Is that a gun in your pocket, or…?

Kathleen Rice Adams header

 

Life is full of little ironies. Every so often, a big irony jumps up and literally grabs a person by the privates. Just ask late Texas lawman Cap Light.

Bell County Courthouse, Belton, Texas, late 19th Century

Bell County Courthouse, Belton, Texas, late 19th Century

Many of the details about William Sidney “Cap” Light’s life have been obscured by the sands of time. His exact birth date is unknown, though it’s said he was born in late 1863 or early 1864 in Belton, Texas. No photographs of him are known to exist, although there seem to be plenty of his infamous brother-in-law, the confidence man and Gold Rush crime boss Soapy Smith. Several of Light’s confirmed line-of-duty kills are mired in controversy, and rumors persist about his involvement in at least one out-and-out murder. Even the branches of his family tree are a mite tangled, considering the 1900 census credited Light with fathering a daughter born six years after his death.

What seems pretty clear, however, is that Light survived what should have been a fatal gunshot wound to the head only to kill himself accidentally about a year later.

Light probably lived an ordinary townie childhood. The son of a merchant couple who migrated to Texas from Tennessee, he followed an elder brother into the barbering profession before receiving a deputy city marshal’s commission in Belton at the age of 20. Almost immediately — on March 24, 1884 — he rode with the posse that tracked down and killed a local desperado. Belton hailed the young lawman as a hero.

For five years, Light reportedly served the law in an exemplary, and uneventful, fashion. Then, in 1889, things began to change.

In August, while assisting the marshal of nearby Temple, Texas, Light shot a prisoner he was escorting to jail. Ed Cooley tried to escape, Light said. Later that fall, after resigning the Belton job to become deputy marshal in Temple, Light shot and killed Sam Hasley, a deputy sheriff with a reputation for troublemaking. Hasley, drunk and raising a ruckus, ignored Light’s order to go home. Instead, he rode his horse onto the boardwalk and reached for his gun. Light responded with quick, accurate, and deadly force.

The following March, Light cemented his reputation as a fast and deadly gunman when he killed another drunk inside Temple’s Cotton Exchange Saloon. According to the local newspaper’s account, Felix Morales died “with his pistol in one hand and a beer glass in the other.”

Light’s growing reputation as a no-nonsense straight-shooter served Temple so well that in 1891, the city cut its budget by discontinuing the deputy marshal’s position. Unemployed and with a wife and two toddlers to support, Light accepted his brother-in-law’s offer of a job in Denver, Colorado. By then, Jeff “Soapy” Smith was firmly in control of Denver’s underworld. After the Glasson Detective Agency allegedly leaned on one of Smith’s young female friends, Light took part in a pistol-wielding raid meant to convince the detectives that investigating Smith might not be healthy.

Main Street in Creede, Colorado, 1892

Main Street in Creede, Colorado, 1892

In early 1892, Smith moved his criminal enterprise to the nearby boomtown of Creede, Colorado, where he reportedly exerted his considerable influence to have Light appointed deputy marshal. At a little after 4 o’clock in the morning on March 31, Light confronted yet another drunk in a saloon. Both men drew their weapons. When the hail of gunfire ceased, Light remained standing, unscathed. Gambler and gunfighter William “Reddy” McCann, on the other hand, sprawled on the floor, his body riddled with five of Light’s bullets.

Despite witness testimony stating McCann had emptied his revolver shooting at streetlights immediately before bracing the deputy marshal, a coroner’s inquest ruled the shooting self-defense. The close call rattled Light, though. He took his family and returned to Temple, where in June 1892 he applied for a detective’s job with the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railroad. His application was rejected — possibly because his association with Smith and lingering rumors about the McCann incident overshadowed the stellar reputation he had earned early in his career. According to a period report in the Rocky Mountain News, “Light’s name had become a household word, and for years he was alluded to as a good sort of a fellow ? to get away from. He was mixed up in many fights, and after a time the ‘respect’ he had commanded with the aid of a six-shooter began to fade away. It was recalled that all his killings and shooting scrapes occurred when the other man’s gun was elsewhere, or in other words, when the victim was powerless to return blow for blow and shot for shot.”

With his life apparently on the skids, Light developed a reputation of his own for drunken belligerence. With no other options, he returned to barbering in Temple until, during one drinking binge in late 1892, he pistol-whipped the railroad’s chief detective — the man Light blamed for the end of his law-enforcement career. During Light’s trial for assault, the detective, T.J. Coggins, rose from his seat in the courtroom, pulled his pistol, and fired three .44-caliber rounds into Light’s face and neck. Although doctors expected the former lawman to die of what they called mortal injuries, Light fully recovered. Adding insult to injury, Coggins never faced trial.

GunmanIt’s unclear how well Light adapted to circumstances after the Coggins episode or why he was traveling by train a year later. What is clear is that his life came to a sudden, ironic end on Christmas Eve 1893. As the Missouri, Kansas & Texas neared the Temple station, Light accidentally discharged a revolver he carried in his pocket. The bullet severed the femoral artery in his groin, and he bled to death within minutes. He was 30 years old.

In a span of fewer than ten years, Light’s brief candle flickered, blazed, and then burned out. Though once hailed as a heroic defender of law and order on the reckless frontier, not everyone was sorry to see him go. An unflattering obituary published in the Dec. 27, 1893, edition of the Rocky Mountain News called him “a bad man from Texas.” Beneath the headline “Light’s Ready Gun. It Took Five Lives and then Killed Him,” the report noted “‘Cap’ Light of Belton, Texas, shot himself by accident the other day … thus [removing] one who has done more than his share in earning for the West the appellation of ‘wild and woolly.’”

 

Kathleen Rice Adams
A Texan to the bone, award-winning author Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen's tales, even the good guys wear black hats.

Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun won the EPIC Award for Historical Romance and is the only western historical romance ever to final for a Peacemaker in a book-length category.

Visit her at the Hole in the Web Gang's hideout, KathleenRiceAdams.com. Or, connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Her Amazon author page is here.

14 Comments

  1. Hi Kathleen, laughed at your opening statement and boy did you hit that nail on the head–or should I say privates? Never heard of Light. Even his name has an ironic ring.Wonder what happened to his wife and children?

    1. Light’s life was one long series of ironies, wasn’t it? Poor guy.

      I don’t know what happened to his wife and kids, but I thought it amusing that the census credited him with fatherin a child from beyond the grave.

      Thanks for stopping by, Margaret. 🙂

  2. Texas always has amazing history. Interesting that so thought he father a child long after he was dead.

    1. I thought so, too, Kim! Evidently, the man was determined nothing would get in his way. 😉

  3. I have never heard Light’s story before. Very interesting and very sad.

    I would call that unintentional suicide.

    1. I think you’re correct about both, Rosie. He sure crammed a lot of living into 30 years, though, didn’t he?

  4. wow,,how interesting,,i cant believe he did all that in 30yrs,,how odd,,,thats a lot of moving and shaking in 10yrs,,never a dull moment,i would not have wanted to be married to that young man

    1. Can you imagine what life must have been like for his wife and kids? That poor woman was related to Soapy Smith, and then to marry a lawman… That must have put her in an awkward position until Light went to work for Smith.

  5. It really is true that life is stranger than fiction — if we were to write such things, it would be as though we were way out there — but in life, these incredible things happen, unfortunately. 🙂

    1. I know, right? Nobody could get away with basing a plot on Cap Light’s life. The author would be laughed right off Amazon. 😀

  6. Wonderful article, Kathleen! It was great fun hearing about Cap Light & his wild and woolly life.

    1. Thanks, Jacqui! I love that newspaper quote. In fact, I love to read newspapers of that day in general. The reports are always so puffed up and self-important. Some are just downright hilarious by today’s standards. 🙂

  7. Hi Kathleen — enjoyed your post. I have never heard of Light either. And to do all that, I expected to learn he was around fifty years old by the time he died! I’m curious about his personality…did he have a quick temper, or a hatred for drunks, or what… did he have a nervous streak that made him shoot first and question his actions later? Just makes me curious reading this…

    1. Me too, Kathryn. I’ve not been able to find much more about Light in the annals of history, so I’m not sure exactly what he was like as a man. It sounds a bit like he felt he had to live up to an impossible standard after gaining so much notoriety in that first posse experience. He may simply have been caught up in times and situations he couldn’t control. When his life — and his reputation — headed south, he didn’t know how to handle it.

      He benefited from some extraordinary luck…until suddenly his luck ran out.

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