Friday, January 22, 2010
The “Old West” Gunfighter From England
In the early 1840’s, a baby boy was born to William and Mary Ann Thompson in Knottingley, Yorkshire, England. While no one could have predicted it at the time, this boy would later come into contact with some of the most well-known names of the Old West, and in the process, become a famous killer, gunfighter, gambler, and, for a short period of time, a lawman himself.
The boy, Benjamin Thompson, moved with his family to Austin, Texas, in 1851, when he was less than ten years old. Austin, at the time, was a frontier town and life was difficult for the family. Ben’s father was a mariner and some say, a heavy drinker, and had difficulty adapting to the new life in Texas. Soon after arriving in Texas, he left the family and returned to the sea, and was never heard from again.
The permanent departure of Ben’s father meant that Ben, and his younger brother, Billy, had to take care of the family. Ben’s troubles began early. When he was barely in his teens, he wounded another boy with a shotgun, and, before he was out of his teens, had killed a man in a bloody knife fight in New Orleans, where he had gone to work as a printer for the local newspaper.
Heading back to Austin, he served with the Texas Rangers briefly, but Ben soon discovered gambling. Some claim he killed another man before he headed off to support his adoptive state of Texas during the American Civil War, when he was still not yet twenty-one years of age. As a member of a Texas cavalry unit, Ben continued his killing, but not just the Yankee soldiers he had sworn to fight. Instead, during the war, he killed at least one of his fellow confederate soldiers. While reports vary on the particulars of other killings at the time, it is quite clear that he was responsible for other deaths (non-battle related) before the war ended.
After the war, he went to Mexico to fight as a mercenary for Emperor Maximilian’s attempt to stay in power in Mexico. When Maximilian was executed, Ben returned to Austin, but was very soon in trouble again. After being told that his brother-in-law had struck his pregnant sister, Ben retaliated by shooting him. And, although the brother-in-law survived, Ben served a couple of years in the Huntsville penitentiary for the shooting, before he was pardoned.
Once out of prison, Ben traveled north to Abilene, Kansas, the wild cowboy town at the end of the “Chisholm Trail.” With little money in his pocket, he soon used his expert gambling skills to raise enough money to open the Bull’s Head Saloon with his friend, Phil Coe, with whom he had served in Mexico.
Even though Abilene at the time was a rambunctious and dangerous place, filled with armed and drunken cowboys, saloons, houses of ill repute, and gambling dens, many of the “good” citizens of Abilene apparently objected to the painted sign which adorned the Bull’s Head Saloon. And, while I won’t go into specific details here, suffice to say, the bull’s head portrayed on the sign was not the one most people might have expected. As a result, Ben Thompson and his partner, Phil Coe, came into contact with another “Old West” legend, “Wild Bill” Hickok, who was then Abilene’s Marshal. When Hickok ordered the sign be changed, Thompson and Coe refused. Hickok undeterred, grabbed his gun and stood guard while painters altered the sign into something more acceptable to Abilene’s offended populace.
The tension between Thompson and Hickok while tense, never developed into violence, perhaps because the two gunfighters respected each other so much. However, such was not the case between Hickok and Coe. In October of 1871, Hickok demanded that Coe turn over his weapon after Coe shot off a pistol in public. When Coe first refused, and then made matters even worse by taking a shot at Hickok, “Wild Bill” returned the fire and mortally wounded Coe. Unfortunately for Hickok, he also accidentally shot and killed his deputy during the altercation. After this incident, it is generally believed Hickok never again shot a gun in anger.
In 1873, Ben and his younger brother, Billy, moved to Ellsworth, Kansas. Ben Thompson had a bad temper, but his brother’s temper was even worse. Billy has been described by some folks as a “homicidal maniac,” “drunken psychopath,” and “vicious,” not exactly the kind of descriptions a normal person would want on a resume. Billy’s heavy drinking and poor attitude had caused numerous problems over the years, and in several cases, Ben had to save Billy from himself and others.
During August of 1873, in Ellsworth, Billy nearly got them both killed. A gambling dispute between Ben and another gambler quickly escalated, and a drunken Billy accidentally ended the life of the Ellsworth sheriff with a single shotgun blast. The irony is that the sheriff was a friend of both Billy and Ben. Before he died, the lawman told those attending to him that the shooting had indeed been an accident. That did not, however, calm the angry mob, and Ben, once again, had to save Billy. Holding off the mob with his gun, Ben told Billy to leave town. In his drunken stupor, Billy showed no remorse even after he had just shot one of his best friends, telling Ben before he fled town, that he would have taken the same shot again even if the target had been “Christ.” This was not the first time Billy had taken the life of a friend. Apparently, being an enemy of Billy was not as dangerous as being his friend.
Although disputed by many historians, some believe that Ben was taken into custody by Wyatt Earp after the Ellsworth incident. In any event, he was quickly released. Billy, who had successfully fled town, was later brought back to face homicide charges, but he was acquitted.
The next few years found Ben in various towns, continuing to hone his gambling skills in saloons at the faro tables and by playing the card game of Monte. Ben eventually landed a job with Bat Masterson’s posse, which was working for the Santa Fe Railroad at the time. The railroad was in a dispute with the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, and needed armed men to protect its interests. And, although no real violence came from the dispute, Ben made more than just a little money, became a friend of Bat Masterson, and was also briefly introduced to “Doc” Holliday, who was also riding with the posse. Masterson, a famous lawman himself in the Old West, would later remark that Thompson had no equal in a “life-and-death struggle” with a gun.
Ben eventually made his way back to Austin, Texas, where he began running the faro tables at the Iron Front Saloon. At some point, Ben befriended “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who had arrived in town with actors participatng in an early production of what would later become his famous “Wild West Show.” During Cody’s visit, Ben was able to impress him with his pistol shooting skills.
Ben ran for City Marshal of Austin, and was elected, but only after a second attempt to obtain the position. During his tenure as marshal, Austin was relatively crime free, as he personally strolled through the streets with his silk hat, fine suit, and walking cane. Ben’s reputation was such that even though he only stood 5’8” or 5’9” tall, law breakers and trouble makers knew of his violent temper and his prowess with guns, and therefore shied away from criminal activity.
Even though he was serving as the Austin City Marshal, Ben could not give up his addiction to gambling. Visiting San Antonio in 1882, while still an Austin lawman, he reignited an old gambling feud with one of the owners of the San Antonio’s popular Vaudeville Saloon. The result was predictable, with Ben firing his gun and leaving another man dead. The deceased in this case was Jack Harris. The killing of Harris was, however, the beginning of the end for Ben Thompson.
Despite the fact that the citizens of Austin still supported him during his legal troubles in San Antonio, his term as city marshal ran out before he was acquitted of the Harris killing. His life, despite the acquittal, was never the same thereafter.
After returning to Austin, he initially received a warm welcome and wide spread support from the citizenry, but it did not take long for him to wear out his welcome home. Ben, like his brother Billy, and his father, had always been a heavy drinker, but now his drinking increased dramatically. He soon began to repeatedly embarrass himself while under the heavy influence of whiskey, by, among other things, shooting blanks from his gun at people on the streets of Austin.
On March 11, 1884, John King Fisher, a former outlaw who had become Sheriff of Uvalde County Texas, made his way to Austin and met with Ben Thompson. Like Thompson in Austin, he had become popular in Uvalde County, despite his violent past, by reducing the crime which plagued the area. These two men, who perhaps had reformed themselves as the years progressed, did not know that when the sun rose on that early March day, it would be their last day on earth.
John King Fisher and Ben Thompson began their drinking in Austin, and then boarded a train for San Antonio. When the train arrived at its destination that evening, the two continued their heavy drinking, and eventually ended up at a place which Ben had said that he would never return to because it would be his “graveyard.” That place was, of course, the Vaudeville Theatre where he had killed Jack Harris a couple of years before.
For whatever reason, probably his bravado combined with an over indulgence of alcohol, Ben defied his earlier (and much better) judgment and entered the Vaudeville Theatre. There is, of course, a dispute as to what actually transpired that night, but when all was said and done, Ben Thompson and John King Fisher were both very much dead, riddled with bullets from behind. Thompson, who had never let anyone beat him in a fair fight, was assassinated along with Fisher, by hidden gunmen in the shadows of San Antonio’s Vaudeville Theatre. San Antonio was not Ben Thompson friendly, and nobody was ever prosecuted for the killings that night.
Ben’s mortal remains were returned to Austin from San Antonio, and a large caravan of carriages, in what is still one of Austin’s largest funerals, escorted his body to the City Cemetery (now called Oakwood Cemetery) for burial. Witnesses say that his silk hat was placed on top of the coffin.
Today, Ben’s grave, and the Oakwood Cemetery in Austin is a haunting place to visit, even in the daylight. And, despite all the years since Ben Thompson was laid to rest, his life story continues to attract attention. In his relatively short life, he immigrated to this country from England as a young boy, fought in the American Civil War, supported Maximilian in Mexico, and drank, gambled, and killed his way across Texas and Kansas. Along the way, he met or befriended many of the Old West’s most well-known and colorful characters, including, “Wild Bill” Hickok, Bat Masterson, “Doc” Holliday, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, John King Fisher, his own brother Billy Thompson, and perhaps, Wyatt Earp and Johnny Ringo.
Whatever anyone may have thought about him then, or thinks about him now, Ben Thompson led a very interesting and eventful life, and a life which makes up an important part of the history of Texas, the Texas Hill Country, and the Old West.