Sunday, April 22, 2012

Yorkshiremen buried in Texas #27

Ben Thompson was as big and bad a gunfighter as they came, though often under the guise of law enforcement, like so many shootists of the Old West. If you've never heard of Ben Thompson, then you aren't really a serious student of the American West's wild and wooly period.

Ben's parents emigrated to Austin, Texas when he was 8 years old. Worked as a printer's helper for a short time when he was a teenager, but soon took up gambling as his lifelong backup profession.

Killed a Frenchman in New Orleans in a knife fight when he was 17. Defending a lady's honor. Actually, he beat the man up and the man challenged him to a duel. As the challenged party, Ben insisted on the right to choose the weapons for the duel. No swords or pistols for Ben. He chose Bowie knives in a dark room. The room wasn't quite pitch black so the men were blindfolded in the room instead. Soon Ben tapped on the door to be let out. The Frenchman lay gutted on the floor. I have always suspected Ben cheated with that blindfold business since there were no "seconds" willing to be in the same room with two knife-flailing blindfolded men. But I can't prove it, of course.

Joined the Texas Rangers in 1860, tracking outlaws and Comanches and Mexican guerillas. It is assumed he took lives.

Fought for the Confederacy in the American War of Northern Aggression. Wounded in action three times. Killed a mess sergeant in some sort of dispute. Killed a teamster for stealing an army mule, probably while telling him, "That's the last ass YOU'LL ever grab!" Or the like. All in all, served honorably. Got married in 1863 while still in the army.

After the war was over, he still had trouble turning the other cheek. Got shot at with a shotgun and shot the guy in the head three times to teach him a lesson. Spent time at hard labor in a Federal prison for that. Escaped/bribed carpetbagger guards. Visited his family on the way to Mexico. Served in Emperor Maximillian's less-than-awesome imperial army for a spell. At least until Max was executed by the Mexicans. Returned to Austin. Shot but didn't kill his brother-in-law for beating Ben's sister. Beat him up first. Then, as an afterthought: "Here. Take this with you." Blam. Sentenced to four years in prison for that but his sister probably never worried about spousal abuse again.

Pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant two years into his sentence and moved with his family to Abilene, Kansas, where he opened up a saloon/whorehouse/gambling den (none of which was illegal, by the way) with an old friend. Left town after his friend and partner had a street gun fight with Abilene's lawman, one James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok. Friend and partner came in a distant second in that contest. Well, hell.

Moving on down the road a piece to Ellsworth, Kansas, where he and his albatross little brother Billy got jobs as house gamblers at a popular saloon. Accused of cheating (who, ME?) a gunfight ensued. Ben was unarmed but drunk brother billy opened up on the aggrieved assailants. Unfortunately, one of the dead was the Sheriff and the brothers were arrested by the town Marshal, one Wyatt Earp. Later released when Earp decided it was "extremely probable" the Sheriff was trying to kill the unarmed Ben. Self-defense, you see.

Wichita and Dodge City were no more hospitable so it was off to Colorado. Here he met up with two more misunderstood gamblers by the names of Doc Holliday and William "Bat" Masterson. The three were contracted as hired guns by the Santa Fe Railroad during the railroad wars. It is possible some other men may have passed away at Ben's hand during this time period.

Back to Austin after that. A stint with Buffalo Bill's traveling Wild West Show showing his skill with a six-shooter. This was probably as close to not having to work as a man could get back in those days. Then Ben opened the Iron Foot Saloon in Austin. Don't ask. The people of Austin LOVED Ben Thompson, by the way. And that's the truth. The owner of a competing saloon, a man with money and friends, confronted Ben about "unfair competition." This confrontation occured in the other man's saloon. A person who didn't know any better might even say Ben provoked said confrontation. Rash words were said. A shotgun was drawn. Ben outdrew the shotgun and dropped the man before he could squeeze the trigger. A brawl ensued like the ones you see in bad Sam Peckinpaw movies with chairs being broken over heads and bar mirrors being shattered and whores being thrown through front windows out into the street. Except not in slow motion like Sam's bad movies. The barman came up with another shotgun and Ben shot him too. Things were getting out of hand when the police arrived. Ben was arrested and tried for murder. Acquitted. Self-defense, you see.

Ben got elected as the town marshal of Austin in 1880. Crime dropped.
Ben was finally killed down in San Antonio, a town where he wasn't as much loved as good old Austin. He went to confront a man named Foster - won't bore you with the history of the feud except to say Ben had killed the man's partner and the man wanted revenge. Not one to hide, Ben showed up in San Antonio and tried to meet this Foster feller. In a vaudeville theater. In a theater box just like Abraham Lincoln. Ben with his old friend, the notorious King Fisher. Foster with a whole lot of friendly hired assassins. Ben went down in the ensuing hail of lead, but such was his reputation, they still put three slugs in his head as he lay on the floor. Ben was 41. King Fisher was shot 13 times but still managed to get a dying shot off at one of the assailants. You need to read about the life of King Fisher too, if you like this sort of thing. There was once a sign near Fisher's ranch in rural Maverick County, Texas, that said simply, "This is King Fisher's Road. Take the other one."

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, well 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.
—Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Austin, within sight of the Texas Capitol

It is doubtful if in his time there was another man living who equalled him
with a pistol in a life-and-death situation. —Bat Masterson


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