I think if Will Diaz, my central character in my Lawman series, had run into William Light, he’d have liked him. He’d also felt sorry for him and then asked him what the Hell he thought he was doing. Light wasn’t an actual bad guy, but rather someone who found himself stuck in something he probably didn’t want any part of.
He makes my series simply because he’s guilty by association. Of course, when you consider the family he married into, that’s also enough to draw you deep into crime.
Light was a lawman in Texas from 1884 until his death in 1893 when he accidentally shot himself. He had a glowing reputation except for one short period of his life when he worked for his brother-in-law, a guy we talked about earlier by the name of Soapy Smith.
Light’s story perfectly demonstrates a sermon a pastor of mine gave years ago. He spoke about how the strong can be pulled down by the weak. To illustrate the point, he had one of our local jocks stand on a chair and then try to pull the “95-pound weakling” up. He couldn’t do it. But the weaker guy could pull him down easily.
I believe, to a degree, that’s what happened with Light.
What we had in Light was a good man, the son of a merchant. He was born around Belton, Texas, in 1864. He wanted to be a barber and did that until age 20, when we took a job as a deputy of Belton, Texas. It’s generally believed he rode in several posses, including the one that tracked down and killed a desperado by the name of William Northcutt.
His first killing occurred with a troublemaker named Sam Hasley. Hasley was also a commissioned deputy and was in town drinking and causing problems. Light encountered him and told him to go home. Instead, Hasley rode his horse up on the sidewalk and demanded Light do something about it. When Light tried to arrest him, Hasley drew on him. Light had no choice but to kill him.
We call this “being stupid out of season.” Anytime anyone pulls a gun on you, you expect it to be used. Had there been shooting boards back then, this would have been called a good shooting.
Light married a woman named Eva Katherine Smith of Temple, Texas, in June of 1887. This girl just so happened to have a brother with the nickname of Soapy Smith. I’ve only found a couple of pictures of her, and since I don’t know the legal rights with them, rather than put them here, I’m simply putting a link to them here.
Eva was a striking woman, and perhaps that’s why Light ended up going in with Soapy. After all, it is known that many a woman has talked a good man into going bad.
But she and Light were married in June of 1884 in Temple, Texas. Before ever leaving for Denver and hooking up with Soapy, his career as a deputy was exemplary. Soapy was already in Colorado, cheating people out of their money, and did not attend the wedding.
But Light also seemed to want a quiet life. He went back to being a barber.
But life is never simple, and soon he was called to strap on the six-gun again.
Temple was a cow town, had lots of people coming in, and brought problems with them. The town marshal, William Taylor, often found the job more than he could handle. In the spring of 1889, his job got a lot harder when his deputy was killed.
The local newspaper printed an open letter from the mayor to the marshal that “purging of the city as it has not had in many long days, and of which it has long stood in need.”
The marshal said his job was to make sure the saloons and brothels were run in an orderly fashion washout trouble. But he did get tougher on the crimes happening and ran off several prostitutes and barkeeps.
That wasn’t enough. That was just a small part of their problems, and what the town needed was a marshal who could handle a gun and tame the town. And there was a man who could do the job. The town made Light an offer he couldn’t refuse. They brought him aboard as a deputy but left Taylor in charge, who in turn gave over most of his law enforcement powers to Light.
It’s reported in the Temple Times that Light led the Founders Day Parade and that he was “Handsome, well-groomed, and rode a prancing horse.” But if the locals thought the deputy wasn’t a Lawman, they had another think coming.
The Lights had their first child. But Eva became ill and went home to recuperate. That Left Light alone in Temple.
The town soon found out they had an excellent lawman. While Light was trying to take a local troublemaker named Ed Cooley to jail, Cooley tried to escape, and Light shot him. History doesn’t say he killed him, but it also doesn’t say what kind of condition the man was in afterward.
The second killing was like the first and would also have been called a good shooting. This one centered around a man named Felix Morales. Morales was drunk, and when confronted, he attempted to draw his weapon. Light was faster and killed Morales. The local newspaper wrote that Morales died with “his pistol in one hand, and a beer glass in the other.”
Eva returned shortly afterward with her health restored. Light eventually took a leave of absence, and the two did some traveling. He returned to Temple, looking “Rested.”
But it turns out the young deputy did too good of a job of taming the town and soon found himself out of work. Reluctant to return to cutting hair, he began scouting around for other opportunities.
Well, one came up. His brother-in-Law, Soapy, had arrived in Creede, Colorado. Using his old bag of tricks of corruption and buying off influence, he soon announced he was the camp boss. Trouble was he was the new mayor of Sodom and Gomorrah and needed to get a handle on things. So he invited Light to become a deputy in Creede.
In 1891, Light finally joined up with his brother in law, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. It’s doubtful he knew what he was getting himself in for, and his time there caused him all manner of pain and regret.
I’m sure Soapy was looking at his brother in law as providing muscle for his organization. If that’s the case, and if Light ever did anything illegal under that flag is unknown.
What is known is there was an encounter with a local Faro dealer named William “Reddy” McCann. McCann had a body count of his own, and so was someone to watch closely. One night McCann and Bob Ford (the killer of Jessie James) went out and got drunk. On March 31, 1892, they shot out the street lights on Main Street, then went into the Branch Saloon. Light came in and confronted McCann. When Light tried to arrest McCann, McCann resisted.
Witnesses say Light tried to talk sense into McCann, but when he demanded McCann surrender his weapon, McCann told him that he wouldn’t. Light suddenly slapped McCann. Why he did that, we don’t know. What we do know is McCann drew, and so did Light. They got off about five or six shots, and McCann fell to the floor saying, “I’m killed.”
Witnessed picked McCann up and placed him on a Faro table. He died within minutes.
The coroner’s jury determined that Light had used self-defense. But Light was distraught over what he’d done.
He told a reporter with the Creede Candle, “I’ve had enough of this. I don’t wish to be put in this position again.”
He quit his job and left Creede and the Soapy Smith gang behind.
A few days later, Most of Creede burnt to the ground, taking Bob Ford’s business with it. Bob reopened in a tent. A few days later, a man named Ed O’Kelley walked into the tent and killed Ford.
Soapy Smith may or may not have anything to do with the killing (he and Bob weren’t exactly on friendly terms). Either way, the silver was running out, and Soapy was leaving or had left for greener pastures.
He would die a few years later in Skagway, Alaska.
Light returned to Temple, Texas, where he applied for a position as a detective with the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railroad. But his association with Soapy and his killing of McCann seemed to have tarnished his once sterling reputation. He wasn’t hired.
Somehow, he thought the chief detective, a man named T. J. Coggins had something to do with his job denial. While drinking in the Silver Moon Saloon in Temple, he saw Coggins across the street. Light approached Coggins and struck him repeatedly using his fists and the barrel of his pistol. Light was arrested, and in an interview, blamed Coggins for good men losing their jobs.
At Light’s arraignment hearing, Coggins rose from his seat, drew a .44 caliber pistol, and fired several times at Light. One bullet entered Light’s head near his right ear, another in his neck, and a third just below his jaw. He wasn’t expected to live.
Witnesses say Light never lost consciousness but continued to curse Coggins. Eventually, he asked to be taken
out of the blood and was brought home to die. But as they took him out, he announced Coggins hadn’t killed him.
If it was a prophecy, it came true. Within weeks, Light was up and about.
Coggins was arrested for attempted murder but never faced trial since he continued his job at the railroad. I’m sure there’s an interesting story there someplace.
A year later, on Christmas Eve of 1893, Light was heading home to Temple on the train. I’m sure he was looking forward to a quiet Christmas with Eva and his family. It was a Christmas that wasn’t to be.
According to witnesses, the Conductor had just entered the car Light was riding when there was a muffled gun shot. Light was seen to slap his hand on his groin area, and a shocked look was on his face. Blood ran from his seat and dripped onto the carpeting. The pistol in his pocket had accidentally discharged, and the bullet severed the femoral artery in his leg. Despite having a doctor in the car with him, there was nothing that could be done.
Light bled to death within minutes. He was 30 years old.
When the train pulled into Temple, it had a dead man aboard. For this to have happened over the holidays must have made life almost unbearable for Eva. But she stayed in Temple, raised her children, and worked as a seamstress. She passed away in Big Springs, Texas in 1959. She was 88 years old.
It’s said she rarely spoke of her days in Belton and Temple.
Read more here.