The Missouri Headless Horseman: Haunting or Legend?

Flickr - CUA Werner Reischel
Flickr – CUA Werner Reischel

Paranormal investigating always has its ties with the history of a location and the events that have transpired on a plot of land or within a house or building. Many times this history is interspersed with fantastic stories and unbelievable myths. In Southeastern Missouri there is the tale of a haunting that is nearly extracted from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and it is just as bizarre as the tragedy that befell Ichabod Crane.

The legend of the headless horseman is certainly an incredible tale because it is based on decapitation and the afterlife. The interesting thing about this legend is that it is not specific to just one geographic location, but rather, claims of this spectral sighting have been recorded throughout our country. This leads me to think that perhaps there may be some validity behind this legend and that maybe the headless horseman could be an residual haunting riding in the night, terrorizing unsuspecting victims.

You may be familiar with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” either as a child, through television or book, or just because it is mentioned frequently over the Halloween holiday. Although Irving’s work of fiction is based on an imaginary place, it still contains all of the elements of a headless horseman residual haunting. As stated earlier, this type of haunting has been reported all over the country, even here in the state of Missouri. The secluded glen setting of Sleepy Hollow is the Dutch settlement of Tarrytown, New York. The whispers persist throughout the town, speaking of ghosts and wizardry, with the presence of unsettled spirits appearing on its roadways. Following the mysterious setting and whispers of a legend, a residual haunting has an actual entity who continuously returns from the annals of a tragic history. In the case of Sleepy Hollow, this entity is the headless horseman who is said to be the ghost of a Hessian (German) soldier who had his head shot off by a cannonball in the Revolutionary War. These three elements will play out in another potential haunting in the Midwest.


Much to its name, the town of Cape Girardeau in the state of Missouri was founded as a French settlement. Here, along the Mississippi River, communities began to surface in the late 1700s and continued to grow from its original trading post. The legends tied to hauntings here would grow as well as the population increased. One particular area of land, known today as Bloomfield Road and located near Southeast Missouri State University, hosts a myriad of haunted legends.

“At one time, Bloomfield Road was considered the most haunted road in Missouri.”¹

It hosts multiple paranormal activities, the most notorious are tied to two tragic events that occurred near the modern-day Mount Tabor Park area. The most recent happened in the 1970s, when a young girl was raped and murdered. She has been infamously called “Mad Lucy” by the locals, as her screams can still be heard along this roadway. But don’t try and visit this park to see for yourself. Since it was too far from the town for police to patrol, it was shut down and since has been sold into private property hands.

The second paranormal event that happened along Bloomfield Road has its beginnings dating back to the 1780s, when French settlers began inhabiting this river area. Here the story parallels the familiar headless horseman legend. In my research some of the facts have been a bit sketchy, but it seems that there are two incidents tied to this southeastern Missouri town. One claim is that a male apparition is seen walking up and down the road, in search of his head. His story is unknown.


The other claim, which has had a farther reach within local communities, is that a headless rider has been seen on multiple occasions traveling up and down Bloomfield Road in search of his lost body part. Once again, we see the parallel of a man in constant search of his cranium. What a tragic thing to have happened to someone, which, from what may be ascertained, was the direct result of technological progress in the Revolutionary War. I am curious to find out just how many soldiers lost their heads in this war from cannon fire. Was it a concern for them, perhaps giving one another the advice to duck if the sound of a cannon was heard or watch closely when riding horseback? Such an incredibly traumatic event would certainly give rise to a residual haunting because the soldier’s spirit would never be at rest, doomed forever to comb the roadside in bewilderment and not knowing what had happened to them.

So the question is still left to be answered – is the headless horseman simply a legend, a work of superstition passed down through the generations through word of mouth or is it actually a residual haunting, interacting with unsuspecting residents?

To get a better perspective on how to best answer this question, we must first go back in history. Some of the earliest cannons used in the Revolutionary War were known as “mortars.” Their pot-shaped design was first developed in the 15th century and could fire a shell weighing 8½ to 16 pounds, reaching a distance of 800 to 1,000 yards. They were fairly accurate in their 45˚ trajectory shot, but were quite bulky and had to be relocated after each firing. I was unable to find out if mortars were used in the Cape Girardeau area of Missouri, but there is a Revolutionary War cemetery there. Battles were fought in this territory, but the possibility of soldiers being beheaded by mortar fire is unknown.


Soon after the mortar – howitzers, gallopers, and the cannons we know today were being manufactured and used during the Civil War era. These guns used smaller shells and were more accurate and easy to use for quick assaults. Major assaults were launched in the Battle of Cape Girardeau and the possibility does exist that soldiers may have been killed by cannonball fire.

There are two ways a soldier may have been decapitated, and both of them would seem to occur by strange chance. If a horseman were to ride in the trajectory point of a shot, then his fate would be sealed. Another way a horseman could lose his noggin, and this seems more probable for a residual haunting, is that many times cannons were shot over top of soldiers’ heads. I would imagine in the heat of battle that a combination of inattentiveness by the soldier on horseback and the sometimes unpredictable cannon blasts might equate to a very traumatic war injury, knocking the rider off his horse and making a bloody mess.

This drives our investigation and inquiry back to some possible final answers. It is certainly possible that cannonballs severed heads from horse soldiers and that the intensity of the bloody event would create a residual haunting. The psychic energies of the soldier, explosively intense, would become embedded in the environment. Some of the most haunted places in the world are ones were great tragedies have occurred. The West Virginia Penitentiary, Trans-Allegheny Asylum, and the Molly Hatchet home are just a few that fall into this category. One of the most notorious hauntings takes place in the Tower of London in England. Here the beheaded ghost of Anne Boleyn is claimed to be seen, roaming the tower in which she was decapitated by her husband Henry VIII. Headless hauntings do occur throughout the world and so having one here in Missouri is certainly possible.

Flickr - U.S. Embassy, The Hague
Flickr – U.S. Embassy, The Hague

Let’s flip the coin to the other side, though. How possible is it that multiple hauntings of headless people could be happening in our country and throughout the world? These stories are so outlandish that they have to be the work of legend and folklore. Leave the headless horseman storytelling to writers like Washington Irving and the real paranormal investigations to the professionals. After all, there is no proof that these types of anomalies exist, it’s all hearsay and possibly the ramblings of unstable minds.

Ultimately, though, you the reader decide whether or not you believe this phenomenon to be real. I encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comment box below or on the social media page this article is posted. I will leave you with one thought….

“Last September, 5½ years ago, John and Michael were coming out from town. On their way, they saw a man without a head…. Forty years afterwards, perhaps to the day, the same apparition was seen by a man we will call S.R….. [The location of this sighting] was about 150 yards north of Ludwig Essick’s house, on Emmitsburg Road, about a mile from town.”

  • Excerpt from Emmanuel Bushman, Gettysburg (Pennsylvania) Compiler, Tuesday, January 12, 1886.


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