Thursday, February 14, 2013

OLD WEST - Ben Thompson - Gentleman Gunfighter

Ben Thompson was a contemporary of "Buffalo" Bill Cody, Bat Masterson, John Wesley Hardin and "Wild Bill" Hickock, some of whom considered him a friend, others an enemy.

Though Ben Thompson was born in 1842 in Knottingley, England, along with his parents William Thompson and Mary Ann (Baker) Thompson and siblings Billy and Mary Ann, they immigrated to Austin, Texas.

Yes, he fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. And yes, he also fought for the emperor in Mexico during his time.

In 1860, 18 year old Ben accepted a job offer from a New Orleans bookbinder. It was about that time that he reputedly intervened when a woman was being accosted. He killed the offender in a subsequent knife duel.

Once he returned to Texas, he joined Captain Edward Burleson Jr.’s ranger battalion protecting the frontier against the Comanche.  At the start of the Civil War, Ben Thompson enlisted in Confederate Colonel John “Rip” Ford’s 2nd Regiment, Texas Mounted Rifles, Company H. Soon after that his brother Billy Thompson joined the same regiment.

It is interesting to note that Ben Thompson's first gunfight took place while serving in the Confederate Army. And other than later being wounded in action, Ben Thompson's time in the Confederate military service is most notable because of his shooting of two fellow Confederate soldiers.

The story goes that on December 31, 1861, at Fort Clark,  Ben Thompson arrived late to collect his daily rations of bacon and candles. Commissary sergeant, William "Billy" Vance, told him he didn't have any left. The fact is that the commissary sergeant had actually saved the rations for the camp laundry woman.

Thompson went to Vance's tent and took the rations which were intended to go to the laundress woman.  Later, actually a full 20 minutes later, Vance confronted him. Vance drew his six-shooter, and Thompson reacted. The two men simultaneously shot at each other at close range. Thompson's shot passed right through Vance, while Vance missed him entirely.

Within seconds, Lt. George Hagler approached the scene, brandishing his sword and saying, "You murderer, I will cut you in two!"

Taking a sword to a gunfight is not really a good idea when the gun's not empty yet. So fearing for his life, Thompson shot Confederate Lt. Hagler through the neck.

Thompson surrendered to Captain Hamner, and was promptly thrown in the guardhouse and charged under the ninth article of war to never inflict violence on a fellow officer. Surprisingly both Lt. Hagler and Sgt Vance recovered. Years later after Ben Thompson's death, former Sgt. Vance said he and Ben had gone on to become pretty good friends in spite of once being shot by him.

During the Civil War, on January 1st and 2nd, 1863, Ben was a participant in the Battle of Galveston when the Union warship U.S.S. Harriet Lane was captured. Ben was actually wounded during the battle, and for six-weeks was treated in a military hospital at Niblett's Bluff - located west of Vinton, Louisiana.

By June 20th, 1863, both Thompsons took part in the Battle of LaFourche Crossing near Thibodaux, Louisiana. It is said that the two Thompson brothers "found themselves at night separated from the living and standing among the dead."

After this battle, Ben Thompson returned home to Austin. He re-enlisted in Company F in September 1863, and served the remainder of the war stationed along the banks of the Rio Grande. Then on November 26th, 1863, Ben married Catherine Moore of Austin, Texas.

At the close of the Civil War, Ben killed a man who threatened him with a shotgun. The Union military arrested him, but Ben escaped and fled to Mexico. Once there, he enlisted in the Mexican Army under Emperor Maximilian and fought against the Mexican revolutionaries until the end of the empire in June 1867.

In 1868, Ben Thompson had received word that his wife was being physically abused by her brother, Jim Moore. Moore struck Ben's pregnant wife Catherine with a gun. Soon after his return to Texas, he confronted Moore, severely beating and wounding his brother-in-law.

On October 20, 1868, the Federal military authorities charged Ben with attempted murder, and Thompson, then 25 years old, was convicted and sentenced to 4 years in prison. He served time at Huntsville Prison.

While Thompson was incarcerated, Catherine gave birth to a son whom they named Benjamin. After serving two years in Huntsville prison, Thompson’s conviction by a military court was ruled illegal and President U.S. Grant granted him a full pardon.

In 1870, Ben Thompson left Texas for Abilene, Kansas, a boomtown due to the expanding cattle trade. In 1871, Ben, with partner Phil Coe, opened the "Bulls Head Saloon" in Abilene. They had known one another for some time before Abilene. Their saloon prospered due to the many cattle drives that gave Abilene a steady stream of cowboys' passing through who were anxious to drink and gamble.

Supposedly, it was at the Bulls Head Saloon that Ben and Phil Coe made the acquaintance of John Wesley Hardin, and actively recruited him in an attempt to rid the town of Marshal "Wild" Bill Hickok. While it is true that the two had a beef with Hickok, and it all started over a painting. I think the story of Ben Thompson trying to get Hardin to kill Hickok is just so much fantasy.

Why? Well first of all, no one supposedly knew Hardin was there since Hardin was using an alias. Second, Hardin did not want to bring attention to himself because the Texas Rangers were after him -- and there was a huge reward for the capture of Hardin. Lastly, Hardin wrote about the supposed meeting while in prison and I frankly don't believe anything that psychopath said in his memoirs. Most of what he wrote was fiction and never proven true.

As for as things being true. It's true that Ben and Phil Coe had commissioned a painting of a picture of a bull with a large erection to be displayed on the side of their establishment as a form of advertisement. And yes, it's true that the citizens of the town had complained to Hickok; and that when Thompson and Coe refused his request to remove the bull, Hickok decided to alter the painting himself.

But to say that an infuriated Ben Thompson tried to incite a very young John Wesley Hardin by exclaiming to him: "He's a damn Yankee. Picks on rebels, especially Texans, to kill". Well, that's a stretch.

The story goes that Hardin, then under the assumed name of "Wesley Clements" or "Clemens" supposedly had some sort of hero-worship for Hickok, and replied, "If Wild Bill needs killing, why don't you kill him yourself?"

I don't believe that ever took place. I really believe that that was only the fantasy of Hardin who wrote about it while writing his autobiography in prison -- an  autobiography which is chock full of bullshit!

Fact is, no one there supposedly knew who John Wesley Hardin was because he was in fact using an assumed name. In fact, even after being arrested by Hickok's deputy for shooting a man accidentally, Court records show that no one knew that he was Hardin and list him as "Wesley Clements."

This is the very same reason that I think Hardin's claim to have out-drawn Hickok and lived to tell about it is all just a convict's tall tale to make himself look like a badass while in prison. And yes, Hardin's claims are a sore point with me because so many so-called "Old West Historians" have promoted his claims as actually taking place when there is absolutely no proof to support them.

Those so-called "Historians" who promote the whole Hardin myth are the same types that spread the whole George Washington chopped down a cherry tree as a boy story. A great anecdote that was supposed to attest to Washington's unwavering honesty, but was all just fabricated. 

Hardin's myth that he outdrew Hickok is supposed to attest to his cunning and abilities with a gun. Of course, the Hardin myth does make Hickok look like an incompetent fool who shouldn't have survived what he did. And besides, as with the Hickok story, I believe if anyone, including Hickok and Thompson, knew that the man using the alias "Wesley Clements" was Hardin than they would have tried to get the huge reward that was on his head for killing Texas law enforcement officers.

Besides, after reading about Ben Thompson, it just doesn't seem to be his way. He seems more the type to do it himself.  And yes, he was plenty capable of taking on Hickok if need be.

Soon after the incident with the painting, Ben Thompson was injured in a fall from a horse. It was while he was recuperating that Phil Coe got involved in a fatal shootout with Hickok.

It was a shooting which would result in Hickok killing one of his own deputies by mistake. It was also the shooting that would be the last for Hickok as he never again used his guns in a shooting.

Ben Thompson, though known for his bravery and coolness with a gun, never confronted Hickok over the shooting of Phil Coe. In reality, both men left Abilene soon afterward that.

And frankly, as most don't understand about the Old West -- gunman with reputations gave each other a wide berth and actually tried not to confront each other. It was not uncommon for real gunman to keep a reasonable distance, to steer clear of another with a reputation. Fact is, most of the gunfighters of the Old West did not make their reputations, real or not, by taking on others with better or even similar skills with guns.

In 1871, his wife gave birth to a daughter, Katherine Florence. It was then that Ben Thompson began following the Texas cattle drives, gambling in all of the major Kansas railheads; Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita and Dodge City.

Thompson moved his family to Ellsworth, Kansas, which was also prospering as a cattle boomtown. Soon after that, on August 15, 1873, during a drunken altercation with other gamblers, Billy shot and killed Ellsworth Sheriff Chauncey B. Whitney -- a friend of the Thompson brothers.

Sheriff Whitney was standing near the two Thompson brothers, who were facing off against a local police officer by the name of John "Happy Jack" Morco and a gambler by the name of John Sterling.  The confrontation had developed over a gambling dispute. Many in the Old West started that way.

Whitney was a friend to both brothers, and numerous witnesses confirmed that Whitney stated before he died that the shooting was accidental.

Billy’s shotgun accidentally discharged and killed the Sheriff.   Supposedly Ben yelled, “My God, Billy, you’ve just killed our best friend!” Immediately after the shooting, Ben urged his brother, who was drunk, to leave town. Billy got on his horse, and much to the dismay of Ben, his drunken brother having a hard time staying in the saddle slowly left Ellsworth.

Meanwhile, Ben Thompson, who at the time was already consider a notorious man, held the town at bay for an hour with a Henry rifle. Some say with a shotgun, supposedly Ben picked up brother Billy's shotgun reloaded it and used it to hold off the town from lynching Billy.

In many cowtowns, justice was swift, and the killing of a town Sheriff -- accidental or not -- may not even be considered as a rope is being thrown over a hanging tree. Getting Ben Thompson to surrender was in the local paper.

The ELLSWORTH REPORTER, on August 21, 1873, wrote, in part:

"Mayor Miller was at his residence during the shooting; he was notified of the disturbance and he went immediately to Thompson and ordered him to give up his arms, but his advice was not heeded. During this long hour where were the police?

No arrest had been made, and the street was full of armed men ready to defend Thompson. The police were arming themselves, and as they claim, just ready to rally out and take, alive or dead, the violators of the law. They were loading their muskets just as the Mayor, impatient at the delay in making arrests, came along and discharged the whole force. It would have been better to have increased the force, and discharged or retained the old police after quiet was restored. The Mayor acted promptly and according to his judgment, but we certainly think it was a bad move. A poor police is better than none, and if, as they claim, they were just ready for work, they should have had a chance to redeem themselves and the honor of the city. Thus the city was left without a police, with no one but Deputy Sheriff Hogue to make arrests. He received the arms of Ben Thompson on the agreement of Happy Jack to give up his arms!"

John "Happy Jack" Morco filed charges of assault against Ben Thompson the following day, due to Thompson's having fired in his direction prior to Whitney's being shot.

Officer Ed Hogue arrested Ben Thompson, but the charges against Ben were dismissed.

That same week, police officer Ed Crawford killed Thompson's friend, Cad Pierce, in an incident which Crawford reportedly provoked. Morco and Hogue ran another Thompson friend, Neil Cain, out of town. The town council dismissed all three officers: Morco, Hogue, and Crawford, for inappropriate behavior.

Karma has a way of taking care of business for the good or the bad, both just rewards and redemption is nothing new in the chronicles of the Old West. Soon after the town council dismissed all three officers, newly appointed police officer J.C. "Charlie" Brown killed John "Happy Jack" Morco after he pulled a gun on Brown during a disturbance. And later, Texas cowboy friends of Cad Pierce killed Crawford, and Ed Hogue left town.
Billy Thompson fled Kansas, but eventually was returned to be tried in the death of Sheriff Whitney. The trial ended in an acquittal.

There is another part of the story regarding when Ben's younger brother killed Sheriff Chauncey Whitney in Ellsworth, Kansas, by accident. Believe it or not, yes, it has to do with Wyatt Earp.

You see over 50 years later, believe it or not, Wyatt Earp claimed that he was the man who had arrested Ben Thompson on that August day in 1873. Since Wyatt Earp made the claim in the late 1920s, and since it was presented in Stuart Lake's romantic novel Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931), many people have asked, "Did Wyatt Earp really arrest Ben Thompson?"

Well, the answer is no. But, that didn't stop Wyatt Earp from taking credit for it. And yes, some folks really believe the myth that only came from Wyatt Earp via his biographer Stuart Lake.

Facts are facts. There is no reference or mention of a person by the name of Wyatt Earp in the ELLSWORTH REPORTER's account, in the record of Judge Osborne's police court, Dr. Duck's coroner's report, the coroner's inquest on Sheriff Whitney, in the testimony at Billy Thompson's trial for the murder of Whitney in 1877, in Ben Thompson's authorized biography by Col.Walton, or in any other known source contemporary with the events.

In fact, there appears to be no published reference to Wyatt Earp's role until the publication of Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal in 1931. So despite Wyatt Earp's claim, made over 50 years later, the detailed newspaper article published at the time, does not even mention the fanciful tale of Wyatt Earp's supposed confrontation and arrest of Ben Thompson.

Following Lake's initial article about Wyatt Earp, which was published by the Saturday Eventing Post,  Floyd B. Steeter, historian and librarian of Hays City Kansas State College, began an intensive search to find evidence of Earp's claim. 

He looked at newspapers, court documents, and every available source including conducting interviews with people that witnessed the incident. Fact is that he could not find any supporting evidence for the claim. To this day, there is not a single shred of contemporary evidence that Wyatt Earp arrested Ben Thompson.
And even more fascinating is the fact that besides no contemporary newspaper accounts or court records or diaries mentioning Wyatt Earp's name, there is no source that can even place Wyatt Earp in Ellsworth in August of 1873.

Could he have been there as a transient? Sure he could have been. Was Wyatt Earp important enough to make note of? If he had indeed arrested Ben Thompson, his name would have been everywhere in the news, records, court documents, diaries, and so on. That act alone would have made him famous immediately.

Could Wyatt Earp have been in Ellsworth in August, 1873, and witnessed the events that transpired there? Sure, he could have been. He could have been in Ellsworth the year after being arrested for being a pimp in Illinois. Fact is that Wyatt Earp gave his biographer Stuart Lake details, such as the bullet hole in the door casing to collaboratehis story. Some say that shows the Earp was possibly there. But then again, he could have been told what took place and shown the bullet holes at a different time possibly when passing through.

For me, I question whether Earp was ever there. From what I can tell, from late 1871 through the summer of 1874, Wyatt Earp spent those years in saloons, gambling houses, and brothels as a pimp. During that time, he has multiple relationships with prostitutes - as well as several arrests as a pimp.

As for Billy Thompson, the coroner's inquest took place and focused on what Billy Thompson did, and it was not an indictment of Thompson at all.

As for Ben holding off the town? It seems that the town just wanted him to leave. Though he was arrested, the charges against Ben were dismissed. Of course it helps when key witnesses that might have provided detail do not appear to testify.

The only reference to Ben's actions are found in his deposition of July 10, 1877, which state: "I waited fully an hour at the Grand Central Hotel after my brother left Ellsworth for the purpose of surrendering myself to the Mayor as soon as he could have Happy Jack, Sterling, and others disarmed."

Following the incident, Ben moved on to Wichita and then Dodge City where he dealt faro in the famous Long Branch Saloon. Then in 1875, Ben Thompson returned to Texas, staying at Fort Elliott, in the Panhandle.

For the rest of his life, Ben Thompson was a well-known figure near the Austin capital. He wore the finest tailor-made Prince Albert coats, a stiff white shirt, a tie and a huge diamond stickpin, called a "headlight". He wore a silk top hat and walked with a gold-tipped cane.

Ben was known as an easy touch and shared his wealth. Later, he would be well known for his favourite hobby of getting drunk and shooting out street lights.

Later that winter, Ben and Billy moved the operation and opened the Lady Gay, the fanciest gambling joint in Sweetwater, Texas. It was a gambling boomtown because of the buffalo hunters, the cowboys on the trail and the soldiers from nearby Fort Elliott. The Lady Gay had a band, dance floor, a billiard table, saloon and gambling tables.

On January 24, 1876, the "Sweetwater Shootout" took place. Sergeant Melvin A. King (aka Anthony Cook) of the then 4th Cavalry-Company H, stationed at Fort Elliot, shot and killed a dance hall girl and former prostitute by the name of Mollie Brennan. Her boyfriend was Bat Masterson.

During the shootout, King then wounded Bat Masterson, who in return killed him. King may have shot Masterson first and then killed Brennan, but accounts vary. Either way, when Masterson shot and killed the cavalry sergeant in a dispute over a woman, Thompson stepped in to prevent other soldiers from attacking Masterson.

Maybe that's why Bat Masterson once said, "It is doubtful if in his time there was another man living who equalled him with a pistol in a life-and-death struggle"

As for Sweetwater? It must have been a rough place during its time. Famed Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight said about the town of Sweetwater: "I think it was the hardest place I ever saw on the frontier except Cheyenne, Wyoming."

In 1879, the name of the town was changed to Mobeetie. When the townsfolk found out there was already a Sweetwater, Texas, they asked a Comanche for the Indian name for “sweet water”, and he told them “mobeetie” -  which really meant buffalo dung.

Billy Thompson fled Kansas in 1873, but eventually was arrested in 1876. Billy went on trial for the killing of Sheriff Whitney, and Ben paid for his defense lawyer, the best that money could buy. The trial ended in an acquittal. The jury ruled that the shooting was an accident.

The Leadville, Colorado, silver strike lured Thompson to visit Colorado several times during the spring and summer of 1879. The large silver strike had all of the circuit gamblers headed that way.  Fact is, Leadville was the largest gambling town of all at the time.

Ben had a good bankroll and was looking for investment opportunities. He was playing poker and “bucking the tiger”, playing faro against the house. Then one night he got drunk and lost $3,000 at faro. He shot out the lights and the crowd fled. Of course, he paid the fine and damages, as always.

Later, he was successful with his gambling concessions in saloons in Leadville. And yes, believe it or not, he wrote a long editorial piece for The Austin Statesman about the high price of everything in Leadville.

When Buffalo Bill Cody’s stage play and shows played Austin for three weeks in 1879, he and Ben Thompson became fast friends and did public shooting exhibitions there and in San Antonio with rifles and pistols. A newspaper picture showed the two riding in a carriage.

When Buffalo Bill’s show returned to Austin, he gave Ben a gift of the largest buffalo head ever mounted. The head was a mount from a buffalo which had been killed by Russia’s Grand Duke Alexis on a famous buffalo hunt that included Wild Bill Hickok and Colonel George Armstrong Custer.

Buffalo Bill also gave Ben a fancy target pistol with a long, artistically engraved barrel. It had gold and pearl handles and was inscribed “From Buffalo Bill to Ben Thompson”. A private collector now owns it, and it is shown in museums.

While in Colorado, Ben joined a group of Kansas gunmen led by Bat Masterson who were hired by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in a right-of-way dispute with the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. Well paid by the Santa Fe for his services as a hired gun, Thompson returned to Austin and opened a gambling hall above the Iron Front Saloon on Congress Avenue.

He had the gambling business upstairs. It was a few blocks from the capital and had the legislators and ranch owners in the big poker game. Ben was incredibly popular and a darling of the Texas rich.

Once when the powerful Texas Livestock Raiser’s Association was having a luncheon meeting, Ben held 20 of them at gunpoint while he lectured them on insulting a friend of his, by throwing him out. He broke a few dishes and paid the fine and damages.

Ben Thompson always ran a square game. When he found his faro dealer had a crooked dealing box, he shot the chips off the table, then shot up the dealing box in his own gambling establishment.

He said, “I don’t think that set of tools is entirely honest, and I want to help Mr. Lorraine buy another.”

For some reason Ben's favorite pastime became getting really drunk and using street signs as target practice in the middle of the night. Of course, being Ben Thompson, he shot out his own fancy chandelier and all the lights. He then went next door and shot up the keno "goose" that holds the balls in a crooked joint owned by a rival.

He left that place dark also, as was his custom. Later that same night, Ben went to another part of town and shot out a few street lights. He was quoted in the newspaper as saying they could buy some honest gambling equipment. The Statesman had an editorial praising Ben. As always, he paid the fine and damages.

According to Lafayette Rogers, a local patron of the Iron Front, "Ben, never run a crooked game in his house."

With employees to run all the games of faro, keno, Spanish monte and chuck-a-luck, Ben played high-stakes poker each evening from eight to 2am or 3am. The Iron Front had one of the best known poker games in all Texas.

One of Ben's competitors was the Capital Theater, owned and operated by Mark Wilson. When a friend of Ben’s was thrown out of the Capital Theater, owned by Irishman Mark Wilson, Ben returned with him. The friend had helped Billy escape from Kansas back in 1873.

On Christmas Eve, 1876, Thompson and friends were at the Capital Theater drinking, when a fight erupted involving other patrons. When Thompson tried to intervene, Wilson produced a shotgun and fired at Thompson but missed. Ben didn't when he returned fire and killed Wilson.

A bartender, Charley Matthews, fired a Winchester rifle and grazed Ben's hip. Ben returned fire, hitting Matthews. Though seriously wounded, Matthews survived. Ben Thompson was not arrested, as the shooting was ruled justified self defense.

Ben Thompson's acknowledged honesty, loyalty, generosity, and prowess with a revolver impressed the citizens of Austin enough that they twice elected him City Marshal.  

He once said, "I always make it a rule to let the other fellow fire first.  If a man wants to fight, I argue the question with him and try to show him how foolish it would be.  If he can't be dissuaded, why then the fun begins but I always let him have first crack.  Then when I fire, you see, I have the verdict of self-defence on my side.  I know that he is pretty certain in his hurry, to miss.  I never do."

First winning office in December 1880, he proved to be an excellent officer, some claiming that he was the finest marshal that Austin had known up to that time, and was re-elected in November of the following year.

In July 1882, while still serving as marshal, Thompson quarreled over a card game in a saloon in San Antonio, where he killed the prominent sportsman and owner of the Vaudeville Theatre, Jack Harris.

It all started in 1880 when Thompson spent some time at the Vaudeville, gambling heavily alongside Harris' partner, Joe Foster, and with Thompson losing. Thompson left in what was referred to as a "bad mood", and although it was reported he made threats, that has never been substantiated.

Thompson returned to Austin, where in addition to being Chief of Police, he owned the Iron Front Saloon. Harris and Foster sent word to Thompson that he was no longer welcome in their establishment. Had Harris simply told Thompson that, rather than vocally expressing that Thompson was not welcome in his business in public, the matter would have likely stopped there.

However, upon receiving word that Harris was telling many people that he told Ben he wasn't welcome and he wasn't to return, Thompson simply returned on July 11, 1882.

Vaudeville Variety Theater manager Billy Simms met Ben on the street, and tried to persuade him to avoid the Vaudeville, but was unsuccessful. Ben entered, and approached the bartender, and told him to pass word to both Foster and Harris that he intended to "close this damn whorehouse".

Although it can be taken different ways, he most likely meant that he intended to stay all night there, rather than meaning it literally. Thompson had a drink with jeweler Leon Rouvant, then departed. Meanwhile, Billy Simms went upstairs and put on his guns and warned Harris, who then went and obtained a shotgun, after which he placed himself behind a screen in view of the front door, where he waited for Thompson for at least ten minutes.

This would be the second mistake Harris would make. Ben had gone outside, visiting with people on the street that he knew.

Ben Thompson returned, not actually entering but rather standing just outside the doorway, and saw Harris with the shotgun, but at first said nothing. After a few minutes, with Harris still watching Ben, the latter finally said "What are you going to do with that shotgun you damned son of a bitch", to which Harris replied "You kiss my ass you son of a bitch".

Within seconds, two shots rang out. At least one witness would later state that after the verbal exchange, it was one or two minutes later that the shots were fired, but in fact is was only a matter of a couple of seconds at the most.

According to some witnesses, Ben had seen Harris, but did not initially enter the saloon. Instead, he waited, watched, allowed two ladies to enter by holding the doors for them, then passed the before mentioned verbal exchange, after which the two shots were fired almost immediately.

Harris staggered, having not discharged his shotgun, made it upstairs, then collapsed. A doctor was summoned, to which Harris is alleged to have said "He took advantage of me and shot me from the dark".

It was the last lie of a dying rat!

He knew this was not true. Although Harris never fired, he was armed openly, and the area was lighted, Ben Thompson was in fact standing just outside of the doorway. It was an easy case for self-defense on the part of Ben Thompson.

Ben returned to his hotel room at the Menger Hotel, where he remained the rest of the night without being approached by police. The following morning he surrendered himself to Bexar County, Texas Sheriff Thomas P. McCall and San Antonio Police Chief Shardien.

A written battle of words began between two newspapers, the San Antonio Light and the Austin Statesman, one screaming for justice against Ben Thompson while the other defending him.

Newspapers from across the state editorialized and followed suit, some pro-Thompson, others con. Many citizens in San Antonio felt the town was better off without Harris, while others denounced Thompson as a murderer. An indictment was handed down on September 6, 1882, and although a change of venue was considered, by that time sentiment was leaning in Thompson's favor, so the case was tried in San Antonio.

In the subsequent trial that followed, Ben Thompson was acquitted on January 30, 1883. This caused ill will from many of the citizens of San Antonio, especially those who were close friends to Harris.

Friends to Thompson cheered outside the courtroom when the verdict was announced, and upon his return to Austin he was met by a large crowd of supporters. Though he resigned as marshal, and would never marshal again, after a sensational trial and acquittal, he returned to Austin to a hero's welcome and resumed his life as a professional gambler.

One of the defense lawyers for Thompson was William M. Walton, who later wrote a biography, The Life and Adventures of Ben Thompson

The Vaudeville Theatre Ambush!

The Vaudeville Theater Ambush, on March 11, 1884, was an ambush conducted against the lawmen Ben Thompson and King Fisher, carried out by enemies of Thompson. It took place at the Vaudeville Variety Theater in San Antonio, Texas.

Ben Thompson and King Fisher were two of the most notorious pistoleros of the day, both noted gunmen of the Old West. They were indeed living legends.

King Fisher, who was a noted gunman in his own right with several killings to his credit. He was a good friend to Ben Thompson, and by 1884 King Fisher had settled into a more peaceful life with his family near Leakey, Texas, where he had become a successful rancher. King Fisher had recently left the office of sheriff for Uvalde County, Texas, and on March 11, 1884, was in San Antonio on business.

On March 11, 1884, while in San Antonio on business, Fisher came into contact with his old friend Ben Thompson, also visiting town on business. Thompson was still very unpopular in San Antonio among some, since the Harris killing.

A feud over that killing had been brewing since between Thompson and friends of Harris, to include Joe Foster. King Fisher would, ironically, become a victim in a situation in which he played no part whatsoever, short of being present on that day.

Word of their arrival in San Antonio preceded them. Within minutes of stepping into the Vaudeville the two were shot and killed from behind.

That night started out as just two old friends getting together while in the same town, Ben and King Fisher attended a play at the Turner Hall Opera House -  then at around 10:30pm, they went to the Vaudeville Variety Theater.

A local lawman named Jacob Coy sat with them. Ben Thompson wanted to see Joe Foster, the theater owner and friend of Harris's who was now partnered with Billy Simms, and who was one of the main people fueling the ongoing feud.

Ben Thompson had already spoken to Billy Simms, with whom he'd had a cordial and almost friendly conversation.  But despite the feud and the general dislike for Ben Thompson in San Antonio, both he and King Fisher were feared men.

Their reputations as gunmen, and their having proven their skills in that trade in many documented events made anyone wishing to face them have second thoughts. It is likely that this was what led to Thompson's enemies deciding on an ambush rather than an armed face to face confrontation.

Ben and King Fisher were directed upstairs to meet with Foster. Coy and Simms who soon joined them in the theater box. Foster refused to speak with Thompson.
Supposedly King Fisher noticed that something was not right. At that very moment Billy Simms and police officer Jacob Coy stepped aside, and as they did King Fisher and Ben Thompson leapt to their feet just as a volley of gunfire erupted from another theater box, with a hail of bullets hitting both Thompson and Fisher.

Ben Thompson fell onto his side, and either Coy or Foster ran up to him and shot him in the head with a pistol. It is said that Ben returned fire with two shots, but that is doubtful. Its believed that he died almost immediately.

King Fisher did fire one round in retaliation, possibly wounding Coy, but that is not confirmed. Fact is, Coy may have been shot by one of the attackers. Coy never recovered completely and was left crippled for life. It was found later, that King Fisher was shot thirteen times. Imagine that!

It is said that Joe Foster, in attempting to draw his own pistol at the first of the fight, shot himself in the leg. Foster was carried down the street for medical attention, and his leg was amputated, but he died of blood loss during the operation.

The exact description of the events of that night are contradictory, as it was totally dependent on anti-Thompson witnesses, or the attackers themselves.

At first, the attackers attempted to claim that Ben Thompson and Joe Foster had argued, and that Thompson had drawn his gun on Foster prompting Foster to draw, which resulted in an open gun battle.

That, however, was disproved over time. What is certain is that the two gunmen were ambushed with no prior knowledge of the attack, which put aside any self-defense claims by the defendants. However, to be defendants, there first would have to be a trial.

And no, there would be no trial. Imagine that!

There was a public out cry for a grand jury indictment of those involved, not only from Austin but from other parts of Texas as well including from many inside San Antonio who felt the ambush was cowardly. But fact is, no action was ever taken. Even though Coy was left a cripple and Foster died through his own fault, the guilty were never brought to justice.

The San Antonio Police and the prosecutor showed little interest in the case, and eventually it simply went away.

King Fisher was buried on his ranch. His body was later moved to the Pioneer Cemetery in Uvalde, Texas. Ben Thompson's body was returned to Austin, and his funeral was one of the largest in Austin's history at that time. Ben Thompson was buried at the Oakwood Cemetery in Austin.

Many believed that Harris's friends and partners, Joe Foster and Billy Simms, arranged the assassination.

Ben Thompson was survived by his wife, Catherine, and two children, Ben and Katy.

Austin newspaper editors engaged those of San Antonio in a free-wheeling, nasty debate after a coroner's jury in San Antonio ruled the killing self-defense and no one was ever charged with the murders.

Though the Vaudeville Theater Ambush went down in history as one of the most famous gunfights in San Antonio history, the killing that night of Ben Thompson and John King Fisher became something of a mystery.

The story of what took place that night all came from those who arranged the ambush. And yes, while over time their stories started to unravel, a coroner's jury in San Antonio ruled the killing "self-defense." I guess that's what takes place when its a completely one sided story, and the law is involved in the murders.

Ben Thompson was everything you could possibly want from a Old West gunfighter. He worked as a professional gambler, a confederate soldier, a soldier of fortune, a hired gun, a gunfighter, a respected town marshal, and a saloon owner.

His skill with a pistol was legendary, his shots were true, and his nerve was solid. He was said to be adventurous, yet honest and honorable. It is said that he had integrity, and never walked away from a good fight.

Those who killed him were back shooting bush whackers who I can only hope found themselves at the end of a rope somewhere down the line. They deserved it!

Ben Thompson is an Old West Legend for good reason, he deserves it.

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa

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