“This was found among the papers of the Late Diedrich Knickerbocker.” So began one of America’s favorite ghost stories. The setting is on the Eastern shore of the Hudson River, in a town named Tarrytown. Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was one of his 34 essays and short stories published in 1820 in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, (a pseudonym). Many artists have illustrated the famous tale and have done Washington Irving credit.
Ichabod Crane was from Connecticut, and he “tarried” in Sleepy Hollow for a while to teach in the school and give music lessons. The title character in the print “Ichabod Crane” (1892) (unknown artist) was according to Irving “tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.” Like his creator, Ichabod was well read and delighted with the local tales of witches, ghosts, and goblins.
Ichabod Crane also fell in love with the daughter of the wealthy Dutch land owner. Katrina is described by Irving as “a blooming lass of fresh eighteen; plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father’s peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations.” “Ichabod Crane and Katrina Van Tassel” (1928), by the famous English book-illustrator Arthur Rackham, has captured Irving’s characters perfectly. Katrina is dressed in a manner to show her beauty, described by Irving as wearing a “tempting stomacher of the olden time, and withal a provokingly short petticoat.” Rackham has dressed her and posed her as the perfect coquette. The gangly Ichabod, wearing an ill-fitting suit and large buckled shoes, is charmed.
Rackham’s illustration of the story includes the gnarled and twisted trees of Sleepy Hollow that frightened Crane as he walked home at night. In the daylight these things were not on his mind. However, Rackham included them in this daylight scene and added to the scene a few nasty goblins and a wicked looking bird. Irving wrote that Ichabod “would have passed a pleasant life of it, in despite of the Devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was—a woman.”
The woman in question was Katrina Van Tassel, not only beautiful but an heiress to the vast fortune of her father Baltus Van Tassel. The fortune also interested Ichabod. At a harvest party at the Van Tassel’s home, Ichabod decided to make his move. At the end of the party, he sought out Katrina, and they had a discussion that Irving does not disclose. “The Courtship in Sleepy Hollow” (1868) (Parian ceramics) (14’’x12’’x7’’) was made by the American sculptor John Rogers (1829-1904). The couple is seated on a Dutch settle. Ichabod’s hat is hung at the back. The ungainly suitor holds Katrina’s right hand, and appears to be proposing. A contemporary writer described Katrina’s look as “a mixture of coquettish shrewdness and real good nature.” Katrina holds onto her pet cat with her left hand, and the viewer is left to decide which is more important: her cat or Crane. Irving writes, “Something, however…must have gone wrong, for he certainly sallied forth, after no very great interval, with an air quite desolate and chapfallen.”
From his childhood, Rogers always was interested in literary themes from Shakespeare to Dickens, Robinson Crusoe, Frair Tuck, and Pocahontas. “The Courtship in Sleepy Hollow” is the first surviving work based on literary themes. Rogers had thought about making a Sleepy Hollow sculpture as early as 1862, when the story was published. However, the artist F.O.A. Darley’s illustrations in 1849 were so popular that Rogers said, “I am afraid I can make nothing very original out of it.” Six years later, he chose to carve the wooing scene. Rogers created 85 different sculpture groups in his thirty-year career. His sculptures were internationally popular, and they were made into plaster casts numbering somewhere between 80 and 100 thousand. Many American and European homes contained a Rogers work, including the home of President Abraham Lincoln.
“Ichabod Encounters the Headless Horseman” (1849) (hand-colored print) by Felix Octavius Carr Darley was the start of his long successful career. Darley, a self-trained artist was commissioned by the American Artists Union to illustrate The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The prints were so popular with the public that a system of mail-order subscriptions was offered for the hand-colored lithographs. Darley’s career lasted 50 years, and he was commissioned to draw illustrations of many American writers’ work.
Ichabod Crane had a rival for Katrina’s affections: Abraham van Brunt. Irving describes him as “broad-shouldered and double jointed, with short curly black hair, and a bluff but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance. From his Herculean frame and great powers of limb he had received the nickname of Brom Bones, by which he was universally known. He was famed for great knowledge and skill in horsemanship, Daredevil, a creature, like himself, full of mettle and mischief, and which no one but himself could manage.”
Irving tells of Ichabod’s ride home on an old horse named Gunpowder: “The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky, and driving clouds occasionally hid them from his sight. He had never felt so lonely and dismal.” Ichabod encountered an imposing figure in black, carrying a pumpkin.
“The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane” (1858) (27’’x34’’) is the work of John Quidor (1801-1881), an American artist from Tappan, New York. There are 35 extant paintings by Quidor, mostly depicting scenes from Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle, and a story by James Fenimore Cooper. Quidor was trained in New York by painter John Wesley Jarvis, but most of Quidor’s work was painting banners, decorating steamboats and New York fire engines.
“The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane” picks up the story as Ichabod tries several ways to escape the dark rider, but his horse was not up to it, and the dark rider kept apace. Quidor’s painting aptly depicts Ichabod’s situation. Ichabod’s horse Gunpowder “seemed possessed with a demon.” Irving continues, “The girths of the saddle gave way, and Ichabod felt it slipping from under him. He had just time to save himself by clasping old Gunpowder round the neck when the saddle fell to the earth.” The bridge that led to the church was in sight and, as the legend said, the headless horseman could not cross the bridge. Ichabod looked over his shoulder, but the horseman did not vanish. Instead, he stood up in his stirrups and threw his head at Ichabod. The pumpkin hit his head and “he tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider passed by like a whirlwind.”
Ichabod’s saddleless horse was found eating grass at his owner’s gate. Irving continues: “After diligent investigation they came upon the saddle trampled in the dirt. The tracks of horses’ hoofs deeply dented in the road were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin. The brook was searched, but the body of the schoolmaster was not to be discovered.”
The mystery was never solved. However, Irving opined, “The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means.”
Note: All quotes from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from Created for Lit2Go on the web at etc.usf.edu
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.