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Is the Tale of the Headless Horseman Real or Myth?

Posted by Alex Alexander • November 25, 2015

Ghost Dullahan
Is the tale of the Headless Horseman real, or just another scary fictional ghost story? Well, yes and no. However, the tale of the Headless Horseman goes a little deeper than then the one we are used to in America.

The traditional story of the Headless Horseman takes place during the 1790s in a community referred to as “Sleepy Hollow” near Tarrytown, New York. Schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, competes with Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt (a local thug) for the hand of Katrina Van Tassel the daughter of a wealthy farmer.

According to the story, a Hessian trooper, who lost his head to a cannonball during the American Revolution, was buried near the Old Dutch Church and was known to haunt the area every night searching for his lost head, causing harm to anyone who got in his way.

One autumn night as Crane leaves a party at the Van Tassel Home, he crosses paths with the Headless Horseman and is never heard from again.

Although, yes, the story itself is fictional, it is largely inspired by reality (so, yes and no). The final showdown between Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman occurs on a bridge near the spot where the horseman is buried.

The Old Dutch Burying Ground, where the alleged gravesite of the horseman is, still stands in the village of Sleepy Hollow. The bridge that is mentioned in the story is referred to as the “Horseman’s Bridge” still exists as well. However, today it takes on a more modern appearance.

Additionally, the characters themselves are based on real residents of the area. It is believed that the character of Ichabod Crane was based on Jesse Merwin, a schoolteacher in Kinderhook. However, Kinderhook is further north in Columbia County. Washington Irving spent several months in Kinderhook during 1809, several years before he published his story in 1820.

Similarly, Katrina Van Tassel is thought to have been based on Eleanor Van Tassel Brush, with the character’s name coming from Eleanor’s aunt Catriena Ecker Van Texel. The gravesites of the Van Tassels, along with the supposed gravesite of the Headless Horseman, are still located within The Old Dutch Burying Ground.

It seems, however, that the famous story by Washington Irving isn’t the only one about a headless horseman in history.

Celtic folklore
The legend of the Irish dullahan or dulachán (“dark man”) is a headless fairy who usually rides a black horse and carries his head on his lap, or holds it high so he can see long distances. He wields a whip made from a human corpse’s spine and when he stops riding, a death occurs. The dullahan will call out a name, and the person named will immediately die.

A prominent Scottish tale of a headless horseman concerns a man named Ewen who was decapitated in a clan battle at Glen Cainnir on the Isle of Mull. The battle denied him any chance of being a chieftain, and both he and his horse are said to be headless.

German folklore
The German legends of the Brothers Grimm (Deutsche Sagen) is about two German folk tales of a headless horseman being spotted with their own eyes.

One of the tales is set near Dresden in Saxony. In this tale, a woman from Dresden goes out early one Sunday morning to gather acorns in a forest. At a spot called “Lost Waters”, she hears a hunting horn. When she hears it again, she turns around and sees a headless man in a long grey coat sitting on a grey horse.

Another German tale which is set in Brunswick in Lower Saxony, a headless horseman called “the wild huntsman” blows a horn to warn hunters not to ride the next day, because they will meet with an accident.

In some of the German versions, the headless horseman seeks out people who have committed capital crimes. In others, he has a pack of black hounds with tongues of fire.

Although the tale of a headless horseman has been told in different countries, the famous story of The Headless Horseman is all American. So be very careful when riding your horse home from a party in the middle of the night and keep an eye out for a guy with such a bad attitude, he is always quick to lose his head.

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