Friday, March 27, 2015

Did Wyatt Earp arrest Ben Thompson

When people talk about a gunman, a gunslinger, a gunfighter, a true man-killer, who really was a legend in their own time, few back in the Old West actually filled the bill. In reality, there were only a few out there who were little more than regionally known. Ben Thompson was a known gunman, a lawman. He had a well founded reputation as being a man-killer.

In the late 1920s, Wyatt Earp made the claim that he arrested the legendary Ben Thompson back in 1873. Since his claim came by way of Earp's biographer Stuart Lake, who related the tale in Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal in 1931, many have asked, "Did Wyatt Earp really arrest Ben Thompson?"

By 1873, Ben Thompson was already a well known Texas gunman with a deadly reputation. He was a bad hombre. He was a Confederate soldier, who became a mercenary, a gunman, gambler, lawman, and was actually a legend in his time.

On August 15th, 1873, Ben's younger brother, Billy is said to have "accidentally" killed their friend Sheriff Chauncey Whitney in Ellsworth, Kansas. Immediately after the shooting, Ben Thompson urged his brother, who was drunk, to leave town on a fast horse. If not, friends of the popular sheriff may have wanted to put a hangman's noose around his neck.

Billy got on his horse, but it's said that even to the dismay of older brother Ben, Billy slowly left Ellsworth. As Billy left town, Ben Thompson, who was already considered a notorious man at the time, held the town at bay for an hour armed with a Henry rifle. Of course, along with his Henry rifle, he did in fact have a few other Texas cowboys to back him up during his standoff. So no, he wasn't alone as myth has it.

More than fourty-plus years later in the mid 1920s, Wyatt Earp claimed that he was the man who arrested Ben Thompson on that August day in 1873. Was this true or just another of Earp's claim to fame? Was it another Earp tall tale?

In the case of Wyatt Earp's supposed arrest of the very well-known gunman Ben Thompson, the case against Earp's fanciful tale is overwhelming. The reason that the case against Earp's fanciful tale is so solid is that there is absolutely no evidence putting him there, nevertheless him making the arrest of some well known gunman.

Where was Wyatt Earp at the time? Well, we know Wyatt Earp is listed in court records as being arrested and in jail off and on in Peoria, Illinois, in 1872 and in 1873. We also know that Earp claimed that he was buffalo hunting in 1872 when in fact he was arrested as a pimp in Illinois. In the same situation as for Wyatt Earp's claimed he was taking down famous gunman Ben Thompson when he was arrested in Illinois about the same time, I don't think that even the most ardent Wyatt Earps fan would have the nerve to say that Wyatt Earp can be in two places at the same time. Yes, especially hundreds of miles away with the slow modes of travel that existed at the time.

Writer's have portrayed him as a buffalo hunter for years, either accepting the myth that while he was actually in jails in Illinois that he would also able to be thousands of miles away at the same time buffalo hunting, or simply ignoring the fact all together to give credence to his buffalo claims. 

As for Ellsworth Kansas, there is no reference to anyone by the name of Wyatt Earp in the newspaper there, The Ellsworth Reporter.

No, there is not a single mention of Wyatt Earp in The Ellsworth Reporter's accounts of what took place in the record of Judge Osborne's police court, or in Dr. Duck's coroner's report, or in the coroner's inquest on Sheriff Whitney, or in the testimony at Billy Thompson's trial for the murder of Whitney in 1877, or in Ben Thompson's authorized biography by Col.Walton, or in any other source of record. In fact, there appears to be absolutely no published reference to Wyatt Earp's role in the Thompson arrest anywhere. That is until Wyatt Earp fabricated the story for his own biography to boost his own claim to this fame in 1931.

Remember, whether we want to admit it or not, people documented all sorts of things back then. Whether it was in a local newspaper, a diary, a journal, in letters, or in records of all sorts, people wrote everything down. Even in the tiny outlined areas of the California Gold Country where I live, where there were only small mining camps, the county archives are full of the smallest details of how people lived on a daily basis up here. 

Call it gossip or keeping a record for posterity, many people wrote who, what, when, where, and how things took place. This is the reason that we know what took place back in the day. It's true.

Even in this remote part of what was known as the Far West, over a hundred and fifty years later, we know who fell into what mine shaft, who lost their wagon load coming down what steep grade near a certain spot in the road going to town, who it was who found that old Indian sitting dead on the side of a road frozen to death, how a woman "answering nature's call" lifted her skirt to pee in a bush and found gold which led to one of the biggest mines in the Gold Country, and whether or not a small town in Northern California documented many more killings than Tombstone ever did. In fact, it is because of the documentation about that town near this area, that we know it made the town of Tombstone look like a retirement community in comparison if we look at what took place during the height of their perspective booms.

Court records, witness statements, newspaper accounts, hotel registers, journals, sales receipts, order slips, all play a role in proving or disproving the claims of people. Granted, there are things that aren't witnessed and that we can only go on trust to believe that it took place. But in the case of the arrest of the notorious Ben Thompson in 1873, while he held off the entire town at bay, there were all sorts of eye-witnesses and records of what took place there that day.

The most damaging words in the whole public record of the affair in regards to making Wyatt Earp look like a fraud, are the words from Ben Thompson himself.

Ben Thompson made the case that he had worked everything out with Mayor Miller prior to surrendering his arms. Thompson said Deputy Sheriff Hogue arrived on the scene late and unarmed.

Here is Ben Thompson's account: 

"The mayor, Mr. Miller, appeared. He had been given an exaggerated account of the circumstances, and was disposed to go right over me, but the Henry rifle soon brought him to his senses, and he stood along by the side of Hogue and others. I then said to him: 'Mr. Mayor, I respect, you and am inclined to surrender to you, but before doing so, must have your word of honor that no mob shall in any way interfere with me, and besides Happy Jack and Hogue must be disarmed, or rather the first must be disarmed, and the other not permitted to resume his....If you will go and disarm Happy Jack, and declare to me that Hogue shall not again be armed, until the law has dealt with me, I will surrender.' He at once agreed to this proposition, and Larkin [see below for more comments about Larkin, the manager of the Grand Central Hotel]satisfying the mayor that I would stand, and at an agreed moment surrender, they went off together to disarm Happy Jack. Hogue and his two cubs in the meantime being in a sort of 'pound' which I surrounded with my Henry rifle. . . .When he [the mayor]gave the assurances I required I willingly surrendered, knowing that the law could not and would not touch me, so far as the death of Sheriff Whitney was concerned."

Thompson makes no further mention of the deputy until he describes Hogue's attack on his attorney at the hearing which followed. And no, he makes no mention of some unknown transient hero doing what Earp claimed. And no, there is nothing to justify that it happened like it did in the film Wyatt Earp starring actor Kevin Costner.

The newspaper, The Ellsworth Reporter, did not say that Deputy Hogue "disarmed" Ben Thompson or that Thompson had surrendered his arms to the deputy. The paper only states that Deputy Sheriff Hogue "received the arms" of Ben Thompson. The paper does not specify where the arms come from, but only that Ben Thompson stated that he turned them over to the Mayor.

According to Wyatt Earp's biographer Stuart Lake, Wyatt was given a badge on the spur of the moment, that Earp refused to take a job as police officer so supposedly there was no reason for Earp's name to appear in any of these records since Miller's offer was not a part of the council's proceedings and since Earp refused the appointment. But frankly, that makes no sense.

Besides, that's not how it worked with so many people documenting the happenings of things back then, and in especially since that would have been news and a great story for the local papers. Can anyone imagine The Ellsworth Reporter or any paper refusing to print the story of a lone unknown transient hero doing what Earp claimed or turning down the job as offered to him?

The whole idea of his refusing a job as a police officer is absurd when you consider that he sought the position of police officer in one way or another for years both in Illinois and the Mid-West. Remember, when Earp moved to Wichita, Kansas, in early 1874, he was a pimp. But then in 1875, after he helped a police officer in Wichita track down a wagon thief, Wyatt Earp joined that city’s police force. 

As for those who say that Earp wasn't mentioned in The Ellsworth Reporter is because supposedly the town decided to "play down" their violence, that goes against what newspapers at the time did to sell papers. Newspaper have always been about selling papers, look at the way the grabbed onto any sensational event and ran with them. Newspapers run with those stories knowing that people like to read about the sensational and will buy papers that keep their interest.

Friends, that's what made the Police Gazette so popular at the time. And there's another point, the Police Gazette would have loved to print that story in 1873. That is, if it were real.

The National Police Gazette, simply known as the Police Gazette, was an American magazine founded in 1845. Under publisher Richard K. Fox, it was a men's magazine that illustrated sports weekly, pin ups, a celebrity gossip column, Guinness World Records-style competitions, and modern tabloid/sensational journalism. It began as a way to chronicle crime and criminals, and exploits of the law. 

Fact is, as we know from newspapers of the times, they and dime-novels and magazines like the Police Gazette would have jumped all over the story if it really happened as Earp said it did. If Wyatt Earp's account was factual as told to his biographer, then there is no doubt that it would have been newsworthy. They would have jumped at the story and ran it on the national wire service.

To believe some sort of half-baked notion that an American newspaper would ignore a newsworthy story about an extremely heroic action on the part of a transient to resolve a violent crisis in the street against a notorious gunman is idiotic. The whole notion that we should somehow accept the notion that Ellsworth was "a powder keg" that summer, and that the Ira Lloyd diary is very specific in describing the tensions between the townsfolk and the Texans, and that somehow kept a newspaper form publishing a great story about a hero, is asinine. It simply doesn't hold water.

The notion that anything can keep a newspaper from publishing a great story about a hero who pops out of nowhere is ludicrous. Can you imagine a newspaper saying a heroic act should not be reported because it will stir tensions? No, I can't either!

And please, give me a break with this notion that newspapers of that period had not yet adopted the theory of putting local news first and sometimes saw no point in telling a story that everyone already knew about. We know that's not true as the shootout at the OK Corral proves. While we know that that was really just a local story, some of the wire services at the time did in fact carry the news of that small gunfight.

Friends, even today, local papers live and die on how they cover local news. National events did not get much notice until wire services came about. And even after that national stories still didn't get a mention until communications became faster and more accurate. And frankly, there are volumes of local papers that print all sorts of local news even though "everyone already knew about" the subject. Papers don't care about that, never have.

If papers didn't run stories because they thought that "everyone already knew about" such and such doing this and that, they'd be out of business because people would not look to them for the facts. Yes, as people do even today.

If the concept of "why print it because everyone already knows about it" were true, than not one paper in America would report one more article about corruption in government, or crime in the streets, or how corrupt some local police department is or isn't.

Because the main story was the death of Sheriff Whitney, which was certainly reported on, some have made the excuse that that's why Earp's name not being found anywhere in the papers. They would have us believe that Earp's name was not mentioned because his supposed actions were linked to the actions on the part of Ben Thompson after the fact. Does that make sense? No. And by the way, the last time that I read the newspaper, multiple articles ran at the same time. That means that the death of Sheriff Whitney's article and the heroics of a lone stranger could have run on the same front page in different articles.

But friends, even if that were the case, references to Ben Thompson's actions are found in his deposition of July 10th, 1877: 

"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."

So where is Wyatt Earp's name in Ben Thompson's deposition? No where. It is not found in any court records because Wyatt Earp was not there and had nothing to do with it. And also, if he did do some heroic act, why didn't Wyatt Earp stick around and bath in its afterglow? That was his modus operandi.

On a legal note, where is the report of his making the arrest of Ben Thompson, of being made Marshal on the spot as he said he was, or being subpoenaed to testify what he did or didn't do to effect an arrest? The reason is because Wyatt Earp did not make the arrest. He did not make a Citizens Arrest or by being deputized on the spur of the moment as he stated.

Wyatt Earp is known to have been in Wichita in 1874, so it was possible to find "the hero of Ellsworth" if officials wanted to subpoena him. But they didn't need to simply because he had nothing to do with Thompson. Wyatt Earp was not subpoenaed because he was not a witness, did not make an arrest, and had no involvement in the affair which meant he had no relevant information to give the court.

Supposedly when the old Grand Central Hotel caught fire in 1958, a local historian is said to have "rushed into the smoke and flames to rescue the old guest registers." Those hotel registers are said to include the signature of the Thompsons and other frontier notables. Supposedly Earp stayed at the Grand Central Hotel. The old registers are now housed at the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, and no where is Wyatt Earp's name. Wyatt Earp's signature does not appear in the registers anywhere.

Was the now famous Wyatt Earp in Ellsworth on August 18, 1873? Who knows. Did he witness the events that day? Who knows. Can anybody put him there that day? No.

It is said that Wyatt Earp did have knowledge of a bullet hole in a door jam. Some say that that in itself is enough proof for them to say that he was there. Fact is, knowledge itself of a bullet hole does not confirm that he was there anymore than it proves that I was there.

As for Stuart Lake hearing the story of Wyatt Earp being there from Bat Masterson? While Earp's biographer Stuart Lake credited Masterson as the source of the Thompson story. But Masterson stated that he wasn't there, so how could it come from Masterson? 

In fact, it is believed that Bat Masterson actually heard the Ben Thompson arrest story from Wyatt Earp himself. And frankly, we don't know if Stuart Lake was telling the truth in that he heard it from Masterson or not. It is believed that Lake fabricated a great deal of the Earp biography. So how much is from Earp and how much is the work of Lake's imagination is up for grabs.

We do know that Wyatt Earp, in at least two letters, indicated that he alone had arrested Ben Thompson. But then again, he also claimed to do many things that were just tall tales including killing Johnny Ringo.

Since I started this article after being asked if I thought Wyatt Earp really did in fact arrest the famous gunfighter Ben Thompson, my answer is no. No, I don't believe Wyatt Earp had anything to do with the arrest of the very notorious Ben Thompson because there is no evidence putting him there.

There are no witnesses, no court records, no arrest records, no depositions, not a single news story about the heroism of a young stranger, nothing!

And by the way, some researchers actually try to spin things around to say that the absence of a reference to Wyatt Earp in relevant court, county, and city records is explained simply by the fact that he was not acting in an official capacity. But remember, according to Earp, he was acting as the town marshal since he was handed the badge and deputized by the mayor on the spot.

And while I believe that that alone should get a huge mention somewhere, those same people say that there was no reason to mention him in the documents even though he supposedly made the arrest. Make sense to you? Me neither! And no, it doesn't stop there! 

Believe it or not, there are some who say that even though there is absolutely no record, no witness, nothing, no note in any article mentioning the name Wyatt Earp, that that does not mean that he couldn't have done it. Of course, that's a hard spin of logic. 

Yes, as incredible as that sounds, there are those who will spin the facts and evidence just to confirm a tale that no one witnessed, that there is no record of, even though there were all sorts of folks present there that day who witnessed the incident taking place. Yes, it was an incident very well documented from the vantage point of a number of witnesses.

So what sort of standards of historical research should we be demanding?To me, as with a crime scene, standards of historical research should be so that we can confirm the truth of what took place. That is the least that we should do before accepting something.

I do not agree with the statement by one historian who stated, "the absence of evidence is never proof that something did not happen." It's that sort of twisted logic that drives me nuts when reading what some so-called "unbiased" historian comes up with. Imagine the craziness behind such a statement.

Friends, like it or not, the absence of evidence is proof that something did not happen. If it's only up to someone's word, then anything goes. If we agree with that sort of twisted logic that says that an event doesn't have to be witnessed and recorded or attests to, that there is no evidence at all that something even took place, how can anyone prove what is fact or just bullshit? 

And yes, I am amazed at how many people believe in supposed historical events that no one's ever witnessed and is only claimed to have been done by those with questionable character. 

For example, there isn't a stitch of evidence to support John Wesley Hardin's claim that he out drew and then drew down on Wild Bill Hickok. So how can anyone take the word of psychopath John Wesley Hardin who tried to become even more famous by writing that very thing in his prison cell memoirs. Why would anyone accept the lie that he supposedly outdrew the legend Wild Bill Hickok, even though it was something no one witnessed or noted?

Hardin made his claim after Hickok was dead, and no one witnessed it take place. But, believe it or not, there are historians who believe it really happened. Why? On what grounds? Who knows.

It is the same fraud of saying that some young stranger named Wyatt Earp became the hero of the day and arrested the gunman Ben Thompson, yet no one saw it happen. No one noted it, or even celebrated such an extraordinary feat of bravery.

If we allow those sorts of folks to determine what really took place in history, well Lord help us. Imagine it for a moment if we can come up with anything we want, and call it real because we don't need evidence to back it up. Thankfully that's not the case and that we do require evidence to prove what has taken place in history. 

To me, until someone shows me something to disprove it, I believe that this was just one more Wyatt Earp story that's not true. And that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa


  1. Since Wyatt had died before Lake's book was published I've always contended that Lake in his research embellished the book by putting Earp in factual occurrences to enhance the book. We've been programmed to believe Wyatt was a liar and told Lake these tales to make himself look more important than he actually was, but maybe, just maybe Lake was looking after himself in this case and wanted a successful book to enrich his own pocket and his reputation as a writer so he was the one who lied to the public.

    1. Tom B., I agree with how you see it. I don't think very much if any of Lake's biography on Earp is from Earp himself. I really believe that the book is really the creation of Lake. Thanks for visiting my site. Tom


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