Perhaps the most famous story of a headless horseman, is Washington Irving’s 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Despite the famed novel, other tales of headless horsemen have weaved their way into folklore throughout history.
Celtic folklore gives us the story of the Dullahan (“dark man”), a headless horseman that was seen as a malevolent omen of death.
The middle English poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells us the story of the Green Knight, who rides into King Arthur’s court and challenges any knight to behead him with his own axe. The Green Knight is then decapitated, he picks up his head, and rides out of the court carrying it.
The image of a headless horseman is creepy, and the idea has been used many times in horror fiction over the years. The American Wild West also gives us an eerie tale of a headless horseman, originating in Texas during the mid-1800’s.
Texas in the mid-1800’s was a place littered with outlaws, murderers, tribes out for revenge and countless acts of violence. It was lawless.
An area of land nestled between the Rio Grande River and the Nueces River was highly contested between the Mexican and U.S governments, both claiming it as their own. The lack of official ownership led to the area becoming an uncontrolled no-mans land of crime.
In order to establish law and order, the U.S government created a band of men that became known as the Texas Rangers. The Rangers would go on to create a hardened, fearsome reputation among criminals.
Among the newly established Rangers were two men named Creed Taylor, and William Alexander Anderson “Big Foot” Wallace. These two men owned ranches just south of San Antonio.
Though the Rangers were feared, they weren’t immune to the criminal activity in the area. An infamous cattle thief named Vidal would eventually strike the ranches of the two Rangers.
In 1850, Vidal had numerous ranches in mind that he wanted to hit, and managed to do so successfully. He had managed to steal some mustangs from the ranches he raided, but in doing so, he received a “Dead or Alive” bounty on his head.
Vidal didn’t realise at the time, but when he’d been out launching his raids on ranches in the area, he had in fact stolen from the two Rangers, Creed Taylor, and William Alexander Anderson, who were away at the time of Vidal’s raids, fighting off a Comanche attack.
Upon discovering their horses had been taken by Vidal, the two men swore revenge. If their reputation hadn’t yet come to light, they would soon show that the Texas Rangers were sometimes as brutal as the criminals themselves.
Creed Taylor, and William Alexander Anderson knew of Vidal, and the reputation he had as a cattle thief in the area. They knew he was the one that had stolen their horses. Together, they set out to hunt him down.
They tracked Vidal through the highly precarious wilderness of Texas, where they eventually located his camp. The two men exchanged gunfire with Vidal and his band of outlaws, eventually killing them all.
Despite killing Vidal, they needed to set an example. This is where we can trace the origins of the story of the Texas headless horseman.
Taylor and Wallace decapitated the head of Vidal, before strapping his body tightly to a horse. The headless corpse of Vidal rode on his mount through the plains of Texas, serving as a grim warning to anyone else who thought about stealing cattle.
Terrified people in the area who came across the headless horseman, would soon begin to report the phantom as an omen. He gained the name El Muerto, “The Dead One.” Some even began to describe the phantom as a demon, riding a horse which could shoot fire from its nostrils, or lightning from its hooves.
Vidal’s corpse remained on the horse for years, until his mount was shot dead by ranchers, or died of natural causes. His decomposed skeletal remains were untied, and buried at Rancho La Trinidad, near present Ben Bolt in Jim Wells County.
Some people have more recently reported seeing the ghost of a headless horseman still riding through the area. One place in particular where El Muerto is seen, is said to be a place now known as Headless Horseman Hill. As the phantom rides past, El Muerto is said to sometimes cry out “It is mine. It is all mine!”
Many parts of the story could be exaggerated, but Taylor and Wallace did exist but what exactly happened after the death of Vidal, is still a mystery. Now however, El Muerto has become a fascinating, yet creepy story of American folklore.