Saturday, October 12, 2013

El Muerto: the Headless Horseman of South Texas

Serial published in 1865
First published in 1820, Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has been frightening children for generations. Though the tale of a hapless schoolmaster’s midnight gallop through the New York woods made the phrase “headless horseman” a household term in America, by the time Irving’s story appeared, headless horsemen had been staples of European folklore for centuries. German, Irish, Scandinavian, and English legends all offered versions of the ghoulish phantoms, who usually were said to appear to proud, arrogant people as a warning.

South Texas has its own gruesome headless horseman legend. Unlike Irving’s unforgettable spook, however, Texas’ decapitated caballero rode among the living once upon a time.

Some say he still does.

In the summer of 1850, a Mexican bandito by the name of Vidal made an egregious error: He and several compadres rustled a sizable herd of horses from several ranches south of San Antonio. One of the ranches belonged to Texas Ranger Creed Taylor, a veteran of the Texas War for Independence and a man not inclined to forgive his enemies. (Taylor later would be one of the participants in the Sutton-Taylor Feud, a bloody, years-long running gun battle that rivaled the better-known fracas between the Hatfields and McCoys.)

Rustling cattle already had earned Vidal’s head a dead-or-alive bounty. Stealing a Texas Ranger’s horses proved the proverbial last straw. Together with fellow Ranger William A.A. “Big Foot” Wallace and another local rancher, Taylor set out to put a stop to Vidal’s unbearable insolence.

As a group, the early Texas Rangers were hard men. Tasked with protecting an enormous patch of land rife with outlaws and Indians, the early Rangers were expert trackers, accomplished gunmen, and not opposed to meting out immediate — and often brutal — “frontier justice.” Vidal was about to discover that in a very personal way.

Creed Taylor c. 1872
After tracking the banditos to their camp, Taylor, Wallace, and the third man mounted a surprise attack while the outlaws were asleep. Killing the desperados was not enough for Taylor and Wallace, though. The entire Ranger force was fed up with the rash of rustling plaguing Texas at the time. Not even leaving bodies hanging from trees or hacking them to pieces and using the bits for predator bait had made a strong enough statement.

So Wallace got creative. After beheading Vidal, he secured the corpse upright on the back of the wildest of the rustled horses, lashed the bandito’s hands to the saddle horn and his feet to the stirrups, and tied the stirrups beneath the animal’s belly. Just to make sure anyone who saw the ghoulish specter got the message, he looped a rawhide thong through the head’s jaws and around Vidal’s sombrero, and slung the bloody bundle from the saddle’s pommel. Then Wallace and his friends sent the terrified mustang galloping off into the night.

Not long thereafter, vaqueros began to report seeing a headless horseman rampaging through the scrub on a dark, wild horse. As sightings spread, some claimed flames shot from the animal’s nostrils and lightning bolts from its hooves. Bullets seemed to have no effect on the grisly marauder. They dubbed the apparition el Muerto — the dead man — and attributed all sorts of evil and misfortune to the mysterious rider.

Big Foot Wallace c. 1872
Eventually, a posse of cowboys brought down the horse at a watering hole near Ben Bolt, Texas. By then the dried-up body had been riddled with bullets and arrows, and the head had shriveled in the sun. The posse laid Vidal’s remains to rest in an unmarked grave on the La Trinidad Ranch. Only then did Wallace and Taylor take public credit for the deed. The episode contributed to Wallace’s reputation and had the intended effect on rustling.

Even the revelation of the truth behind the legend did not end el Muerto’s reign of terror. Until nearby Fort Inge was decommissioned in 1869, soldiers reported seeing a headless rider roaming the countryside around Uvalde, near Taylor’s ranch. Thirty years later, a rise in the ground 250 miles to the southeast, near San Patricio, Texas, was christened Headless Horseman Hill after a wagon train reported an encounter with el Muerto. A sighting occurred in 1917 outside San Diego, Texas, and another near Freer in 1969.

El Muerto reportedly still roams the mesquite-covered range in Duval, Jim Wells, and Live Oak counties — still fearsome, still headless, and still reminding those who see him that Texas Rangers didn’t come by their tough-hombre reputation by accident.


Kathleen Rice Adams is a rabble-rousing Texan to the bone. Her short story "Peaches" will appear in Prairie Rose Publications' Christmas anthology Wishing for a Cowboy, due in ebook and print Nov. 1.


  1. Kathleen--great story. I do remember this tale, but why was Big Foot Wallace called "Big Foot?"
    I thought Washington Irving's story about a headless horseman was unique, created by him. I didn't know about so many other rumors of seeing headless horsemen in other countries and times. Interesting.

    When I was in elementary school and my sister was in high school, her English class read The Headless Horseman, Washington Irving's tale. She wrote a report about it for class and drew a pencil rendition of the headless horseman. I remember being so impressed-not by the headless idea--but the fact my sister could draw. As far as I know, that's the only thing she ever drew.
    I enjoyed reading this. Thanks.

  2. Great article and I'll bet at least some of those earlier headless horseman tales came from someone doing what the Rangers did. It certainly would fit the behaviour of the Huns, Mongols and Cossacks. They take their horse just as seriously.

  3. Awesome legend!! Great article, Kathleen. Congrats on the short story in Prairie Rose's antho.

  4. Kathleen, once again you have provided new information. I had never heard of El Muerto. Also, like Celia, I thought Irving had created the tale, and found it fascinating that the legend existed in so many ethnicities.

  5. The information in the article is quite interesting, didn't know of the other stories. I can see some very angry Texas Rangers doing that. Probably got a few off the bottle too

  6. Once again, Tex, a fabulous post with a interesting legend!! Thanks for the seasonally appropriate article. :)


  7. Thanks, everyone! Sorry to take so long to respond. It's been a busy Saturday. :-D

    Celia, I've read how Big Foot Wallace got his nickname, but I can't remember at the moment. I'll look that up and let you know. My younger sister got all the artistic ability in my family. I've always marveled at her painting skills -- in fact, several of her paintings hang in my home. It's always a surprise when a family member shows some unexpected talent, isn't it? :-)

    Ali, you're probably right! Violent bunches, those Huns, Mongols, and Cossacks.

    Meg, I'm glad you like the piece. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. And thanks for the congrats!

    Caroline, Irving admitted the European legends inspired The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In fact, he was living in Germany when he wrote the story! :-)

    Dick, nice to see you here! In some quarters, the early Rangers were called "outlaws with badges." They really were a mean bunch who brooked no contrariness from anyone. I imagine some cowpokes did swear off likker after running across el Muerto! :-D

    Kirsten, I've still got a ways to go to beat your Big Nose George post. That has got to be THE most bizarre tale in the Old West. :-D


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