By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
Something Headless This Way Comes…
“There was something in the moody and dogged silence of this pertinacious companion that was mysterious and appalling. It was soon fearfully accounted for.” Years ago a friend suggested that the headlessness of the Headless Horseman would be intriguing to contemplate. It’s true that the horseman represents or symbolizes something more than your average bogeyman. Why is a headless ghost on horseback more terrifying than, say, just a ghost on horseback? What does a character without a head symbolize?
Many years ago my daughter suggested that a rider without a head is clearly a ghost—there’s no question about it. According to Washington Irving, the Headless Horseman is a Hessian soldier whose head was “carried away” by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War. The unfortunate trooper was buried in the Old Dutch Burying Ground, and he rides forth at night to haunt the neighborhood and revisit his fateful scene of battle, usually rushing back to the graveyard before sunup.
Irving observes in one of his essays that a tradition of the headless spirit existed here before he wrote his famous story in 1819. In fact, Irving relates that the legend was previously well known to himself and members of the Tarrytown-based William Paulding family. Later in life, Irving remembered first hearing the story from an African American mill hand at Carl’s Mill (aka The Sleepy Hollow Mill) about 1797. Chronologically speaking, the legend of the horseman could not have been much more than fifteen years old when Irving heard it, since the war had ended only that many years before.
We think of the Headless Horseman as both physically and psychically powerful, yet, in life, this Hessian soldier was a pathetic, powerless victim of battle. In fact, a Hessian soldier was the pawn of his German prince, who sold thousands of young men into the service of the British king. His inglorious decapitation by a bounding American cannonball on a Westchester battlefield ended the life of one who was fated to be no more than cannon fodder. But in afterlife, he assumed a new stature—the powerful and horrible mascot of his Dutch American enemies. It is recorded that a troop of Hessians based in Yonkers and the Bronx made frequent, harsh raids on the people of the Tarrytown area during the war, making the Hessian nature of the spirit all the more frightening.
When my older son was a toddler, he interpreted a pumpkin smashed on the road as irrefutable evidence of a visit from the Headless Horseman. Today he likens the legend of the Horseman to the terror tactics of a bully. The implication is that Brom Bones is behind the encounter of the ghost with Ichabod Crane. Brom wants to run the schoolmaster out of town and uses Ichabod’s superstitious nature to get what he wants. Fear is used a weapon—a silly local legend scares off Brom’s rival.
But what is the hidden meaning of the ghost’s headlessness? My younger son suggests that a headless trooper on horseback seems more menacing because it lacks a face, the feature most expressive of our humanity and what we are thinking and feeling. The Headless Horseman is an inhuman, unnatural stalker presumably looking for a replacement head. Irving tells us, that the ghost is “in nightly quest of his head,” but perhaps anyone’s will do. A local psychiatrist takes the interpretation of headlessness to a Freudian level— It’s not so much a matter of what is above the shoulders, but below the belt. He adds, “Without a head i.e. knowledge, superego, wisdom—the impulses and the body take over and run amuck.”
Along the same lines a movement therapist (and Sleepy Hollow High School graduate), suggests that when a headless figure springs into action, we are confronted by the troubling power of bodily instinct. “We would like to believe that we control everything with our heads, but the body and the spirit have minds of their own.”
I have a different take on the meaning of the Headless Horseman; I see him as the agent of a kind of xenophobia. We residents of Sleepy Hollow find the Horseman less intimidating than the wide-eyed visitors who inquire after Horseman sightings. We hold the ghost in less awe and view him with even a comfortable familiarity. On some level, the headless ghost may symbolize the power of the initiated over the uninitiated, the power of those who “belong” over those who do not. In post-colonial times the Headless Horseman was a mystic weapon of old timers who eyed suspiciously the new arrivals seeking to break up, or break into, a community set in its ways. The Horseman can be viewed as a protector of blood ties and values that endure more through instinct and mindless familiarity than through reason.
A headless figure certainly must lack reason; a headless rider is an unguided, brute force, dangerous and unpredictable. The pseudo-intellectual, Ichabod Crane, brings with him the trappings of education and reason, but he is betrayed by an underlying nitwit vulnerability to superstition. Ichabod poses as a valuable, cultivated newcomer among the simple Dutch-American people of the locale. Yet, the schoolmaster ultimately reveals himself to be a coward, a gluttonous phony… a “carpetbagger”. Ichabod is blind to the tactless inappropriateness of his grab for the crown jewel of the rustic community—Katrina Van Tassel, the pretty heir to the comfortable Van Tassel farm. Enter the Headless Horseman, an agent of Sleepy Hollow’s distrust of the outsider.
Today, we continue an easy familiarity with our headless spirit. He is the mascot of our high school football team—a ghastly symbol posed to awe and impress our opponents at home games. Go Horsemen!
Copyright 2012 Henry John Steiner
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