The Story of the Real Ichabod Crane

Posted on October 30, 2017

by Philip Jett

“It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travel homeward. . .” In Washington Irving’s 1820 classic short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the principal character (with a head still on his shoulders) was Ichabod Crane, an itinerant schoolmaster, whose physical description has been seared into our memories since childhood:

He was tall and exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, and feet that might have served for shovels. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose . . . To see him striding along on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

The real Ichabod Crane (Ichabod Bennet Crane), however, was born in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, in 1787, fewer than fifty miles from the location of the fictitious Sleepy Hollow. Unlike Irving’s gangly schoolmaster, Ichabod B. Crane was a tough and seasoned military officer. He was a courageous man who most certainly would have drawn his sabre and charged the ghostly horseman rather than cowardly flee with the “skirts of his black coat flutter[ing] out almost to the horse’s tail.”

Ichabod B. Crane joined the US Marine Corps at an early age. When the War of 1812 broke out, he accepted a commission as captain in the US Army and served as commander of various forts along the Niagara Frontier. He eventually was brevetted to the rank of major and led troops in several campaigns, including the Black Hawk War in 1832, the Second Seminole War in 1835 when he served under future president Zachary Taylor, and later along the US-Canadian border during Canada’s Patriot War in 1838, ultimately rising to the rank of colonel in 1843 before the start of the Mexican-American War.

Serendipitously, Washington Irving and Ichabod Crane were both stationed at Fort Pike located on Lake Ontario in Sackets Harbor, New York, in 1814. Irving was an aide to New York’s governor who was inspecting defenses in the area while Crane was an artillery captain. Scholars debate whether the two actually met there, but in all likelihood, that’s where Irving learned of Crane’s unusual name and recorded it for future works as he was known to do. In so doing, Irving must have realized the career military officer would not be pleased with such a disrespectful use of his exceptional moniker.

[Ichabod Crane] rode with short stirrups, which brought his knees nearly up to the pommel of the saddle; his sharp elbows stuck out like grasshoppers’ . . . and, as his horse jogged on, the motion of his arms was not unlike the flapping of a pair of wings.

It has been reported that Colonel Ichabod Crane did indeed resent his name being used in Irving’s popular Halloween story and loathed Irving for it. From the time of its publication, this military tough guy must have often suffered humiliation when introducing himself: “Oh, like the Sleepy Hollow schoolmaster?” One can only imagine his reply. It also must have been difficult hearing snickers among the ranks when troops learned the name of their commanding officer. After all, his was a career that demanded respect and he had earned it, and so had his family before him and those who would follow.

Ichabod’s grandfather, Stephen Crane, was a judge who served as a delegate to the Continental Congress alongside the likes of George Washington, John and Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry. He was bayoneted in a skirmish with British troops during the American Revolutionary War and died of his wounds in 1780. Ichabod’s father, William Crane, rose to the rank of brigadier general and lost a leg from wounds suffered at the Battle of Quebec in 1775. His brother, William Crane, served as a naval officer in the War of 1812. Another brother, Joseph Crane, was a judge and an Ohio congressman. Ichabod’s son, Charles Henry Crane, became not only a brigadier general, but a US surgeon general and was one of the physicians who attended to the mortally wounded Abraham Lincoln in the Petersen house. Ichabod’s nephew was a major in the Army of the Potomac during the US Civil War. And if that isn’t enough to distinguish the Crane family, Ichabod’s great-nephew Stephen Crane penned The Red Badge of Courage in 1895, a piece of American literature more befitting the Crane family name than Irving’s whimsical Halloween story.

Oh yes, just for the record, the real Ichabod Crane died of natural causes during military service in 1857 rather than being “spirited away by supernatural means” like his fictitious namesake according to some of the “old country wives.”

So, on this 230th anniversary of the year of Colonel Ichabod Crane’s birth, when his extraordinary name is still being exploited in movies, TV series, and cartoons deep within the foggy woods of Sleepy Hollow, we should ask ourselves: Which Ichabod Crane should we remember? Should Colonel Crane be grateful his name is remembered at all?

I will leave you to consider these menacing questions as you light your jack-o’-lantern and ready your costume. But beware should you be drawn into a debate with a fellow trick-or-treater one dark and spooky night . . . you could lose your head.

PHILIP JETT is a former corporate attorney who has represented multinational corporations, CEOs, and celebrities from the music, television, and sports industries. He is the author of The Death of an Heir: Adolph Coors III and the Murder That Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty. Jett now lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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