early world view of Texas was shaped not so much by reporters and
newspapers but by the dime store novelists of the day, people like
Thomas Mayne Reid, who wrote dozens of books under the byline Captain
Reid was a rebellious Irish lad who made his way to the U.S. in 1839
when he was 21 years old. He hung out with Edgar Allen Poe in Philadelphia
for a time, the two sharing common bonds of literary ambition and
intemperance. Poe described Reid as "a colossal liar" and added, "He
fibs on a surprising scale but with the finish of an artist, and that's
why I listen to him attentively." We see some fibs in Reid's writing,
such as his description in Desert Home of 14,000-foot snow-capped
mountains in the Texas
Reid's first book, written in 1850, was The Rifle Rangers.
He dedicated his second book, Scalp Hunters, to Commodore Edwin
Moore, commander of the Texas Navy. He described his third book, The
Boy Hunters, as "a juvenile scientific travelogue."
That particular book greatly influenced a young Theodore Roosevelt,
who grew up wanting to be a cowboy but had to settle for President
of the United States. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock
Holmes, was also an avid reader of Mayne as a boy. Russian novelist
Vladimir Nabokov read Reid's novels when he was growing up in St.
Petersburg. His favorite was The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale
of Texas. Nabokov said the book gave him "a vision of the prairies
and the great open spaces and the overarching sky."
The Headless Horseman is set in South Texas soon after the
war with Mexico. Louise Poindexter, the book's heroine, is torn between
two suitors the rich but dastardly Cassius Calhoun and the
poor but picturesque mustanger Maurice Gerald. The plot thickens when
Louise's brother is murdered, and all the clues point to Gerald as
the killer. Soon afterwards, a headless horseman begins to haunt the
That last part might actually be true. Or it might not be. The story
is inspired by a grisly prank that Creed
Taylor (whose life story closely parallels early Texas history)
and his buddy Bigfoot
Wallace allegedly perpetrated.
The story has gone through some revisions over the years as various
folklorists, historians and writers have seized the tale. The gist
of it is that a shady character known to us as Vidal pretended to
be a Texas patriot during the war with Mexico but was actually the
kingpin of a horse-stealing ring. Comanches usually took the blame
whenever horses in the area went missing, but Taylor,
and possibly a couple of others got wise to Vidal. They pursued him,
caught him, killed him and, for reasons that remain their own, cut
off Vidal's head and tied the rest of the dead rustler onto the back
of a mustang. Then they sent horse and rider out across the plains
to scare the living daylights out of people.
They just don't write 'em like that anymore.
Reid's books remained popular long after his death and were translated
into 16 languages. Critics were never quite sure what to make of Reid's
novels, which teetered between the conventions of the dime novel with
themes more common to classical literature. Respected literary critic
Bernard De Voto once referred to Reid's The Scalp Hunters as
"one of the best of the Wild West novels." Other critics, if they
bothered to acknowledge his work at all, dismissed him as a hack.
Regardless of how we view him today, his work remains the only place
where we might experience the snow-capped mountains of Lubbock.