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.
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.
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.
It’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.’”