As much as I love westerns, and especially the quintessential gunfight, it must be pointed out that very few of these actually happened in the history of the “Old West.” The subject of this post, Ben Thompson, however, breaks this rule as he was involved in several gunfights, and came out on the winning side of all but one of these. Gunfighter, lawman, gambler, and saloon owner, Ben Thompson was without a doubt a nineteenth century over-achiever, and while he was definitely a Lone Star original, his family roots were about as far from the Texas frontier as one could get.
Thompson was born in Knottingley, Yorkshire, England in 1843, and immigrated with his family to Austin, Texas in 1851. As a young boy, he worked in the printing industry in various capacities, though his most important education was gaining the skills to survive among the harsh elements of the Texas frontier, and as it turned out, he was a very quick study. He learned to use a gun at an early age, developing a temper that was as quick as his draw, and at fifteen, he wounded another boy who had made derogatory comments about his shooting ability. Young Ben also developed his own moral code, which occasionally prompted him to use his skills in the defense of others. While working for a bookbinder in New Orleans, he came to the aid of a woman who was being assaulted and killed her attacker in a knife fight.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Ben Thompson joined John Rip Ford’s Second Cavalry, eventually participating in the battles of Galveston Bay, where he was wounded, and the Confederate’s defeat at La Fourche Crossing, Louisiana. His promising career in the Confederate military came to an abrupt end in May of 1865, when he killed a teamster in Austin after an argument over an army mule. Thompson was arrested by the army, though he quickly broke jail and fled to Mexico. Always a firm believer that when God closes a door He opens a window, Ben joined the army of Emperor Maximilian and fought for him until the empire fell in 1867. With no options remaining in Mexico, Thompson returned to Texas, where he was once again arrested and sentenced to four year’s hard labor at the Penitentiary in Huntsville, though two years later his conviction was overturned by President Grant.
Hoping for a change in fortune, he left Texas and headed to Abilene, Kansas. His time in Kansas coincided with the heyday of the Texas cattle drives, and not being one to pass up on a good opportunity, Thompson opened a saloon with friend and fellow Civil War veteran, Phillip H. Coe in 1871. Thompson was later hurt in buggy accident that also injured his wife and child. While Ben was recuperating, his partner was killed in a gunfight with Abilene Marshal, Bill Hickok. The nature of the dispute is not clear, but with “Wild Bill,” it could have been anything from a serious violation of the law, to a minor disagreement over a hand of cards. Once again, circumstances turned against him, and by 1874, Thompson was back in Texas making his living as a gambler.
On Christmas day in 1876, Ben was at Austin’s Capital Theatre when a fight broke out. Thompson attempted to help one of the troublemakers, when he was fired on by theatre owner, Mark Wilson. Thompson fired back at Wilson, killing him, though he was found to have fired in self-defense. Since arriving in the United States, Ben had been forced to grow up fast, but he had displaced grit and courage, and he was able to hold his own against the most brutal characters that the west had to offer. His knack for survival, though, left little time for building wealth, or even a structured life for his family.
Always lured by the promise of easy money, the Leadville silver strike drew Thompson to Colorado in 1879. There he signed on with a group of gunmen led by “Bat” Masterson, who were fighting for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway in their right-of-way dispute with the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. With the money he received from the railroad, Ben was able to return to Austin and open another saloon, although any hope he may have had at finally settling down to enjoy a normal family life were soon to be doused permanently.
With a reputation as an honest and generous businessman, as well as a fast and deadly gun, Ben Thompson was twice elected as Austin City Marshal. In 1882, his main vocation of gambler interfered with his job as town marshal when he killed Jack Harris, the owner of the Vaudeville Theatre, during an argument over a game of cards. After once again winning an acquittal on a murder charge, Thompson returned to Austin to a heroes’ welcome.
His warm reception may have given Ben a sense of over confidence that trumped his own instinct for survival. On the evening of March 11, 1884, he walked into the Vaudeville Theatre with his friend John King Fisher, the Deputy Sheriff of Uvalde County. Within minutes of entering the theatre, both men were shot in the back and died instantly. While no one was ever charged in the assassination, most locals believed that partners of Jack Harris were behind it.
In what may be the highest praise a gunfighter could receive, Bat Masterson said of Ben Thompson, “It is doubtful if in his time there was another man living who equaled him in a life-and -death struggle.” I can’t improve upon Bat’s words, so I’ll just end by saying that Ben Thompson lived life on his own terms and by his own code and has given Texas something that all historians can appreciate, a collection of colorful stories to pass down to future generations.
Thank you for your readership and support. Until next time, saddle up, get out there, and enjoy all that the great state of Texas has to offer.
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