Proper Sort of a Person to be Marshal
The Notorious Ben Thompson Becomes
A Peace Officer
Friday March 14, 1884 a reporter for the Austin Statesman commented in an
article describing Ben Thompson’s funeral, "he has been a leading
character in the Texas drama for the last thirty years." Allowing for
a certain hyperbole, the portrait is essentially just. From the age of
fourteen, when he first fired a gun at another, until his violent death,
Thompson’s wild, reckless career lasted slightly less than twenty-six
years. During that time he was a Texas Ranger, Confederate cavalryman, a
hired gun for the Santa Fe Railroad and a mercenary for Maximilian, the
doomed Emperor of Mexico. Ben Thompson was also a sporting man and from
his hometown of Austin, Texas - where he ran the games of chance above the
Iron Front Saloon - he gambled in virtually every metropolis and boomtown
in Texas. The Kansas cattle towns and Colorado mining camps also saw
Thompson and his Monte cards and except for one notable period in his life
he never varied long from living the hazardous life of a professional
gambler. That one exception was when he tried to establish himself in a
respectable profession and spent eighteen months as the top lawman in the
capitol city of Texas.
M. Walton, a long-time resident of Austin, friend and lawyer who often
represented Thompson and his first biographer, lauded Ben Thompson's time
wearing a badge. Walton claimed:
"In his uniform of office he was one of the … best-behaved men in the city. [He] compel[ed] order, by quiet, determined measures…His known nerve, his own innate sense of what was right…his …recognition of the dividing line between the lawful and the unlawful …caused… during his term of office [that] no city was so free as Austin from the thousand annoyances that are so common to all cities… of 10,000 inhabitants. ...No man can say that Thompson as city marshal received wrong at his hands...at all hours of the day, in every moment of night, he was present wherever duty called or necessity required, to give protection and to prevent wrong ...while Thompson was city marshal, there was not a murder, not an assault to kill in the limits of the city; and as now remembered, not a solitary burglary, a single theft…that was not detected, promptly brought to light and punished. This is no eulogy; it is not flattery, but the simple expression of truth, that all who know the facts will readily affirm."
purpose of this essay is to examine the facts available through surviving
police records and newspaper reports and see if they "will readily
affirm" Walton’s "simple expression of truth." Let us
peer back one hundred and twenty years and take a look at Ben Thompson’s
career as city marshal of Austin.
1850 Texas held a statewide election to determine the site of its capitol
for the next twenty years. Austin, the temporary capitol, campaigned hard
and was selected over four other competitors. One year later, the Austin
city council decided they needed a full-time lawman and the city’s first
marshal was placed in office. This was also the same year that
seven-year-old Ben Thompson, accompanying his parents, William and Mary
Ann, younger brother William and sister Mary Jane, arrived in town. The
Thompson family must have found the capitol city of Texas a very
unimposing sight. It was only a tiny hamlet spread out over a few dozen
muddy acres and was populated by less than nine hundred inhabitants,
slaves included. Lining up most of unpaved Congress Avenue, the city’s
main boulevard, were empty lots. Many choice corner locations were
available for a mere $16. A few brick buildings did exist but most
structures were log cabins, huts or dwellings comprised of roughhewn
were few and of a simple and inexpensive nature. Dance parties were
frequently held, and for the men, horse racing and hunting were two
favorite recreations. Men also enjoyed patronizing the many bar-rooms
spread throughout the town. The consumption of alcohol was so widespread
that the city council was eventually compelled to pass a law forbidding
police officers from drinking while on duty.
Austin boomed in the early 1850s, the population increased to more than
3,500 inhabitants. The city marshal and his handful of officers were soon
overwhelmed and unable to strictly enforce the town's statutes. In
response a volunteer city watch was established. Still, law enforcement
was weak and in the fall of 1854 and again two years later, more than
thirty of Austin's most respected and prominent citizens, including many
elected officials, formed a vigilance committee. Contrary to custom the
vigilantes did not hide their identities and two of Austin’s leading
newspapers freely published the names of the vigilantes and reported
accounts of their meetings.
Civil War brought a high demand for young men to enlist in the Confederate
Army and many who did went east to fight. When the war ended they returned
to find Federal troops and military rule. Union soldiers assumed many
civil functions and law enforcement was the primary one. Still, in the
summer of 1866, local officials were again calling for volunteers to help
police the city. The policies of Reconstruction did more than allow
soldiers to arrest and try civilians. The South's social order was being
forced to change, and in Austin the city police force contained two black
officers. By 1871, their pay, like their white counterparts, was $65.00
Federal rule finally ended in Texas, Austin began to govern itself and the
city council approved a new charter. The marshal's new duties were
strictly spelled out; he was now required to make at least two rounds of
the city daily, and after midnight to check at least once on all of the
officers walking their beats. The charter also increased police
responsibilities beyond crime prevention. The city marshal was placed in
charge of bridges, streets, and alleys, with orders to keep them clean and
in good condition. The police were ordered to keep the water cisterns
placed throughout the city full in case of fire and to prevent horses from
drinking out of them. Even though the council established a city health
physician, it became the duty of the city marshal to enforce all health
and sanitary regulations.
the 1870s the Austin city council kept busy passing all kinds of new laws
and ordinances. It became unlawful to carry a pistol, bowie knife, dirk,
sword-canes and brass knuckles. They even felt the need to prohibit
sling-shots and spears. On Sunday horseracing was banned, no parades were
allowed and the playing of base-ball was unlawful between the hours of
9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. It was a misdemeanor to beat a drum, harm birds,
or participate in prize fighting either as a sponsor or a contestant.
Except where designated by law, swimming or bathing in the Colorado River,
which flows through Austin, was punishable by a fine. The police were even
ordered to arrest anyone who fished by using a net or trap. Only fishing
with a pole and line was deemed legal. The leash law included more than
just dogs and a long list of animals were required to be kept under strict
control including goats, sheep, mules and horses, however, milk cows were
exempt. Cattle droves were no longer permitted on Congress Avenue or
fashionable Pecan Street unless you had an adequate number of herders to
was a law against running a fandango house. This was a weak attempt by
elected officials to pacify a group of homeowners trying to prevent
Austin's first ward from becoming a concentrated vice district. On the eve
of the Civil War, Austin did not contain a single house of ill-fame. Ten
years later several bawdy houses openly existed and the demand for easy
female companionship was increasing, largely due to the Federal garrison
stationed in Austin during Reconstruction. State legislators, cowboys, and
visiting businessmen continued to provide the damsels of the first ward
with an eager clientele long after the soldiers left.
Kelley, Blanche Dumont and Sallie Daggett owned the best-known brothels.
The nefarious Charles Cunio, an Italian immigrant, mistakenly nicknamed
"Mexican Charlie," opened a combination grocery store and saloon
in the first ward and was soon holding nightly fandangos. In attendance
was a contingent of what the newspapers called "nymphs du pave"
and outraged neighbors living near Cunio's place complained to the city
council prompting the previously mentioned ordinance.
to stop the growth of vice in the first ward never had a chance as the
mayor and several aldermen were renting property in the district to known
members of the demimonde. Fandangos may have been restricted, however, the
city council readily approved many new liquor licenses. Before long dozens
of new saloons and gambling dens were spreading throughout the first ward
and the immediate vicinity. For many years, Austin newspapers reported the
numerous antics occurring in the vice-district they alternately called the
"jungles," the "precincts of Mexico" and eventually
"Guytown." Occasionally city officials took steps to curtail
vice but mostly they condoned the lively side of town. O. Henry, a
resident of Austin during the heyday of Guytown, left this assessment of
the first ward: "loafing, gambling, fighting and drinking has invaded
this Arcadian spot. Let us pass some more laws against this kind of thing,
and then let it go on as usual."
March 1875, the county authorized the replacement of the old first ward
courthouse and jail with a new facility to be constructed on the corner of
Congress Avenue and Eleventh Street. Thirty-four year old Edward Creary
was the city marshal then. A former saloon-man, Marshal Creary was a
popular officer and an efficient administrator who left patrolling the
streets and the making of arrests to the officers under his command. In
1877, he was easily re-elected.
elections were again scheduled to take place in November 1879. A few weeks
prior, the major political parties held meetings and selected their
candidates. The Republican Party was on a decline in Austin and Edward
Creary, the incumbent, declared himself a candidate for the office of city
marshal running as an Independent. On October 23, Austin's Democratic
Party gathered at the county courthouse and selected their ticket. In a
surprise move, Ben Thompson was chosen as the party's candidate for the
office of city marshal.
the minds of many, his lifestyle as a hard drinking professional gambler,
with a reputation as a killing gentleman, made Ben Thompson unsuitable for
public office. However, Thompson was a very complex individual and there
was another side of his personality that made him a most elusive study in
1879, Thompson was thirty-six years old and head of a family, which
included ten year-old Benjamin Jr., eight year-old daughter Katie and
Katherine, his wife of sixteen years. His children attended a formal
school and the Thompson home was in a quiet neighborhood well away from
the first ward. Ben's elderly mother lived with him and he cared for her
until she passed away. He was always impeccably dressed, his manners were
most gentlemanly and his generosity to the unfortunate was well known. He
was extremely loyal and had a multitude of friends, many of whom were
among the best citizens of Austin. The wild life he led made him one of
the best-known men in Texas and when he was behaving himself, he was very
popular in his hometown.
the November 3rd election Thompson secured an impressive number of votes:
however, incumbent Ed Creary easily won, gaining a majority in all ten
wards of the city and defeating Thompson 1,174 votes to 744.
following September, with a year left on his term as city marshal, Creary
announced his candidacy for the more important office of Travis county
sheriff. Prior to the county elections, Creary resigned and Ben Thompson
announced his desire to fill the remaining year of Creary’s term.
December 5, 1880 the Austin Statesman commented on Thompson's candidacy:
"Mr. Thompson is well-known to the people of Austin. He is known especially as a man without fear, and there are very many here who regard him as the proper sort of a person to be marshal of a city like this one. They say his life may appear as a reckless one, but that his disposition is and always has been to act honorably to all men and that they would pledge themselves that he would make a model peace officer. Mr. Thompson has lately bought a most beautiful home in the northern portion of the city, and he expresses a desire to serve the public in an honorable capacity, and says he will do so if elected, and it is known that his word is an excellent bond."
Friday, December 17th, the day of the election, Ben Thompson published a
number of small statements seeking the support of voters. In one he
promised the voters: "If you elect me city marshal to-day I promise
that by no action of mine shall you ever regret your choice." A
majority of voters believed he was the man for the job and he was swept
into office receiving 56% of the votes cast. The day after the election
the city council canvassed the popular vote and officially declared Ben
Thompson city marshal of Austin.
morning, December 19th found Ben Thompson quite ill. Members of the Hope
Hook and Ladder Fire Company, accompanied by a large number of citizens
and several bands serenaded him at his home the night before and his
victory celebration was most likely the cause of his short-lived illness.
The Statesman confidently stated, "as soon as he recovers he will
the time of Thompson's election, Austin was no longer the little town on
the edge of a vast and violent frontier that he had first laid eyes upon
almost three decades before. In 1871, the Houston & Texas Central
Railway arrived and Austin was finally connected by rail to virtually
every major city in the eastern portion of the state. Five years later a
second major railroad reached Austin and the town’s population doubled.
The 1880 Federal census enumerators counted 10,973 people living in
Austin. During the booming 1870s, so many new structures had gone up that
houses and businesses finally had to have street numbers. Water was being
pumped from the Colorado River to pipe mains and fire hydrants servicing
every area of the city and allowing newer homes to install a newfangled
luxury: indoor plumbing.
gas lamps lit up the city's main thoroughfares and a new company was
formed to look into providing electric light. One of the first to enjoy
telephone service was Marshal Thompson: his home was connected to police
headquarters. A world-class opera house entertained residents and a
city-run hospital cared for the sick. The city budget paid for a board of
health comprising six physicians and provided money to the county to help
fund a welfare system for the indigent.
most municipalities, then and now, officials outspent the tax revenues. In
1881, total police department expenses exceeded $12,000 and were almost
double that of the fire department, and represented a full 20% of the
entire city budget. The city marshal’s annual salary of $1,800 gave
evidence to the importance of the position it commanded. Out of all of the
city officials only the mayor, earning $2,000 per year, was salaried more.
Edward Creary before him, Thompson was faced with more than just
patrolling the streets, ferreting out criminals and making arrests. Ben
Thompson found himself managing an important city department struggling to
perform within tightening budget constraints. In accordance with local
ordinance, he was responsible for holding public sales of unclaimed
property and for renting out the butcher and vegetable vendor stalls at
the city-owned market. Offenders convicted of misdemeanors and unable to
pay off their fines in cash found themselves working on the marshal’s
chain gang, cleaning and maintaining the city's streets and alleyways. His
monthly report submitted to the city council listed exactly how many
arrests his officers made and each arrest was itemized along with the
amount of fines collected or worked off. His report was frequently
published in the Austin Statesman for every citizen to scrutinize.
city marshal also had a social function to perform. At times Thompson
attended church services with his officers and he was always in evidence
at the holiday picnics such as San Jacinto Day (April 21) and the Fourth
of July. Many times Marshal Thompson represented the city as part of an
official welcoming committee for visiting dignitaries and he took great
care in decorating his office with so many curiosities that the Statesman
reported his office "a perfect museum and art gallery." Among
his collection was an enormous rattlesnake skin stretching 66 inches long.
He also kept a powerful field glass on hand and cordially extended an
invitation to any and all visitors to stop by and use it to enjoy a view
of the surrounding countryside.
December 21, 1880, apparently fully recovered from his temporary illness,
Ben Thompson donned his city marshal uniform, pinned on his badge of
office, and began his tenure as a lawman. There is compelling evidence to
suggest that one of the first arrests Thompson made was of Sheriff James
M. Brown of Lee County, Texas. Sheriff Brown was well known throughout the
state as a man not to be trifled with. His most famous official act was
performing the legal hanging execution of the notorious man killer William
"Bloody Bill" Longley. Brown wasn't afraid to use his six-gun
either, and by this time in his life he had already shot at least four
men, some in an official capacity and others in the settlement of personal
matters. Before too long, Ben Thompson and Jim Brown's paths would cross
less than two months on the job, the Austin Statesman gave praise to
Thompson and the police officers under his command. "Marshal Thompson
and the efficient ... officer Chenneville," declared the newspaper,
"are managing the police of the city well. The department was never
better controlled, and officers and men deserve much praise. They are a
careful and polite set of officers, and few cities have their equals and
none their superiors." Two weeks later the Statesman continued its
praise, pointing out the police were "having a quiet time. Very few
arrests are being made."
Monday afternoon, February 21, Ben Thompson, members of the state
legislature, other Austin city officials and prominent citizens, boarded a
special excursion train bound for San Antonio. Upon arrival, most of the
excursionists took in the famous sites, which included the Alamo and the
other Old Spanish missions. Ben Thompson chose to visit a combination
theatre, saloon and gambling hall named the Vaudeville and commonly called
Jack Harris’ Theatre. There is more than one version as to what happened
next. Some say Thompson lost a considerable amount of money there,
suspecting he was being cheated he used his pistol to reclaim what he
lost. Others say he spotted the faro dealer cheating and having lost all
of his cash he turned the jewelry he was wearing into the bank for chips.
Playing unsystematically and reckless he began to win and when ahead he
reclaimed his jewelry and stood up prepared to leave the game. When the
dealer mentioned the outstanding balance still owed the bank, Thompson
angrily denounced him as a thief and refused to square his account. The
dealer reacted by reaching for his pistol, however, before he could clear
leather he found Thompson’s revolver stuck in his face. Without firing a
shot Thompson left with both his cash and jewelry. This was the origin of
a feud that would ultimately claim four lives. The next time Thompson and
his pistol would visit the Vaudeville Theatre he would burn powder and
claim the first life.
Thompson later justified his actions to his friends and one Texas
newspaper stated that Thompson had "declared war against [San
Antonio's] gambling dens, and threatened to have them closed by the
legislature. He declares they are robbers’ dens."
next evening he ran into Jack Harris, the principal partner running the
Vaudeville. Angry words and threats were exchanged and violence was only
avoided through the intervention of friends. As with Sheriff Jim Brown of
Lee County, Ben Thompson had just made another deadly enemy.
his return to Austin, Thompson put all of his efforts into police
work. Even with the town swarming with people due to the legislature
being in session, the month of March was comparatively dull
and arrests only numbered ninety-seven, less than usual. Austin continued
to be relatively quiet through the rest of the spring. The Statesman
reported: "The courts are having a quiet time. Very little criminal
business." Only 112 arrests were made in May, 82 men were arrested
and five listed their occupation as "stockman."
of the stockmen arrested was recognized as "one of the most desperate
men in the frontier counties" of Texas because of his earlier
participation in the bloody Mason County War. His name was John Ringo and
he was traveling through Austin from Arizona on his way to visit family in
Sunday morning, May 1, Ringo was enjoying the amusements of Austin's first
ward. He was recuperating in a room at "a house in the jungles"
and along about 4:00 a.m., he "missed his purse." Stepping out
into the hallway he pulled his pistol and confronted three or four local
boys and demanded "hands up" while he searched them. Not finding
his money he returned to his room. The Austin boys reported Ringo's
actions to the police and when informed of the incident, Marshal Thompson
went down to the house and demanded entrance into Ringo's room. When
refused, Thompson "cheerfully kicked open the door, and to the
infinite disgust of Mr. Ringo scooped him in." Ben Thompson disarmed
and arrested Ringo and then turned him over to Officer Chenneville when he
arrived. Ringo was then marched down to the police station and thrown in
jail. The next day he was fined $25 for carrying a pistol and $5 for
disturbing the peace. "He settled with the city and left a wiser if
not sadder man" and never returned to Austin.
the summer months Marshal Thompson continued to perform an active role in
investigating and recovering stolen items. He spent a night on a stakeout
when a Congress Avenue merchant had reason to suspect his shop might be a
robbed. Thompson also recovered a watch that a visitor from Chicago
reported was "lost" when he toured the "jungles"
section of town. When a black women by the name of Susan Billingsley;
filled up with whisky and... driving through the city at a fearful rate...
happened to run across Marshal Thompson.. he stopped her mad career, but
she refused to tamely submit to an arrest and calmly sailed into the
marshal, and they had quite a lively tussle for some minutes. He
succeeded, however, in overcoming her. Miss
Billingsley was subsequently fined $10 and court costs. The Statesman
concluded: "Ben Thompson keeps the city quiet."
July 12, 1881 Ben Thompson made his most publicized arrest. Several days
before, Lee County Sheriff Jim Brown had passed through Austin on his way
to Louisiana to hunt for a fugitive believed to have committed a murder in
his county almost seven years earlier. Accompanying the sheriff was a
woman dressed in male attire with a belted and holstered six-shooter
swinging from her hips. The lady was in violation of a local ordinance
that outlawed the wearing of clothes of the opposite gender. Sheriff Brown’s
companion was then going by the name of Mrs. Amelia Schooman and she was
notorious in Austin for previously dealing out the ardent in her own
establishment there. Her first husband divorced her for that behavior and
old man Schooman, her second husband, having discovered that she had too
many lovers, left her to shift for herself. When Marshal Thompson learned
of the strange couple, he left orders to be immediately notified if they
were to pass through Austin again.
their return trip, with their prisoner in custody, Brown and Mrs. Schooman
stopped at the Austin depot to change trains. Informed of their arrival
and eminent departure, Thompson hustled down to the depot in time to
arrest Mrs. Schooman as she was boarding her train. With Sheriff Brown,
Brown’s prisoner, and Mrs. Schooman in tow, Marshal Thompson marched the
group down to city hall where the mayor fined her $25 plus court costs.
She readily agreed to change her clothes to more traditional female attire
and was released on her own recognizance. News of the arrest spread like a
fire through town and the corridors of the city hall were thronged with
people who wanted to get a look at the "small woman with such a big
six-shooter." She was described as having "sharp blue eyes, a
small mouth, retrousse nose and a naiveté manner, which made her quite
arrest created quite a sensation and newspapers throughout Texas carried
the story. Sheriff Brown was much embarrassed, both officially and
personally, by the incident. He was married at the time and lamely stated
to the press that Mrs. Schooman was along to help him identify his man and
help work up the case. Newspapers continued to sensationalize the story by
calling her a "deputy sheriff of Lee County." The July 13th
edition of the San Antonio Daily Express editorialized how Sheriff Brown
"forgets the dignity of his office as to go about ...with a woman
masquerading in men's clothing [and] should be degraded from his place,
and those who honored him with ...election should ... drive him out of the
following month Jim Brown returned to Austin. He was a noted racehorse
owner and he brought along three of his best to participate in the races
to be held during the annual Austin Fair. The Statesman announced Brown’s
arrival on Tuesday, August 23 and he quietly remained in town for more
than a week. On September 3, it was reported that Brown and his friends
from Lee County planned to attend the races for the purpose of creating a
disturbance to draw Thompson out and then kill him. Upon notification of
the plot, "Marshal Thompson ... met Brown at the fair grounds, and
approaching him informed him of what he had heard, and said, if it was
true, [now] was the time to settle the trouble, like men. Brown, flatly
denied the report, and matters were amicably settled."
Jack Harris eventually learned of the near difficulty between Thompson and
Brown he sent word through a mutual friend: "Tell Brown to let him
alone, he’s mine, I found him first. I had it fixed for [Thompson] once
...but he slipped [though] by mere accident. Sooner or later ... I'll get
my work in."
brought a substantial candidate forward to contest for the office of city
marshal in the following month's regularly scheduled city election. Jack
Kirk officially announced his candidacy in the Statesman and the newspaper
obliged him with an article proclaiming his merits. "Mr. Jack P. Kirk
...is known to every man in the city as a gentleman of undoubted integrity
and sterling worth. As deputy sheriff of this county for years, he made a
most careful and efficient officer, and no man is better qualified in
every respect to fill the office he now aspires."
Thompson responded and on the 11th of October he announced his
desire to seek re-election. Two weeks later he issued the following
statement concerning his year in office:
"Fellow Citizens of Austin: I have announced myself as a candidate for re-election to the office of city marshal. As an inducement to your support for the partial term about to expire, I promised you, if elected, to fill the post to the best of my skill and ability. Honored by your suffrages, I entered upon the discharge of my duties without the knowledge and experience since acquired. That some minor, perhaps important, things have escaped adequate diligence and attention, I will not pretend to urge a denial; but I can truthfully affirm that I have been as faithful and vigilant as under all the circumstances I could well be. And, in this connection, I trust you will pardon me in submitting for your consideration the following extract from the official record of police matters, coming under my supervision during the ten months of my time as city marshal and chief of police, dating from the 21st of December last to the 17th of October, to-wit: ‘Number of arrests, 1200; ...Total amount [of]fines and costs, $9,056. Amount of fines worked out on the street, $2,803. Amount of cash collected, $6,252. Total amount of property and money stolen and reported to police, $1,172; amount recovered, $913.’ …[I] believe that the above statement will favorably comport with any like summary of the city’s ministerial affairs, and none can successfully charge that I have disgraced the baton, by abusing the unfortunate, the timid and poor. The reflecting citizen will remember at the same time, that the city has been entangled in the toils of financial embarrassment, and that this condition of things affects the sphere of police, as well as of other municipal relations, and that it was right and proper of me to co-operate with my superiors and the council respecting the interests of the people in this regard, and to subordinate the department under my charge to the exigencies of the situation, without limiting or impairing its substantial efficiency and usefulness. In conclusion, I would gratefully acknowledge my obligations to the… fair minded citizenship of Austin for its kind support and assistance for the official term that has passed, and would confidently express the hope to one and to all that I may not be deemed entirely unworthy to re-solicit a repetition of the same. Respectfully, Ben Thompson."
the election neared a series of political meetings were held and
candidates for various city offices were called to the podium to express
their views. On Thursday, November 3rd a meeting was held on the corner of
Congress Avenue and Ash (present-day Ninth Street) between the Palace and
Club House Saloons. Ben Thompson was the last speaker called to the stand
and the crowd showed a degree of attention, which they had not given to
any other of the speakers. In a quiet, matter-a-fact voice, Thompson debut
as a stump speaker:
"I am not a public speaker. This is the first speech I have ever made in my life. My opponent, Mr. Kirk, has not assailed … my record. I have tried to do my duty while I have been in office, and, although there were many people who voted against me … I have treated all alike, and if I am elected again, which I expect to be, I intend to act the same toward those who vote against me as to those who vote for me. I have tried during the past to befriend all who were in need of aid, and I intend in the future to help everybody that I can, whether I am elected or not ...but I say to you now, if anyone can justly charge me with having neglected to do my duty at any time, of failing to befriend anyone when it was in my power to do so ... vote against me. I want your vote, but if I am not worthy of it don't give it to me. That is all I have to say."
was loudly applauded and when he stepped down from the stand and started
up the street, the whole crowd followed him until he managed to elude
following day at another campaign meeting on the east side of town a
difficulty occurred between two black men. One was stabbed and the row
created considerable excitement until Thompson stopped the fight and
arrested the knife-wielder. On Monday, November 7, the election went off
without any serious disturbance, despite the "usual amount of yelling
and other boisterous demonstrations ... indulged in by the hired bummers,
strikers and rounders, whose brains were enthused by the free drinks …
gurgled down their noisy throats." Ben Thompson won re-election
gathering in 1,173 votes to Deputy Sheriff Kirk’s 933. Thompson carried
the majority in seven out of the city's ten wards with the lively first
ward supporting him with his largest plurality.
December, the Statesman observed "the city appears to be filling up
with hoodlums, cranks and tramps" and advised citizens "to keep
a sharp lookout about their premises" yet admitted "the police
are having a very quiet time just now, and the chain gang has been
seriously reduced." While offenses of a serious nature remained few
and far between throughout 1881, the New Year of 1882 would start out
Monday, January 2, at half past 11 o’clock at night, the sharp report of
pistol shots echoed through the first ward. A young cowboy dressed in the
usual garb lay dead, shot in the chest at Sallie Daggett’s house of
riding in their wagon, a black man and his wife on the way home from
church had met two cowboys on the street. The riders forced the wagon off
the roadway and the black man hollered back at them "Look out ...
this may cost you something!" The cowboys responded by wheeling their
horses around and pulling their pistols. Yelling loud and abusive
language, one of the men lashed the wagon horse with a whip before
galloping off. The cowboys headed towards the first ward, while the abused
couple found Policeman J.L.Watts. The black man gave Officer Watts a
complete description of the two men and the horses they were riding. Watts
soon discovered the horses tied up in front of Sallie Daggett’s house
and requesting help from a local man named William McClellan, he entered
Daggett's to make the arrest. Watts went up to the two suspects and
identified himself as a policeman. Upon doing so the cowboys pulled their
revolvers. Reacting quickly, Officer Watts knocked one man down a short
flight of stairs and grappled with the other over control of the cowboy’s
pistol. In the struggle, the first shot fired passed through Watts’
clothing, grazing his left side and burning his skin creating a painful
but not serious wound. A second shot when wild. As the second cowboy
advanced back up the stairs he took aim at the policeman. McClellan, who
was unarmed, pulled Watts’ pistol out of the policeman's gunbelt and
fired two shots at the advancing man, striking him once in the heart.
Turning, McClellan found Watts struggling on the floor with the other
cowboy. Placing his boot firmly on the man’s head, McClellan threatened
to blow his brains out if he failed to deliver up his pistol. The
struggling man stopped resisting and surrendered as other police officers
arrived at the scene.
incident indeed cost the troublemakers. One was dead and the other found
himself in jail. Two days later a jury of inquest identified the dead
cowboy as Emmet McPhail and exonerated McClellan for taking his life.
McPhail hailed from Fannin County and was under bond there charged with
fatal affair was quickly forgotten when the city council and newly elected
mayor announced the staggering amount of debt the municipal government was
under. The city charter set a legal debt ceiling of $100,000, but Austin’s
total obligations approached $150,000. The council immediately passed
ordinances eliminating several minor city positions and cut the salaries
of others. The police department was no exception and Ben Thompson went
before the council and pleaded his case that the number of officers now
under his command was insufficient to do the duty required. To place
emphasis to his words the next day someone fired three shots at
"Mexican Charlie" Cunio down at his establishment in the first
ward. None of the shots took effect, but the Statesman acidly commented
that under the current regulations the single policeman assigned to patrol
"Mexico and Guytown" was woefully inadequate. The Statesman
agreed with the council's attempts to bring municipal spending under
control but editorialized "economy is a good thing if not spread on
too thick, the police force should be the last branch of the public
service attacked when reductions are taking place. Let the economic minds,
which govern us find something else to drive the pruning knife through.
Increase the police force, protect the people and make them pay for
council passed a debt-restructuring ordinance allowing for a legal
increase of the city’s obligations. The measure needed to be approved by
voters through a referendum. Prior to the vote, a town meeting was held at
Millett’s Opera House and a series of government officials and prominent
citizens took the stage to speak both for and against the proposal. Near
the end of the affair, loud calls brought Marshal Ben Thompson to the
stage, and he delivered a most practicable and matter-of-fact address.
"[I do] not feel competent to discuss the great question of finances, but thirteen months in office [has] put [me] in possession of information upon subjects … [I do] feel competent … to talk [about]. The city owes about $91,000 in bonds, and about $52,000 in warrants and other floating debts. Much of this was for work on the streets …and must be paid. There [is] no use in talking about repudiation: you can’t repudiate. Vote for the extension of the bonded indebtedness, and don’t go back on your word. [I do] not see any economy in cutting down the police, the fire department or the water supply. Do either, and the rates on insurance at once run up. The city administration had been elected to do certain things: there was not a dollar in the treasury with which to carry out these requirements. [I] see no other way than accepting and voting for the proposition now before the people. Whether [it carries] or not, we still owe the money, and honesty and good faith say it must and shall be paid."
subsequently decided in favour of the referendum and the city's financial
crisis was over.
Thompson’s report for the month of January presented the lightest record
of arrests for years. With the exception of the fatal shooting at Sallie
Daggett’s house, crime in Austin was at a low. Only seventy-seven
arrests were made and the small amount was mainly attributed to the almost
unprecedented bad weather that kept many people from coming to town.
Thompson and his officers were still commended for their efforts and one
policeman received special recognition. Sergeant John Chenneville worked
up a case against a small ring of thieves and home break-in artists who
had been plaguing Austin throughout the winter months, and in thanks,
Marshal Thompson presented his chief deputy with a gold badge etched with
the Texas coat of arms on it.
Austin’s permanent population was close to eleven thousand, the town
often swelled with two or three thousand transients, especially in late
February and early March when the Texas legislature was in session. Most
of the city’s visitors were respected gentlemen and ladies who travelled
to Austin to conduct legitimate business. Mingling in with the local
farmers, businessmen, ranchers and legislators were drifters, con-men,
thieves, and grafters. One such undesirable, a man wanted for horse theft
by the name of John Watson, was seen under an awning on east Pecan Street
(present-day Sixth Street) having his boots polished.
attitude of fear or indifference to a crime in progress would have
astounded people of the 19th century. People then did not feel that crime
was only to be dealt with by officers of the law. Any victim would send up
a hue and cry for help and fully expected assistance in apprehending the
attacker. If someone recognized a wanted criminal, they would gather the
nearest able-bodied men and attempt to make an arrest.
when Watson was spotted, three law-abiding citizens formed a quick posse,
chanced upon Policeman C. H. Randolph and moved in to make the arrest.
Quickly realizing the situation, Watson lit out at full speed, sprinting
to escape from the ad-hoc posse hotly pursuing him. The chase went on for
a considerable distance with "the fleeing lover of other men's
horses" being hard pressed. Feeling crowded by his fastest pursuer,
Watson stopped, pulled a pistol and snapped off two quick but ineffectual
shots. Officer Randolph then came within pistol range and responded by
discharging a couple of loads from his revolver with the same result. The
gunfire attracted black Police Officer Louis Morris who blocked Watson’s
escape route. Officer Morris tripped, subdued and disarmed Watson just as
Randolph and his posse arrived. John Watson was led off to the city jail,
his capture due to not only the efforts of the police, but also involved
the rest of spring Austin was quiet enough for Thompson to take some time
off and left the city with two friends on an extended vacation. While
robberies and violent crime were low, officials were still being
criticized about the vice ordinances not being strictly enforced. The
Statesman ran an editorial while Thompson was out of town entitled
"About Gambling." The Statesman declared:
"The legislature should, at some time in the near or remote future, do one of two things. Either expunge from the statute every law against gambling and the dens of this unconscionable vice, and license the business, or enact some measure to enforce the law. We admit here that it is a strange anomaly to pass a law to enforce a law. If gambling is to be, as it certainly is, tolerated, let it be made an expensive avocation to these dainty kid glove professional robbers, and a source of revenue for some laudable public service. Something of good might thus be squeezed out of a monstrous evil. The officers of this city, and of Travis County, are not doing their duty, and our citizens know it. On this subject more is likely to be said in a future issue of this paper, and the STATESMAN may become personal."
also came from a delegation of Austin ladies who called on Marshal
Thompson and "asked him to enforce the law and close the saloons on
Sunday." They reminded him that it was "his duty to do so, and
asked, in the interest of the good and morality of the city, that he
strictly perform such duty." Thompson, no doubt in tones of a
polished diplomat, replied to the ladies "closing the saloons would
not stop the consumption of alcohol on Sundays. If the rule could be
applied to all chartered society saloons and private entertainment halls,
the saloon men of the city would willingly close up on Sunday."
to alcohol and gambling, the last triad of vice, prostitution, also
received a blind-eye from Marshal Thompson. Austin city marshals both
before and after him treated prostitution in a similar manner. For decades
the police neglected to regularly enforce an 1870 city ordinance that
stipulated that owners and keepers of bawdy houses be fined, or face
possible imprisonment in the county jail. In one celebrated case, which
occurred a few years before Thompson became marshal, Fanny Kelley appeared
in the Mayor's court to answer charges of keeping a house of ill-fame.
Police Officer Sheehan was called to the stand to testify and when asked
by the city attorney to tell the court where Kelley's house was located an
amazed Sheehan answered, "Now what are you after asking me such a
question as that for? Yerself and every man on that jury know as well as
meself where Fanny Kelley's is, and yeve all been thar often!"
1880 more than one hundred prostitutes lived in Austin and additional
women would be brought in when the State legislature was in session. The
police and Austin’s prostitutes usually got along well with each other
and for decades never had an adversary relationship. In fact, madams did
not hesitate to call for a policeman when a problem occurred in their
establishment. The fraternization was so engrained that in 1886 the city
council finally had to ban on-duty policeman from entering bawdy houses
for any reason other than to discharge their official duties.
prostitutes were arrested, more than two-thirds of the time they were
charged with offenses unrelated to their livelihood. For a two year
period, (1876-1878) the police only made prostitution-related arrests on
average about twenty-four times per year. Usually "brides of the
multitudes" were taken to jail for disturbing the peace,
intoxication, fighting and for using abusive or vulgar language.
officials viewed prostitution as a common nuisance and as long as the
demimonde remained separate from the world of respectability, there was no
sustained public outcry from Austin's newspapers or citizenry and hence,
no call for the police to rigidly enforce the law.
Thompson’s performance as city marshal put him among the top contenders
to challenge Travis County Sheriff Creary for his job and the Statesman
speculated that he would be a candidate when the election came up in the
fall. However, Thompson would never attempt to become sheriff; in fact, a
personal feud was fated to intervene and bring an abrupt end to his career
as a peace officer.
some months Thompson had promised to take his two children to visit
friends in the Alamo City. In early July 1882, a wanted circular arrived
offering a one thousand dollar reward for a man who Thompson learned was
last seen in San Antonio. On July 10, with his children in tow, he boarded
the train for San Antonio. The next day Ben Thompson shot and killed Jack
Harris at the Vaudeville Theatre.
old gambling feud between Ben Thompson and Jack Harris had simmered for
almost eighteen months. Harris repeatedly told mutual friends and
acquaintances of his intent to shoot Thompson down on sight if he ever
appeared at his establishment. During the early evening of Tuesday, July
11, Thompson visited Harris’ Vaudeville Theatre, later claiming he went
there to search for the wanted man. When Jack Harris learned Ben Thompson
had been in his place and at that very moment was standing on the sidewalk
just outside, he got a shotgun he kept handy and loaded it. A few moments
later he proved too slow for Thompson’s pistol and was shot in the left
side of his chest. In less than an hour he was dead.
newspaper account of the affair stated "Thompson walked away, no man
caring to stop him. He is too deadly a shot for anybody to fool with him.
Thompson is reported to have been in various places after the shooting,
taking it very coolly." Stopping down the street from the Vaudeville
Theatre only a few minutes after the shooting, Thompson reloaded his
revolver and coyly asked the owner and several patrons of the
establishment "what was the fuss up at Jack’s."
he returned to his room at the Menger Hotel and spent the night. The next
morning he sent word to local law enforcement officials that he was ready
to surrender himself. Ben Thompson believed he had acted well within his
right of self-protection when he fired the fatal shot. He fully expected
to be granted bail and planned on returning to Austin and continuing on as
city marshal until called to stand trial. District Court Judge George
Noonan thought otherwise. He refused to set bail and remanded a surprised
Thompson to the Bexar county jail. For the next seven months, Thompson
would remain in custody until a San Antonio jury declared him innocent of
murder on January 20, 1883. By then the Austin had long since accepted
Thompson’s resignation city council and his hometown had held an
election to replace him. Austin’s voters had selected Jack Kirk,
Thompson’s old rival for the office of city marshal. Upon his release,
Ben Thompson returned to his former career and old ways as a sporting man
and professional gambler.
contemporary evidence available for study indicates that William M. Walton’s
account about Ben Thompson’s tenure, as a lawman was an obvious
exaggeration. Did the city of Austin experience criminal violence and
death during Thompson’s watch? Certainly. Was every sneak thief promptly
apprehended and the stolen items returned? Certainly not. Did Ben Thompson
totally eradicate crime in Austin? Obviously, he did not. However, he was
recognized by his contemporaries as being an exemplary officer who showed
not only personal bravery but also a keen sense of intelligence in
managing Austin’s limited police force. During the middle of Thompson’s
tenure as a lawman two longtime Texas newspaperman Alex Sweet and John
Knox commented in their Austin weekly Texas Siftings, "Captain Ben
Thompson is the best city marshal in Texas to-day. He knows his duty and
is not afraid to do it. We are not personally acquainted with the marshal,
but we admire the way he has executed the law since he was elected to
office, and we take pleasure in shaking him by the hand, as it were."
His record, though not as flawless as Walton contended, was certainly an
excellent one and he justly deserved the accolades he received.
July 13, 1882, two days after Thompson had killed Jack Harris, the editor
of the San Antonio Evening Light provided an insightful testament to Ben
Thompson’s temperament as a man of action and a final opinion as to how
Thompson approached his responsibilities as a lawman.
morning about half-past nine o'clock [Ben Thompson] sent for [Bexar
County] Sheriff McCall and [San Antonio City] Marshall Shardein and
surrendered himself. The best comment on the above item is, had a
desperado of Thompson's reputation visited Austin and killed a man he
would not have allowed to remain undisturbed... and then [allowed to]
surrender himself at [his] pleasure. Ben Thompson would have taken
him dead or alive, and not rested until he had.
police Pickings. During the month of May, the police made the following
arrests: Disturbing the peace 40, intoxication 31, assault 10, asleep in a
public place 7, vagrancy 5, keeping bawdy house 3, fighting 2, fast riding
4, carrying a pistol 2, butchering without a license 1, resisting an
officer 1, other offenses 6; total number
112: males 82, females 30; whites 72, colored 40. Of the number arrested
there were 88 natives of the United States, 9 of Germany, 8 of Ireland, 5
of Mexico, 1 of England, and 1 of Switzerland. Of the number of the
arrests, 83 were made during the day, and 29 during the night. Among the
number scooped were 43 laborers, 5 stockman, 4 vagrants, 1 shoemaker, 3
printers, 1 newsboy, 1 express agent, 1 cowboy, 2 hackmen, 2 farmers, 1
bartender, 2 artists, 1 constable, 1 deputy sheriff, 1 variety performer,
and 43 in various other trades. The total amount of fines was $729.25;
paid in cash, $472.50; worked out, $256.75." The Austin Statesman,
June 3, 1881.
1882 record of seventy-seven arrests are, "classified and subdivided
… as follows: THE CHARGES. Vagrancy, 20; Intoxication, 27; asleep in a
public place, 6; assault, 3; keeping a disorderly house, 1; discharging
firearms, 4; disturbing the peace, 13; removing contents of a sink
contrary to law, 1; carrying a pistol, 2. Total, 77. SEX AND COLOR. Males,
70; females, 7. White, 54; Mexican, 2; colored, 21. OCCUPATION. Laborers,
27; farmers, 5; saloon keepers, 3; student, 1; railroad men, 3; painters,
2; teamsters, 3; bootblacks, 3; miner, 1; prostitutes, 8; gamblers, 3; no
occupation, 17; a German baron's son, 1. NATIVITY. United States, 50;
Mexico, 2; Germany, 4; Ireland, 17; Sweden, 3; Italy, 1. NUMBER OF ARRESTS
BY EACH OFFICER. E.R.Oberwetter, 27; C. H. Randolph, 2; J.L.Watts, 4; L.C.
Lock, 10; Sergeant John Chenneville, 4; H.G. Madison, 3; L. Morris, 6;
George Hutchinson, 3; J.W. Larue, 4; R.J. Stewart, day clerk, 3; Howe,
special officer, 8; O.H. Binkley, 0; Ford, special officer, 3. Nine cases
dismissed." The Austin Statesman, February 3 and 5, 1882.
above article was recently published in the Quarterly of the National
Organization for Outlaw and Lawman History (N.O.L.A) We would like
to extend our gratitude to Chuck Parsons, the editor of the Quarterly, for
allowing us permission to reproduce it here.
extend our warmest thanks to Tom Bicknell for once again allowing us to
publish an extract of his work and research into the life of Ben