Ichabod Rides Again: A Halloween Fable

Peter Wood

After the unpleasantness in Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane decided to put himself at a safe distance from the Hudson River Valley.   Washington Irving’s somewhat romanticized account of Crane encounter with the “headless horseman” on a frosty October night has become an American classic, but Irving was deliberately vague about Crane’s subsequent affairs. In fact, young Ichabod scurried to Massachusetts, moved in with an uncle who lived near Ipswich, and resumed his teaching career. The larger Crane family prospered, as attested by Crane Beach and the recently restored Crane mansion on Castle Hill.   

Back in Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod had made up for his lack of talent in the classroom by courting favor with the parents of his pupils—and then by courting the daughter of a rich farmer.   That hadn’t worked out so well, and wanting no more of coquettish girls with jealous boyfriends, Ichabod now set his sights on finding a rich widow. Ipswich, as it happened, was rich in rich widows. Ichabod’s self-enrichment curriculum consisted of putting himself in the way of meeting them.

As Irving reminds us, Ichabod was never one to let his zeal for the intellectual progress of his students get in the way of dinner invitations. He soon found himself in demand as a dinner guest because of his growing reputation for avidly told tales about New England witches and goblins—a subject on which he possessed an almost encyclopedic knowledge. His repeated readings of Cotton Mather’s history of New England Witchcraft, The Wonders of the Invisible World, gave him an almost inexhaustible fund of table talk. Ichabod also had the knack of making himself handy with chores and singing hymns in nasal tones that carried far out over Ipswich’s salt grass marshes. 

Strangely, for all his telling of spooky tales, Ichabod never mentioned his own close encounter with the headless horseman back in Sleepy Hollow.   Perhaps he suffered from post-pumpkin pummeling humiliation disorder. There is In fact some evidence for this in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. CCLVIII, where, on the testimony of several contemporaries we learn that Ichabod had a peculiar and recurrent daylight delusion. Standing in front of his students, he would sometimes see them dissolve into a floating swarm of parts, a whispering, squirming pass of fragmented students. “Where is the whole child?” he once burst out to his astonished pupils. 

Ichabod was never one to doubt his own judgment. Instead of seeing an eye doctor or doubting his own sanity, he suspected that the school was bewitched. But when he visited schools in Rowley, Peabody, and Gloucester, he had the same frightening visions. He would stand before his class and seem to see only a collection of elbows, ears, eyebrows, and feet. Or a ghastly collection of disembodied noses, chins, forearms, and collarbones would float before his eyes. “The whole child!’ he would sob and flee the premises leaving his fellow schoolmasters standing in amazement.

It was after one of these episodes that he found himself at the dinner table of a wealthy farmer, Jes Wican, and seated next to Elizabeth dePlank, the widow of a prosperous sea captain. Rumors about Mrs. dePlank and the already married Mr. Wican had occasioned the need to seat Ichabod in between. Poor Ichabod, still vexed by his phantasmagoric vision, talked on and on about how the children had come apart and how they needed to be reformed to create a whole child. Most of the guests thought he was telling another one of his famous ghost stories. Jes Wican, however, was a university man and a shrewd observer. He listened closely and whispered to a friend, “I think our young Mr. Crane bears himself well. He could be useful.” Mrs. dePlank, on the other hand, couldn’t make heads or tails of Ichabod’s rant, but was stirred by his passion. She asked him questions and, on learning that he had previously taught at the Hollow School of Education, she heard something else and was impressed.

Within a few months, Jes Wican was elected Governor and Ichabod was unexpectedly called on by Governor Wican to serve as the Commonwealth’s High Commissioner on Schools. He promptly announced his program of focusing education on “the whole child.” He also pursued his courtship of the bonneted Mrs. dePlank. Though he was quite mad, no one at the time seemed to notice. 

Frequently he would come to public events with an expressionless killjoy expression on his face and launch into disquisitions on the need to find whole children to replace the fragmented ones he saw all around him. He would recur frequently to his time at the Hollow School of Education, and refer to his earlier, quite imaginary career as “an architect.”   On more than one occasion he hotly insisted to stunned audiences that “I am not the Czar!” 

                Governor Wican just smiled and whispered to his friends, “Trust me. He’s our man.” 

One frosty October night, Ichabod was riding home to Ipswich on his old mare, Blunderbus. He intended to devote several days of attention to Mrs. dePlank, who had led him to think such attentions might be welcome. He was, however, vexed.   A dark thought cast a pall over his reverie. His vision of disembodied parts of students swirling around kept recurring, and even ahead of him in the fallen leaves, he would see the detached forms of fingers, legs, and gaping mouths. Sometimes they would whizz by him in the dark.  He hiked his collar and Blunderbus soldiered on in the dark. 

The road to Ipswich, of course, passes by Salem. The townsfolk of Ipswich famously barred the way to Berry Parris and Abigail Williams, the two little girls who initiated the Salem witchcraft craze in 1692. Though one Ipswich woman, Rachel Clinton, was accused, Ipswich was spared the murderous hysteria that gripped nearby towns. 

But it was near Salem that whatever occurred that night actually occurred. The Essex Institute Historical Collections provided only a sketchy account, wrapped in the mists of sea-side legend. It was said that as Ichabod rode along, already half-terrified by his nightmarish vision of dis-articulated children, he heard a snuffling sound broken by an occasional whimper. He wondered if a wounded animal, perhaps a dog, was dragging itself along in the dark. But the sounds grew louder, and Ichabod wondered. It must have been a very large animal. Larger than a dog.   Then a deep shadow fellow over the already darkened road, and Ichabod heard what could only be described as a monstrous, gigantic giggle. Animals don’t giggle. 

Ichabod reminded himself that headless horseman don’t giggle either and gathering his courage, such as it was, he began to sing one of his favorite hymns, in his best high-pitch , slightly off-key but penetrating style. He launched into My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free.   It worked! The giggling stopped and was replaced with a soft cooing. And Ichabod felt a tremor of relief and moved to a more venturous part of his repertoire, William Billings’ David’s Lamentations.  As he hit the repeated phrase “Oh my son, oh my son,” the cooing stopped, but when Ichabod bellowed, “Would to God I had died,” the silence was broken by a wail like a baby’s cry of distress—but loud enough to fill the sails of all the merchant ships in Salem harbor. 

Then Ichabod looked up and beheld—or so it is said—the consummation of his visions. All the separate parts of the children had come together at last into one child, a child that loomed gigantically over the forest and was, at the moment, greatly displeased with the lullaby Ichabod had been singing. 

After that, well, even legend is silent. Ichabod was seen no more. The next day, farmers found old Blunderbus wandering riderless near the road and Ichabod’s well-worn copy of The Wonders of the Invisible World was found face down in the brush. Not even a smashed pumpkin seemed to mark Ichabod’s passing this time. Jes Wican, of course, went on to become one of Massachusetts’ great educational reformers, through his famous Foresight program, approved by the legislature as a tribute to the ideals of Ichabod Crane. Mrs. dePlank moved to Beacon Hill and was celebrated for some years as the hostess of glittering parties. And we do have the story from several farmers, who that dark October night heard an off-key hymn followed by a heart-rending cry, a voice exclaiming in horror, “the Whole Child!”

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