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Why The Horseman Has No Head In ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’

A historian gives a surprising interpretation of a classic

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is one of America’s great ghost stories, maybe its greatest.

Washington Irving tells a fast-paced, suspenseful tale of the superstitious Ichabod Crane, a schoolmaster who hopes to marry a rich farmer’s daughter, Katrina Van Tassel.

Katrina has also caught the eye of the prankster Abraham “Brom” Bones, and one autumn night, she rejects Ichabod at a party at which Brom and others tell ghost stories. Galloping home, Ichabod sees a headless horseman who flings his missing “head” at him — an act that so terrifies the schoolmaster that he flees town.

A traditional interpretation of this early 1800s tale is that a disguised Brom duped the gullible Ichabod by flinging a pumpkin at him. The historian Amanda Foreman has suggested another: Might Katrina symbolize the danger that a man could lose his head over a woman?

“To some,” Foreman has written, “the mere possibility is a fate worse than death.”

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has inspired movie, TV, picture book, and other adaptations. You might like this 50th anniversary trailer for one of the earliest, Disney’s 1949 The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad:



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Janice Harayda

Critic, novelist, award-winning journalist. Former book editor of the Plain Dealer and book columnist for Glamour. Words in NYT, WSJ, and other major media.