A LOVER OF FAIR PLAY
by TOM BICKNELL
In many of his obituaries, Texas newspapermen used the word 'desperado'
to depict gunfighter Ben Thompson. This was somewhat inaccurate because
he was not a desperado in the generally accepted sense of the word.
Thompson never held up a bank, or robbed a stagecoach or train or rustled
livestock. However, for more than two decades he did live the hazardous
life of a professional gambler on America’s Western Frontier and he
plied his skills in the railroad boomtowns, Colorado mining camps and
Kansas cattle towns but no matter where he roamed during his career
he always returned to his hometown of Austin, Texas.
Ben Thompson grew to manhood in Austin, and at times when he was behaving
himself, was very popular there. After one of his many minor shooting
affrays in his hometown, a local newspaper reporter correctly predicted
Thompson's ultimate fate:
"The chances are about … nine hundred and ninety-nine in a thousand
that the man is living to-day who will kill Ben Thompson. He may not
know him now; may have never been in a thousand miles of him; but he
is wandering somewhere through the world, moving onwards towards the
fatal day and deed! The paths of the two men are gradually merging;
they will come on, until their paths cross, and then!! Thompson may
escape such a fate, but it is hardly within the range of possibility
that he will."
The man who would see Ben Thompson dead wasn’t a thousand miles away.
He too, was an Austin hometown boy. Their families had been neighbours
and as he grew older he came to know Ben Thompson quite well. His name
was William H. Simms, and he was commonly called Billy.
In January 1892, years after Thompson had been laid in his grave, Eastern
newspaperman and author Richard Harding Davis began a hurried three
month tour through the Western states. As Davis passed through Texas
he learned of how Ben Thompson was born in England but grew up "...so
thoroughly Western." Davis was told many "...stories of his recklessness
and ignorance of fear, and utter disregard of the value of others’ lives
as well as his own."
Davis was obviously delighted to meet the man credited by so many as
having fired the fatal shots into the deadly Ben Thompson. He would
later publish his following impression of Billy Simms;
"I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Simms at the gambling palace,
which was once Harris’s, then Foster’s and which is now his, and found
him, a jolly, bright-eyed young man of about thirty, with very fine
teeth, and a most contagious laugh."
When Simms recounted a touching story "...tears came to his eyes, and
he coughed, and began to laugh over a less serious story. I tried all
the time to imagine him, somewhat profanely, I am afraid, as a young
David standing up before this English giant, who sent two-score of other
men out of the world, and to picture the glaring, crowded gallery, with
the hot air and smoke, and the voice of the comic singer rising from
the stage below, and this boy and the marshal of Austin facing one another
with drawn revolvers; but it was quite impossible."
Billy Simms was born in Austin on February 22, 1856, the son of Irish
immigrants James and Bridgett Simms. The 1860 Travis County census indicates
that the Simms had prospered in their new homeland. Working as a stone
mason, James Simms acquired real estate valued at $1000 and personal
possessions assessed at $400. The census also shows Billy as the oldest
child with sister Mollie three years old and brother James Jr. age one.
Two other children had died while infants, but the family was later
blessed with the birth of two healthy daughters, Kate and Regina.
By 1872, the elder Simms had progressed from being a stonemason to become
a successful contractor and builder and eventually served the public
as a policeman. The Simms family now resided on Cypress Street between
Guadalupe and Lavaca. Their home was one block east of the old courthouse
and jail. This placed the Simms’ family residence firmly in Austin’s
first ward. This neighbourhood was just developing into the fast side
of town and was commonly called the "Precincts of Mexico" or "Guytown".
For decades to come it would be well-known for its saloons, gambling
dens and houses of ill-fame.
James Simms saw this vice district start to grow around his home and
he gathered together his neighbours to fight it. In 1874 Simms lead a
group of first ward residents in petitioning the city council to close
a grocery store and saloon run by the notorious "Mexican Charley" Coney.
This grocery store was the scene of many late night fandangos, at least
two or three a week, and prostitutes usually attended these dances.
Simms and his fellow petitioners claimed Coney’s place corrupted their
children and ruined their property values. The city council agreed and
outlawed all dance houses that admitted lewd women. However, the council
continued to grant liquor licenses to businesses in the first ward allowing
several new saloons to open up near James Simms' home. Again Simms and
his neighbours were forced to petition the city council, this time in
a failed effort demanding that no new liquor licenses be issued in their
While James Simms waged his fight to save his neighbourhood, his son
Billy was fighting for his life after being stabbed by another Austin
youth by the name of Giles Burditt Jr., who had an attraction to violence.
The altercation occurred on Thursday night, September 10, 1874 at Woodlief’s
Saloon on Congress Avenue. Billy was stabbed once below the ribs and
a second time in the stomach, his subsequent recovery began his long
run at living what can be considered a charmed life.
By the spring of 1875, James Simms realised that his efforts to save
his neighbourhood were in vain. Within two blocks of his home some twenty-five
prostitutes were now working in several bordellos and the mayor himself
was renting property to known prostitutes. The first ward deterioration
was evident to all Austin citizens. In the fall of 1875, James Simms
and many of his supporters gave up the fight and moved out of the first
ward, at a heavy financial sacrifice, to a more respectable area of
town. His efforts to prevent the vice district from corrupting his two
sons also failed. Both Billy, even after his near brush with death in
a bar-room brawl, and James Jr. would grow up to become professional
As a youngster, Billy Simms did not receive much of a formal education.
He was still a boy when, like Thompson a decade earlier, he began working
as a printer. Again, just like Thompson, Billy Simms became a gambling
enthusiast and eventually abandoned the printing trade. On July 17,
1876, Billy Simms had his first known difficulty with the law. It was
a relatively trivial offence. He was arrested and briefly jailed for
disturbing the peace.
The first known evidence of Ben Thompson and Billy Simms associating
appeared in the Austin Statesman on January 4, 1877. The newspaper
reported on Simms' visit to the Travis County jail to see Thompson.
He provided Thompson with a current copy of the Statesman. It
contained an interview that Ben had given the newspaper explaining his
version of how a minor incident turned into a fatal shooting. On Christmas
night 1876, a string of firecrackers was set off in Austin’s crowded
Capitol Theatre. Tempers flared and the affair quickly escalated into
gunfire. One of the owners of the theatre and a bartender mistakenly
decided to shoot at Thompson. Ben fired back killing the owner and wounding
the bartender. Thompson subsequently surrendered to the proper authorities
and was placed in the Travis County jail. He was later granted bail
and was eventually brought to trial under the charge of murder in the
first degree. On May 31st, an Austin jury found Ben Thompson not guilty.
By February 1878, Simms was hanging out in the saloons of Denison, Texas.
Late on the night of Monday, February 11th, Billy Simms killed his first
man after becoming embroiled in a heated argument with a Denison local,
who previously was a friend and drinking buddy of his. Simms’ victim
was a grocery clerk by the name of J. V. George. On that fateful night
the two men argued over the affections of one Annie Woods.
When George learned that Simms was alone with Miss Woods in her room
at the Brown Front on Skiddy Street he went into the bar-room there
and downed several more drinks before pulling a knife and yelling threats.
He then proceeded to break down the door to Miss Woods’s room. Inside
Simms waited with a pistol and he shot twice at George, the first ball
missed but the second struck George in the head killing him instantly.
Two days later, Mr. Cowles, the Grayson county attorney, closely examined
Annie Woods and another witness, a man only identified as Hewins. The
proceedings lasted throughout the entire day and after considering all
of the testimony, Cowles decided not to proceed any further against
Simms. He was released from custody and allowed to leave Denison.
One newspaper editor long disgusted by the
violence, brutality and crime that had rolled throughout Texas since
the end of the Civil War raged…
"We envy not the gambler, rough or libertine,
who boosts over the success attending the killing of his first man –
for of such are the devil’s cohorts, and for a certainty will they receive
punishment adequate to the enormity of their crimes. Bill Sims is the
last murderer in Texas. He has ever been a gambler, a quarrelsome, troublesome
young man, ambitious to "shoot somebody" – and his selection of a friend
for a victim is only keeping with his character…No friendly hand was
thrust from under that bed of prostitution to stay the committal of
a crime that consigned George to an unsanctified grave. Texas
has already suffered greatly by acts of vandalism and deeds of barbarity.
Judge Lynch is a commendable character, as compared to the gambler who,
with revolver in hand, deals out death according to his individual fancy
or compliance with his harlot’s decree…"
Three weeks later on March 5th, the Fort
Worth Democrat reported that Simms was trying to reform by returning
to his old craft as a printer and was working in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
If this was true, he didn’t stay in Arkansas for long. By the end of
June 1878 he was in Austin and back to his troublesome ways.
In the Old West it was very desirable for
a professional gambler to wear a lawman’s badge. Being armed and having
legal authority was usually enough to encourage a disgruntled loser
to move along without too much trouble. Billy Simms followed an old
custom popular in Austin and managed to get hold of a badge and a little
bit of legal authority. He applied to an unidentified Justice of the
Peace, informing the officer he knew the whereabouts of a wanted man
and if legally authorized he would go forth and make the arrest. The
Austin Statesman claimed the type of man who usually applies
to be an "officer of some sort-…[then] goes howling about with a big
six-shooter buckled to him" and accomplishes very little in providing
law and order.
Simms, with two friends accompanying him
on the little manhunt, was soon on the road to San Antonio. At the town
of Selma, about fifteen miles east of the Alamo City the wagon the three
men were riding in suffered a broken tongue while crossing a stream.
Simms jumped down soiling his clothes. All of the men were intoxicated
and one of Simms companions began to laugh at him. Pulling out his six-shooter
Simms continued the good times by firing four slugs after his fleeing
friend. The people of Selma found the incident less than amusing and
Simms was bound over to appear at the next session of court. The charges
were later dropped but the incident did attract further attention and
was reported in the newspapers.
The Austin Statesman printed on August
4, 1878, "It is understood that [Travis County] Sheriff [Dennis] Corwin
did not commission Billy Simms as a deputy sheriff. The authority was
extended by a justice of the peace." This comment published by the
Statesman gives an indication that a legally armed Billy Simms
walking the streets of Austin upset many of the town’s citizens. Some
local official was obviously embarrassed and others tried to distance
themselves from this minor scandal. Coincidentally, it was now that
Billy Simms relationship with Thompson became strained. For the first
time he faced the crisis of dealing with an angry Ben Thompson.
Johnny Lunsford, a prominent newspaper reporter
on staff at the San Antonio Light in the 1880’s, later wrote;
"...Simms ... was a sort of protégé of Thompson ... when Thompson embarked
in the gambling business, he induced Simms to join him and both soon
were recognized as expert gamblers of cool nerve and daring wagers."
Simms felt he could do even better off on his own and soon broke off
his business arrangement with Thompson.
In 1878 James B. Gillett returned to his
hometown of Austin after serving a tour with the Texas Rangers. Gillett
saw two of his old schoolmates and inquired about Billy Simms. His friends
informed him that Simms had been run out of town by Ben Thompson and
was now living in San Antonio.
They explained that Thompson and Simms had
been running rival keno games with Simms getting the better play. Ben
Thompson’s response to this loss of business was to load his revolver
and visit Simms’ place. When he walked in he "pulled his pistol and
shot up the keno goose all to pieces and broke up the game." Gillett
explained, " While I do not think Billy Sims was afraid of anyone he
knew he was no match for Ben Thompson in a pistol duel and few men that
ever lived were. So to avoid trouble Sims probably thought it best to
All accounts agree, Billy Simms decided
to move on and he was off to seek his fortune in San Antonio.
The bell tower of the old San Fernando Cathedral
still looks down upon the town’s Main Plaza. The location of the cathedral
is the exact center of the Alamo City and in the second half of the
19th century, dozens of less holy structures surrounded this church.
The plaza attracted many adventurous men for it was lined with saloons,
gambling dens and brothels. This is where Billy Simms immediately went
to when he arrived in town. He sought out and quickly found employment
with saloonkeepers Hiram Mitchell and Frank Wallace. They hired him
to work their club room which was situated on the southeast corner of
Market Street at Main Plaza.
Directly across the unpaved plaza on the
northeast corner loomed Jack Harris’ Vaudeville Theatre. Harris had
a financial interest in the theatre, the downstairs saloon and with
Joe Foster, a veteran gambler as a partner, the second floor gambling
hall. He had never been elected to any office yet it was said Harris
was the most politically powerful man in San Antonio.
The Light reported, "It is a well
known fact that Harris controlled the sporting fraternity so far as
their influence upon our city and county politics was concerned, and
that his liberality, shrewdness, and tact made him the real leader of
the democratic party... Jack held his influence unimpaired for years...
he dictated in a very quiet way who should receive the favour of the
party. Thus he obtained for his fraternity almost an immunity from the
law. There is no city officer, and hardly a county officer, that
does not owe his office to this man’s influence..."
It wasn’t long before Simms moved across
the plaza and joined Jack Harris and Joe Foster at the Vaudeville.
In Austin, on March 9, 1880, Billy Simms’
younger brother Jimmy was shot and fatally wounded during a late night
gambling dispute. Billy returned to his hometown and attended his brother’s
funeral service and burial. Records indicate he decided to stay at least
until June with his parents and sisters before returning to San Antonio
and the Vaudeville Theatre.
In the late fall of 1880, Ben Thompson campaigned
for the office of city marshal of Austin. He was easily elected receiving
56% of the total votes cast.
The City Council confirmed the election
results and officially declared him the city marshal on December 18,
1880. In the middle of February 1881, the Texas legislature passed a
motion for an excursion to visit the city of San Antonio. Early on the
afternoon of Monday, February 21 a passenger train of four coaches filled
with State Senators and Representatives, Austin city officials, prominent
citizens and members of the press chugged out of Austin bound for the
Alamo City. Among the Austin city officials was Marshal Ben Thompson.
It was during this trip to San Antonio that Ben Thompson visited the
Vaudeville Theatre and set in motion a feud that would eventually claim
his life and the lives of three other men.
Many activities were planned for the visitors.
The excursionists visited the old Roman Catholic Missions of Conception
and San Jose, they walked in the ruins of the fabled Alamo and later
toasted their host city at a formal dinner reception. In
the afternoon Thompson left the company of the other excursionists and
went to the Vaudeville for a drink and to do a little gambling. With
Joe Foster running the games of chance Thompson lost heavily and an
The Austin Daily Capital provided
one of several similar explanations on what then happened:
"Thompson, while in San Antonio went into
a gambling house owned by Jack Harris, Joe Foster, Billy Simms, and
probably some others. Ben lost heavily, and had pledged his jewellery
to the gambling house. The jewellery consisted of some very valuable diamonds.
Subsequently Thompson was told that a job had been fixed upon him and
that he had been robbed, without any chance of winning, and being in
the mood that losers generally get into under such circumstances, he
went to the gambling house and took his diamonds again into his possession
at the point of his pistol, using language that was pretty forcible,
in fact, cursed the whole house, and denounced them as thieves. Jack
Harris, one of the firm, was a man of violent temper, and Thompson’s
action irritated him to such an extent that he was ready at any time
for a difficulty with Thompson."
Throughout the remainder of that day and
evening, several friends of Thompson visited the Vaudeville and tried
to mediate a quick end to the difficulty but they failed to convince
Harris to forgive Thompson and bury his animosity. Instead Harris kept
repeating to them, "I’m going to kill the son of a bitch if he comes
anywhere near here." That night Harris made preparations to greet Ben
Thompson if he were to call again at the Vaudeville. He sent for Bexar
County Sheriff Thomas P. McCall and armed himself with a double barrel
shotgun. Harris stationed himself on the street in front of the entrance
to his barroom. Sheriff McCall and a handful of police officers remained
with Harris till almost 3 a.m. before they realised Thompson was not
going to show.
The next day, Billy Simms witnessed a chance
meeting at the Green Front Saloon on Military plaza between Jack Harris
and Ben Thompson. It would be a bloodless encounter but the animosity
between the two men would increase because of it. Simms would later
testify to the harsh words exchanged between Thompson and Harris.
"Look here Harris, I heard that you were
looking for me with a shot-gun last night?"
"No sir, I was not looking for you with
"I heard you were."
"No, I was not looking for you, I was waiting
"Do you mean to say I can’t come in your
"Ben, if you had a house and forbid me to
go into it I would not go around it."
"Do you say I can’t go in your house?"
"No, you can’t."
"Well, I’m coming to your house and if the
doors are closed I’m going to kick them down. If you think I care a
damn for you, you jump out there on the plaza with your shotgun."
Without any further incident, both men then
left the saloon. With the other excursionists Thompson returned to Austin
the next day. For more than a year Ben Thompson ignored the warnings
of friends and acquaintances who kept repeating Harris’ threats to him
and he continued to travel where he pleased.
In the early spring of 1882, Ben Thompson
passed through San Antonio on his way to Laredo. In May, Thompson again
went to San Antonio to spend several days there before he joined the
Austin printers during their excursion to the Alamo City. In early July,
he received a circular offering a large reward for the arrest of the
outlaw described in it. He would later claim he had reason to believed
the wanted man was in San Antonio so he decided to travel there to search
for him. It was also planned to be a pleasure trip for his two children
and a nephew. The children were to stay with friends while Thompson
searched for the wanted man. Unlike his last two trips, this visit would
not pass so uneventfully.
July 10th was the day of Thompson’s arrival
in San Antonio. He placed his children with friends and went downtown.
Billy Simms and Thompson briefly saw each other that evening. Later
under a tough cross examination, Simms would grudgingly admit that the
next morning he brought two pistols from his home to the Vaudeville
Theatre. He stored the pistols in his private room in the second floor
gambling area. That same afternoon around 3 p.m.
Thompson stopped in the Vaudeville’s gambling
rooms. The stated reason for going there was to search for the wanted
man. He met Simms and they shook hands. Their conversation was cordial
and did not mention any difficulty between Thompson and the people at
the Vaudeville. However, upon seeing Thompson in the gambling hall,
a friend of Ben’s who had charge of a gaming table there immediately
expressed to Ben that he was in imminent danger. Thompson
stayed alert and shortly left. Maybe this is when Ben Thompson
finally decided he had enough of Jack Harris and his threats. Also,
for a reason he never fully expressed, Billy Simms now anticipated serious
trouble from Thompson. He returned to his private room and put on both
of his pistols.
On Tuesday July 11, 1882 at 6:45 p.m., Ben
Thompson returned to the Vaudeville and ordered a whiskey. The bartender
claimed his manner was argumentative. Thompson did not inquire about
the wanted man he was supposed to be hunting for instead he "... wanted
to know where were them damn son’s of bitches with the shotguns." Thompson
then went outside for about 15 minutes where he spoke to beat policeman,
Jacob Rips, and some others. Thompson asked Rips, "...why don’t you policemen
close this whorehouse." Rips replied he had not been instructed to do
so. Ben re-entered the bar with a local businessman, a jeweller named
Leon Rouvant and ordered another drink. Officer Rips quickly got as
far away from the Vaudeville Theatre as his beat allowed him.
As Thompson was downing his drinks, Jack
Harris was walking towards the Vaudeville. It was his habit to go home
in the afternoon, rest, and return in the evening. Worried, Simms hustled
down Commerce street and met Harris about one block west of the Vaudeville.
They spoke for a few moments and from under his coat, Simms pulled out
one of his two pistols and handed it to Harris. He then proceeded Harris
by four or five steps back towards the Vaudeville. Johnny Dyer, an off
duty Vaudeville bartender, also stopped Harris outside the saloon’s
west door. He whispered to Harris that Thompson was in his place. Dyer
walked back into the saloon and placed himself to the rear of the room
behind some whiskey barrels. Thompson was facing the bar counter with
his back turned towards the west entrance. Only twelve feet behind him,
looking into the saloon, stood Jack Harris. Simms would later hint that
if Harris really wanted to murder Thompson, this was the perfect opportunity.
For a moment, and it was only a brief moment, Jack Harris could
have easily shot Ben Thompson in the back. To his credit, Harris was
not a back-shooter and for reasons we will never know he chose not to
use the pistol Simms had just given to him. Within a few minutes, his
decision not to shoot then and there and his subsequent course of action
would prove to be a fatal mistake.
Ben Thompson finished his second drink and
exited the east door as Jack Harris carefully walked in the west entrance.
Harris immediately went to the theatre ticket office on the east side
of the saloon, loaded the double-barreled shotgun he kept there, stepped
out of the office, placed himself half hidden behind a set-off in the
wall and waited. Just outside, with arms crossed stood Ben Thompson.
From his vantage point behind the barrels, Johnny Dyer could watch the
movements of both Harris and Thompson.
While Harris was positioning himself, Billy
Simms met Thompson on the pavement in front of the Vaudeville and for
at least five minutes, he pleaded with Thompson not to cause any trouble.
As they talked the sun was setting. Frustrated Simms walked back into
the Vaudeville. It was now just past dusk.
As Simms walked to the stairway that led
up to the theatre and gambling rooms, he admitted he passed by the ticket
office but denied seeing or speaking to Harris. He would claim he went
upstairs to look for Joe Foster and it was then he heard two shots ring
out. Foster was not in the building at the time. Thompson’s attorneys
would argue that when the two shots were fired Simms was at the head
of a flight of stairs that led outside and to the rear of Thompson.
Moments after the shooting, Simms was seen with a cocked pistol in his
Jack Harris was wounded in the chest, a
"ball struck the breast bone, and glanced . . .up between the 4th &
5th ribs and passed out behind." The shot passed through the right lung
and caused severe haemorrhaging. Carrying his cocked shotgun, Harris
staggered up the stairs towards the theatre gallery. Johnny Dyer followed
and found him laid out between the benches. He was surrounded by two
or three women. One held his head. The two actresses, Kate and May Mauri
told Dyer that Jack was shot; Dyer raced out of the Vaudeville and found
Dr. Thomas Chew who examined Harris at the theatre. Friends placed Harris
on a cot, ordered a hack and took him to is home three blocks away.
Besides the attending Dr. Chew, other physicians were called but
nothing could be done to save Harris’ life. For more than an hour he
suffered and he was in such agony that once he implored, "Oh ! Someone
kill me for God’s sake and let me die." Moments later he ceased tossing
over the bed, took one last bloody gasp and died.
The next day Ben Thompson voluntarily surrendered
to Sheriff McCall and San Antonio City Marshal Philip Shardein. The
shooting death of Jack Harris was front page news across the state.
A coroner’s jury was convened on the afternoon of July 13, testimony
of witnesses were given and the jury found "...Jack Harris came to his
death by a pistol shot wound by a pistol held in the hands of one Ben
Billy Simms produced bond and was appointed
temporary administrator of Harris’s estate. The Vaudeville Theatre had
been closed since the shooting reopened on July 15 under the management
of Billy Simms, Joe Foster and Johnny Dyer.
Thompson remained confined to jail. His
attorneys filed a motion of Habeas Corpus. The hearing took place over
four days, beginning July 25th and lasting through the 28th. Thompson
through his own financial resources and with help from close friends
was prepared to furnish a large bail. The Habeas Corpus hearing was
a hard fought affair. Sixteen witnesses were called to testify for the
State and eighteen for the defence. District Court Judge George H. Noonan
presided and after studying the evidence presented by both counsels,
Noonan ruled against releasing Thompson on bail and recommitted him
to a jail cell. On September 6th, a Bexar County grand jury formally
indicted Ben for the murder of Jack Harris and the trial was set to
open on the 12th instant.
Writing from his cell in the county jail,
Thompson authored a lengthy statement explaining his version of the
Harris shooting and the events leading up to it. On September 10th,
the letter was printed in the Austin Statesman. His statement
clearly shows he understood the value of obtaining the public’s good
opinion before going to trial. He emphasized:
"... As there is a God in heaven, I do believe
that if I had not shot at the moment I did , I should have been shot
in the front by Harris and in the rear by Simms. Important witnesses
were run off by Simms and others to prevent revelations damning to the
conspirators and favourable to me."
On the morning of Tuesday, September 12th,
the case of the State of Texas vs. Ben Thompson was called before the
district court. The attorneys defending Thompson "... presented the
court with a petition in which it was alleged that the defendant could
not safely go to trial at the present term of the court for want of
testimony." Key witnesses for the defence were unavailable to testify,
including the Mauri sisters. Their testimony was expected to prove that
after Harris was shot he asked them, "...Is Thompson killed?" and being
answered in the negative, then asked "Are any of my friends killed?"
- thus showing that Harris and his friends had concerted measures to
murder Ben Thompson. The defence also argued that Johnny Dyer was positioned
behind the whiskey barrels watching the movements of Ben Thompson for
a reason other then just curiosity sake. Judge Noonan granted the petition
and the case was continued until the next term.
While Ben Thompson and his attorneys fought
for his freedom and life, Billy Simms worked to improve both the appointments
and the quality of entertainment offered at the Vaudeville Theatre.
He travelled east to seek new acts and the San Antonio Light
reported on September 12th that he would return from St. Louis with
a troupe of seventeen performers. The Vaudeville Theatre also received
a complete refurbishing. The Light stated that theatre now enjoyed
new chairs, a dress circle, new paint, new improved stage machinery,
and a new brilliant electric light suspended from the ceiling.
The fall season opened September 17th to enthusiastic reviews and continued
to receive positive reviews throughout the fall.
Ben Thompson would linger in jail awaiting
his trial until January 1883. On Wednesday morning, January 10, Thompson
was arraigned. His attorneys applied for a change of venue. They "...alleged
there is a dangerous combination formed against the defendant, and that
prejudice is such that he cannot get a fair and impartial trial." Judge
Noonan ruled against the motion. After conferring with their client
for a few moments, the defence attorneys shocked the prosecutors and
spectators alike. They declared their defendant ready for trial.
The trial commenced Tuesday morning, January
16 and lasted till Saturday. Two of the prosecution’s key witnesses
were Billy Simms and Joe Foster. It was said that the money the prosecution
needed to pursue the case was provided by them. Simms and Foster’s efforts
proved to be in vain, because on Sunday morning the jury brought in
a verdict of not guilty. On the evening train, Ben Thompson, accompanied
by his wife and daughter, returned home to Austin.
Freed after an imprisonment of seven months,
Ben Thompson felt the need for some recreation and decided on a lengthy
trip. Monroe Miller, a close friend and Austin businessman, chose to
accompany him. Their first stop was San Antonio. It was an act of true
bravado, typical of Ben Thompson. He demonstrated to all of Jack Harris’
friends and associates his contempt for them by immediately returning
to the scene of his past troubles.
Other stops included Laredo, Brownsville,
Matamoros, Corpus Christi, Galveston and New Orleans. It was described
as a "...trip full of pleasure, fun and recreation, nothing happening
on the entire travel to mar the object for which it was undertaken."
When he eventually returned to Austin, he again engaged in his former
business of gambling.
The remainder of 1883 would pass quietly
for Ben Thompson. However, in January 1884 his heavy drinking bouts
became more common and for the next several months his late night pistol
antics in Austin became more frequent, annoying and dangerous. His friend
and attorney, William Walton described his behaviour;
he was polite, affable and as much the gentlemen as in all the times
past, ... when indulging in drink beyond a certain degree he became
dictatorial and dogmatic, making it extremely disagreeable to be in
his company ... He was fast becoming a terror, not only to the people
generally, but also to his own immediate circle of friends." It was
believed Thompson was suffering from insomnia and depression.
The newspapers and public who had supported
him so often in the past and easily forgave him for his peccadilloes
now grew tired of his behaviour.
Billy Simms remained as proprietor and business
manager of the Vaudeville until Ben Thompson was acquitted. During the
first week of February 1883 Billy Simms relinquished the job of business
manager of the Vaudeville Theatre and soon left San Antonio to visit
Chicago. In August Simms was still "absent in the North." A relative
of Simms has stated that it was his intention to leave Texas for good,
but he was delayed in San Antonio during the early portion of 1884 because
of affairs related to the administration of Jack Harris’ estate. The
Light formally announced that Billy Simms had returned
to the Vaudeville and to his old position as business manager in February
On March 11, 1884, John King Fisher, a noted
gunman from the Nueces Strip, was in Austin on business. Fisher, once
the leader of a gang of rustlers, was now a lawman, a deputy sheriff
in his home county of Uvaldeand was an intimate friend of Ben’s younger
brother Billy. Ben Thompson and Fisher met and enjoyed Austin in a quiet
way. Sometime earlier they became angered at one another and remained
so for several months until mutual friends interceded and they reconciled.
In the late afternoon, Fisher wanted to leave for his home in Uvalde,
located some ninety miles west of San Antonio. He was anxious for Thompson’s
company and Ben agreed to accompany him as far as San Antonio. They
arrived in the Alamo City via the International Train at 8 p.m. It has
been reported a telegram from Austin to the proprietors of the Vaudeville
preceded their arrival. United States Marshal Hal Gosling was a passenger
on the same train. He went to the Vaudeville Theatre and warned a house
policeman named Jacob Coy that Ben Thompson was in town.
The two gunfighters stepped off the train,
crossed the street and had a drink at the Gallager Brothers International
Saloon. They took in a play and had more drinks at the Turner Hall on
Houston Street. Leaving the hall before the play ended, they walked
westward towards Main Plaza. They had been in town almost three hours
before they decided to visit the Vaudeville Theatre. King Fisher was
a good friend of Joe Foster and perhaps he offered to mediate an end
to the feud or perhaps as many have since suspected he was luring Thompson
to an ambush. Just before 11 p.m. they entered the Vaudeville’s
downstairs saloon. They took a drink at the bar and then upon invitation
from Billy Simms proceeded upstairs to the theatre gallery. Closely
watching the pair, Billy Simms followed up the stairs behind them. Within
a few minutes of entering the upstairs gallery both Thompson and Fisher
were stretched out on the floor dead from multiple gunshot wounds.
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