Friday, June 13, 2014

John King Fisher - Texas Gunman, Outlaw, Lawman

Though not as famous as some who's fictional stories have risen them to the status of legends, King Fisher was the real deal.

Born in 1854, John King Fisher was said to have grown into a good-looking young man who was very popular with girls. Though his full name was John King Fisher, he was called King by the family from the time he was a child.

When he was in his late teens and early twenties there would be those who said that he adopted the name "King" to reflect his flashy style of dressing. While that sounds interesting enough, others say that just wasn't the case.

It's said that he was good with at fist fighting and training horses. So much so with horses that he began buying wild or untamed horses at cheap prices, breaking them and selling them off at a pretty good profit. Horses were at the root of his trouble with the law as he did get into trouble over a stolen horse when he was in his early teens.

The Fisher family version of the episode has King on a long, two or three days, sleepless, ride. He grew tired and unsaddled the horse and lay down to sleep. When he awoke, his horse had roamed away.

Supposedly King put his bridle on an available horse that belonged to a Mr. Turnbow. King claimed he was chasing his own horse, but Mr. Turnbow filed a complaint against King for using the horse without his consent. King was arrested a few days later. Turnbow would not drop the charges. But instead , for some reason supposedly Turnbow slipped King a pocket knife that he used to cut the lead rope attached to his horse and quickly escaped.

Soon it seems he was in trouble more and more. The family says he was a good boy but was led astray by others. Official records show that he was charged with horse theft. His family said it was horse breaking instigated by an older man.

On October 5th, 1870, at the age of 16, he was sentenced to two years in the Texas State Penitentiary. He was released in February of 1871 due to his youth.

After his release, he became a cowboy in the "Nueches Strip" country in south Texas where he broke horses, chased Mexican bandits and learned to shoot. It's said that he often ran with a motley crew of rustlers, local toughs, and would-be desperadoes.

He was 5' 9" tall, 135 pounds with light hair and brown eyes. A photograph of King shows that he was good looking and wore a large mustache. He began to dress rather flamboyantly. He wore sombreros with gold braiding, embroidered vests, silk shirts and crimson sashes. His "Bengal tiger skin" chaps became his most famous trademark. And yes, a set of silver studded holsters held a pair of ivory-handled nickel-plated pistols.

If one watches the movie "Wyatt Earp" staring Kevin Costner, you'd get the impression that "cowboys," even the rustler type, looked like dirty homeless people. This is one of the problems that I have with that movie. In truth, cowboys were usually young men who were a lot like peacocks in that they liked flashy colorful clothing all to impress the ladies. As for King, he was no different than other young peacocks and in fact wore silver spurs with jingle-bobs all to announce to everyone within earshot the presence of King Fisher.

He is said to have a quick temper and was even quicker on the draw which resulted in more than a few shootings. His first killings took place when he teamed up with a gang of Mexican rustlers. There was an argument over the split, and King shot and killed three of them.

He took over the gang and eventually gained control of several other bands. It's said he gunned down seven more men while involved with the gang. Of course as with others, there is nothing to prove that that was the case at all.

Once established, he bought a ranch on Pendencia Creek near Eagle Pass, Maverick Co., Texas, across the Rio Grande River from Mexico. King used his ranch as his base of operation to run into Mexico raid their cattle.

On the road that lead to his ranch he posted a sign reading "THIS IS KING FISHER'S ROAD. TAKE THE OTHER ONE."

Supposedly he once said, "Fair play is a jewel, but I don't care for jewelry."
He reportedly had an alliance with Porfirio Diaz who eventually became president of Mexico. Diaz supposedly brought stolen Mexican stock to King's ranch to swap for stolen Texas stock. The Mexicans did not care if they dealt with stolen Texas cattle just as the Texans cared little if the stock they were trading bore Mexican brands.

Even as young as he was, during the 1870's, he was arrested several times in San Antonio and Uvalde County for gambling and fighting. And yes, it is said that he developed a reputation as a gunslinger claiming, in 1878, to have been responsible for seven deaths "not counting Mexicans."

One story tells of him in an argument with four vaqueros at a cattle pen on his ranch. Supposedly King clubbed the nearest one with a branding iron, shot and killed the second man who had drawn a gun, then spun around and shot the other two sitting on the fence.

King had several run-ins with the law at this time but the public seemed to consider him to be only an inconvenience rather than a threat to the public. But in 1875, he was arrested and charged with "intent to kill" but the prosecution could find no witness who would testify. King was released.

In May of 1876, 1st Lieutenant (later, Captain) Lee Hall and a troop of Texas Rangers arrested him, Ben Thompson and some other men charged with murder in Austin. They were soon released for self-defence.

On June 4th, 1876, Texas Ranger Captain Leander H. McNelly arrested King along with nine of his men and took them to Eagle Pass. Seven of the men could be convicted of murder but the authorities released all of them.

McNelly had recovered about 800 head of stolen cattle but the cattle inspector refused to inspect them and the sheriff would not issue subpoenas for the arrest of the thieves. McNelly could do nothing but set the cattle loose. Because of this, McNelly went to Austin where he reported to a newspaper that "King Fisher ruled the country between Castroville and Eagle Pass."

King's men, said to be a hundred or more but may have in fact been more like a dozen or more, terrorized the area and essentially held control of local government. And yes, it is said that his men could simply take what they wanted knowing that no one would stop the them. And by then, residents lived in fear of King and his gang and refused to inform on them.

In September of that year, Texas Ranger, 2nd Lt. John B. Armstrong took a squad of rangers into King's territory hoping to capture King. It was on the night of September 30th that Armstrong attacked a group of King's men. However, King had left the previous week with a large drove of cattle.

On December 25th, 1876, in a bar in Zavala County, Texas, a cowboy named William Donovan refused to buy Fisher a drink. Not smart on his end because King put three bullets into Donovan, killing him instantly.

Fisher was subsequently arrested by Texas Ranger Lee Hall who charged him with murder. Fisher however, was expertly defended in court by Major T.T. Teel and was found not guilty. So yes, his quick temper was usually followed by dead bodies.

In 1877, he and some of his men came across some Mexicans stealing one of his horses. One of the thieves shot at King who jumped from his horse onto the man. He took the gun from the thief and shot him until it was empty killing three of the Mexicans.

In May, he was arrested by Hall in an Eagle Pass saloon. King was successfully defended in court. King publicly boasted, in 1877, "You could not persuade a man in this whole county to testify against King Fisher or any of his clan."

This was no idle boast. In fact, King had been indicted for no less than six murders and at least two charges of horse theft each ending in dismissal.

He married Sarah Vivian in 1876 and eventually had four daughters but no sons.
And toward the end of the 1870's, he began to smooth over his troubles, expand his business operations, and lead a slightly more sedate life.

As for the time in 1879 when he accidentally shot himself in the leg, it's said that King was both embarrassed and angry. He was so angry that no one talked about it in his presence again.

By 1881, King Fisher was cleared of his final murder charges. And yes, believe it or not, as law was done in the Old West, King accepted the position of Deputy Sheriff of Uvalde County, Texas. He served as the acting Sheriff for a time, then announced his candidacy for Sheriff of Uvalde County in 1884. He was 30 years old.

In 1883, while acting Sheriff of Uvalde County, he trailed two brothers suspected of robbing a stagecoach. He followed Jim and Tom Hannehan to their ranch near Leakey, Texas, where he arrested the brothers who resisted. King shot and killed Tom, while Jim gave up and surrendered the loot from the robbery.

In March of 1884, while in Austin on business, King met his old friend gunman and lawman Ben Thompson who was also a well-known notorious gunfighter. But by then, frankly it's said that the famous Ben Thompson was well past his prime as a gunfighter as liquor had taken its toll.

The two embarked on a tour of the local bars. Ben talked King into stopping by San Antonio on his way back to Uvalde. Both men had a lot to drink and Ben was in a foul mood when they boarded the train going south out of Austin.

San Antonio was a dangerous place for Ben Thompson. Because of a gambling debt, a feud had developed a couple of years earlier in 1882 between him and theater owners, Jack Harris and Joe Foster. Ben had killed Harris.

By 1884, Foster had a new partner, Billy Simms, in operating the Vaudeville Theatre, a gambling hall/theater located at San Antonio's infamous "Fatal Corner." Ben had backed Simms, some time earlier in Austin, in his first attempt as a professional gambler.

Someone in Austin telegraphed Foster that Thompson was coming. King and Ben reached San Antonio about 8:00 p.m. and saw a play at Turner Hall Opera House.

It was about 10:30 p.m. when the two made for the Vaudeville Variety Theatre. Once there they were met by Simms who sat with them at a table drinking. Some reports stated that a policeman who acted as bouncer, Jacob S. Coy, also sat with them.

Ben demanded to see Foster saying that he wanted him to shake hands or accept a drink. Ben and King were sent upstairs to the balcony to see Foster. Coy and Simms soon joined them.

Foster refused to accept Ben's offer of a truce. Simms and Coy, who were standing next to Foster, suddenly stepped back. Then seeing something wrong, Ben and King jumped to their feet. But before they knew what hit them, a barrage of gunfire from a nearby theater box struck the two gunslingers.

Ben Thompson fell on his right side. Then either Coy or Simms rushed up with a pistol, put the muzzle close to his ear and fired. He then shot him several times in the head and body. The other man shot King in a similar manner. And yes, 13 bullets were found in King's head and body later.

Believe it or not, the ambush did not work completely as planned. Foster, in attempting to draw his pistol, had shot himself in the leg. The leg bone was shattered and his leg was later amputated. Medicine being what it was at the time. Foster died a short time later. Coy received what he called a slight wound that turned out to be more serious, leaving him a cripple for life.

The description of events of that night are still contradictory. There was quite an uproar for a grand jury investigation and that the killers be indicted. No action was taken. The San Antonio police and the prosecutor gave no indication of taking any interest in the case.

That was on March 11th, 1884, King Fisher was 30 years old and Ben Thompson was 40. People in San Antonio, Texas called it the "Vaudeville Theater Ambush" because that's what it was pure and simple.
King Fisher, a man known as "The Terror from Eagle Pass," was buried on his ranch clad in his famous chaps and flashy clothing. In the 1930s, his body was moved from its original burial site and buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Uvalde.

One interesting legend about King Fisher has to do with Tom and Jim Hannehan's mother. It seems after King's death, their mother would go to King's grave each year on the anniversary of Tom's death. It's said, once there she would build a fire on King's grave and dance around it.

Imagine that.

Tom Correa

1 comment:

Thank you for your comment.