Monday, June 12, 2017

Is that a gun in your pocket, or…?


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 seeking and 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
In early 1892, Smith moved his criminal enterprise to the nearby boomtown of Creede, Colorado (left), 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.’”


A Texan to the bone, Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperadoes. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen’s stories, 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 hideout on the web at KathleenRiceAdams.com.



28 comments:

  1. Thanks, D'Ann! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. :-)

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  2. Okay, now I'm dying to know -- how do they KNOW he shot himself by accident? Couldn't that be a cover-up for some dastardly deed?

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  3. Wow, I was reading all that stuff about the guy, then learned he was only 30. What a full life he led. I guess he didn't subscribe to the cowboy practice of only five beans in the wheel.

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  4. Fabulous post, Kathleen! Real life is always stranger--and usually so much more ironic--than fiction, isn't it.

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  5. Laurie, leave it to you to find the conspiracy angle! :-D According to one newspaper report published after Light's death, witnesses saw what happened: "He sat there in shock, gripping the wound and trying to stop the blood." Pretty gruesome.

    Kathy, he did live a full life, didn't he? I don't know many rounds Light usually chambered in his revolver, but McCann's body proved at least five. ;-)

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  6. Yes, Devon, fiction sometimes has nothing on real life. :-D

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  7. Awesome post today! I love learning about new people. And I think both Cap Light and Soapy Smith sound like some kind of product to buy LOL.

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    1. You said what I was thinking. Beer and detergent - sounds like those boys went together and started one of those fancy laundromats.

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  8. Kathleen! Welcome to SOTW and in you came with a bang! What a great post. I had no idea about this man, and what a way to end it all. I really enjoyed learning about him--always love to learn something I didn't know about, and I had never heard of him.
    Cheryl

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  9. Kathleen, what a great post. I'd never heard of Cap Light, but he is the stuff of legends, isn't he? Great post to launch your being one of the Sweethearts of the West. This post sets mental wheels turning for future stories.

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  10. Fascinating character. Wow and what a great beginning post. Thanks for sharing.

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  11. WOW I was stunned at how young he was with all of that going on in his life. Thanks for sharing this story with us. I love hearing about the lives of the wild men of history.

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  12. Kathleen--I was told how good you are, and now we have proof.
    What a great virgin post--oh, excuse me, I realize this term is not suitable...I digress.
    This man was the epitome of a rough, tough Texan. He sounds a bit reckless which makes him the legend that he is. Thank you so much for the entertaining story about Cap Light.

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  13. ACK! I turn my back for a little bit and everybody shows up to comment. That'll teach me to take my eyes off y'all. :-D

    Thank all of you so much for the warm welcome. I'm positively thrilled to be among the Sweethearts. I'm equally thrilled y'all enjoyed the post. Stuff like this just fascinates me.

    Hm. Maybe I'll write about Soapy Smith next time. He was quite the character. (I agree, Tanya: both men's names do sound like household products. :-D No one seems to know how Light landed the moniker "Cap," but Smith's sobriquet referred to a scam he ran early in his career. "The Soap Gang" just doesn't have quite the ring of "the Wild Bunch" or "the Hole in the Wall Gang," though, does it?)

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  14. WOW...an excellent post from the amazing pen of Kathleen Rice Adams. To be only 30 and live such a life, what a character you've shared with us. You do find the most amazing stories, my dear.

    Hugs,

    ~ Cindy


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  15. All right, Owl (Cindy).... Shameless flattery will go only so far toward ameliorating the wrath of my red pen. ;-)

    Thank you, though, and HUGS back! :-)

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  16. This was such an interesting post, Tex! I'm ashamed to say I've never heard of Cap Light, even though I've heard of Soapy Smith.

    I just absolutely love how the West was/is full of colorful characters, and when someone introduces me to a new one I'm a happy camper. :)

    --Kirsten

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  17. Really interesting! I'd never heard of Cap Light. (Though I did know who Soapy Smith was.) What a story!

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  18. Thanks, Rustler (Kirsten) and Lorrie! I'm glad other folks enjoy these little off-the-beaten path jaunts through history as much as I do. I can't speak for anyone else, but tell me a story I haven't heard before, and I'll follow you anywhere. :-)

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  19. Isn't that something. Put that in a story and they'd call it farfetched.

    Great stuff.

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  20. WOW - an incredible life. Incredible post, too. :-)

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  21. Loved your post, Tex! And if you want to write about Soapy, his great-grandson, Jeff Smith is on FB. He has always been helpful when I've asked for info, and he knows which bits have been authenticated and which haven't.

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  22. Loved hearing about Cap Light. What a sad story and what a way to end his life. I'm sure a lot of the great gunslingers probably worked both sides of the law. Funny that he fathered a daughter six years after his death. Unfortunately so many couldn't read well enough to complete the census, including those who were helping the ones who couldn't read. Great Post!

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  23. Belton and Temple, Texas are places I frequented when I lived in Texas. I wish I had know this bit of history about Cap. Light back then. It would have made both towns even more interesting.
    It amazes me the men who were straddling both sides of the law. So often I have read when an outlaw served as a sheriff and vice versa. How weird. Maybe it was whoever had the fastest gun.
    What a pity Light died so young and from his own hand in an accident. Interesting about the daughter born 6 years after his death. Don't ya think Cap. Light sounds like some kind of pop culture icon like Captain Midnight or Iron Man or Captain America?
    I am so happy to see you after a long period of absence. I've missed you so much. I hope you are well and happy.

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  24. Interesting post, Kathleen. I don't believe I've ever heard about Capt. Light, or I've forgotten. Scary business about the pocket revolver.

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  25. I hadn't heard of light, but I had heard of Soapy Smith. Thanks for a good post.

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  26. Very interesting post, Kathleen. Glad to see you on SOTW!

    Light was certainly not a guy to mess with. It sounds like he always had a penchant for violence in his career as a lawman. Too bad he turned to protecting a well-known criminal.

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