As October 31 draws near, ghosts appear in New York windows, and cobwebs creep over city bushes. Crisp leaves heap in piles along sidewalks where wrinkled gourds line up to watch crunchy commutes. All across the state New Yorkers still “inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions.”
New Yorker Washington Irving originally penned this description to introduce his famous ghost story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” published in 1820. Upon its release in the collection of essays, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., the short story quickly became a classic in both early America and across the pond in England. Its success helped Irving secure a place for his work in a nation that continues to this day to be raised on his compelling myths.
In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” residents of a New York town debate a longstanding rumor about a headless horseman who haunts a local roadway. At the same time, a schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane courts a woman who is way out of his league. In the final pages of the tale, these subplots converge: Ichabod Crane travels home on horseback late one night after having been rejected by his love interest, encounters the infamous ghost, and mysteriously vanishes from Sleepy Hollow. Following Crane’s disappearance, locals discover horse tracks, Ichabod’s hat, and an exploded pumpkin on the bank of a brook that runs through the town. This conclusion leaves readers contemplating three possible explanations of what happened: one, the schoolteacher was a victim of a real ghost attack; two, he suffered an elaborate prank organized by a rival dressed in costume; or three, he staged the scene to fake his own disappearance.
This ambiguous ending captured the imagination of many readers. Even the American artist John Rogers tried to participate in the debate about the fate of Ichabod Crane—he cast a bronze vote in favor of the prank explanation when he created the sculpture Ichabod Crane and the “Headless Horseman.” In Rogers’ interpretation of the horse chase, the artist has chosen to depict the “Headless Horseman” as a man hiding beneath a large coat pulled over his head and holding a carved pumpkin. The Horseman’s human head only appears when viewers circle around the sculpture and look at the cloaked figure from a specific angle. Terrified Ichabod seems to believe he is being chased by a spirit, but Rogers makes sure that his viewers know better.
Like Ichabod Crane and the “Headless Horseman,” Rogers’ other sculptures typically reference popular books, political events, mysteries, and activities. Through his sculptures, Rogers not only participates in contemporary dialogues surrounding these issues, but also encourages owners of his artwork to do the same.
John Rogers worked as a sculptor during the second half of the 19th century in a world quickly absorbing the new tools of the Industrial Revolution. One of the most startling innovations that came out of this period was the new ability to produce things on a mass scale. While most artists working at this time scoffed at mass-produced objects and catered to the tastes of elite buyers, Rogers embraced these technologies. He created sculptures that addressed themes relevant to middle class consumers, and relied on industrial equipment to mass-produce and mass-market his work.
Because Rogers’ sculptures were produced for this broad audience, they provide insight into themes of middle class life in the late 1800s. Consumers and owners of these objects read Washington Irving; they got into disagreements, played checkers, and talked about politics; they remembered the Civil War as an event that took place in recent memory, and grappled with the hard work of redefining the nation against the cruel legacy of slavery. They purchased sculptures that would remind them of these topics each time they entered the rooms in which they were displayed.
This Halloween, it’s important to remember that Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was as much of a cultural reference in the 19th century as it is in the present. Cultural texts like this one that survive so many different generations of audiences should prompt historians to contemplate why they persist and how they remain relevant.
Historians study ghosts every day. This Halloween, consider the crunchy autumns lived before you were born. What cultural texts will you reference in your costume? Which popular themes did people talk about in their homes around this time of the year 10, 20, and even 200 years ago? What did they eat? What did they hope for, dream, and fear? What has changed and what remains the same? Just a few thoughts to consider as you meet the spirits of the past tonight. Happy Halloween!
Written by Sarah Gomez
Museum Department Assistant
Michael Clapper. “Imagining the Ordinary: John Rogers’s Anticlassical Genre Sculptures as Purposely Popular Art.” Winterthur Portfolio 43, no. 1 (2009): 1-40. doi:10.1086/597172.
Wayne Craven. Sculpture in America. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1962:357-366.
Denker, Ellen Paul. “Parian Porcelain Statuary: American Sculptors and the Introduction of Art in American Ceramics.” Ceramics in America, 2002. Accessed online:
William L. Hedges. 2000 “Irving, Washington (1783-1859), author.” American National Biography. October 22, 2018.
Washington Irving. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. New-York: Printed by C. S. Van Winkle, No. 101 Greenwich-street, 1819-1920.
Kimberly Orcutt. John Rogers: American Stories. London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2010.
“John Rogers: American Stories.” New-York Historical Society, 2010.