March 22, 2009

"Cap" Light of Creede

(click image to enlarge)
Main street, Creede, Colorado, 1892

Looking closely at the photograph above, at the far end of the street you can see a banner stretching across the street. To the right of that banner you can see a flag flying above a building. That building is the Orleans Club, Soapy Smith's saloon. One of Soapy's tasks was to make sure the officers of the law were under his pay so that his operations would be left free to fleece the unwary. What better arrangement could he have than to insure that his own brother-in-law, William Sydney Light, was hired onto the Creede force as a deputy.

"Cap" Light, as he was known, is now coming into his own historical fame as an old west lawman. He even has his own Wikipedia page, much of which information I added. There are more interesting details I intentionally left out to save for my soon to be published manuscript. Hint: Soapy helped Light fake his own death in the Denver newspapers to ward off a manhunt.

Light's early years, much of which was unknown to me, was published in the April 2006 issue of Wild West magazine, pp18-22. Unfortunately, the author, Larry J. Woods, did not publish footnotes or detailed sources. I wrote Mr. Woods in 2006 and received a reply that although pleasant, basically said that I was on my own to search through old newspapers in order to verify his facts. At this time his story's facts have not been confirmed.

In the March 18, 2009 online issue of the Diboll Free Press, Bartee Haile wrote an article on Light. In emails he admitted to me that he used the Wild West article as his source. Although it is great to see our family become the center of attention, the main reason for this post is to show how history can be distorted with each telling of a story. I won't copy the 2006 article here but would like to show you Haile's article and hi-light some of his additional inserted "facts." Although some call this creative writing, it becomes a crime to history if opinions are published as fact. It is perfectly reasonable, perhaps sometimes necessary, for an author to interject their opinion of how or why certain events and actions took place, however, it should always be perfectly clear to the reader that certain statements are the opinions of the writer and not necessarily fact. The problem with not doing so is that the next person writing about Light may interpret and use Haile's opinions as facts.

Here is the recent Haile article:

Frontier Lawman Earned his Reputation Shooting Drunks

"Cap" Light, Belton's new deputy marshal, got his first wanted man on March 24, 1884, with the help of a large posse.

William Sidney Light was a Civil War baby born in the Central Texas county of Bell. As soon as "Cap," a childhood nickname [sources? How does he know this?] he carried for life, finished school, his stepfather encouraged him to learn a trade. He decided to try barbering, not an imaginative choice since an older half-brother was already cutting hair for a living.

But Light quickly learned that shearing locks was too tame for his tastes. Hearing the town marshal was hurting for a deputy, the 19 year old traded in his scissors and straight razor for a six-shooter and a badge.

What part the wet-behind-the-ears lawman played in the pursuit of William Northcott, a run-of-the-mill criminal, is unclear. More than likely he kept his mouth shut and followed the lead of the more experienced members of the posse. It did not matter in the end because the teenaged deputy took credit for the killing of the outnumbered fugitive.

But Light did not have a posse to back him up several months later, when he took on a bushwhacker named Hasley. As was his habit, the incorrigible bully showed up drunk in Belton one afternoon and began picking on the terrified townspeople.

At first, Hasley did not know what to make of the baby-faced deputy, who told him to cut it out or face the consequences. But surprise to turned rage, and he reached for his gun. Light calmly beat him to the draw, and shot the homicidal lush dead in his tracks. [added filler and incorrect facts]

From then on, hard cases and troublemakers steered clear of the straight-shooting deputy. Bored with the uneventful routine of enforcing law in a law-abiding community, Light resigned the next year and went out west in search of excitement.

He apparently found it, according to the "Dallas Morning News." In a brief account that was short on details, the big-city daily reported the former deputy marshal chalked up another killing in "a fatal difficulty at some point in western Texas."

Thinking he had flushed the wanderlust out of his system, Light returned to Belton in the summer of 1887 with every intention of settling down. He married a girl, who had patiently waited for him, and went back to cutting hair.

That lasted for two years. Then he found out that Temple, a sleepy hamlet transformed into a lawless boomtown by the railroad, was in dire need of someone to make and maintain the peace. The middle-aged marshal was only too happy to delegate his more dangerous duties to a youthful eager beaver.

With Light's good looks, winning personality [source? There are no known photos of Light] and reputation for getting the job done, the residents of Temple readily overlooked his less than auspicious beginning. Like the time he placed second in a footrace with an escaping prisoner and when he lost a murder suspect in a swamp.

Light at last lived up to his advance billing in a March 1890 quick-draw contest. After refusing to go along quietly, a drunk drifter clawed at his holster, which gave the deputy the legal justification to put a bullet in him. The deceased died, a Temple editor wrote, with "his pistol in one hand and a beer glass in the other."

The fatal saloon shooting had the same effect on Temple that Light's killing of Hasley had on Belton. By the end of 1891, things had quieted down so much that the city fathers informed the deputy his services were no long required.

Ordinarily Light would not have given his ne'er-do-well brother-in-law the time of day, but jobs were hard to come by in the spring of 1892. That was why he accepted Soapy Smith's invitation to join him in a Rocky Mountain mining town, where the deputy position was his for the asking. [Sources? How does he know this to be true?]

Soapy, a gambler who was making money hand over fist fleecing miners, neglected to mention that Creede, Colo., was crawling with real gunfighters like William "Reddy" McCann. Deputy Light was still learning his way around town, when he tangled with the "Terror of Santa Fe." [Sources? Putting it inside quote marks implies it came from somewhere. It was not in the 2006 article.]

If McCann had been sober that fateful night, the Texan would not have had a snowball's chance. But alcohol was again his live-saving ally, and Light survived the lead-filled confrontation that by all rights should have been his last. [How does he know this?]

Telling Soapy Smith, "I've had enough of this," [No source states Light said this to Soapy. The 2006 article states Light said this to a newspaper reporter] Light caught the next train back to Texas. Turned down for a plum post with the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe, he got it in his head that he had been blackballed by the railroad's chief detective, T. J. Coggins.

Light took out his frustration on his nemesis with a skull-splitting pistol whipping. When the case came to court, Coggins shot his attacker twice in the head at point-blank range, but Light soon recovered from wounds the attending physician pronounced fatal.

That was what made the circumstances of his death so ironic. While riding a train on Christmas Eve 1893, Cap Light accidentally shot himself in the groin. The slug severed a major artery, and he sat there helplessly as his life drained away.

Revolution & Republic: Texas 1832-1846 - the latest "Best of This Week in Texas History" collection available for $10.95 plus $3.25 postage and handling from Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or order online at www.twith.com.

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