American author Washington Irving was born April 3, 1783. He was the 11th child of immigrant parents and was named after the hero of the American Revolution, George Washington. His family became merchants in Manhattan, New York City. When Irving was 15, his family became concerned for his health and sent him to live with a friend in Tarrytown, New York. “It was in Tarrytown, that Irving became familiar with the nearby town of Sleepy Hollow, with its quaint Dutch customs and local ghost stories.”
Washington Irving studied law but barely managed to pass the bar because he was too interested in socializing with his friends and with writing. Irving and some of his friends started a successful literary magazine, Salmagundi. In the November 11, 1807 issue, Irving first nicknamed New York City “Gotham” based on an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “Goat’s Town.”
When the War of 1812 began, Irving’s merchant family was worried about their business and initially opposed the war. The British attack on Washington D.C. in 1814 changed their minds and Washington Irving enlisted and served on the staff of the governor of New York and commander of the New York State Militia. In 1815, Irving went to England to try to repair the damaged family merchant business. But the business went bankrupt. With no job and little money, Washington Irving turned to his first love, writing. He published his first book, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., serially in 1819 through 1820. This book contained Irving’s two most famous tales, “Rip Van Wrinkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and was a huge international success.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is set in 1790 in the area around Tarrytown, New York that and is “the tale of Ichabod Crane, a lean, lanky and extremely superstitious schoolmaster from Connecticut, who competes with Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, the town rowdy, for the hand of 18-year old Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and sole child of a wealthy farmer.” Washington Irving set the story in locales he had visited when he was young. He may also have based many of his characters on people who lived in the area and people he had met. Irving had met an army captain named Ichabod Crane during the War of 1812. But the character of the fictional Crane may be based on a schoolmaster Irving met in 1809. The character of the lovely Katrina Van Tassel may be based on either Catriena Van Tessel or her niece Eleanor Van Tassel Bush, both of whom lived in Sleepy Hollow. Abraham Martling may be the inspriation for Brom Bones. The “Headless Horseman” is based on legends Irving heard while traveling through Europe when he was 21. The village of Sleepy Hollow itself, Irving visited the area when he was young, was originally named North Tarrytown but in 1996 the village officially adopted the traditional and more famous name of the area.
Washington Irving’s writing in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is very flowery but also very flowing. Fellow authors of Irving’s time, Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, both loved the story. Scott called it “positively beautiful” and Byron said “I know it by heart.” Irving paints lovely and very detailed word pictures. He describes the village of Sleepy Hollow: “There is a little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world” and “A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.”
One of my favorite passages in the story is where Irving describes the superstitious people of Sleepy Hollow and their strange headless spectre: “They are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole nine fold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols. 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.”
Katrina, the object of the schoolmaster’s desire, is described as “a blooming lass of fresh eighteen; plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy-checked as one of her father’s peaches.” Schoolmaster Ichabod Crane might see her as mouthwatering in part because he so enjoys eating. Crane himself is described as “tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together.”
Ichabod Crane also has an appetite for the supernatural which has only been fed by the local tales and legends: “He was in fact, an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity. His appetite for the marvelous and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell-bound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow.”
Once Ichabod begins his journey to his fateful meeting with Sleepy Hollow’s head spook, the story rockets along quickly. His first sight of the apparition is described: “In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.”
Washington Irving never really tells you what it is Ichabod Crane saw and he never really tells you what happened to Ichabod. He drops some hints but leaves it up to the reader to decide. And readers, over the years, have decided that they are fascinated with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
The story has been retold many times in many different media. Some of these versions are fairly faithful to the original tale and others zoom off into wild fantasy. Two versions are in the Public Domain: a 1922 silent film and a 1934 cartoon.
Headless Horseman was released in 1922. It stars the legendary and hugely popular humorist Will Rogers as a smug and petty Ichabod Crane. This is actually a drawback. Will Rogers was so likeable that it is hard to see him as the type of egotistical and greedy character the movie portrays as Ichabod Crane. Will Rogers wears his hair in a ridiculous queue and affects a stiff, short-stride shuffle and often looks blankly ridiculous but there is just to much of his famous amenableness showing to really make it believable.
There are also several notable differences between the original story and this film. Headless Horseman adds a completely silly plotline about Ichabod Crane making enemies, Brom Bones trying to frame Ichabod for witchcraft, and the townsfolk wanting to tar and feather Crane. The Brom Bones in the original story was described as being rowdy but good-natured. The movie Brom Bones may smile and laugh at times but he is also very conniving, short tempered, and mean. The movie also leaves the viewer with no doubt at all as to the true nature of the headless ghost.
Headless Horseman is very dark and blurry in places which makes it hard to really see some of the action. The special effects are laughably primitive and not at all original. The end sequence does give the movie some action and laughs but there are no real scares at all. This copy of the film has an added sound track which is suitably spooky at times but annoying and loud at others. Headless Horseman is just over 70 minutes long and is free in the Public Domain but it’s two biggest draws is that it was the first feature photographed on panchromatic negative film and the wonderful Will Rogers. Unfortunately the movie is so dark you can not really see the advantages of the film and Will Rogers’ talents are vastly underused.
A 1934 cartoon titled The Headless Horseman is also in the Public Domain. This is a quick little film that is just over eight minutes long. The cartoon follows the original tale pretty closely except it adds an explosive temper (for laughs) to Brom Bones.
One of the biggest points of interest about The Headless Horseman is that the cartoon was made by Ub Iwerks. Iwerks was considered to be one of Walt Disney’s oldest friends. Iwerks spent most of his career working with Disney and co-created the iconic Disney characters Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse. Unfortuantely, The Headless Horseman does not really make good use of Iwerk’s talents. The characters mostly look unpleasant and unsympathetic although the animation does bare a faint resemblance to early Disney features.
Washington Irving’s popular tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” is getting an all new imagining in the current TV series Sleepy Hollow. This version is not just a retelling of the original story, this version takes the original story and runs to the hills with it. Sleepy Hollow premiered on American television in September 2013 and stars Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane, Nicole Beharie as totally new character Lt. Abbie Mills, and Katia Winter as Ichabod’s wife Katrine Van Tassel Crane. There is no Brom Bones so far. In the series, “Ichabod Crane is resurrected and pulled two and a half centuries through time to unravel a mystery that dates all the way back to the founding fathers.”
While aerial footage of the television series is filmed over the actual village of Sleepy Hollow most of the rest of the location footage was filmed in North Carolina. There are many other differences from Irving’s story. The TV Ichabod is an Englishman who becomes an American Revolutionary War soldier not a Connecticut schoolmaster, although the TV Ichabod also used to teach university in England. The TV Katrina is a witch and married to Ichabod not just a wealthy farmer’s daughter. There are also many new and modern characters added to the story as well as plotlines involving time travel, demons, witches, and ghosts. The Headless Horseman is Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, not just a local spook or a sneaky trick.
While Sleepy Hollow is giving Washington Irving’s tale a modern twist is seems to be following in the original’s footsteps as far as popularity goes. The new television series is a resounding success and has already been picked up for the next television season.
Part of Sleepy Hollow’s success is that its stars are all good looking, likeable, and talented but part of its success is that the story has made the transition to the modern era so well. “First and foremost, the series boasts one of the most diverse casts anywhere on television.” This diversity has led to a candid attitude towards race. The series jumps right in with a conversation between Ichabod Crane and Lt. Abbie Mills in the very first episode where he asks her “You’ve been emancipated, I take it?”
The television series also has great diversity of gender and features three very different but all very strong female characters: Lt. Abbie Mills, her sister Jenny, and Crane’s wife Katrina. Unlike far too many other female characters in movies and TV, these three waste no time fighting over one man and actually talk to each other about something other then men. In one episode, the three women even rescue poor Ichabod from danger.
Sleepy Hollow also has an element of self-aware humor similar to the humor in the original “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” but totally missing from the 1922 silent film and the 1934 cartoon. The new TV series also makes fantastic use of modern technology to engage its fan base. In a way, that is sort of like the way Washington Irving, himself, would attend parties and events in character as his alter ego author Geoffrey Crayon.
Sleepy Hollow is not in the Public Domain but you can watch it currently on television and also on several select websites. Washington Irving’s tale and the silent film and the cartoon are all available FREE in the Public Domain in a variety of places.
Please click the link to download or read online “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving at The Internet Archive.
Please click this link to download “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” from Feedbooks.
Please click this link to download or read Irving’s original story at Project Gutenberg.
You can download or read online the entire The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. at this link for Project Gutenberg.
Project Gutenberg also has “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in Esperanto for the adventurous.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is also available in audio book form in several versions.
Chip reads the story in 1 part in 1 hour and 23 minutes at The Internet Archive and at LibriVox.
Bob Neufeld reads the story in 2 parts in a little over 81 minutes at The Internet Archive and at LibriVox.
And Phil Chenevert reads the story in 3 parts at 1 hour and 25 minutes at The Internet Archive and at LibriVox.
Click this link for an audio book at Project Gutenberg
To watch the 1922 silent film Headless Horseman please click the link and go to The Internet Archive. You can watch it online or download it.
You can also watch the 1934 cartoon The Headless Horseman online or download it at the link at The Internet Archive.