The legend of 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.
The most recognizable headless horseman is 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. 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.
"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. ”
—Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"
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