It’s a ghost story that begins a few years before Texas was even officially the Republic of Texas. But after nearly 200 years the tall tale—or eyewitness truth, depending who you ask—is alive and well on Bailey’s Prairie in Brazoria County.
He was a notorious and eccentric early Texas pioneer named James Briton “Brit” Bailey who arrived in what is now Brazoria County several years before Stephen F. Austin established his Old 300 colony in the same area.
“He was a heavy drinker and loved to fight,” said Brazoria County Historical Museum Research Librarian Jamie Murray, who says Austin reluctantly accepted Bailey into the colony although he reportedly did not approve of Bailey’s love for whiskey and a good fist fight.
Watch: The Legend of Bailey's Light
The rest of Bailey’s story, including the story of his ghost, can be found in several large files at the museum in Angleton. In a handwritten copy of his will, and on a roadside historical marker along Highway 35, are the words that helped start the legend.
“And the will does say he wants to be buried standing up and facing west,” Murray said.
And as the story goes, in 1832 his descendants did follow his wishes, lowering a casket vertically into the ground so that he could continue, in death, to face the vast western expanse of the country he longed to continue exploring.
"And he said he didn't want anybody to stand over his grave and say ‘there lies old Britt Bailey,’” Murray added.
We visited the Brazoria Heritage Foundation in the town of Brazoria for a few more details on Bailey and his ghost, because in the hallway of a 1930s school house now operating as a museum, they keep a mannequin under lock and key dressed like Brit Bailey. He’s wearing a pioneer’s leather jacket, and, as the legend goes, appears with the items with which he was buried: a rifle at his side, a lantern to light his way to the west, and a jug of whiskey at his feet. Well, almost with the jug of whiskey.
"His wife said he'd had enough of that during his lifetime,” said Dortha Pekar, 70, with the Brazoria Heritage Foundation, referring to Bailey’s reported love of a stiff drink. “And she threw it out on the prairie and said he'd already had enough of that. And apparently he had.”
"And because his wife said he had enough whiskey in his lifetime he did not need to take it with him,” Murray said. "But the basic story remains the same. He was a character."
A character who, according to Brazoria County legend and numerous reported sightings over the following 184 years, haunts Bailey’s Prairie. As the story goes, on any given night—but best seen in the fall of the year when the “mist is on the prairie”—a floating light can be seen hovering over the prairie that bears his name.
Catherine Munson Foster, the late Brazoria County historian, librarian and storyteller whose family lived on the property where Bailey was believed to be buried, would tell the tale to anyone who would listen. One of her presentations is part of the Brit Bailey file at the Brazoria County Historical Museum.
Photos: Ghostly story of Bailey's Light
"Now it takes the form of a mysterious light that floats across the prairie and darts up into the tops of the trees,” she told a group of school children in a video recording from 1984. "It's been a well-established fact that Brit Bailey does haunt the prairie in the shape of a light.”
Why? They say it’s an angry Brit Bailey, with that lantern he was buried with, roaming the prairie searching for that jug of whiskey his wife removed from his grave.
Jamie Murray says the first sighting of Bailey’s ghost, as detailed in the book “Victorian Lady on the Texas Frontier” was by a family who says they saw Bailey himself.
"But from then on nobody ever saw his form, just a light, just the bouncing light,” said Murray.
"Daddy saw Bailey's Light several times,” Pekar said, recounting the stories of her own father, although she admits her dad sometimes just had fun telling the story whether he believed it or not. "When I go past Bailey's Prairie, I always look for him.”
To the doubters, 184 years of sightings of Bailey's Light are nothing more than occasional puffs of South Texas natural gas. And a few local historians might be doubters, too.
"We like our ghosts, and I don't necessarily believe in ghosts, but I believe in ghost stories,” Pekar said.
“Well part of me believes in it. And then part of me knows that there are more rational forces in the world,” Murray laughed. "Do I believe it's old Brit Bailey with his lantern, looking for his jug of whiskey? I'd hate to have to say, because that ruins the story.”
A story that tells us Bailey was a nemesis of Stephen F. Austin.
The two didn't necessarily get along. But now, as Austin's statue stands watch over Brazoria County along Highway 288, somewhere along Highway 35 Brit Bailey is in a grave still standing, too.
Although a roadside marker in front of Munson Cemetery on Highway 35 tells Bailey’s story, no one seems to know exactly where the infamous pioneer was buried back in 1832, only that he was buried under a large tree on a high ridge.
But if you ask the diehard believers in Brazoria County, Bailey’s Light still makes occasional appearances across the vast expanses of Bailey’s Prairie: an early Texas pioneer still on the prowl, still looking for trouble, and still looking for his jug of whiskey.