El Muerto: The Headless Horseman

By RodneyHatfieldJr for Creepy

Did you realize that legends of headless horsemen are not that rare? There are quite a few tales of headless ghosts riding around from around the world. Needless to say, they don’t have their story written by renowned author Washington Irving. I was reading an 1852 diary of a Land Surveyor who was working in central Texas. He mentions the legend of El Muerto. This piqued my interest.  With that said, let’s look at this lesser famous legend of a Headless Horseman.

Texas in the 1800s was a wild and lawless place. Without a law agency, Texas attracts all manner of thieves, murderers, and other ruthless outlaws. To tame and stop these many desperadoes and fight the Indians, who were prone to attacking the white settlers, Texas created the Texas Rangers, who set out to tame the wild Texas frontier. The Rio Grande River had been declared the border between the United States and Mexico; however, the Mexican government refused to recognize the boundary. Mexico insists that the Nueces River was the border. This left a significant chunk of land between the two rivers which became known as “No Man’s Land” and a haven for outlaws from both sides.


This conflict culminated in the US going to war with Mexico in 1846. After the war, the Rio Grande because of the official border between the two countries. Even with a definite border, it took another thirty years before the Texas Rangers could get rid of the cattle rustlers and thieves. Judging from history, the Texas Rangers were a roving posse deputized by the state. They were expert gunmen and horsemen. The Rangers were not men to be messed with. Following their adversaries everywhere, they lived out of the saddle and often dispensed justice brutally. 


Two of these lawmen were Creed Taylor and William Alexander Anderson “Big Foot” Wallace, who was somewhat of a folk hero. It was Big Foot, with Creed’s blessing, who unwittingly created El Muerto. In 1850, a man known simply as Vidal was rustling cattle all over South Texas, and soon he received a high price on his head. During that summer, Vidal took advantage of a Comanche raid which pulled most of the men northward to fight off the attack. Meantime, the sparse settlements were temporarily left unguarded. Vidal, along with a few of his henchmen, wasted no time in taking advantage of the situation and gathered up a considerable number of horses on the San Antonio River, heading southwest toward Mexico.


What Vidal didn’t know, among the stolen herd, were several prized mustangs belonging to Texas Ranger Creed Taylor. Taylor was one of the first to defend the settlements against Indian attacks, but on this occasion did not go after the Comanche. Creed’s ranch lay west of San Antonio, in the thickest of bandit territory, not far from the headwaters of the Nueces River. Because of the location of his ranch, Taylor’s livestock and horses were often the targets of the many bandits. Taylor had enough and quickly gathered fellow rangers, Big Foot Wallace, and a rancher by the name of Flores. Both Wallace and Taylor were as skilled as any Comanche when tracking and the three men shortly found the trail of Vidal and his henchmen.


When the three Rangers found the outlaw camp, they waited until night when the bandits were sleeping to attack. Catching them unaware the thieves were killed. But just killing them was not enough. Taylor and Wallace wanted to set an example that would deter future bandits. In this time period, stealing cattle and horses was a crime more serious than murder. The Rangers had attempted ever kind of frontier justice including leaving them hanging up in trees, shooting them, and chopping them to death. But nothing had worked to stop the outlaws. In a dramatic example of frontier justice, Wallace beheaded Vidal then lashed him firmly into a saddle on the back of an untamed mustang. Tying the outlaw’s hands to the pommel and securing the torso to hold him upright. Big Foot then attached Vidal’s head and sombrero to the saddle with a long strip of rawhide. He then turned the bucking horse loose to wander the Texas hills with its terrible burden on his back.


Naturally, stories began to abound about the headless rider seen usually in remote country, with its sombreroed head swinging back and forth as the horse galloped. As time went on, more and more cowboys observed the dark horse with its fearsome cargo, and not perceiving what it was they riddled it with bullets. But the horse and its rider rode on and the legend of El Muerto, the headless one, began. Soon the South Texas brush country became a place to avoid as El Muerto was credited with all kinds of evil and misfortune. Finally, a group of local ranchers captured the wild pony at a watering hole near the tiny community of Ben Bolt just south of Alice, Texas. Still strapped firmly on its back was the dried-up corpse of Vidal, now riddled by scores of bullet holes and Indian arrows. The body was interred in an unmarked grave near Ben Bolt, and the horse was set free.


That should have been the end of El Muerto, but the legend would live on to this day. Soon after Vidal’s body was laid to rest; soldiers at Fort Inge (Uvalde) began seeing the headless rider. Travelers and ranchers in “No Man’s Land” also reported continuing to see the apparition. In 1917, a couple traveling by covered wagon to San Diego, Texas, camped for the night outside of town. They would report the next day that as they sat by the campfire a large gray stallion sped by with a headless man shouting “It is mine. It is all mine.” Another sighting of the headless rider was reported near Freer, Texas, in 1969.

The legend lives on and still today, many people report seeing the headless rider galloping through the mesquite on clear and moonlit nights in South Texas.

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