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Category Archives: Head

Headless Horseman

Headless Horseman

The Headless Horseman is a popular figure found in American folklore. Often described as well, a headless rider on horseback.

The Headless Horseman is a common figure and staple of American Folklore. It has shown up for usage in various movies, T.V. series and literature outside of the original “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. Recent t.v. series are Sleepy Hollow and Tim Burton’s movie of the same name, both drawing on the same inspiration of Irving’s story.

Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

Ah yes, the classic American story. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” first appears in a collection of short stories titled: “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” As far as inspiration goes for Irving’s story, many seem to agree to the idea that the German writer, Karl Musäus is where the idea for a Headless Horseman from. Karl Musäus is known for having collected Germanic folktales much like the Brothers Grimm.

The story is set in Sleepy Hollow, New York during the time of the American Revolutionary War, so about 1775 or shortly after. Tradition holds that the Headless Horseman had been a Hessian Artillery man who had been killed during the Battle of White Plains, circa 1776.  So, at the time the story was told and set, not too long ago. The Hessian had been decapitated by a cannonball, not a fun way to go.

The shattered remains of the Hessian’s head were simply left on the battlefield while fellow soldiers carried off his body to be buried. The Hessian’s body was laid to rest in the cemetery of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow. Following this, each Halloween night, the Hessian’s ghost would appear as a Headless Horseman seeking for this lost head. The Headless Horseman wouldn’t or couldn’t cross bridges.

The story ends with the Horseman chasing down Ichabod Crane who simply disappears after. In the short story, there’s a strong implication that the Horseman may have been Brom Bones in disguise. Brom was a rival lover of Ichabod’s, so what better way than to hide any possible foul play?

Texas – El Muerto

Another headless horseman legend arose during the 1800’s in Texas. At this point and time, Texas was known for being a wild and lawless place that attracted all sorts of unsavory characters from thieves to murderers. The local native tribes were known to fiercely fight off these foreign invaders. To the point, that the Texas Rangers began making headway into taming a seemingly lawless frontier.

There was a dispute between the United States and Mexico over a tract of land between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers for where the borders between the two countries lay. In 1850, things came to a header a man by the name of Vidal who was out rustling cattle. Vidal had a bounty on his head, wanted “Dead of Alive.” Two Texas Rangers by the name of Creed Taylor and William Alexander Anderson (a.k.a. “Big Foot” Wallace) had had enough of Vidal and his small gang stealing cattle and horses and sought this group of bandits.

The two Rangers along with a local rancher by the name of Flores tracked and found the bandits camp. They waited until night before striking. In a strong display of Frontier Justice, Wallace decided that killing the bandits wasn’t enough, he beheaded Vidal. Then Wallace took Vidal’s corpse and tied him to the saddle of a mustang so it would stay upright. Vidal’s head and sombrero were then tied to the saddle as well before Wallace let the horse go loose into the hillside terrain.

It didn’t take long for the stories to circulate of people seeing a headless rider to surface. Many local natives and cowboys would riddle the corpse with bullets and arrows on seeing this fearsome specter. Southern Texas became known as a place to avoid as many deeds of evil and misfortune were attributed to El Muerto.

Eventually a posse got together to capture the poor mustang and relief it of its grisly and macabre cargo near a placed called Ben Bolt, south of Alice, Texas. Vidal’s body was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.

While that should have been the end of El Muerto’s story, his legend continues to live on. Soon after Vidal’s body was laid to rest, people continued to report seeing a headless horseman wandering the land. One couple in 1917, reported seeing the specter of a grey horse with a headless rider shouting: “It is mine! It is all mine!” and the stories and sittings continue.

Washington State – The White Skoad

Not exactly a headless horseman, if you live in Washington State and ever head out to Whidbey Island, there is a local legend about Colonel Ebey’s whose head was taken by the Haida on a raid who are believed to have come the Queen Charlotte Sound. Since then, the White Skoad, a patch of white fog said to be Colonel Ebey’s ghost can be seen from time to time as he searches for his head. Other versions of Colonel Ebey’s ghost have him replaying his death every night at the house he lived in at the time.

Arthurian Legend

Not quite a headless horseman, in the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the title character of Sir Gawain accepts the challenge of a beheading game by the Green Knight. This is a story that dates to the 14th century that has been cited as involving decapitation.

German Folklore

There are two stories that the Brothers Grimm collected about a headless horseman.

Hans Jagenteufel – In this one, near Dresden in Saxony, there was a woman who headed out early one Sunday morning to gather acorns in the forest. Near the place called “Lost Waters,” the woman heard a hunting horn. Hearing it a second time, the woman looked behind her to see a headless man wearing a long grey coat and riding a grey horse. The rider rode past the woman and she gained her resolve and went back to gathering acorns.

Some nine days later, the woman returned to the same spot, once more to collect acorns. This time, she heard behind her asking if anyone had tried to punish her for taking acorns. The woman replied no, saying the foresters took pity on the poor and called to God to forgive her sins.

When the woman turned around, she again saw the same grey cloaked figure from before, only this time he carried his head under an arm. The grey figure told the woman she did well to ask God for forgiveness as he had never done so in life. The figure than went on to explain how he was called Hans Jagenteufel and in life, never heeded the warnings of his father to extend mercy to those below him and would spend his days drinking and carousing. In death, he was condemned to wander the world as an evil spirit.

The Wild Huntsman – This story is set in Brunswick, Lower Saxony. A huntsman by the name of Hackelberg. He was so proficient at his profession, that on his deathbed, Hackelberg begged god to allow him to remain on earth, giving up his spot in heaven. It would seem the request was granted and Hackelberg roamed the hereafter as “the Wild Huntsman,” blowing his horn to warn hunters not to go out riding the next day. If they do, the unfortunate hunter meets with an untimely accident.

Depending on the version of the story told, the headless horseman seeks out those who have done crimes to punish them. Other times, the headless horseman is accompanied by a pack of black hounds with tongues of fire. Much like a figure from the Wild Hunt.

Indian Folklore

Jhinjhār – This is a headless horseman mentioned in the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh folklore. Where many of the European headless horsemen are entities to be wary of, the Jhinjhār is often seen as a hero.

The Jhinjhār is created during a rather violent and wrongful death when defending the innocents. Other stories say the Jhinjhār was a Rajput prince who lost his head while defending a village or caravan from some bandits. The prince refused to retreat and was beheaded. Other versions of this story say the Jhinjhār was created when a Mughal cavalryman died defending his prince.

Irish Folklore

Crom Dubh – This one is a bit of a stretch. Crom Dubh was an ancient Celtic fertility god who demanded human sacrifices every year, of which, the preferred method was decapitation. Eventually the god fell out of favor and somehow this god becomes a spirit seekings corpses and eventually becoming the Dullahan.

The Dullahan – also known as Dulachán meaning “dark man” or “without a head.” This being is a headless fairy often seen dressed in black and riding a black headless horse while carrying his head under an arm or inner thigh. The Dullahan is armed with a whip made from a human spine. Death occurs wherever the Dullahan ceases riding and when it calls out a name, the person called dies. Death can also come if the Dullahan tosses a bucket of blood at a person who has been watching it.

In other versions, the Dullahan rides a black carriage. Sometimes they are accompanied by a banshee. Nothing can stop the Dullahan from claiming a victim save the payment of gold.

Gan Cean – Its name means: “without a head.” It is a figure similar to the Dullahan. The Gan Cean can be warded off by wearing a gold object or placing one in its path.

Scandinavian Folklore

In a story similar to the German story of Hackelberg the Wild Huntsman, this story is about “good King Waldemar” whose’ ghost still haunts the forest of Gurre. King Waldemar had prayed to God to be allowed to still hunt in his beloved forest after death. Waldemar’s ghost can be seen riding a white horse and cracking his whip as he runs through the forest. His head though, is sometimes seen being carried under one of King Waldemar’s arms. As any Wild Hunt goes, Waldemar has a pack of black hounds with fiery mouths accompanying him.

Scottish Folklore

There is a story of headless horseman by the name of Ewen who had been decapitated during a clan battle on the Isle of Mull. This battle prevented Ewen from becoming chieftain. Both the ghost of Ewen and his horse are reputed to haunt the area of Glen Cainnir.

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