OLD WEST GUNFIGHTER AND AUSTIN CITY MARSHALL
extremely unlikely that anyone born in the small industrial town of
Knottingley could claim to have had a more exciting or dramatic life as
Ben Thompson. Although he spent his early years in the town, both he and
his younger brother Billy, grew to manhood in the American Old West state
of Austin, Texas, far removed from the peaceful and settled lifestyle they
had left behind in England. Here were two young boys, introduced to
regular incursions from Native Americans and who, come their late teenage
years, were enduring the American Civil War. Much has been written about
the Thompson brothers exploits, often misleadingly so, and it is our
intention to offer you a more accurate account of two of the most famous
and highly respected characters of the Old West.
As a duellist,
Indian fighter, Confederate Cavalryman, mercenary, professional gambler,
hired gun and lawman, Ben’s fame grew as the newspapers of Texas
chronicled his eventful life. Their accounts describe his remarkable
ability with a pistol but also tell of his loyalty to his friends, his
honour, courage, refinement, generosity and intelligence. Wyatt Earp, Doc
Holliday, John Wesley Hardin, Buffalo Bill Cody, James Butler Hickok and
Bat Masterson were all well acquainted with Ben Thompson. Some of these
men called Thompson a friend, others considered him a deadly enemy but
none of their names commanded more respect or recognition than his during
the post Civil War years in America’s Wild West. It was Masterson who
doubtful if in his time there was another man living who equalled him
a pistol in a life-and-death struggle"
was born on November 2, 1843 at 4.35am in Knottingley, Yorkshire. The town
is located on the banks of the River Aire and for many years Knottingley
had been the highest navigable point on the river and had developed into
an important inland port. Ben was the eldest of five children to William
Thompson and Mary Ann (nee Baker) who were married on October 21, 1840 at
St. Giles Church, Pontefract. Ben’s younger brother William (Billy) was
born on 28th August 1845 and eldest sister Mary Jane was born in
Knottingley on 3rd March 1848. A second sister, Sarah Ann was born in 1850
but died in infancy while the fifth and final child, Frances, was born
into the Thompson family in Austin, Texas on 21st March 1858. At the time
of Ben’s birth, life expectancy in England was 41 years for males and 43
years for females.
of the Birth Certificates for Ben, Billy and Mary Jane Thompson
grandparents, William Thompson and Mary (nee Parker) were owners or part
owners of eight different sloop rigged sailing ships that operated mainly
around the east coast of Britain, along the river estuaries and
occasionally across the channel, mainly to France. A former mariner
himself, William had retired early from the sea to take a grocery store at
Shepherd’s Bridge in Knottingley but retained an interest in the
maritime trade and invested heavily into Knottingley’s principal
occupation of mariner had been a long-standing tradition within the
Thompson family household and the Industrial Revolution circa 1760-1840,
brought with it a great demand for coal. This required the use of every
available ship for transportation and consequently many men were provided
with year-round employment instead of the more common seasonal work
associated with many other occupations. However, accidents at sea were a
common occurrence, sometimes entire families were lost without trace and
often children were left orphaned. It is a tribute to William and Mary
that they yearned a better life for their children.
William Thompson, also the eldest of five children, nevertheless pursued a
successful maritime career, rising through the ranks of master mariner,
captain and eventually sole owner of his own ship. He first went to sea as
a young boy in 1831 and served eight months in the Royal Navy. With the
death of his father on 7 September 1845, it is evident that under the
terms of his father’s will there was concern within the household as to
the conduct of the eldest son. It may imply that Ben’s father was either
a gambler or heavy drinker; in any event it is clear that his father did
not have complete trust in him where money was concerned.
provisions of the will, dated 27 December 1843 and valued at £1,000
my son William Thompson the yearly sum of Twenty Pounds, for and during
the life of my said wife Mary Thompson, by quarterly payments providing he
conducts himself in a decent and becoming manner towards her, and does no
act to annoy her in any manner, and does not make away, assign or
anticipate the said Annuity, but in case my son William Thompson shall do
any act to annoy, trouble or inconvenience my said wife, or shall make
away, assign or anticipate the said Annuity, then my will and mind is that
the said Annuity shall cease, and be no longer payable, and shall sink
into and be considered as part of my personal estate."
declared that after the death of his wife Mary, his estate should be sold
and divided equally between his four sons. William’s share was to be
paid within six months of the death of his wife if convenient, but if not,
after the expiration of twelve months. Shares in the trust money
bequeathed to the three younger sons had to be paid on them respectively
attaining the age of twenty-seven years.
died on 22 December 1849 and the provisions of her will dated 9 May 1849
as soon as my said son Samuel Thompson shall have attained twenty-one
years, then I direct the said trustees to stand possessed of the residue
or remaining part of the said trust monies… for the use and benefit of
my said sons William Thompson, Benjamin Parker Thompson, John Thompson and
Samuel Thompson, equally to be divided among them share and share alike…"
At the end of
1849, William Thompson purchased all 64 shares in a fine two-masted
schooner ‘Providence’ constructed by William Hobkirk at Whitby in
1843. Presumably he had at this time inherited his share under the terms
of his fathers will. He was appointed master at Southampton on 29 November
1849 and in the first six months of 1850 undertook the following voyages:
|1 Dec 1849
||19 Dec 1849
|30 Dec 1849
||11 Jan 1850
||8 Feb 1850
||4 Mar 1850
||15 Mar 1850
||2 May 1850
||21 Jun 1850
||22 Jul 1850
Whilst in Le
Havre a deposition No. 114 dated 29 June 1850 was made before the Vice
to certify that William Thompson master of the ship ‘Providence’ of
Goole being unable from illness to return with his vessel to Liverpool has
entrusted the command of the said ship to [William Tully?] who has duly
agreed to the present articles in such capacity"
Consul, Havre Signed. William Jones, Vice-Consul
On 13 March
1851, William Thompson sold all his interest in the ship ’Providence’,
32 shares to John Howard and 32 shares to Thomas Lee. These two gentlemen,
executors of the will of his mother Mary, were obviously close family
friends. It is possible, due to the impending plans of William and his
family, that the vessel was purchased from him as a favour rather than as
a form of investment, the ship being sold once again within the space of
In the late
spring of 1851, William and Mary Ann Thompson emigrated to Texas and
settled near the Colorado River in Austin, Travis County, along with their
children Ben, William and Mary Jane. Mary Ann’s brother William Baker
and his wife Matilda had emigrated to Texas fifteen or so years earlier
and this must have contributed to the Thompson’s decision to relocate in
Texas. It is likely that ill health on the part of William was also a
deciding factor in view of the events during the summer of 1850, the
possibility of a better climate may well have been an inviting idea. Some
people believe that the gradual decline in the mariner’s trade in
Knottingley had led William Thompson to seek new opportunities along the
Colorado River but there was very little work available. The river had too
many sand banks and was not navigable from Austin to the Gulf Coast.
William himself may well have found it difficult to adapt in the frontier
town of Austin where there were few educated men to visit with. With no
gainful employment he managed only to maintain a bare existence by fishing
in the river while Mary took in sewing and probably contributed more to
the family income than he did.
the Thompson’s arrival in Texas, tragedy was to strike the family when
and Matilda Baker were murdered. The Baker’s and their six
children lived on farmland about 15 miles from where the Thompson family
had settled and on the morning of Friday July 11 1851 both parents were
mortally wounded attempting to apprehend a runaway Negro slave. It was
left to the elder Baker sister, Ann, who married shortly after her parent’s
were killed, to raise the orphaned children. The guardianship papers
relate that Ann’s husband, who was the guardian of the children, paid
Mary Ann Thompson to make clothes for them. The deaths of William and
Matilda would undoubtedly have been a tragic blow to the Thompson’s,
leaving them alone in a new and unfamiliar land and without the support of
the Baker’s knowledge and experience.
At the time
of the Thompson’s arrival in Texas, William Walton, a close family
friend and Ben's biographer, described Austin as
small village with just a few thousand inhabitants - a frontier town.
Indeed the whole country to the west of Austin, divided by a line north
and south, was a frontier...into which the Indians made frequent
incursions and often killed men, women and children, and drove the stock
away. The wild Comanches were the inveterate enemies of the white people;
fearless, daring, savage Indians, nature educating them to steal property,
torture victims and scorn death...They were inspired with the traditional
belief that the whites were trespassers on their hunting grounds."
adolescent, Ben worked for various Austin newspapers eventually learning
the printers trade. When Ben was aged about 13, it is said that his father
returned to his maritime career leaving him and his brother Billy with the
task of supporting their mother and two sisters. The details surrounding
the departure of Ben’s father are not clear and can only be assumed from
the few details that are known.
with the terms of his mothers will, William Thompson would have become
eligible for his inheritance from the residue of her estate in 1859.
Family history recalls that he did indeed return to England circa. 1859 to
conclude some business with the courts and was persuaded to purchase a
ship. It is said that he made several voyages between Liverpool and
Pensecola, Florida before contracting Yellow Fever and was lost at sea
although no records have been uncovered to confirm this. The 1860 Census
returns in America however, show William Thompson at home in Austin at
which time he is described as a mariner.
before his fifteenth birthday, Ben had his first shooting scrape. He ended
an argument about his shooting ability by peppering the backside of
another youth with a shotgun blast causing a painful though not too
serious wound. He was sentenced to serve sixty days but freed on March 12,
1859 when the Governor H.R. Runnels ordered his release.
New Orleans to work for a former Austin bookbinder, Ben observed a
Frenchman making rude and unwelcome advances towards an unescorted young
lady. Intervening on her behalf he reputedly killed the man in a
subsequent knife duel. On his return to Austin in the summer of 1860, he
enlisted in the ranger battalion of veteran Indian fighter Captain Edward
Burleson Jr. He served with Samuel "Buckskin Sam" Hall, a future
Dime Novelist who’s adventure stories set in Texas often included Ben
and his brother, William "Billy" Thompson. With
this brief taste of fighting he forgot all about the printer's trade,
events in Texas at this time were becoming far too exciting a nature for a
young man of his temperament to stay in such a peaceful employment.
On June 16
1861, the day after an Austin newspaper announced the fall of Fort Sumter
in South Carolina which signalled the onset of the American Civil War, Ben
Thompson enlisted in the Confederate Second Regiment Texas Mounted Rifles
under the command of legendary Colonel John 'Rip' Ford. Ben would see
action at the Battle of Galveston on January 1 1863, where he was wounded,
and in Louisiana at La Fourche Crossings on June 20-21 1863. On November
26 1863, Thompson returned home to marry Catherine L. Moore, the eldest
daughter of Martin Moore, a successful Austin merchant and substantial
landowner. Ben remained in the Confederate military until its final
occupied Texas in the summer of 1865 and prior to the arrival of Federal
troops, Ben shot and fatally wounded a man who had threatened him with a
shotgun. He was placed under arrest and held without bail by the Federal
military. During his time spent in confinement, Ben's wife and mother
visited him regularly, bringing him food, clothing and news from the
outside world. He learned that Imperial agents had moved into Texas
seeking recruits to fight in Mexico for Emperor Maximilian.
of imprisonment and with no immediate hope of release, Ben decided to plan
an escape. He was able to bribe two sergeants who allowed him to secretly
leave the jail late at night to visit his family and prepare for a
prolonged stay in Mexico. Ben's plan was to join Mejia's garrison at
Matamoros where he was to accept an officer's commission. On October 22,
Ben, together with the two sergeants and five other deserters, slipped out
of Austin and headed for Mexico. For the next two years he fought for and
faithfully served Maximilian until the fall of the empire in May 1867.
Emperor Maximilian was captured, tried for treason and executed. Ben was
lucky to escape from the Mexicans with his life and he eventually returned
home to his family in Austin, Texas.
Ben found himself in trouble with the Federal military. On or around the
2nd September 1868, he was arrested for shooting and wounding his
brother-in-law James Moore after Moore had struck Ben's pregnant wife with
a gun, knocking her to the ground. Moore's wound was intentionally slight,
Ben had no intention of killing the man, however, Thompson was convicted
of assault with the intent to commit murder by a Federal military
tribunal. On October 20, 1868, he was sentenced to four years hard labour
to be served in the state penitentiary at Huntsville.
While Ben was
in prison, his wife Catherine gave birth to a son, Benjamin, in 1869. It
was later deemed that Ben had been tried illegally by a military tribunal
and he received a presidential pardon from Ulysses. S. Grant and released
after serving only two years of his sentence. He returned to his family
and commenced the life of a professional gambler.
By the 1870's
the era of the Texas cattle drives to Kansas began to mature into a major
industry. Ben had heard of the financial opportunities available in the
small Kansas towns that served as the railroad shipping points for the
eastbound trains. He began a long time habit of running games of chance in
the Kansas cow town's during the summer while wintering in Austin. His
first stop in Kansas was Abilene. In the summer of 1871, he opened a
gambling hall above the Iron Front Saloon on Congress Avenue in
partnership with his Civil War friend Phil Coe. The venture was reported
to be hugely successful.
his wife and young son very much, arranged to meet them in Kansas City,
Missouri. The meeting was to end in tragedy when all three were injured
when the buggy they were riding in overturned. Ben suffered a broken leg,
his wife's arm was broken and his young son's foot was crushed.
Catherine's injury was by far the most serious and Ben had to stand by and
watch as his pregnant wife underwent the horror of having her arm
amputated. The Thompson family remained in a Kansas City Hotel
convalescing for many weeks before they were fit enough to make the
Ben's year of
misfortune was to take a further turn when, travelling home in slow
stages, they met on the road an Austin resident returning from Kansas. His
name was Bud Cotton and in his charge was the body of Ben's business
partner, Phil Coe. Ben was told how Phil Coe had been shot during a street
fight with Abilene City Marshall J. B. (Wild Bill) Hickok and died several
year of 1871 had been cruel and tragic, luck eventually shone once again
on Ben when on December 12, 1871, Catherine gave birth to a healthy
daughter whom they named Kate.
In June 1873,
Ben and Billy went to Ellsworth, Kansas where they established themselves
as house gamblers in an Ellsworth saloon, but it was not long before they
found themselves in trouble with the law again. After another gambling
dispute, an unarmed Ben Thompson was threatened by two men after a
disagreement began over the settlement of profits from a card game. A
drunken Billy, coming to the aid of his brother, accidentally shot and
killed Sheriff Chauncey B. Whitney. Whitney was a popular officer and a
friend of the Thompson brothers. Unarmed, he had intervened to prevent
bloodshed between the arguing parties. Ben, with the help of some other
Texans, assisted Billy's escape into the countryside from an outraged
populace. Three and a half years later, Billy Thompson was arrested on a
ranch outside Austin and extradited back to Kansas to face a charge of
murder. After a lengthy trial, he was acquitted by an Ellsworth jury.
the remainder of the decade, other Kansas cattle towns such as Wichita and
Dodge City would learn of Ben Thompson and his Monte cards. The mining
boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, received several visits from Thompson in
1879. During one of his trips to Colorado in June of that year, Thompson
joined a gang of gunmen including W. B 'Bat' Masterson and J. H. 'Doc'
Holliday, who had been hired to protect the property of the Santa Fe
Railroad. The Santa Fe Railroad was embroiled in a right-of-way dispute
with the competing Denver and Rio Grande for control of the vital Royal
George passage. Reportedly, Thompson was well paid for his services as a
hired gun and upon his return to Austin he acquired the concession to
operate the Faro Tables above the Iron Front Saloon, Congress Avenue.
himself, Ben Thompson was extremely popular in Austin and well known for
his loyalty, honesty and generosity. Over the years, at times a heavy
drinker, he would often amuse himself by shooting out streetlights and
using signs for target practice late at night. Many of the city's citizens
forgave him and he was repeatedly elected an officer of a volunteer fire
company whom he represented at the Galveston Firemen Convention in 1878.
1879, Ben befriended William 'Buffalo Bill' Cody when Cody's acting troupe
arrived in Austin. They engaged in a series of shooting contests where
Cody used a rifle while Thompson demonstrated his ability with a six
shooter, establishing himself as one of the finest pistol shots in Texas.
In 1879, in
an effort to gain social acceptance, he announced his candidacy for City
Marshall of Austin, and although he lost the first election, he was
elected on the following two occasions. During his term as City Marshall
from 1880-1881, he was widely acknowledged to be one of the best officers
the city had ever had. He did not rely on the police officers under his
command to make arrests, preferring to take an active part himself.
Thompson arrested the deadly John Ringo, infamous for his participation in
the bloody Mason County Feud, after he had threatened several men with a
In June 1882,
Ben joined Mt. Bonnell Lodge No.34, Knights of Pythias, an order dedicated
to the cause of universal peace. Although he did not serve in any of the
offices he evidently attended meetings on a fairly regular basis, being a
popular member right up to the time of his death.
Ben proved to
be a worthy lawman but his own personal code of honour made him ill suited
to wearing the Marshall's badge. In 1880 while visiting San Antonio,
Thompson had become embroiled in a gamblers feud with Jack Harris and the
other owners of the notorious Vaudeville Theatre. The feud simmered for
two years until Thompson, tired of hearing of Harris' continuous threats,
shot and killed him on July 11, 1882. Armed with a shotgun, Harris proved
too slow for Thompson's pistol and the sensational murder trial that
followed was headline news throughout Texas. By the time that a San
Antonio jury had returned a verdict of not guilty, Austin had already
accepted Ben's resignation and elected a new City Marshall.
returned to a hero's welcome in Austin but within a year’s time his
drinking bouts had become more frequent and his late night pistol antics
more annoying and dangerous and sentiment within the city gradually turned
against him. While Ben was sober there was not a kinder or friendlier man
around, but the prolonged and heavy bouts of drinking which characterised
the last four years of his life, earned him the reputation of being a
troublesome character. Unfortunately, many accounts of Ben still portray
him with the reputation he earned himself during his later years with
total disregard to his previous behaviour.
On March 11,
1884, Ben surprisingly agreed to return to the Vaudeville Theatre
accompanied by John King Fisher, a noted gunman from the Nences River
valley. Fisher had friends among Thompson's enemies at the Vaudeville and
perhaps he had offered to mediate reconciliation. However, word of their
arrival in the Alamo City raced ahead of them and within minutes of
entering the theatre, both Thompson and Fisher lay dead on the floor.
assembled coroner’s jury found the homicide's justifiable. The man who
had never given his adversary the death shot in the back, was not himself
treated so kindly. A later autopsy performed by two prominent Austin
physicians proved beyond any doubt that Ben Thompson had been shot down
gave him a monumental farewell, sixty-two carriages making up the cortege.
He was laid to rest in Austin's Oakwood Cemetery on Thursday March 13,
1884. His wife, two children, his brother Billy and two sisters, all
survived Ben Thompson. His wife Catherine remarried and moved to Paris,
Texas. The date of her death and burial place remains unknown. His son,
Benjamin, died in 1893 and his brother Billy died from natural causes in
1897. Ben's daughter Kate received a college education and was raised to
adulthood by his sister, Mrs. Mary Jane Thompson Gill of Bastrop.
Ben Thompson's headstone in Oakwood Cemetery, Austin.
He is buried between two of his infant children who died shortly after their birth.
extract of a letter from one of Ben Thompson's admirers in America.
It is a
mystery that Ben Thompson is not a famous figure in the stories of the Old
West. Hardly anyone outside collectors of Western literature has ever
heard of him. This is true even in Austin. I believe that part of this is
due to the fact that his son appeared to be embarrassed by his father's
reputation as a killer and a notorious drinker. He refused to talk about
his father. America has been enthralled by the stories of many of
the Old West Gunfighters who would never have stood a chance against Ben
During his life, and because of his reputation, Ben Thompson was
interviewed by a reporter from the New York Sun and the following extract
is what he had to say;
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, why 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.
The following was Ben
Thompson's announcement for candidacy to the office of City Marshall of
Austin, Texas which appeared in the Statesman
To the Good
People of Austin
A number of
our leading citizens have convinced me to become a candidate for the
office of City Marshall. I can truthfully say that the difficulties of the
independent life I have led were the result of an impulse to protect the
weak from the aggressions of the strong. I am thoroughly acquainted with
the characters of Austin and her citizens, and I propose to restore honest
law enforcement to our streets. If honoured with election to this
important post, my whole time and attention will be devoted to official
duties, and no law-abiding member of our community shall regret the
choice. Upon these terms I invoke the support of all my fellow citizens.
Your obedient servant
extract, giving an insight into the mind of Ben Thompson, is reproduced
from an article appearing on one of the many Internet sites providing
information about Old West Gunfighters.
was a remarkable man in many ways, and it is very doubtful if in his
lifetime there was another man living who equalled him with the pistol in a
life and death struggle. Thompson in the first place possessed a much
higher order of intelligence than the average 'gunfighter' or 'man-killer'
of his time. He was more resourceful and a better general under trying
conditions than any of that great army of desperate men who flourished on
our frontier thirty years ago. He was absolutely without fear and his
nerves were those of the finest steel. He shot at an adversary with the
same precision and deliberation that he shot at a target. He was a past
master in the use of the pistol and his aim was as true as his nerves were
strong and steady. He had during his career more deadly encounters with
the pistol than any man living and won out in every single instance. The
very name of Ben Thompson was enough to cause the general 'man-killers',
even those who had never seen him, to seek safety in instant flight.
Thompson killed many men during his career, but always in an open and
manly way. He scorned the man who was known to have committed murder, and
looked with contempt on the man who sought for unfair advantages in a
fight. The men he shot and killed were without exception men who had tried
to kill him, and an unarmed man or one who was known to be a non-combatant
was far safer in his company than he would be right here on Broadway at
this time. He was what could be properly termed a thoroughly game man, and
like all men of that sort never committed murder.
Excerpt from: Gunfighters of the Western Frontier,1999, Proofmark.
Life and Adventures of Ben Thompson ; The Famous Texan.
William Walton, 1884.
Author: Matt Braun
Published by St. Martin's Press
Matt Braun, the author of 'Deathwalk', has very
kindly allowed us permission to reproduce the first chapter of his book
which concentrates on a brief period in 1881 when Ben Thompson was elected City
Marshall of Austin and the repercussions it had on Ben's personal life. Deathwalk - Chapter One
[Historic People Index]