Headless Hessian and human trafficking

Headles HessianHeadless Hessian and human trafficking -
Sleepy Hollow and the background

 zur deutschen Version
A headless soldier riding through a spooky forest and killing innocent people for apparently no particular reason in the small town of Sleepy Hollow on the East Coast of the United States. The people are helpless. Luckily Ichabod Crane, investigator of the police fallen in disgrace in New York, has nothing to do right now. He is sent to the sleepy hole and is supposed to clearify the situation. And of course he does.

Washington Irving told a pretty different story in his short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", published in 1820 in a story collection called "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent." 1

The story of Sleepy Hollow
Unlike Tim Burton's movie Ichabod Crane himself is the victim in Irving's story of the Hessian. This Crane is a wandering schoolmaster, always hired where one/a community is currently in need of a teacher.

In Irving's Sleepy Hollow also appears a Katrina Van Tassel, the object of Crane's desire. Irving, however, describes her not as a real beauty (in the movie impersonated by Christina Ricci with the big eyes of a child), but as a 18 year old young woman whose most striking feature is the fact that she is the only child (and heir) of a wealthy Dutch farmer. Irving describes her as "plump as a partridge, ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of the peaches of her father," as "a bit coquettish as one can see by their clothes, which was a mixture of old-fashioned and modern fashion, very suitable for this purpose to make her charms on display".

The people of this town of Sleepy Hollow came from the Netherlands and settled in this valley, which is also the namesake of the story: "Sleepy Hollow" - "drowsy/sleepy valley". The valley had been formed by the stream that runs through it and is obviously a tributary of the Hudson River.

Even before the appearance of the Headless Hessian there is talk of a German - if even for a moment:

Some say that the place was bewitched by a high German doctor, during the early days of the settlement, others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his pow-wows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole nine fold, seems to make it the favorite scene of Gambols ago.

In this strange world lives Ichabod Crane. Irving describes him not necessarily as a protagonist of a story: He is long and skinny, with narrow shoulders and feet so large that the shoes could be used as shovels. If he was not busy teaching, he helped the farmers doing simple works, was the dream of every mother - he loved to hold children on his knees - and he could sing. He earned many a penny by teaching the young people singing the Psalms.

During his visits to the homes of Dutch families, they often found him at old womens' fire in the evening, learning from them the stories of the old (and new) home, including the Headless Hessian, who was saied to roam around in the area.
Section of a toy box with play soldiers Revolutionary War Soldierstroop of Hessian soldiers to see in the typical uniform

"The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow" will be the ghost of a Hessian trooper who lost his head by a cannonball in one of the many "nameless battles" of the American Revolutionary War. It occurred again and again at night that people of the region saw him riding across the country "on the wings of the wind". Its radius is not confined to the valley, but also the surrounding streets, but particularly on the grounds of a church, which was not far away from the valley.
(The right picture opens on Click to see a picture of a toy box of the 60's. To the right is a troop of Hessian soldiers in their typical uniform - one of them by the way holding a false colorized version of the Union Jack2).

At this point Irving - as to underline the authenticity of the story - mentions that there would be a credible historian of the region, who had collected the facts with great care. This historian found that the Headless Hessian was probably buried on this cemetery. And one might assume that spotting him during the night  means he was on a route from the site of his final resting place off to the battlefield, looking for his head. And the concern about him being back at his grave in time before sunrise, made sure that he is sweeping through the valley like a "midnight gust of wind".

Ichabod Crane has a - as it turns out later fatale - affinity for stories like that of the Headless Hessian:

He was, in fact, simple an odd mixture of small shrewdness and credulity. His appetite for the marvelous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary, and both had been increased by his residence in this spellbound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow.

Even bigger, however, is Cranes interest in Katrina Van Tassel. He one day accompanied the young woman home and saw all the wealth of her father, who promises a great future - to the man who manages to lead Katrina to the altar. However, Crane has a rival, the local Hercules, Brom Van Brunt. He is also interested in Katrina, and as a local hero has a good chance to outdo the poor school teacher.

The story reaches its climax at a social evening at the family van Tassel. As ever so often in the social events in the area and at that time the guests also refer to the last war on this occasion. The British and American lines during the war had been quite close, and accordingly every family had made their experiences with refugees, marauding soldiers and all kinds of war. Some stories are mentioned only briefly and serve deepen the impression of a countryside and society deeply marked by superstition and supernatural events.

Crane is on his way home one day and passes by past some of those places that are so closely associated with various ghost stories. In every place you expect the threat becoming real. Thus the voltage rises, to the moment at which the unfortunate Ichabod realizes that he actually has gotten into trouble, the Headless Hessian is after him. And - Crane can not believe it - on the pommel of the undead soldier is the head of the unhappy. A desperate race takes place, in which Crane attempts to reach the cemetery. Allegedly, at least this he had been told by his rival for the hand of Katrina, the headless horsemen would disappear, and not be able to pursue his victim any longer.

The next morning the horse that had been used by the schoolmaster is found, having lost its saddle. The saddle is found later beside a shattered pumpkin in the vicinity of the stream. There is no trace of Ichabod Crane.

The story ends offering two theories on the disappearance of the schoolmaster: We are being presented the report about a farmer who claims he saw the Ichabod Crane in New York. And then there are the old women of Sleepy Hollow, who believe firmly that the Headless Hessian took him. Brom Van Brunt, who can actually marry Katrina, seems to know everything, but every time when talking about the whole story he breaks into loud laughter  - and especially at the mention of the pumpkin. But he remains silent.
Washington Irving and his books

Washington IrvingWashington Irving (1783 - 1859) was the son of a wealthy New York family of Scottish descent. The family suffered no financial hardship, his father was a wealthy merchant. In honor of the great war hero of the Revolutionary War General George Washington, he was given the name Washington.

He tried law studies and worked in the family firm, however, his real interest was to write, to travel, to explore the world. His literary activity began with articles in the magazine "Morning Chronicle" (published by his brother Pete), or the satirical magazine "Salmagundi", which he edited with one of his brothers and a friend.

His first published book was published under the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker, and marked his breakthrough as a writer. The author D. Knickerbocker was saied to be a quirky scientist named Hide, who wrote about the rule of the Dutch about the area of present-day New York. The term "Knickerbocker" was so popular that it remained as a description of those inhabitants of New York, who can trace their roots back to the Dutch immigrants.

Irving's travels took him to Spain, a country that fascinated him in particular, he lived in Europe for many years (1815-1832), including a long period in England. In order to know the country and its people (he is considered the first American writer who could live by his work as an author), he served in the U.S. diplomatic corps in England. Having returned to America, he participated in an expedition of the U.S. Army in the largely uninhabited part of Oklahoma State. The experiences he made in Spain, England and America were incorporated in his books, all of which became very popular.

Sunny Side - The House of Washington Irving1835, on completion of the expedition, he obviously had enough of his restless life. He bought a house [funny detail: It was a house built by Dutch immigrants in the valley, through which he chased his Headless Hessian. There is even a watercolor painted by Irving entitled "The Van Tassel House - The residence of Washington Irving"].

Irving never got married, but had a lively house in which he constantly hosted guests from his friends or family.

His last work was a comprehensive five-volume chronicle of the life of George Washington. He had been working on it for many years and regarded it as his personal triumph.

Washington Irving was not only well known and popular, but also enjoyed a reputation by his contemporaries in the authoring and scholarly world. During his lifetime he was seen as the first real original American writer, describing him as a creator of American literature. His story collection "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent" (published 1819-1820) contains the two classic short stories "Sleepy Hollow" and the equally famous story "Rip Van Winkle". These stories are being regarded as the first American short stories.

In total, the literary works of Washington Irving cover 18 books and magazines, some of which were published under pseudonyms. About half of them include biographies. Again and again the stories refer to the roots of the American people, the legends and fairy tales, they had brought with them from their home countries (such as "Rip van Winkle" being based on a German fairy tale). There are Dutch legends as well as stories of Native Americans.

In addition to Tim Burton's movie version of "Sleepy Hollow", which selects a lawless approach to the original story, there are a number of other film versions and adaptations, audio support and even a Broadway musical. I will not comment on the various adaptations, but go back to the historical origins and backgrounds of Irving's story.

All along Irving's story of Sleepy Hollow one can find mention of the American Revolutionary War and the "Hessians" who were involved in it.

Headless Hessian and human trafficking

What we would call human trafficking of the worst kind today, had not been very extraordinar in feudal times and under the conditions prevailing in Europe. Men were hired as mercenaries, although not directly but through their landlords, who received the money for them.

Due to the large "territorial fragmentation" that had occured in Germany, in the way Germany was fragmented turned out to be quite grotesque (there is a contemporary cartoon with a horse-drawn cart passing through one of those mini-states - and while the horse is already in the neighboring country, the rear wheel of the cart is still in the neighboring state of other side of the border - I vividly remember it from history lessons, unfortunately I can't find it anywhere online).

The Westphalian peace treaty of 1648 sealed the territorial fragmentation of Germany. Germany was made up of a number of major and minor sovereigns, under which the emperor himself was not much more than a state chairman. There were 250 monarchs, increasing through time, all of them in exclusive possession of sovereign power. This included law enforcement, military power as well as taxes and many more.

Several of these rulers had taken the opportunity of this war in the distant continent of America to fill her bags at the expense of their people, it is important to note that not all foreign soldiers came from Hessen. Nevertheless, today the term "Hessians" combines with these soldiers.

Engl. payments to German landlords for losses of German soldiers during the American War This beginning of a list of payments by England to the German states for fallen soldiers is taken from the book by Knapp3 and is based on "Schloezer State's ads", one (actually the only) independent political journal of this time in Germany.

Overall, more than 30,000 German soldiers came across the ocean. Nearly 17,000, the vast majority of them, came from the state of Hessen-Kassel, others from Hessen-Hanau, Brunswick, Ansbach, Bayreuth, Anhalt-Zerbst and Waldeck. If one also considers Hessen-Hanau, and Waldeck as "Hessia" as a whole as well, a total of nearly 21,000 soldiers among the over 30,000 came from Hessia. This also explains why these strange German troops were referred to as  "Hessians", until today.

For us the fact that among them were also "volunteers" in a sense, is pretty unimaginable today. Yet they saw serving in armies as their (only) chance for a future. The growing population made it more and more difficult to make a living, the German states were very agricultural and didn't offer the opportunity to start (and nourish) a family of their own to all the children of the families. Thus a number of young men decided to voluntarily take the chance to - on the basis of paid "jobs" - get to that promising country. Of course they carried their skin to market, but this was just another way to survive.

England had tried to buy Dutch and Russian troops as their allies - this would have been much cheaper than German men, yet they weren't successful in doing so4. So one looked further on the continent - and quickly found them in Brunswick - and in Hessia.

Ihre Soldaten (Ergänzung: Der hessischen Landgrafen), aus einem kräftigen, unverdorbenen und tapfern Volksstamme hervorgegangen, wurden durch Disziplin und Uebung  bald die besten und zuverlässigsten, darum auch gesuchtesten Truppen in Europa, und von England bis Griechenland gab es vom Ende des siebzehnten bis zum Ende des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts kaum ein Schlachtfeld, auf welchem sich die hessische Infanterie nicht rümlich ausgezeichnet hätte.5

(Translation: Their soldiers (addendum: of the Hessian Counts) emerged of a strong, uncorrupted and brave tribe, soon became the best and most reliable through discipline and practice, and therefore also most sought-after troops in Europe, and from England to Greece there was hardly a battleground from the end of the seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth century, on which the Hessian infantry was not praiseworthy.)

The Hessians - Presentation of the regiment of DonopIn the years (the War of Independence 1775-1783) From 1776 to 1782 about 8,000 of the 30,000 soldiers died, nearly 4,000 - due to estimates, counts and intelligence - decided to stay in America. All in all almost 45% of the soldiers did not return home.

In the picture to the right, are two soldiers from the Hessian regiment of Donop (Donopsches Regiment), both dressed in the typical mustard yellow uniforms. Far right a simple Hessian soldier with helmet and the high buttoned aprons with red lining, left a commander with three-cornered hat and chest plate.

Boot "The Hessian" Left: A drawing from the English magazine "Punch" on the boot-type "The Hessian", a boot with the front pulled up to the knee, curved shaft and a belt with tassel ornamentation. This boot form was named after the characteristic shape of the shoe Hessian soldiers were wearing, and was introduced to in the fashion due to their participation in the American War of Independence.

Many Americans can trace their roots back to those soldiers who have fathered children and then returned to Europe, or remained in the States. A large group of them called themselves the "Schwaelmer", after the Schwalm, a region in central Hessia. It is situated between the Kellerwald, Vogelsberg and crumpled mountains (with the small towns such as Treysa or Ziegenhain as its centers). Even though this area hosts only 30 small villages, a significant number of soldiers made their way to war.

Especially on the many websites of American genealogists who trace their families back to these Hessians, there are very interesting and very impressive reports, inculding largely letters and records of the soldiers.

Germany voyage of the "Schwalm Historical Ass", 1960Around 1960, this photo of a group of tourists from USA, "Schwalm Assoc", went as an organized group to Germany for the first time in search of clues about their ancestors from the Schwalm.

One of these stories is reported very briefly by a soldier of Hessia -  Johann Ulrich Zeth. At the age of 17 he was sent on this long journey with the other men of his regiment. From Hanau the way went to the Netherlands by boat, where they waited to be shipped to America. Arriving there in June 1776, they went into a winter camp in October, and only one year later they found themselves in captivity. This soldier "decided" not to return to his home country. He was considered a deserter to the enemy6.

Others returned, wounded, in part as cripples, some of them died several years later because of the wounds they received in the distant country.

Very pragmatical were the reasons why the German leaders decided to sell their country's children into the service of King George III.: First the payment gave them a great opportunity to fill their coffers relatively simple. There obvious was enough "human material", which seemed to be pretty unnecessary for their own country. On several places in the internet you can find mention of $ 150,000 as payment.

At the same time, by fighting these regiments were given the much-needed combat experience, something that wasn't too easy to accomplish in Germany, and in addition the German rulers didn't have to pay for the provision of these soldiers - what a great business. And - last but not least - George III. wasn't just any ruler, not just the King of England, but also master of the country of Hanover, and thus one of the leading territories in the small state of Germany. In addition to political interests, there were a number of kinship links of the European aristocracy - after all the former Landgraf of Hesse-Kassel was an uncle of the King of England.

In all military conflicts of the 18th Century there were those paid soldiers, "used" by foreign countries. For England e.g. this was a common practice well accepted in this time as the so-called "auxiliary troops". A similar trade with troops took place in the 30 years war, until today there is a song in Scotland, the traditional "High Germany", in which a Scottish soldier has to leave with his regiment to Germany (probably in the 7 years war). The French military expert Guibert described the sale of German troops as a "mania of all these (little) German sovereigns to have battlement and troops", an English travel guide even describes Germany as "the great nursery of the north, from the swarms of men carried in all directions be".7

Especially the Hessian soldiers, referred to relatively non-specific as descendants of the Chatten, were considered particularly combat-capable and dangerous. The Chatten had been a Germanic tribe that setteled in the valleys of the rivers Eder, Fulda and the Lahn, mainly part of modern Hessia. The name Hessen is a modification of the tribal name of the Chatten.

Landgraf Karl of Hesse sold / leased troops to Denmark in 1677 already and later to Venice, and finally to the Netherlands. Hessen-Kassel created itself a reputation as a marketplace of well-educated, easily available and successful mercenary soldiers. Yet one has to stress the fact once again that these men were not mercenary soldiers in the real sense, as venturers who were working on their own account, but an "available mass" of their rulers. A very good historical overview of the importance of trade, especially for soldiers of Hesse-Kassel, is the site History.net with its article "Hessians - The Best Army Money Could Buy".8 Really a very exciting, illuminating and simultaneously frightening picture of German feudal lords.

Landgraf Karl died in 1785. His decisions of the sprawling trade of soldiers had left traces in Hessen-Kassel. To put it simple: The country lacked men (both inside and for selling troops). His successor, William IX., was forced to change the policy and set up a 12-year (!) military service - with the special feature that one could ransom oneself out of it. What is seen today as a tourist treasures in Kassel, Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, the Hercules, the Loewenburg - all of this was paid for with the blood of these "Hessians", and with the sufferings of these men and their families.

Das Blut und die Kraft des Landes wurde in der Residenz in Marmor und in Prachtbauten umgemünzt. (...) Hand in Hand mit dieser täglich und kostspieliger auftretenden Baulust und Verschwendung ging natürlich auf der anderen Seite der Menschenhandel und die Verarmung des Landes an Einwohnern.9

(Translation: The blood and the power of the country was turned into the residence in marble and magnificent buildings. (...) Hand in hand with this daily and expensive passion for building and lavishness, naturally went the sale of human beings and the impoverishment of the country's inhabitants.9)
Sources and citations:
(for Sources 1-2 see the German article on the movie Sleepy Hollow and its origin by the novel of W. Irving)


  • 1 Original story by W. Irving: http://www.bartleby.com
  • 2 http://home.att.net/~1.elliott/comicbooktoysoldiers3d.html
  • 3, 4, 5, 9  Friedrich Kapp, Der Soldatenhandel deutscher Fürsten nach Amerika (1775 bis 1783), 1864, Leipzig
  • 6 http://www.bobhudson.com
  • 7 The Hessians (Paperback) von Rodney Atwood, 2002, Cambridge University Press
  • 8 http://www.historynet.com
  • http://www.hudsonvalley.org
  • http://www.u-s-history.com
  • members.tripod.com/~Silvie/Hessian.html
  • www.ushistory.org


#1 janet morris 2011-05-28 01:27
:-) I very much enjoyed this article, both abut the fiction of The Headless Hessian and abut the Hessian soldiers; the Hessian soldiery reminds me of the great Thracian mercenaries of ancient times, who were very expensive but known to be the best in their day and much sought by warring states.
#2 Bettina.v.A. 2011-05-28 01:37
Glad you liked it, Janet.
I found it very interesting to become aware of the history behind Sleepy Hollow and the Hessians.
#3 Manning 2011-06-07 01:32
Yes, this is the Sleepy Hollow I remember, not the vacuous movies that came later.

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