaces every year around Halloween. Washington Irving’s 1820 tale of a headless horseman who terrorizes the real-life village of Sleepy Hollow is considered one of America’s first ghost stories—and one of its scariest.

But Irving didn’t invent the idea of a headless rider. Tales of headless horsemen can be traced to the Middle Ages, including stories from the Brothers Grimm and the Dutch and Irish legend of the “Dullahan” or “Gan Ceann,” a Grim Reaper-like rider who carries his head.

Elizabeth Bradley, a historian at Historic Hudson Valley, says a likely source for Irving’s horseman can be found in Sir Walter Scott’s 1796 The Chase, which is a translation of the German poem The Wild Huntsman by Gottfried Bürger and likely based on Norse mythology.

American author Washington Irving (1783-1859).

“Irving had just met and become friends with Scott in 1817 so it’s very likely he was influenced by his new mentor’s work,” she says, “The poem is about a wicked hunter who is doomed to be hunted forever by the devil and the ‘dogs of hell’ as punishment for his crimes.”

READ MORE: The Dark Side of the Grimm Fairy Tales

According to the New York Historical Society, others believe Irving was inspired by “an actual Hessian soldier who was decapitated by a cannonball during the Battle of White Plains, around Halloween 1776.”

Irving’s story takes place in the New York village of Sleepy Hollow, in Westchester County. In it, lanky newcomer and schoolmaster Ichabod Crane courts Katrina van Tassel, a young heiress who is also being pursued by the Dutchman Brom Bones. After being rebuffed by Katrina at a party at the van Tassel farm where ghost stories are shared, Ichabod is chased by a headless horseman (who may or may not be his rival) who hurls a pumpkin at the man, throwing Ichabod from his horse. The schoolmaster vanishes.

Irving may have drawn inspiration for his story while a teenager in the Tarrytown region. He moved to the area in 1798 to flee a yellow fever outbreak in New York City, according to the New York Historical Society.

He “would have been introduced to local ghost stories and lore at an impressionable age,” Bradley says.“He cleverly weaves …read more


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