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The Legend of El Muerto: The Headless Horseman Who Haunts Texas

by Timothy Rawles
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Washington Irving’s fictional The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has become a celebrated tale about a ghostly headless horseman. But there is another story—a true one—that takes place in Texas.

Back in the mid-1800s, South Texas was a hotbed of criminal activity. So much so, law enforcement agents known as the Texas Rangers were created to help stop the problem. Their task, among other things, was to keep criminals in check.

Since Texas and Mexico were entrenched in a border war, it was a perfect time for bandits to take advantage of the distraction.

One such bandit, in Austin, by the name of Vidal had a long record for horse thievery and decided to make what would be the biggest mistake of his life: steal horses from Creed Taylor, a Texas Ranger who didn’t take kindly to criminals especially ones who acted against him personally.

A Real Texas Ranger

Taylor got wind of Vidal’s actions and banded together with two other Rangers, Flores and William Alexander Anderson Wallace, aka “Big Foot.” The trio tracked Vidal and his posse to their hideout and killed them. But Taylor wasn’t quite finished with Vidal’s corpse.

It’s said that the angry Ranger decapitated the thief and strung his headless body to a horse. He strapped Vidal’s head to the animal as well and set them off to wander aimlessly throughout the Texas landscape forever.

El Muerte

El Muerte

There were plenty of sightings of the meandering headless cadaver and his wayward horse–Vidal’s ever-decomposing body was riddled from the effects from the Texas sun. This gave locals such a fright they deemed the image a specter mostly because they couldn’t stop it. It seemed the steed was immune to bullet fire.

Sightings Continued of the Ghost Throughout Texas

Eventually, Vidal and his horse were captured. His body was ravaged with weapon slugs and protruding arrows; his separated head taut and sallow.  Both parts of the bandit were unceremoniously buried.  But earth and stone weren’t going to keep ol’ Vidal down.

Sightings continued of his headless body mounted on a horse. Some say the horse spit flames from its nostrils and lightning from its feet. One San Diego-bound couple recalled seeing the apparition, and this time it spoke: “It is mine. It is all mine!”

There was also another sighting of the marauding specter in 1969.

The name El Muerto was born.

A Non-Living Legend

As with most legends, there are bits of truth contained therein. In the El Muerto tale, there was actually a Texas Ranger named Creed Taylor who took responsibility for Vidal’s death and beheading.

Maybe not as renown as writer Irving’s headless horseman in Sleepy Hollow, El Muerto still captures the imagination of a creepy local Texas legend rooted in fact. And sometimes those ghost stories are the most frightening.

To this day, people report seeing El Muerto riding under the cover of the mesquite on warm, clear nights over the landscape.

Vidal’s headless body and his unfortunate horse are doomed to ride beneath the Southern Texas moonlight for all eternity.