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Ben Thompson (November 2, 1843 - March 11, 1884) was a gunman, gambler, and sometimes lawman of the Old West. He was a contemporary of "Buffalo" Bill Cody, Bat Masterson, John Wesley Hardin and "Wild Bill" Hickock, some of whom considered him a friend, others an enemy. Thompson fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and for the emperor in Mexico. When hired in 1881 as marshal in Austin, Texas, the crime rate reportedly dropped sharply during his term. Thompson was murdered at the age of 40 in San Antonio, Texas during the "Vaudeville Theater Ambush".
Thompson was born in Knottingley, West Yorkshire, England November 2, 1843. The 1851 Knottingley census records that both Ben and his younger brother, Billy, were enrolled in school. Parents, William and Mary Ann [nee Baker] Thompson, along with the 8-year-old Ben and his siblings, 6-year-old William "Billy" and 4-year-old Mary Jane, boarded the ship "Granada" from Liverpool, England and arrived at New Orleans harbor on July 16, 1852. The family first traveled to Galveston, and then to Houston, before settling in Austin in late 1852.
Thompson worked for the Austin Rambler as a printer's assistant while still in his teens. However, once he discovered gambling, Thompson began traveling and earning a living as a professional gambler.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, Thompson enlisted in the Confederate States Army in San Antonio and became a private in the 2nd Regiment,Texas Mounted Rifles, Company H. His brother, Billy Thompson, joined the same regiment.
Jan 1-2, 1863, Thompson participated in the Battle of Galveston (when the U.S.S. Harriet Lane was captured). Thompson was wounded during the battle, and was treated for six weeks in a military hospital at Niblett's Bluff (located west of Vinton, Louisiana).
Later that same year, Thompson took part in the Battle of LaFourche Crossing (June 20, 1863), near Thibodaux, Louisiana. The two Thompson brothers "found themselves at night separated from the living and standing among the dead." After this battle, Thompson returned home to Austin. He re-enlisted in Company F in September 1863, and served the remainder of the war stationed along the banks of the Rio Grande.
Thompson's time in the service is most notable for his shooting of two fellow Confederate soldiers. On December 31, 1861, at Fort Clark, Thompson arrived late in collecting his rations of bacon and candles. Commissary sergeant, William "Billy" Vance, told him he didn't have any left (the sergeant had actually saved the rations for the camp laundress). Thompson went to Vance's tent and took the rations which were intended to go to the laundress. Twenty minutes later, Vance confronted him. Vance drew his six-shooter, but Thompson reacted and the two men simultaneously shot at each other at close range. Thompson's shot passed right through Vance, while Vance missed him entirely. Within seconds, Lt. George Hagler approached the scene, brandishing his sword and saying, "You murderer, I will cut you in two!" Fearing for his life, Thompson shot Hagler through the neck. Thompson surrendered to Captain Hamner, was thrown in the guardhouse and charged under the ninth article of war (to never inflict violence on a fellow officer). Hagler and Vance both recovered. Shortly after Thompson's death, Vance said he and Ben had gone on to become friends.
In 1868 Thompson had received word that his wife was being physically abused by her brother, Jim Moore. Soon after his return to Texas, he confronted Moore and severely injured him. Charged with attempted murder, Thompson, then 25 years old, was convicted and sentenced to 2 years in prison. He served time at Huntsville Prison, but eventually received a full pardon.
In 1870, Thompson left Texas for Abilene, Kansas, a boomtown due to the expanding cattle trade. In 1871, Thompson opened the "Bulls Head Saloon" in Abilene, with partner, Phil Coe. They had known one another for some time before Abilene. Their saloon prospered due to the many cattle drives that gave Abilene a steady stream of cowboys' passing through who were anxious to drink and gamble.
It was at the Bulls Head Saloon that Thompson and Coe made the acquaintance of John Wesley Hardin, and actively recruited him in an attempt to rid the town of Town Marshal "Wild" Bill Hickok. The two entrepreneurs had painted a picture of a bull with a large erect penis on the side of their establishment as a form of advertisement. Citizens of the town had complained to Hickok. When Thompson and Coe refused his request to remove the bull, Hickok had altered it himself. Infuriated, Thompson tried to incite Hardin by exclaiming to him: "He's a damn Yankee. Picks on rebels, especially Texans, to kill." Hardin, then under the assumed name of "Wesley Clemmons" (but better known to the townspeople by the alias, "Little Arkansas"), seemed to have had respect for Hickok's abilities, and replied, "If Wild Bill needs killin', why don't you kill him yourself?"
Soon afterward, Thompson was injured in a fall from a horse. While he was recuperating, Coe was involved in a fatal shootout with Hickok. Thompson never confronted Hickok over the shooting of Coe. Both men left Abilene soon afterward.
Thompson moved to Ellsworth, Kansas, which was also prospering as a cattle-oriented boomtown. Soon after, Thompson's younger brother, Billy, accidentally shot and killed Sheriff Chauncey Whitney. Whitney was standing near the two Thompson brothers, who were facing off against a local police officer, John "Happy Jack" Morco, and a gambler, John Sterling. The confrontation had developed over a gambling dispute. Whitney was a friend to both brothers, and numerous witnesses confirmed that Whitney stated before he died that the shooting was accidental.
Morco filed charges of assault against Ben Thompson the following day, due to Thompson's having fired in his direction prior to Whitney's being shot. Officer Ed Hogue arrested Ben Thompson. That same week, police officer Ed Crawford killed Thompson's friend, Cad Pierce, in an incident which Crawford reportedly provoked. Morco and Hogue ran another Thompson friend, Neil Cain, out of town. The town council dismissed all three officers: Morco, Hogue, and Crawford, for inappropriate behavior. Soon after, newly appointed police officer, J.C. "Charlie" Brown, killed Morco after he pulled a gun during a disturbance. Texas cowboy friends of Cad Pierce then killed Crawford, and Ed Hogue left town.
Billy Thompson fled Kansas, but eventually was returned to be tried in the death of Sheriff Whitney. The trial ended in an acquittal.
In 1875, Ben Thompson returned to Texas, staying at Fort Elliott, in the Panhandle. There he met and befriended Bat Masterson. When Masterson shot and killed a cavalry Corproal Melvin King in a dispute over a woman, Thompson stepped in to prevent other soldiers from attacking Masterson. After that incident, the Santa Fe Railroad hired both gunmen to intercede in a right-of-way dispute between that railroad and the Rio Grande Railroad.
After the railway "war" ended, Thompson went to Austin, where he opened the Iron Front Saloon. One of his competitors was the Capital Theater, owned and operated by Mark Wilson. On Christmas Eve, 1876, Thompson and friends were at the Capital Theater drinking, when a fight erupted involving other patrons. When Thompson tried to intervene, Wilson produced a shotgun and fired at Thompson but missed. Thompson killed Wilson. A bartender, Charley Matthews, fired a Winchester rifle and grazed Thompson's hip. Thompson returned fire, hitting Matthews. Though seriously wounded, Matthews survived. Thompson was not arrested, as the shooting was ruled justified self defense.
In June 1880, Ben Thompson asked Masterson to go to Oglalla, Nebraska (then "the end of the Texas Trail") to rescue his younger brother Billy, who was in trouble again as a result of a shootout. Masterson took the fugitive back to his brother in Dodge City.
In 1881, Thompson was hired by the city of Austin to serve as City Marshal. He reportedly did so well in the position that Austin had a drop in the crime rate.
In 1882, Thompson became involved in a dispute with Vaudeville Variety Theater owner Jack Harris in San Antonio. Thompson shot and killed Harris, who also was armed. Thompson was indicted for murder, and resigned his position as Marshal. He was tried and acquitted, after which he returned to Austin. He was welcomed by the citizens, but he did not return to his law enforcement job. One of the defense lawyers for Thompson was William M. Walton, who later wrote a biography, The Life and Adventures of Ben Thompson.
While on business in San Antonio, on March 11, 1884, Thompson ran into rancher, King Fisher. The two men, who had known one another for several years, decided to attend shows at the Turner Hall Opera House, and later at the Vaudeville Variety Theater. A local lawman, Jacob Coy, sat with them. Thompson wanted to see Joe Foster, a theater owner who had been a friend of Harris's. Thompson had already spoken to Billy Simms, another theater owner, and Foster's new partner. Fisher and Thompson were directed upstairs to meet with Foster. Coy and Simms also joined them in the theater box.
Foster refused to speak with Thompson. Fisher allegedly noticed that something was not right, when suddenly Simms and Coy stepped aside. As they did, a hail of bullets from an adjoining box hit Thompson and Fisher. Thompson fell onto his side, and either Coy or Foster ran up to him and shot him in the head with a pistol. Thompson died almost immediately. Fisher was shot thirteen times, but fired one round in retaliation, possibly wounding Coy, who was crippled for life. Trying to draw his pistol, Foster shot himself in the leg, which was later amputated. He died soon after the surgery.
The description of the events of that night are contradictory. There was an immediate public outcry for a grand jury indictment of those involved, but no action was ever taken. The San Antonio Police and the prosecutor showed little interest in the case.
Thompson's body was returned to Austin, where his funeral was one of the largest the city has ever seen. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Austin.
Thompson's will deeded all his property to his business partner. Among Thompson's gun collection was a custom made and engraved Stevens-Lord No. 36 target pistol, given to him as a gift from Buffalo Bill.
On January 13, 2007 Ben Thompson's roulette table was one of 550 western items sold at auction by A&S Antique Auction in Waco, Texas. The table had been on loan to the Texas Ranger Museum, by the founding curator Gaines de Graffenried. Tom Burks, the curator of the A&S Antique Auction, said that the table was used by Thompson in a gambling house he opened above the Iron Front Saloon located on Congress Avenue in Austin.
Thompson's character is played by Denver Pyle in seven episodes of the ABC television series, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, with Hugh O'Brian in the title role. In one episode "The Time for All Good Men" (June 4, 1957), the actor Mike Ragan played Clay Allison, who joins Thompson and John Wesley Hardin (Phillip Pine) in coming to Earp's aid in a shootout with the owner and foreman, respectively, of the Big T Ranch, Rance Purcell (Richard Devon) and Gus Andrews (Grant Withers). Walter Coy played Thompson in a single 1959 episode of the same series.