The Proper Sort of a Person to be Marshal

The Notorious Ben Thompson Becomes 
A Peace Officer

by Tom Bicknell

On 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.

William 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."

The 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.

In 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 boards.

Amusements 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.

As 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.

The 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 per month.

When 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.

Throughout 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 control them.

There 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.

Fanny 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.

Efforts 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."

In 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.

City-wide 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.

In 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 contrasts.

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.

In 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.

The 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.

On 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."

On 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.

Sunday 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 qualify."

At 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.

Forty-four 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.

Like 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.

Like 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.

The 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.

On 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 again.

With 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."

Early 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.

Ben 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."

The 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.

Upon 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."

One 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 Missouri.

Early 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.

During 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."

On 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.

On 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 attractive."

This 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 community."

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."

When 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."

October 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."

Ben 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."

As 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."

Thompson 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 them.

The 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.

In 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 quite differently.

On 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 ill-fame.

Earlier, 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.

The 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 horse theft.

The 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 it."

The 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. Thompson said:

"[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."

Voters subsequently decided in favour of the referendum and the city's financial crisis was over.

Marshal 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.

While 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.

Today's 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.

Thus 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 citizens.

Through 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."

Criticism 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."

Similar 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!"

In 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.

When 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.

City 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.

Ben 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.

For 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.

The 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.

A 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."

Eventually 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.

The 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.

On 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.

This 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.

Tom Bicknell


SIDEBAR 1

"May 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

of arrests 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.

SIDEBAR 2

The January 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.


The 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.

We 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 Thompson.  

 

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