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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Snow-Capped Mountains of Lubbock


by Clay Coppedge

The 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 Mayne Reid.

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 Panhandle.

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 Poindexter Plantation.

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, Wallace 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.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" February 6, 2022 column



Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Not so great escapes 1-8-22
  • Titanic in Texas 12-5-21
  • Country Music's First Superstar 11-3-21
  • America's Broadway 10-6-21
  • Wired Up in Texas 9-8-21

    more »

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