Book In Common: Should we feel sorry for the lonely Headless Horseman?

Halloween has almost snuck up on me this year, I been so busy with various things. It’s only one day a year, so I like to get as much as I can out of it – not just candy!   It’s fun to read a ghost story in the morning, puts  that chill in your bones, sets your nerves on edge, and your hair on end.

The Headless Horseman is one of our greatest ghosts, from one of our earliest American-born authors, although, this legend has it’s roots in Europe. It’s an old story with a character common to the old days, “the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle…”  This Hessian was apparently buried at the cemetery of a later-abandoned church, and as you’d guess, spent his nights traversing the roads between the cemetery and the long-forgotten battlefield, in search of his head. 

I knew a person who was decapitated, and knowing her as well as I did, I know she would not have left this earth without possession of her head, having forever been known as a woman who kept her head in any kind of situation. It makes sense.

So, you’re out one night with your sweetie, or say, coming home from the bar, and you see a rider approaching. All friendly like, you hail this person, even though you notice his clothes are kinda strange… And then the next day, feeling pretty lucky to be alive, you wonder, “should I share  this with my friends?”  And then you find yourself back at Duffys the following Friday night, and after a couple of Bigfoot Ales, you’re ready to tell your story, with certain embellishments of course.  This is how legends are born. 

There was no tv back in those days, and I guess being pretty eager for entertainment, they believed just about anything. So, this story made it’s rounds, and this apparition was quickly and aptly named, “The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.” 

Washington Irving had been born within a week of the surrender of General Cornwallis to George Washington. His Dutch parents were so impressed they named him after General Washington. He grew up hearing the stories and legends of the  war, and spent his youth wandering the woods of Sleepy Hollow. As he heard these stories his mind separated the best parts of each story, and having met many interesting characters in the town and seen interesting names in the cemetery, he came up with one, longer, more organized story that has been handed down now for over 200 years, made into movies, and now a really awful tv show. I’d recommend the original, which you can find here:

Irving had heard a story of a Hessian, or German, trooper buried in a local churchyard by a prominent family – the Van Tassels. The Hessians had been hired from King Frederich by British King George – a horrible gambler, George had huge debts, and couldn’t keep his own army. He rented one from King Frederich, and sent them across the Atlantic to harass American citizens. They came from the district of Hesse – Hessians.

I can’t help but feel for the Germans – they were having a horrible depression, their lands were burnt over from wars dating back to Roman times,  heavily deforested and over-farmed. For hundreds of years the Germans left home, looking for wealth, because their homeland was had over by various robber barons, split up between warlords, generally ruined. Germany’s a tough country, it’s amazing they’re still there at all.

I don’t know if you’ve heard the story of Washington Crossing the Delaware – here’s Mad Magazine’s take on that great event, I have this poster hanging over my kitchen sink:

He did so in the middle of Christmas Eve because the Americans did not yet celebrate Christmas, it was the Germans who gave us the Christmas with a decorated tree and a fat man in a red suit. General Washington knew the Hessians, away from their families on a big holiday, would get drunk. So he snuck across the river at midnight – apparently dressed to the nines –  and jumped them unawares. 30 Hessians died. This was not only a “humiliation” for the Hessians, but I’d say, pretty sad.

So this legend has a sad and lonely feel to it, right up until the horseman is fast on somebody’s behind. We quickly lose sympathy for this character as he bears down on the victim – maybe he’s tired of searching for his own head, long gone, and he’s decided to settle for someone else’s!






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