Benjamin “Ben” Thompson: The Old West’s Deadliest Gunfighter was an Englishman, Part 3

Benjamin “Ben” Thompson: The Old West’s Deadliest Gunfighter was an Englishman, Part 3

Friday, 15 February 2013

By Johnny Hughes.

In 1880, at the urging of many, Ben Thompson ran for Austin’s city marshal. The Austin Statesman endorsed him, saying, “He is well and favorably known to everyone in the city, and is in every way worthy of the confidence and support of the people.”

He lost the first time but was later elected to two terms. In his first campaign announcement, he wrote, "The difficulties of the independent life I have led were the result of an impulse to protect the weak from the strong.”

When the noted gunman, Johnny Ringo, was in Austin flashing a pistol, Ben walked up alone and arrested him. While he was marshal, the crime rate was the lowest in years, with no murders. Congress Avenue was especially quiet, because Ben was there playing poker, and might go for a stroll.

San Antonio was Austin’s rival and only four hours by train. In 1880, Ben went there and lost $4,000 at faro in the Vaudeville Theatre, owned by Irishman Jack Harris, with whom he had served in the Civil War. Ben grumbled and made some threats, but left. Unlike so many Old West gamblers, Ben was not a pimp. Harris was, and Ben badmouthed him for living from the soiled dove's sorrow. Later, Harris put out the word that Ben was barred from his gambling house. This made the newspapers. Ben was, after all, known for shooting up gambling joints, and killing an owner. Harris was a political and gambling boss with investments in several gambling houses. He was seen as one of San Antonio's most important, respected and admired community leaders.

Later, Ben did return to San Antonio and the Vaudeville Theater. Harris knew he was coming and hid behind a Venetian blind screen near the door with a shotgun. He planned to kill Ben and had said so. Ben saw him from outside through a window and went in. After words were exchanged, Ben fired through the screen and killed Harris. Ben was reputed to have had 14 gunfights, 11 in Texas, without a loss. He had faced shotguns and rifles successfully with his pistol. He never took unfair advantage, shot anyone in the back or committed murder, according to Bat Masterson.

The San Antonio newspapers hated Ben. The Austin papers loved him at first and endorsed him, but they eventually turned against him and called for his resignation as city marshal. There was a great deal of expensive legal manoeuvring and Ben spent six months in the San Antonio jail. The Austin City Council, at first, refused to accept his resignation.

Ben was finally acquitted of killing Harris. He arrived back in Austin to a hero's welcome. A group took the horse off his carriage and pulled it up Congress Avenue to the capitol building in a parade. The streets were lined with people cheering. They had an African-American brass band, local and state-elected officials and huge crowds.

Like my own father, Ben Thompson was very active with the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organisation that raises money for orphan children. The Knights and the children were there leading the parade.

However, Ben was very drunk during the following days and on several occasions he went out at night to shoot out streetlights. Austin was getting tired of this. He was arrested three times in March for discharging his pistol and once for invading the Statesmen offices and waving his pistol around.

One of the new owners of San Antonio’s Vaudeville Theater sent Ben an invitation to come back there. Ben said, “If I were to go into that place it would be my graveyard.” His premonition was precisely correct.

Ben ran into King Fisher, another noted Texas gunfighter. Having been on trial for killing four men and cattle-rustling, Fisher had faced six hung juries in a row. They let him go and he became a deputy sheriff. Ben and King took the train to San Antonio. They were drinking heavily. Ben bought a new hat. First they took in a play and then Ben wanted to go back to the Vaudeville Theater. There he exchanged a few words with the new owners and was directed upstairs to a theatre box to wait for the main owner. The theatre was crowded and dancers were performing on the stage. Ben Thompson and King Fisher were ambushed by as many as five people firing rifles and pistols from nearby theatre boxes. Ben was hit nine times, Fisher 13. Each of the new owners ran up and shot them in the head with a pistol. One of the assailants shot himself in the leg and later died. A rapid San Antonio inquest ruled self-defense, and newspapers state-wide let out a howl. Ben's death was a front-page story in the New York Times, and nearly every Texas newspaper.

Ben Thompson's funeral was one of the largest in Austin's history, with another parade, led by the Knights of Pythias in full uniforms, with orphans from the homes they funded. They put his top hat on the coffin. The funeral was held at the Pythian Lodge, like that of my own father. Ben had been married to the same woman for 20 years and had two children. He was buried in the Oakwood Cemetery.

Johnny Hughes is the author Texas Poker Wisdom and Famous Gamblers, Poker History, and Texas Stories. Both are available at Amazon.

Tags: Johnny Hughes, Columnist