Saturday, July 1, 2017

Billy Thompson & Squirrel Tooth Alice -- Part 1

Billy Thompson
Billy Thompson, was sometimes known as "Texas Billy" Thompson. And even though he is credited with having killed 3 men and wounding a fourth, I can't help but wonder if he'd be known today if he weren't the younger brother of the famous gunfighter and lawman Ben Thompson.

Billy was born in Knottingley, Yorkshire, England, sometime in 1845. His entire family immigrated to the United States and settled in Texas when he was a child. And being true Texans, during the Civil War, both Billy and his older brother Ben volunteered to fight for the Confederate Army by joining the Second Regiment of the Texas Mounted Rifles. 

And no, neither were part of the 1.6% of the population in the South who actually owned slaves. As with many, they saw Texas as a nation in itself. And as with others, while they might have had mixed loyalties to the Confederacy, they certainly were willing to fight and die for Texas.  

Ben Thompson would go on to fame as a Texas gunfighter and later as one of the Old West's more successful lawmen. In fact. Ben would serve as the Chief of Police for Austin, Texas. And yes, as far as temperament goes, even though Ben was known as a killer, he was said to be a lot more stable than his volatile younger brother Billy. 

Known for having a quick and very violent temper, Billy Thompson would often find himself in trouble. And yes, there was usually violence of some sort involved. And while he would become known as a gambler and a gunman, Billy would never achieve the respect and fame that his brother did. In fact, during in his lifetime, Billy was mainly referred to as the unpredictable, troubled, unstable, younger brother of Ben Thompson.  But also, while Billy may have been a loose canon in the respect that he was unpredictable and liable to cause damage if not kept in check by others, Billy was in fact a dangerous man who was said to be fairly formidable in a gunfight.

His first known gunfight was on March 31th, 1868. During a fistfight between a white Union soldier and a local black man, a Union soldier by the name of Sgt. William Burke was there. Burke was the chief clerk in the U.S. Adjutant General's Office. He became upset that the townspeople applauded for the local black man and not the Union soldier. 

Of course this was in 1868 in Texas which was still under Federal jurisdiction and martial law during the Reconstruction Era. Texans had a great deal of animosity for the Federal troops stationed there. Fact is that was simply because locals saw the Union Army as an occupying force following the war. If anyone knows anything about Texas, they should know that Texas pride means not kow-towing to anyone. The first thing to do to get on the bad side of a Texan is to make them think that you are trying to be superior to them. Unlike other places and peoples, feeling subservient, especially to the government, is simply not part of a Texan's DNA. 

Well, soon enough Union soldier Sgt. William Burke is said to have lashed out verbally at Billy. This started the two arguing. When things cooled down, Sgt. Burke apologized and supposedly the two men spent two hours drinking together before heading off to a bordello together. Once there, the two argued more but mostly got along. 

It is said that when Billy Thompson went upstairs with a soiled dove, that Burke's temper flared up again for unknown reasons. Then Burke began shouting threats against him while looking for Billy. When he found his room, Burke is said to have kicked in the door armed with a pistol in hand. Billy reached for his pistol and the two exchanged shots. Burke was shot and died the next day. Knowing that he would certainly hang for killing a Union soldier, Billy fled to Indian Territory for a few weeks.

While there, it is said that Billy Thompson ran out of money and sent word to his older brother Ben for help. Supposedly, this was a habit of his that he had the whole time his older brother Ben was alive. And yes, that makes me wonder if Billy was also riding on his brother's reputation or not? But really, one can only wonder. 

Two months after killing Burke, in May of 1868, Billy returns and lands in Rockport located in Aransas County, Texas. Later, in 1870, Rockport would be a cattle slaughtering, packing, and shipping port. Of course while there, Billy Thompson gets into an argument with a young man by the name of Remus Smith who was an 18-year-old stable hand. The young Smith is said to have squatted Billy's horse when it tried to put its nose in some feed. 

Believe it or not, this triggered Billy's enrage and he yells at the boy. Smith, who was unarmed, told him to take off his pistols and meet him outside man to man with fists. Billy Thompson drew his pistol and shot the boy twice. It was a case of cold-blooded murder.

Remus Smith was really well liked in Rockport. Yes, so much so that it's said that Aransas County would hunt for Billy Thompson for the remainder of his life over that cold blooded murder.
And for the next five years, it is said that Billy stayed on the run. Yes, contacting his brother to help him with money was more often than not.

Then there's Libby Thompson. Never heard of Libby Thompson? Well, you Old West history buffs out there probably know her better by her famous moniker "Squirrel Tooth Alice." She was pretty famous madam of a brothel right there in Sweetwater, Texas.

Her name was actually Elizabeth "Libby" Thompson, but she was born Mary Elizabeth Haley in 1855. And to friends and her family, young Mary Elizabeth was simply known as "Libby."  

The story goes that the Haley lost its fortune during the Civil War. Then in 1864, Comanche Indians raided the Haley farm in Texas and took young Libby captive. 

For about four years, from age 9 to age 13, Mary Elizabeth Haley remained a captive. Then in 1867, her parents paid a ransom for her release. Sadly, after her release, she was considered a "marked woman" because she survived her ordeal. 

Though she was only 13 years of age, the attitude of many at the time was that she had been raped by the Comanche Indians during her captivity. Or at least, that's what people assumed at the time. 

Because it was believed that she was sexually abused as a captive, Libby was shunned. Yes, believe it or not, after being saved by buying her back from the Comanche who were notorious slavers, Libby was actually avoided as if she had a disease.

Soon, Libby was drawn to the affections of an older man who didn't care about her past. But her father, James Haley, found the whole idea of an older man taking advantage of his daughter so objectionable that he is said to have shot and killed the man. With that act, and the word getting around that Libby has an older suitor, her reputation was soiled even further than it already was.

After more than a year of dealing with being ostracized, at the age of 14, young Libby ran away from home. Looking for a fresh start, she wound up in Abilene, Kansas. But since a young girl, barely a woman, traveling alone had few options to make a living, Libby became a dance hall girl. Soon after that, she became a soiled dove, a prostitute, in cattle towns during the 1870s.

While in Abilene, Kansas, she met a young cowboy who was also a gambler. His name was Billy Thompson, who was the brother of the gunfighter and lawman Ben Thompson. And yes, in 1870, the couple left Kansas for Texas while Billy worked as a cowhand. It's said he worked along the Chisholm Trail while Libby continued working as a dance hall girl in various towns across the southern prairie. And while some say he was a cowboy, fact is he only worked as a cowboy to make a grubstake for a gambling table. Once he did that, his working with cattle was over.

In 1872, at the age of seventeen, Libby was plying her trade in the cattle town of Ellsworth, Kansas, while Billy worked the gambling halls. By the spring of 1873, the couple was back out on the prairie with the spring cattle drive coming up from Texas. During this time, their first child was born on the open prairie. And to make the child legitimate, Libby and Billy got married that year. Imagine that.

In 1873, Billy and Libby checked into the Grand Central Hotel in Ellsworth, Kansas. Ben joined them two months later. Soon the two brothers went into the saloon business as Joe Brennan’s house gamblers. Libby worked as a prostitute at the time as well. Ellsworth was a booming cowtown. And within a short time of arriving in town, both Thompson brothers became good friends with County Sheriff Chauncey Whitney.

So now, since this is so long that I've had to make it in two parts, please click here for Billy Thompson & Squirrel Tooth Alice -- Part 2.

The rest of the story may surprise you.

Tom Correa




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