In this article:
- El Muerto is a legend of south Texas that comes from the mid-1800s, a time when the region was wild and lawless. Conflicts between Texas Rangers, Mexican bandits, and Comanche warriors turned the Texas countryside into a bloodbath.
- As the story goes, a notorious criminal named Vidal stole some horses from a particularly draconian Texas Ranger named Creed Taylor.
- Taylor and his men then tracked down Vidal, killed him, cut his head off, and propped his body atop a mustang that was left free to roam the countryside.
- To this day, people still report seeing El Muerto, the headless ghost of Vidal that can be seen roaming the areas around San Antonio.
You can find local folklore all over the world that features ghosts of decapitated people. While some stories tell of phantom heads without bodies, most tell of a body roaming the world of the living with no head.
Of course, fans of the Harry Potter series will immediately call to memory the character of Nearly Headless Nick, the friendly ghost who likes to give Hogwarts students a quick scare by removing his head at the neck.
Fans of classic literature will probably think of the Headless Horseman from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
While Irving’s version of the Headless Horseman is probably the most well-known decapitated figure in popular folklore, there is a similar figure in South Texan legend known as El Muerto, a former Mexican bandit who rose from the grave to exact revenge on the Texas Rangers that took his life.
The homeland of the legend of El Muerto is San Antonio and its surrounding areas, a historical hotbed of violent border disputes between the United States and Mexico. And, while the story of El Muerto is probably more fiction than fact, it does point to some very real tensions that exist between these two nations.
The History of El Muerto’s Texas
Texas was a wild and lawless place in the mid-1800s. In 1821, the Mexican War for Independence severed Spanish control over Mexico and established the new country of Mexico, which included parts of modern-day Texas.
However, Mexico did not have nearly enough resources to deal with the frequent Comanche raids that plagued settlers in the area. So, the Mexican government tried to deal with the problem by encouraging settlers from the United States to come and claim free land in hopes of establishing a population that could ward off the Comanches.
In 1830, Mexican President Anastasio Bustamante outlawed the immigration of United States citizens to Mexico, sowing the seeds of unrest among U.S. immigrants that were already living in Mexico.
This would eventually lead to the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836, which effectively created the Republic of Texas. While the Republic of Texas claimed that it was an autonomous entity, the Mexican government refused to recognize its independence.
Things came to a boil when the United States government annexed the Republic of Texas and made it a state in 1845. Mexico had long warned that such a move would lead to war, and they followed through on the promise. In 1846, the Mexican-American War began.
By the end of that war, there were still many Mexican people living in Texas, which was now considered a U.S. state.
Tensions between Texas Rangers and Mexican people living in Texas have never been harsher. Across the state, Rangers lynched Mexicans unlawfully, sending the message that they were no longer welcome in the state of Texas.
On top of that, the U.S. claimed that the border between the two countries was the Rio Grande. However, the Mexican government insisted that their territory extended all the way up to the Nueces River.
The land between the two rivers became known as “No Man’s Land,” a lawless strip where Mexicans, U.S. citizens, and Comanches engaged in bloody violence. With the Texas Rangers trying to displace them from their homes, many Mexicans resorted to criminality.
It is in this context that the story of El Muerto emerged. As you will see, the story of El Muerto reflects the hateful relationship that Mexican “banditos” had with Texas Rangers and the lawless environment of mid-1800s Texas.
The Man Who Became El Muerto
As the story goes, there was a notorious Mexican bandit in the mid-1800s by the name of Vidal. This man, who reportedly relished in a life of crime, was wanted dead or alive for stealing horses and cattle from local ranchers.
For years, Vidal roamed the Texas countryside stealing livestock without consequence. However, in 1850, he made the mistake of stealing a horse from the wrong man.
Vidal timed his crime so that it would coincide with a Comanche attack that was coming from the north. With most of the Rangers in the area pulled northward to brace for the fight, Vidal and his henchmen were able to slip in and steal a considerable amount of horses along the San Antonio River.
One of the horses belonged to a man named Creed Taylor, a Texas Ranger who had a reputation for being particularly draconian.
Taylor had not, on this specific occasion, gone to fight the Comanche. Upon discovering that his horses had gone missing, he rounded up a local rancher named Flores and a fellow Texas Ranger named Bigfoot Wallace to track Vidal and his gang.
When the Rangers came upon the outlaws’ camp, they waited until nightfall to attack. With the element of surprise on their side, they easily killed all of the bandits.
However, simply killing these bandits was not enough. They wanted to set an example. So, Wallace beheaded Vidal’s dead body and propped the corpse up on a nearby mustang. He then tied the corpse’s hands to the front of the saddle so that the body would remain upright.
The mustang was turned loose across the Texas countryside to carry its horrific cargo.
Not long after, reported sightings of El Muerto, the headless horseman, began popping up all over southern Texas. The area soon became infamous and rumors began to circulate that El Muerto was haunting the region, causing all sorts of evil and misfortune.
Finally, the horse was captured somewhere in the area of Ben Bolt. Vidal’s headless body was still perched atop its back, riddled with bullet holes and arrows that had been shot at it.
They buried the body in an unmarked grave and set the mustang free. However, sightings of the headless horseman didn’t stop there. In fact, people have reported witnessing El Muerto riding through southern Texas as recently as the 1960s.
Modern Sightings of El Muerto
Today, the region that was once known as “No Man’s Land” is still believed to be haunted by El Muerto. Ranchers and travelers often claim to have seen the apparition riding around the countryside looking for livestock to steal or kill, even in the afterlife.
In 1917, a couple was traveling by covered wagon to San Diego. They stopped for the night in the ghost’s territory to break up their journey. When they awoke the next morning, they went outside to find El Muerto sitting on his grey stallion next to a campfire. The ghost then shouted, “It’s mine! It’s all mine!”
Several decades later, there was another reported sighting of the ghost around Freer, Texas. These days, people still report seeing the phantom riding through the mesquite desert of southern Texas.
So, if you find yourself in the San Antonio area, keep your ears perked up for the sound of a galloping mustang. It might just be El Muerto.