By Joe Sullivan
For most readers and critics of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” there are only two possibilities regarding Ichabod Crane’s fate: either he was murdered by a ghastly, galloping Hessian soldier, or he was disposed of by Brom Bones. While the narrator, Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, goes to great pains to create an either/or binary between the two possible suspects, there has long been evidence that there is a third suspect, whom is given motive, but never explained away.
The narrator describes Ichabod as a teller, and consumer, of fantastic tales.
“His appetite for the marvelous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell-bound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow.”
And more importantly, regarding the galloping Hessian and Ichabod’s penchant for seeking out frightful moments in the everyday:
“What fearful shapes and shadows beset his path, amidst the dim and ghastly glare of a snowy night! With what wistful look did he eye every trembling ray of light streaming across the waste fields from some distant window! How often was he appalled by some shrub covered with snow, which, like a sheeted specter, beset his very path! How often did he shrink with curdling awe at the sound of his own steps on the frosty crust beneath his feet; and dread to look over his shoulder, lest he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him! And how often was he thrown into complete dismay by some rushing blast, howling among the trees, in the idea that it was the Galloping Hessian on one of his nightly scourings!”
Here Mr. Knickerbocker begins to undermine the argument, regarding the Headless Horseman as prime suspect in the disappearance of Ichabod Crane. Sure, the Horseman has motive for killing Ichabod as he made his lonely trek that evening; the phantom Hessian takes heads, and that is what he does. But the Horseman is always a red herring, and Mr. Knickerbocker soon introduces a mortal suspect.
Brom Bones and Ichabod are both seeking out the hand of Katrina Van Tassel. We’re told Ichabod is primarily interested in the wealth he should come to acquire from the estate of her father, Baltus, if he wins her heart. Brom’s interest in Katrina seems to be more romantic in nature than Ichabod’s, but it’s ultimately unclear, as Brom is in the business of winning, and every Dutchman of the valley knew that Katrina was the ultimate prize. Ichabod plays it cool, under the radar, while Brom goes right for Katrina. So, it’s no surprise, when Ichabod ultimately gets friendzoned by Ms. Van Tassel and sent on his way.
While Brom recognizes Ichabod as a rival, by the end of the harvest party Katrina has revealed her preference for Brom. Although, Brom is especially angry that he was shown up by the pedagogue during the storytelling/yarn-spinning portion of the evening’s festivities. It’s unclear if Brom knows Katrina has rejected Ichabod, and entirely possible that Katrina continues to let Brom think that Ichabod has her interest for the rest of the evening. So, Brom has his motive for becoming the legend and murdering Ichabod – although it is strange that Mr. Knickerbocker leaves out any additional clue to whether Brom stayed until the party’s end, or left early.
Once pursued, Brom actually gives Ichabod his only hope for keeping his head from the Hessian Rider. But we soon discover that Brom was wrong about the protective qualities of the bridge, as Ichabod makes it across, to presumed safety, and is still beheaded by the Horseman, who “pass[es] by like a whirlwind.”
Brom is the most reasonable, and satisfactory, of choices as dispatcher of Crane, had Katrina not cleanly rejected Ichabod’s proposal the evening in which he disappeared. But there is another whom must be considered, as Mr. Knickerbocker presents us a third suspect, and even gives him motive!
Ichabod Crane is staying with Hans Van Ripper, a “choleric old Dutchman” and he borrows the man’s favorite horse on the night of his demise. The horse, Gunpowder, who
“had, in fact, been a favorite steed of his master’s, the choleric Van Ripper, who was a furious rider, and had infused, very probably, some of his own spirit into the animal; for, old and broken-down as he looked, there was more of the lurking devil in him than in any young filly in the country.”
We’re told Van Ripper was a furious rider, at one with his horse – both spirits imbued with a ‘lurking devil.’ And Ichabod is certainly not on good terms with his landlord, as Ichabod “thought, how soon he’d turn his back upon the old schoolhouse; snap his fingers in the face of Hans Van Ripper.” But what is their conflict?
Before we attest to a motive, we must make note that Van Ripper is the first to send out a search for Ichabod, and also first to the crime scene.
“Hans Van Ripper now began to feel some uneasiness about the fate of poor Ichabod, and his saddle. An inquiry was set on foot, and after diligent investigation they came upon his traces. In one part of the road leading to the church was found the saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses’ hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin…Hans Van Ripper as executor of his estate, examined the bundle which contained all his worldly effects.” which were quickly “consigned to the flames by Hans Van Ripper; who, from that time forward, determined to send his children no more to school, observing that he never knew any good come of this same reading and writing.”
Van Ripper is first to the scene, and quickly burns most of the evidence. There is the possibility of some interplay between Van Ripper and Brom Bones here, as Van Ripper sees the love poem Ichabod had written to Katrina, and the fact that Van Ripper quickly disposes of it might be covering up the fact that Brom Bones had a rival suitor. Remember, Ichabod kept his romantic interest in Katrina secretive, and only fully revealed himself to her the night of the harvest party.
“It is true, an old farmer, who had been down to New York on a visit several years after, and from whom this account of the ghostly adventure was received, brought home the intelligence that Ichabod Crane was still alive; that he had left the neighborhood partly through fear of the goblin and Hans Van Ripper.”
This last passage seems the most damning. We’re given a clear motive for Brom Bones wanting to see the demise of Ichabod Crane, but at the end of the story Van Ripper is equated with the phantom fear that haunts Ichabod. Why? It doesn’t seem to fit that the narrator is presenting Brom as the goblin, and then, also Van Ripper.
Van Ripper had the most access to Crane, the most knowledge of his comings and goings, as they lived together. Van Ripper would have seen how much time and influence Crane had on the local children, including his own. Early in the story it’s described how Ichabod spent much of his time outside of school with the older boys he taught. We’re told Van Ripper removed his kids from school, while also having a sour relationship with their schoolmaster. Van Ripper loathes Crane. He’s forced to take the pedagogue into his home, because it’s his turn to house the man as payment for his services. After living with Ichabod, experiencing him, likely arguing with him, Van Ripper decided he didn’t want his children to be anything like their teacher. Crane rode Van Ripper’s favorite horse to his death, then Van Ripper destroyed any evidence at the scene of the crime. Hans Van Ripper killed Ichabod Crane because he was a bad influence on his children, and the children of Sleepy Hollow.