As I mentioned in my review of "The Uninvited", I like my ghost stories with a bite of reality. When there is a mystery added in, it makes it even more alluring. Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" has loads of both elements.
It was written in the form of a faux memoir by a character Irving named Diedrich Knickerbocker. Even at the early date of the book's publishing, around 1820, already the revolution and the early settlers were being fetishized. Particularly the Dutch who were considered the very first of families. It was mentioned in Irving's Wikipedia entry that he spent a lot of time in the Tarrytown area as a young boy and Sleepy Hollow was a tribute to that time. Indeed the tone of the story is affectionate but it doesn't shy away from the implication that the people of Sleepy Hollow and the general area were a bit...backwards.
While firmly keeping to a portrait of early New York farming life, Irving mentions as an aside that Sleepy Hollow was a place that seemed enchanted. In the voice of Knickerbocker, he speculates that the area was probably enthralled by either a Dutch or Native American wizard. This was probably the reason that the Sleepy Hollow boys, their familes and neighbors were so convinced of hauntings. Their superstition holding hands with their inbred insularity. The mainstay of the area's nightmares was a story about a mercenary Hessian soldier killed during the revolution. He haunted the byways of Sleepy Hollow searching for the head he lost when killed.
It is remarkable that the visionary propensity I have mentioned is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by every one who resides there for a time. However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions.
Knickerbocker immediately segues into a description of Ichabod Crane. His first noteworthy description was that he is an outsider from Connecticut. A schoolteacher from a state known for it's good education and fine minds. Which is a stark contrast to the sheltered area in which Crane practiced his profession. However Ichabod doesn't fit the mold of a fine mind. He is further described as thin and homely. Even more, the quality of Crane's education is not described but his disciplinary methods certainly are....
All this he called "doing his duty by their parents;" and he never inflicted a chastisement without following it by the assurance, so consolatory to the smarting urchin, that "he would remember it and thank him for it the longest day he had to live."
The narrator notes that Crane was quick to make amends with his students by joining in their after school games. This goodwill also included visiting the homes of his pupils to admire their older sisters and partake of hearty farm food. Basically, Ichabod Crane is not an ambitious man. His plans rarely extend further than his next meal and his talents as a teacher are used to garner free meals. Not that the farm folk hold this against him. He is noted as being a helpful guest and an avid listener to their tales of local hauntings.
He was, in fact, an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity. His appetite for the marvellous, 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.
Ichabod Crane's favorite spook story was that of the doomed Hessian soldier, the Headless Horseman.
This sets the background for the "crime" against Crane. The schoolteacher was well known throughout the area. He was favored by the local farm women for his helpfulness and his spreading of area gossip. If he was well received by the men of the area, Knickerbocker never makes mention of it. Perhaps because Crane always favored the company of women.
Far from entertaining ideas of rising further in his career of teaching, Crane wanted nothing more than to find a wife among the local folk and become a farmer. Unfortunately he set his ambitions for this end a bit too high. Because the narrator mentions that he becomes fixated on the beautiful daughter of Sleepy Hollow's wealthiest farmers, one Katrina Van Tassel. Knickerbocker mentions that Miss Van Tassel expected a large inheritance from her father. However Ichabod Crane is not after Katrina's money in so much as he is after the benefits that her wealth will provide him. Such as a good table with plentiful food. Ichabod is more in love with the Van Tassel larder than he is with the daughter herself. He fantasizes about his marriage life into the Van Tassel clan which includes selling off the old homestead and buying an even larger plot in the South. Accompanied by Katrina, of course, and her many cooking utensils. He valiantly carries on with his ridiculous courtship which is not discouraged by either Baltus Van Tassel or his daughter Katrina.
So enamored of his fantasy meals of the future, Crane neglects to take into account Katrina's other suitor, Abraham "Brom Bones" Van Brunt. Bones is handsome and hearty. A strong contrast to the small and thin Ichabod. Bones is also a lover of sports and practical jokes. While the narrator never mentions the age of Bones, I would put it closer towards Katrina's age than Ichabod's. Brom is noted as being in charge of a local gang of boys. So I would say he had just finished school. What is tantalizing to speculate about is whether or not Bones was one of Crane's older students. It just might be the case and would certainly account for Bones' well founded knowledge of Crane's habits.
Ichabod carefully sidesteps Brom and manages to edge him out of the Van Tassel household gatherings. The jealous younger man is only left with a campaign of escalating practical jokes against Crane in retaliation. It is interesting to note that Brom takes Crane's chances with Katrina very seriously. Despite the fact that Crane is unhandsome, an outsider and a wanderer.
It is during the last party of the season, that inspires Brom to a joke that may have gone wrong. At this party it looks as if Ichabod has won Katrina. Even though the narrator makes it clear that this is not the case. He doesn't describe Katrina's final dismissal of Ichabod's proposals but it is clear that the schoolteacher is discouraged when he leaves the party. Brom was not present to see the last meeting between Ichabod and Katrina. He left earlier with other guests. It is also noted that Bones spent most of the party alone and sulking in a corner. So perhaps his distress finally persuaded Katrina to take a stand against Ichabod's courtship.
During his lonely night ride home from the Van Tassel party, Crane's superstitions get the better of him. The party was full of firelit tales about the Headless Horseman and Crane had soaked them all up. Even the tale told by his jealous rival, Brom Bones. At the height of his fears, he meets up with a traveler who he thinks is the headless horseman. He tries to race his old nag of a horse and since he is not an accomplished rider, quickly loses control of the beast. During the chase, Ichabod loses his saddle which also means he is seated on the horse only by chance. The ghoulish rider pursuing him throws a pumpkin at him which hits him and throws him off the horse.
This is the last we or the townspeople know of Ichabod Crane. The narrator mentions that the hapless schoolmaster disappeared after the attack and his body was never found. The townspeople even searched the lake to find him. However nothing is found the town of Sleepy Hollow quickly forget about the schoolmaster. Their search hardly lasted two days. Also not long after the disappearance, Brom marries Katrina. Bones is known to laugh every time the tale of the missing Ichabod is discussed. Later another resident claims that he saw Ichabod Crane alive in New York City. Ichabod told him that he left Sleepy Hollow because of the attack and he lost his landlord's saddle. He managed to put himself though law school, became a politician and then became a justice in a petty claims court. Most of the townspeople dismiss that story in lieu of the more exciting tale of Ichabod being carried to the afterlife by the headless horseman.
The stories of Brouwer, of Bones, and a whole budget of others were called to mind; and when they had diligently considered them all, and compared them with the symptoms of the present case, they shook their heads, and came to the conclusion that Ichabod had been carried off by the Galloping Hessian. As he was a bachelor, and in nobody's debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him; the school was removed to a different quarter of the hollow, and another pedagogue reigned in his stead.
Well the end has something for everyone. For the ghost lovers, there is a fatal haunting and for the realism demographic we have a possible crime of passion between two suitors for the same woman. If the reader is an optimist, the story gives the possibility of reprieve from both scenarios with Crane living and becoming a justice of the court in NYC.
For myself this all hinges on the possibility of Ichabod Crane surviving being thrown off his horse. The story takes great pains to show that Crane was on a runaway horse, he had no saddle and therefore was barely seated. If had kept his saddle, Crane had a better chance of remaining seated and avoiding a fatal fall. But he was thrown from an animal traveling at breakneck speed. So what were the chances, that if he survived this fall, that he was of sound body to walk away from the scene of the accident? I think its highly unlikely.
Which leads me to the true terror of the story. That Brom Bones in a fit of jealousy undertook an ill conceived plan of revenge against Ichabod and may have killed him. Whatever the case, I don't think Bones stayed at the scene of the accident to check on the condition of the school master. He isn't a man of intelligence but of brawn, and probably didn't dwell on the possibility that the schoolmaster didn't survive. Whatever the case, Bones' laughter every time the story of Ichabod Crane's fate is told is rather chilling. That is the horror of the story.
Of course most like the idea of the ghostly rider carrying poor Ichabod to the afterlife. Just like the residents of Sleepy Hollow.
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