A Headless Hessian in Sleepy Hollow

Cover Image- The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor (public domain)

In some form or another most of us heard the Washington Irving short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This terrifying tale is known as America’s first Ghost Story. If you haven’t read the tale of a headless horseman who pursues poor Ichabod Crane on a gloomy night, maybe you’ve seen a movie or even the Disney Cartoon? But an important detail that sometimes slips by the reader or viewer…. it was a Headless HESSIAN in Sleepy Hollow. That’s right… the boogey-man that carried his head on the pommel of his saddle, who bashed Ichabod with a pumpkin… came from Germany.

So, let’s find out some more about the Headless Horseman, the Hessian “mercenaries” who fought in the Revolutionary War, and little bit about Washington Irving.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (a very brief summary)

In Sleepy Hollow, near Tarrytown New York, a schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane hears supernatural and ghostly tales while visiting the local Dutch farmers. One of the more frightening is the Tale of the Headless Horseman!  According to legend, the headless horseman came to the American colonies as a Hessian soldier during the Revolutionary war, and lost his head to a cannonball during the battle of White Plains against Washington’s army. Now, the Headless Hessian in Sleepy Hollow rides the countryside by night reenacting the battle with his head mounted on the pommel of his saddle, before returning to the graveyard at daybreak.

Ichabod has a wild crush on Katharina Von Tassel, and fantasizes about having her on his arm… and enjoying the riches and food on the Van Tassel farm. He’s invited to a gathering at the farm, and borrows a horse named Gunpowder to take him there. At the party, he eats and dances, but also gets involved in the sharing of ghost stories. Then he makes a play for Katharina… but is apparently rebuffed.

On the dark slow ride home, a sad Ichabod rolls those ghost stories around in his head, getting more and more spooked by the noises of the night. Then a strangely shaped horseman appears…Ichabod encourages Gunpowder to pick up the pace, but the horseman keeps up. When Ichabod takes a closer look, he sees that the rider has no head! He kicks Gunpowder into a run, but the headless horseman keeps up. They get to the bridge, that according to the legend the horseman can’t cross. When he reaches the other side, Ichabod looks back, just in time to see the head being launched at him. It knocks him to the ground.

The next morning, all that remains is Ichabod’s hat and a smashed pumpkin…

(You can read the entire story here)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by E Hull
Edward Hull, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 Does a Headless Hessian in Sleepy Hollow fit into American History?

A good folk story or ghost story always contains just enough “real” details to make the fantastical seem plausible.

Sleepy Hollow IS a real place. Although it was officially called North Tarrytown until recently.  And the Battle of White Plains did take place only ten miles away. And those Hessian soldiers? Because of their skill and bloodthirsty reputation on the battlefield, people remembered them with fear. And there is a story that American Major General William Heath wrote of an incident in the November 1, 1776 battle, when “a shot from the American cannon at this place took off the head of a Hessian artilleryman”. (The day after Halloween!!)

But why were Hessians fighting in the Revolutionary War?

Hessian Mercenaries in the Revolutionary War

(First…Very long history lesson cut VERY short- During the French-Indian War Great Britain went heavily into debt, and taxed the American colonists to pay it off. The American colonists grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of representation and increased taxation, so acts of rebellion and skirmishes broke out. The colonists finally declared independence from Great Britain. The crown was not amused… and we have a Revolutionary War) 

Great Britain maintained soldiers in the American colonies, and it may have been enough to quell a local issue, there weren’t enough to take on an entire war. (In fact, these soldiers needed quartering with the colonists, which is why we have Bill of Rights Amendment 3). And the population of Great Britain really wasn’t enough to round up a large army to send to the colonies. Fortunately, there was a solution, Hessian Soldiers.

Hessian jager
Eighteenth-century illustration of two Hessian soldiers from Wikipedia commons

What we think of as modern Germany was established in  1871. Before this, the land of the German speaking people was called the Holy Roman Empire. All or some parts of the HRE were at war a LOT (just starting in the 1500s there was the Italian war, the Schmalkaldic Wars, Peasant War, Thirty Years War, Franco-Prussian war, War of Polish Succession, Silesian wars, etc… you get the idea).  Some of the principalities under the HRE got really good at fighting. So good, in fact, that it became quite lucrative to hire out soldiers or auxiliaries (legally, the term is auxiliary, not mercenary) to other countries who needed a hand.

Especially, the Hessians.

Hesse-Kassel may have been a small state, but the leaders figured out early that they could make money by hiring out soldiers. Their soldiers were incredibly well disciplined, and very good at their job. The men went to war in their own uniforms, under their own banner, incentivized by good pay and an exception from taxes. And, as soldiers, they were a step up the ladder from mere peasants, making it a (relatively) decent job.

George III hired approximately 30,000 of these Hessian soldiers to fight under the leadership of Wilhelm von Knyphausen, primarily in the northern colonies. These fierce warriors made up about 1/3 of the British forces, and helped them gain the upper hand in early battles… but then along came Prussian born Baron von Steuben, who trained the Americans, turning the tide of the war.

During and after the war, German-Americans tried to convince the Hessians to stay in America, and around 5000- 6000 did. They settled mostly in the Mid-Atlantic states and in Canada. (7500, about 1/4 of the Hessian soldiers died during the Revolutionary war… most from disease).

Washington Irving

Washington Irving’s family came from Scotland and England, and he grew up in Manhattan (a former Dutch colony). At age 6, he was introduced to George Washington, his namesake, who his parents very much admired. His short stories, essays, and historical works make him one of the most important early American writers.

Irving-Washington-LOCAnd although he is not German… I’ve bumped into his name several times while researching Germans in America.

We can thank Irving for his 1809 A History of New York, for making St. Nicholas a part of American Christmas, but also turning for Christmas into something for children, and not just a day of drinking. In England, the 12 Days of Christmas were celebrated with feasting, drinking and gambling. The Puritans despised this tradition, and originally outlawed Christmas debauchery in the colonies, but finally gave in and allowed the English to carry on. Only the Pennsylvania Dutch celebrated the holiday in a way we would find familiar. Although Irving did put the Santa Claus twist on it by writing “good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children”, dropping them down the chimney, we now celebrate in a style somewhat familiar to Germans.

His short story Rip Van Winkel, found in the collection of short stories The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. published 1819-1820 (which also contains 4 stories about Christmas… and more importantly, the Legend of Sleepy Hollow), is actually a retelling of the Johann Karl Christoph Nachtigal’s story, “Der Ziegenhirt” (‘The Goatherd’) aka. “Peter Klaus”, about a Goatherd who drinks some wine, and falls asleep for 20 years… waking up with a very long beard. You can read it here

And of course, the Headless Hessian in Sleepy Hollow…. the ultimate boogey man….which may have been influenced by the German poem The Wild Huntsman by Gottfried Bürger. The Wild Hunt legend always involves the supernatural chasing unsuspecting peasants and hunters. It’s easy to see how the ghostly Hessian and Ichabod Crane  could be another chapter in that legendary tale…

German Influences on American Stories

As a child, Washington Irving visited Tarrytown to escape the Yellow Fever epidemic in Manhattan. There he got to know the area, and the graveyard. Later in life he said he wrote the stories based on the people he met while there. Irving lived out his final years in Tarrytown, and is buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

These stories that Washington Irving wrote are a reminder that German influences in America’s formation were quite strong. The legends brought by German immigrants, and their part in the foundation of this country, are deeply woven into the literature and culture of America.

Special Thanks to instructor Mike Haas, who is teaching Of Breaking Bonds, The German-American Experience – a DANK Haus history course for sparking the idea for this post!


Of Breaking Bonds, The German-American Experience – DANK Haus history course taught by Mike Haas

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Headless Horseman and the Revolutionary War

What Inspired the Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is America’s First Ghost Story

How Christmas was Celebrated in the 13 colonies

How Washington Irving shaped Christmas In America

World of Tales – Peter Klaus

One thought on “A Headless Hessian in Sleepy Hollow

  1. Loved ALL of this….my parents are from Hesse……Schlitz and the Kassel area!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!