We are entering the season of Ikabotsuru. As the bright flames of summer give way to the rich colors and smoldering embers of autumn, thousands of fans gather to commemorate the hapless headmaster, his nemesis the Headless Horseman, and the author who created them, Washington Irving. The timing makes sense. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is set in, as Irving puts it, “autumn luxuries,” with a spooky element that builds anticipation for Halloween.
Not surprisingly, fans flock to a New York village for the Sleepy Hollow Cultural Festival in September and the Sleepy Hollow Street Fair in October. However, many other communities also host Ichabod Crane-themed events. Children from Central Michigan participate in Ichabod Crane Day. Pennsylvanians looking for Halloween fun can visit the Sleepy Hollow Festival near Pittsburgh or Sleepy Hollow Haunted Acres on the other side of the state. Families head to Connor Prairie for his annual Headless Horseman Festival in Indiana. And during the fall, the coast-to-coast company regularly produces The Legend of Sleepy Hollow theatrical productions.
But as far as I know, Norfolk doesn’t celebrate Ichabod Crane on a regular basis. There should be. After all, he lived in the Hampton Roads area for many years.
Yes, there really was an Ichabod Crane. Crane, who was born in 1787, about three years before Irving’s story begins, belonged to a prominent family. His grandfather represented New Jersey in the First Continental Congress. His father was a general in the American Revolutionary War. His brother, William Crane, fought alongside Stephen Decatur against the Barbary pirates and eventually commanded an American naval squadron in the Mediterranean. Another brother of his, Joseph, became a prominent member of parliament. Subsequent generations of cranes are equally noteworthy. For example, Ichabod’s son Charles became the army’s chief surgeon, and after the president was shot, Abraham was one of the doctors who tried to save Lincoln’s life.
By comparison, the real-life Ichabod Crane carrier was no exception. Yet, aside from his great-great-nephew Stephen (author of The Red Badge of Courage), Ichabod is the most famous crane of all, if only because of his fictional namesake.
Opportunity to participate in this week’s top opinion content and weekly questions on topics impacting our region.
Ichabod first came to Norfolk in 1809 as a lieutenant in the USS United States Marine Corps, working under his brother’s ex-commander Stephen Decatur. His brother also lived in town. William married the daughter of the mayor of Norfolk, where he commanded the USS Nautilus.
When the War of 1812 began, Decatur and William Crane fought the British at sea, but for some reason Ichabod transferred to the Army. (In my historical fantasy novel Forest Folk, which features all three men, I chose to portray Ichabod’s motivation as a sibling rivalry.) fought at the Battle of York and the Battle of Fort George.
Remaining in the army after the war, Crane returned to Norfolk in 1825 and helped establish an artillery school at the new Fort Monroe. While there, he became acquainted with Lieutenant Robert E. Lee. Robert E. Lee is a young engineer working on the ongoing construction of the fort. Crane also attempted to lead a force from Fort Monroe into the Blackhawk War, which ended before he reached Illinois. 1851, Colonel at the time. Ichabod Crane received his one of his last missions. It was the commander of the newly created military asylum, now the home of military retirees in Washington, DC.
So how did this respected but not legendary officer come to lend his name to one of the most famous figures in American fiction?
During the War of 1812, Washington Irving served as aide to New York Governor Daniel Tompkins. While he was touring a military base on Lake Ontario, Irving saw Ichabod he met Crane or was on the officer list. His peculiar name stuck in his heart. Irving also apparently knew that Ichabod in Hebrew means “without glory.” A fitting name for a character he’ll soon invent, don’t you think?
Consider this suggestion from a well-meaning North Carolina neighbor. Norfolk has to host its own Ichabod Crane event every fall.Nowhere else but Sleepy Hollow can claim this privilege.
John Hood is a syndicated columnist teaching at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Ichabod Crane is the central character in his latest novel, Forest Folk (Defiance Press, 2022).