Friday, November 3, 2017

Ambushes & The Vaudeville Variety Theater Massacre

Dear Friends,

Let's talk about threats and violent hombres in the Old West. Let's talk about gunfights, bushwhackers, and an ambush that turned into the massacre of two Old West gunfighters who were legends in their own time.

While we can change the odds to being more in our favor by being more proficient with our guns, being better trained, and actually practicing to hone our close combat skills, face to face gunfights are a scary proposition. Some say it's 50/50 at best. But frankly, since your assailant may already have his gun out when he assaults you, the odds may not be in your favor from the start.

That's why we have to be more proficient with our guns. And maybe it's from my training as a U.S. Marine, but I was taught that being better trained and actually practicing to hone our close combat skills will help us to stay alive during such an attack because it makes our response instinctual. Something happens and you instinctually act. That's what's needed in a gunfight.

That's true when looking at most gunfights during the Old West, and it's really no different than what takes place today. Typically, an encounter takes place when someone is ambushed by an assailant who simply walks up with a gun.

A face to face gunfight is close-combat. It's all about 3-3-3. The numbers 3-3-3 refers to the fact that most gunfights take place within 3 feet of each other, it takes 3 seconds, and 3 shots are usually fired.  That hasn't changed and is still the standard of what takes place today.

While there were what I call "rolling gunfights" that seem to roll on and on with factions having at each other, they were certainly not something that usually took place. It was usually at close range, very quick, with a few shots being fired.

I've known situations where I've expected to die, I'm sure those who found themselves in a face to face gunfight in the Old West had some expectation that that was their last round-up. Of course, since human nature is what it is and the best of who we are actually comes out during horribly dangerous situations, I'm sure that there was a sense of relief when they lived through such a fight even back then.

Of course one of the great things of researching history is when I find out that things that I thought were one way as a result of Hollywood is really wrong. For example, while the gunfights as those which I just described did take place just as they do today, Old West gunfights were actually few and far between.

Fact is the preferred method of killing an enemy in the Old West was by ambush and from behind. Back in the day, people responded to threats by shooting, stabbing, clubbing others when they weren't looking. While it's not gallant, or brave, or even right, that was the standard way of doing things back in the day. The reason is that it bettered the odds in one's favor if they strike first, hard, and fast when their enemy is not looking.  Yes, just as it is today.

Not being seen at all was the way must ambushes were down. Ambushes by nature are premeditated as someone has to have the intent to kill while lying in wait. Waiting for their opportunity to commit their murder.

Tom Horn was known to bushwhack those he went after from a distance and using cover. On July 18th, 1901, 14-year-old Willie Nickell was shot by Tom Horn near the Nickell homestead. Then on August 4th, his father Kels Nickell was ambushed. He was shot and wounded. It is believed that Horn did that shooting as well.

John Hicks Adams was a tough lawman as Sheriff of Santa Clara County, California. He later became a Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Arizona Territory. It was probably because he was known as a good hand with a gun that he was ambushed and killed on January 24th, 1878.

Marshal Adams and another lawman were actually ambushed by five Mexican outlaws, some say they were bandits, near Tucson. It's said that he and the other lawman were shot and appeared to have been beaten to death with clubs and rocks. While those who were known to have murdered the two were arrested in Mexico, but Mexican authorities refused to send them to the United States for prosecution. So yes, they got away with the murders just as if they were never seen at all.

Of course we all know how Jessie James was ambushed. That took place on April 3rd, 1882, when James stood on a chair to clean or adjust a picture on a wall in his home. His cohort Robert Ford shot Jesse James in the back of the head. In his case, the killing of James proved that ambushes do happen from behind and by someone who he trusted. 

John Wesley Hardin was ambushed and killed by John Selman, Sr. in El Paso, Texas, on August 19th, 1895. Hardin was standing at the bar in the Acme Saloon playing dice when Selman simply walked up to Hardin from behind and shot him in the head. It killed the notorious Hardin instantly. 

But even though that was the case, it's said that while Hardin lay on the floor, Selman fired three more shots into him just to make sure he was dead. Hardin proved that his notorious reputation motivated his killer to make sure he was dead. As for Selman Sr., he was arrested but claimed self-defense at his trial. Imagine that. 

I guess that's the same reason Pat Garrett didn't take any chances going up against William "Billy the Kid" Bonney. On July 14th, 1881, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, at the home of a friend, Bonney entered a dark adjoining room. It's said that Pat Garrett fired twice. The first bullet is said to have killed Billy the Kid almost instantly.

Of course, retribution and revenge play a hand in ambushes. After the shootout near the OK Corral on October 26th, 1881, the outlaw gang of rustlers known as the "cow boys" attempted to take revenge on Tombstone City Marshal Virgil Earp. 

That took place at around 11:30 pm on December 28th, when it is believed at least three men hid out in an unfinished building and ambushed Marshal Virgil Earp as he walked from the Oriental Saloon to his room. Marshal Earp was hit in the back and left arm with what is believed to have been three loads of buckshot from only 60 feet away. 

After what was believed to be "four shots in quick succession," a critically wounded Virgil Earp staggered into his hotel. Believe it or not, 4 inches of his shattered humerus bone was removed from Virgil's left arm. Along with this, 20 buckshot were also removed from his side. It is amazing that he lived. And while that ambush left his arm permanently crippled, a testament to that great lawman is that he would later become a lawman again. This time it was in California.

His younger brother, Morgan Earp, was bushwhacked by the same outlaw gang at 10:50 p.m. on March 18th, 1882. Deputy City Marshal Morgan was ambushed and killed while playing a late night round of billiards at the Campbell & Hatch Billiard Parlor. He was actually playing against the owner of the place, Bob Hatch. Present there was Dan Tipton, Sherman McMaster, and his brother Wyatt. 

The killer shot Morgan through a door window. The door opened out into an alley that ran through the block between Allen and Fremont Streets. Morgan was hit while he stood about 10 feet from the door. The bullet struck his back on the right side and shattered his spine. Believe it or not, that bullet actually passed through Morgan's left side and went into the leg mining foreman George A. B. Berry who was also there. After they hit their mark, the killers fled into the dark night.

Then there's the Vaudeville Theater Massacre of March 11th, 1884. It was an ambush planed and carried out against the lawmen Ben Thompson and King Fisher. Two lawmen who had reputations as gunmen. 

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 their day. Both were 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. 

On March 11th, 1884, he was in San Antonio on business when he decided to visit his old friend Ben Thompson. Of course what Fisher didn't know was that Thompson's enemies had plans to murder him if he entered San Antonio's Vaudeville Variety Theater. His being with Thompson was purely bad luck for Fisher. King Fisher would ironically become a victim in a situation in which he played no part in whatsoever.

Thompson was still very unpopular in San Antonio among some of the criminal element there. A feud had been brewing between Thompson and friends of Jack Harris who Thompson killed. Harris was the owner of Vaudeville Variety Theater. Harris's partner was Joe Foster.

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

Ben Thompson wanted to see Joe Foster, the theater's owner and former friend and partner of Harris who Thompson killed. Foster was now partnered with Billy Simms 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 gunfights gave anyone wishing to meet them face to face second thoughts. It's very likely that's what led to Thompson's enemies deciding on an ambush rather than a face to face confrontation.

Upon their entering the theater, a plot to ambush and kill them went into action. Part of the murder plot was to have them sit in a theater box with San Antonio police officer Jacob Coy. He would sit with them to give them a sense of security. After all, Coy was a police officer, who would think that a police officer would be part of a murder plot.

Thompson and Fisher were completely unknown that Coy was part of the plot to kill them as they were directed upstairs to meet with Foster. Coy and Simms joined them in the theater box. Foster arrived but refused to speak with Thompson.

Supposedly King Fisher noticed that something was not right and started to stand up. It was at that very moment that Billy Simms and San Antonio Police Officer Jacob Coy stepped aside. As they did, King Fisher and Ben Thompson got to their feet. But that was too late as it was then that a volley of gunfire erupted from an adjoining theater box. It's said that a hail of bullets hit both Thompson and Fisher, and cut them down immediately.

Ben Thompson fell onto his side. It was then that either Coy or Foster ran over to the downed Thompson and shot him in the head twice. It is said that Ben Thompson returned fire with two shots before being shot in the head, but that's doubtful. Its believed that he died almost immediately when the first volley of gunfire erupted.

I read one report that said two to three men with shotguns unleashed both barrels on Thompson and Fisher from the adjoining theater box when the curtain was pulled aside. While this is very possible because of the number of rounds removed from their bodies later, I think it's only speculation because the facts of what took place were a mystery for so long.  

King Fisher is said to have fire one round in retaliation, possibly wounding Coy, but that's never been confirmed. Fact is, Coy may have been shot by one of the attackers. Or, Coy may have shot himself in the hurried moment. Either way Coy never recovered completely, and he 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 actually shot himself in the leg. Foster was carried down the street for medical attention, and his leg was amputated. 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 and the attackers themselves. At first, the assailants attempted to claim that Ben Thompson and Joe Foster had argued. As a result of the argument, Thompson had drawn his pistol on Foster. This supposedly prompted Foster to draw his gun which started a gun battle. Of course, that story was proven a lie over time. 

What is certain is that the two lawmen, men with reputations as gunmen, were ambushed. They had no prior knowledge that an attack would take place. And they themselves were not the instigators to the slaughter that took place, so really that shot the self-defense claims by the defendants all to hell. 

There was a public outcry for a Grand Jury indictment of those involved as many believed that Joe Foster and Billy Simms arranged the ambush and the assassination. The outcry came from a number of places in Texas besides San Antonio because people saw the ambush as cowardly and underhanded. But sadly, 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 local District Attorney showed little interest in the case. Because of that, interest in it simply died 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 was buried at the Oakwood Cemetery there. His funeral is said to have been one of the largest in Austin's history at that time. Ben Thompson was survived by his wife Catherine, and two children Ben and Katy.

Believe it or not, over the next few weeks Austin's newspaper editors engaged those of San Antonio in what is said to have been a nasty debate over the San Antonio coroner's jury report. The report ruled the killing was self-defense. As a result, 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. At least at first, the only versions of what took place that night all came from those who arranged the ambush or were their friends. Of course, over time their stories unraveled. And even though a coroner's jury in San Antonio ruled the killing "self-defense," people there knew that was a lie. 

From that coroner's ruling, like the people in San Antonio learned that money and influence can prevent one from going to trial for murder. They learned that the preposterous claim of "self-defense" can be used even when ambushed by someone was lying in wait. They learned that all it takes is to have a corrupt local justice system in bed with criminals; that all it takes is to have local police complicit in such a massacre; that big money can buy people off; and of course, they learned that a one sided story can keep murderers from hanging for what they did. Yes, even in a horrendous ambush and murder as that of the Vaudeville Variety Theater Massacre.

That's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa


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