I have fallen in love with the Halloween Snickers ™ commercial that features a Horseless Headsman, who turns back to his normal Headless Horseman self when he eats a Snickers. It reminded me of this story, the only one I’ve ever written about a headless horseman–originally posted on Blogstream, and here in a somewhat different form in 2010.
Born around 1740, the son of a minor Irish lord called Galty Mallory and his Hungarian wife, who had Tartar blood from her mother’s side of the family, Ormond Mallory inherited Castle Sheela, the family home, upon his father’s death when he was eighteen; his mother promptly moved out, taking his younger brother and two younger sisters with her, already aware of what kind of life her eldest wanted to lead: he cared for nothing but horses, vice, and women—frequently women affianced or married to other men.
He had a favorite horse, the one being in God’s creation that captured and held both his affection and attention. That horse was called Follow, because, from the time he was a colt able to walk, he followed Ormond Mallory everywhere. Ormond taught Follow to come into the house, and climb the main staircase to wait outside his master’s room, on mornings when they were scheduled for a ride or a hunt. He even went so far, eventually, as to build Follow his own special ramp, with four shallow rises, to make it easier for his pet to climb up to the landing outside his bedroom door.
Eventually, his predilection for other men’s wives got Ormond Mallory into deep trouble; he was beaten so badly–by a Jason Fermoy, who caught Mallory in a compromising position with his wife in a lovers’ lane near Castle Sheela–that he was laid up for months. During that time, his mother paid him a visit—the first time she had done so in nearly twelve years—and he was surprised and furtively glad to see her. While he convalesced, he agreed to do two things for her: to have his portrait painted and hung in the Long Gallery with the other lords of Castle Sheela, and to have a sumptuous Christmas gathering for the whole family.
The portrait was soon done, and placed in the Long Gallery. It shows a slender young man with light brown hair tied back, chilly blue eyes, a typical eighteenth century suit of clothes, and a Hungarian Csikos coat, white with brilliant embroidery, in tribute to his Hungarian ancestry.
Time flew by, and soon Christmas Day came. Ormond Mallory and his beloved Follow, who had visited every day of his master’s convalescence, had a hunt to attend that morning. Those who hunted with them would say later that Mallory arrived late and that he appeared to have been in a fight; he had cuts and bruises around his mouth, and he seemed unnaturally nervous, looking around shiftily as if expecting further attack.
Christmas dinner with his family was to begin at six o’clock in the evening, with him presiding from the head of the table. At six o’clock, Ormond still had not arrived home from the hunt. Brother and servants went out looking for him, but soon returned, driven in by gathering darkness and icy cold weather.
At eight o’clock, the anxious family and servants heard a familiar sound at the door: Follow, mounting the steps of the entryway to be let in. Ormond’s brother and a servant girl both went to open it, and collapsed in horror at what they saw.
Follow was in a terrible state of panic, covered in foam and sweat and badly winded. Tied in place on his back was a body dressed in the clothes Ormond Mallory had worn when he left that morning—but only a body; where the head should be there was nothing but a bloody stump, where the head had been clean stricken off. As the brother and servant watched, Follow made the last effort of his devoted life, dragging himself and his hideous burden up the ramp to the landing outside Ormond’s room—where he fell dead.
Ormond Mallory’s head was never found, and his murder was never solved; Jason Fermoy, who had beaten him so mercilessly the summer before, had an unbreakable alibi. Mallory was buried, headless, in the family cemetery. It is said that, for many years afterward, a heavily-veiled woman—none other than Mrs. Fermoy—would visit his grave quite frequently.
Castle Sheela was inherited by Ormond’s brother, Dominic. Dominic’s first order of business was to tear down the ramp his brother had installed for Follow. That destruction didn’t stop Follow—or Ormond—from repeating that terrible last journey up to Ormond’s room. Many, many occupants of the house have reported seeing a shadowy, spent horse with a bloody, headless rider tied in the saddle climbing on thin air where the ramp once stood; other times, only the sounds are heard.
On Christmas Day, the castle’s huge front door will suddenly open and bang back against the wall. Even stranger, something happens to Ormond Mallory’s portrait. On Christmas Day only, the head simply vanishes behind a smudge of dark but subtly glowing mist. The next day, the smudge is gone, and Ormond Mallory again surveys the room with a cold smile and wintry eyes.
The story of the dreadful death of Ormond Mallory and his horse, and the strange haunting of Castle Sheela, comes from James Reynolds’ 1947 book Ghosts in Irish Houses.