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Billy Thomspon

Billy Thompson, Ellsworth, Kansas, 1872

Federal troops were still garrisoned in Austin, Texas three years after the end of the Civil War. One of these soldiers was Private William Burk, who was serving as chief clerk in the United States Adjutant General’s office. Burk was a drinking man with a quick temper, and it is these attributes that introduced him to Billy Thompson.

They met on a Tuesday afternoon, when both men stopped to watch a fistfight between a Negro civilian and a white soldier. The townspeople watching favoured the Negro over the hated bluebelly, and one called out encouragement. Private Burk accused Billy Thompson and was ready to fight until another man confessed to the deed. Burk apologized and offered to buy Billy a drink. They spent several hours drinking together before deciding to visit a nearby bordello. As they approached the house they discovered three drunken soldiers passed out in the yard. Billy wanted to play a trick and strip the soldiers and take their uniforms, however Burk angrily prevented Billy’s mischief.

Once inside, they separated, and Billy went upstairs to sleep. When Burk discovered Billy gone, his tempered flared for the last time. Incensed, he hunted for Billy through the house screaming threats. Finding the room that Thompson was sleeping in, Burk kicked in the door and drew his revolver.  Shots rang out and the small room filled with gunsmoke. Hastily pulling on his clothes, Billy stepped over the dying Burk and fled. It was March 31, 1868 and Billy Thompson just began his life as a fugitive from justice.

Billy and his older brother Ben were born in the English riverport town of Knottingley, and immigrated to Central Texas in 1851. While they may have been born Englishmen, the brothers grew to manhood in Austin and no one would ever deny that they were thoroughly western in their ways.

The Thompson brothers bore a strong family resemblance, however Billy was slightly lighter in complexion and taller than Ben. Both were very sociable. Ben’s charm and manners enabled him to mix with all classes of society but Billy was a "willing slave to the worst passions," and spent his time with gamblers and whores.

Ben and Billy Thompson earned their living as professional gamblers.  They were reckless and headstrong, and it was decidedly dangerous to have a difficulty with them. Both killed men, but the words, "cool and brave," applied only to Ben. He never shot another man in the back, knowing a fair fight would give him the strong argument of self-defence before a jury. Billy preferred to seek an advantage and he was known to take an opponent unaware. He always fled from authority and though he and his brother Ben tried to prevent it, at least twice he was forced to have his day in court.


Private Burk died the next morning, and Billy went into hiding in the hills west of Austin. Without money or a strong mount, he was unable to continue his flight. So he sent for his brother.

Ben was ninety miles away playing monte in the railroad town of Bryan. He rushed back to Austin, but soldiers followed him everywhere, making it impossible for him to see his brother. A deadly cat and mouse game ensued. Eventually, however, with the help of friends and his brother, Billy escaped into the Oklahoma Territory but Billy did not remain there for long. Two months to the day Private Burk died, Billy was in the gulfport town of Rockport, Texas. Once again, he held a smoking pistol and a dying man lay at his feet. An Aransas County grand jury approved an arrest warrant for first-degree murder. The indictment papers accused Billy of firing two pistol shots into one Remus Smith. One newspaper later called the shooting "wholly unprovoked." Smith was an eighteen-year-old stable hand who "chunked" Billy Thompson’s horse when it tried to nose in on some feed. A furious Billy threatened the young stable hand for abusing his horse. Smith replied, "Lay off the pistol and come on." It was then that Billy drew and fired twice. Aransas County officials thought enough of Smith to spend the next fifteen years trying to bring Billy Thompson to justice.


Billy kept on the move and out of trouble for five years. Then on April 18, 1873, he checked into the Grand Central Hotel at Ellsworth, Kansas. His brother Ben joined him about a month later and they set themselves up as house gamblers in the back room of Joe Brennan’s saloon.

Ellsworth was the crown prince of Kansas’ cattle towns in 1873. Both city and county law officers kept the peace and at mid-season the editor of  the Ellsworth Reporter boasted at the top of the paper’s local column "Nobody Killed Yet."

Chauncey Whitney, the county sheriff was both popular and effective. Over the summer, he became a good friend of the Thompson brothers. Ben and Billy were not so lucky with John "Happy Jack" Morco, a city policeman. Morco was a swaggering braggart who claimed to have shot down twelve men, and his heavy-handed enforcement of the law made him unpopular with the visiting Texans. On June 30th Morco arrested Billy for carrying a pistol and for being drunk and disorderly. Billy grudging paid the fines but his troubles with Morco were just beginning.


On August 15, Billy Thompson was drunker than usual. Sheriff Whitney had been planning to picnic out of town that day with his family and a group of friends. Aware of how drunk Billy Thompson was he chose to stay in town to prevent trouble and trouble was not long in coming. Ben Thompson introduced a gambler named John Sterling into a high stake monte game. Sterling promised Ben he would share any profits from the game with him but after winning almost $1,000 he left Brennan’s saloon without settling up. Ben found Sterling in another saloon down the street with Happy Jack Morco, and demanded his cut. Knowing he was unarmed, Sterling struck Ben Thompson. Morco then pulled his pistol and forced Ben to back away. Later, as Ben was back at Brennan’s saloon discussing the incident with friends, Sterling and Morco stood outside and yelled, "Come out and fight you Texas sons of bitches."

Ben pleaded for arms, and not finding any rushed out the back door to where his weapons were checked. Learning that Ben was facing a fight, Billy hurried to help his brother. He found Ben stuffing a revolver into his belt and loading a rifle so he grabbed Ben’s double-barrelled shotgun. Satisfied, the Thompson brothers stepped into the street.

Word of the impending gunfight spread through town and Sheriff Whitney unarmed and in his shirtsleeves rushed to the railroad tracks where Ben and Billy now stood. Whitney implored them to put up their arms, and return to Brennan’s saloon with him for a drink and to talk about how to resolve the situation. Ben agreed, and all three walked back towards the saloon. Watching from down the block, Sterling and Morco, with guns drawn, moved to intercept the Thompson's. Another Texan yelled a warning; Ben stopped at the door of the saloon and fired a rifle shot that missed. Behind him Billy’s shotgun roared. Ben turned to see his friend, Sheriff Whitney, withering on the ground his blood soaking into the dust.

Townspeople carried Whitney home and sent for a doctor. Ben seated Billy on a horse and pleaded with him to flee. Slowly riding out of town, Billy kept cursing for a fight. With the help of other Texans, Ben prevented any pursuit for over an hour. Billy hid in the cattle camps outside town, and returned to Texas with some drovers. Sheriff Whitney died a few days later; Billy soon had a price on his head. The governor of Kansas offered a $500 reward for his arrest and conviction.


Reconstruction was over, and no one seemed to care about the death of Private Burk, but Billy Thompson was forced to remain on the dodge. For the next several years Aransas county officials sent out warrants to the Texas sheriffs of Travis, Galveston and Atascosa counties. In every instance, the sheriffs failed to find him within their jurisdiction. In June 1874 he eluded a city policeman after starting a row in an Austin saloon. Later that summer the law briefly caught up to him in Mountain City, Texas, but he escaped and went to San Antonio where, with a friend, he visited a brothel named the Long House and struck one of the prostitutes across the face with his quirt. Two San Antonio policeman chased Billy and his friend but withheld firing their pistols because of the danger of hitting innocent parties. Billy kept on the run for two more years.


Finally in October 1876, a Texas Ranger patrol lead by Captain John Sparks rode towards Austin in search of a drove of stolen cattle. A Travis county deputy told Sparks a small herd was grazing just thirteen miles northeast of the city near a ranch owned by Neal Cain, a friend of the Ben and Billy Thompson. The next day, the rangers swept down on Cain’s ranch and recovered the stolen stock. Neil Cain escaped, but several men were arrested in the raid, including Billy Thompson.  Billy had been at the ranch three weeks, and the rangers knew he had nothing to do with the stolen cattle. But Sparks also knew of the Kansas reward of $500 for Billy, and brought him to Austin. Arriving close to midnight, Sparks placed Billy in the Travis county jail and wired Kansas. Meanwhile Ben Thompson was alerted of Billy’s arrest and he hired lawyers to free his brother and prevent his extradition to Kansas.

The next morning a county judge ordered Billy set free because no charge had been brought against him. Captain Sparks had not yet heard from Kansas, so he re-arrested Billy on a bogus rustling charge before he could leave the courtroom. A second judge freed Billy because there was no evidence of rustling. By now Sparks had learned the Kansas reward was still being offered so he again arrested Billy.

The legal question was so confused that rangers escorting Billy Thompson back to jail actually freed him when the Travis county sheriff refused to take the prisoner on the authority of telegraphed papers. Billy set off at a run and was mounting a horse when Captain Sparks overtook him and arrested him a fourth time. This time he was closely guarded until a district court judge ordered Billy held in the county jail. Desperate to keep his brother in Texas, Ben tipped off officials in Aransas county of Billy’s incarceration. They sent a warrant to Austin demanding his return to their jurisdiction to answer for the death of Remus Smith.

Faced with two murder warrants, the district judge sought the guidance of the governor and on November 15, he ruled the Kansas requisition had precedent. The following day, Sparks and a shackled Billy Thompson were on a train bound for Ellsworth. Billy wasn’t in Kansas yet and Ben moved to prevent that.

At Corsicana, just south of Dallas, a group of suspicious acting men boarded the train. When the train stopped in Dallas, these men approached a local judge and asked for an arrest warrant be issued charging Captain Sparks with kidnapping. The judge refused, but Sparks now feared a violent attempt to free his prisoner, and he asked the Dallas county sheriff for additional guards. The sheriff called upon a number of his regular deputies and jail guards, plus a squad of city police, and members of the Lamar Rifles militia. This overwhelming show of force ended all rescue attempts, and Billy was remanded into the custody of the Ellsworth county sheriff. On his way back to Texas, Captain Sparks stopped in to see the governor of Kansas about the reward.

Ellsworth didn’t have a jail worthy of holding Billy Thompson, so he was transferred to Salina. His friends followed him there and the fear of a jailbreak convinced officials to lodge Billy in the state penitentiary. He entered Leavenworth on December 5 and he would remain there until the following September.


When his life or freedom was to be decided by a jury, Ben Thompson always hired the best legal talent available in the area. He realized an outsider, no matter how skilled, could never be as effective as a respected local attorney. Instead of going to Kansas, Ben stayed in Texas to earn the money to pay for Billy’s defence. The Thompson brothers enlisted their brother-in-law, Robert Gill, a respected merchant from Bastrop, Texas to go to Kansas and help Billy select his defence council. Gill and Billy Thompson chose wisely, retaining A. H. Case of Topeka and Phillip T. Pendelton of Ellsworth. Pendelton, a former Ellsworth county attorney had drawn up the original indictment papers against Billy. Later they added Captain J. D. Mohler, called "a Napoleon among lawyers" by the Reporter, to the defence team. Their initial tactics were to delay the trial, and, if possible, have it thrown out of court.

The fall term of the Fourteenth Judicial District Court of Kansas convened at Ellsworth on Monday, September 3 with John Prescott presiding. The first order of business was to consider two motions filed by Billy’s defence team. They first asked for a continuance, stating they needed more time to gather witnesses. Judge Prescott denied the motion stating that the defence had had plenty of time. The second motion asked the judge to quash the indictment because it, "does not contain a statement of the facts of the case as constituting the offence, in plain and concise language without repetition." Prescott refused to free a prisoner accused of murdering a law officer during performance of his duty, and Billy’s arraignment took place immediately. He pled "not guilty" and jury selection began.

The prosecution and defence took great care in selecting twelve acceptable men from the forty-eight in the jury pool, and the editor of the Ellsworth Reporter admitted that "some of the best citizens of Ellsworth County" made up the jury. The trial started the next day. Everyone knew Billy fired the fatal shot. It would be ridiculous for his attorney’s to argue otherwise. Their strategy was to admit that Billy did fire, but that he did so unintentionally, and without motive. Their evidence was the testimony of eyewitnesses and a sworn statement sent from Texas by Ben Thompson.

The well-prepared prosecution presented a list of more than three dozen witnesses. The defence had only six. Just one hailed from Texas. The other five were residents of Kansas.

The testimony of defence witness William Purdy, a resident of Atchison county Kansas, established what happened in the moments after Ben Thompson fired on the advancing John Sterling and Happy Jack Morco.  Purdy stated, "…[Billy] was standing still or trying to do so, being at the time intoxicated, He … had his eyes fixed on the two parties advancing on him [and] Ben, … the shot of Ben did not stop them, they continued to advance the same as before [and] when within about twenty feet of Billy Thompson, his gun being down below his breast, it went off, one barrel of it only, and the shot took effect in the shoulder and side of Whitney, … Billy’s gun was cocked … he took no aim, did not bring the gun up, nor was he looking at Whitney, who stood at his left … As the gun discharged Ben said ‘My God Billy you have shot your best friend,’ … Billy replied, ‘I am sorry,’ Whitney said, ‘He did not intend to do it, it was an accident, send for my family’… There was no indication at any time … that Whitney [and] the Thompson’s were not on the best of terms."

Others also testified that Whitney exclaimed after being shot, " … he did not intend to shoot me, send for my wife and child." The prosecution often objected, calling many statements of defence witnesses incompetent, irrelevant, immaterial and hearsay. But they made no objection to Sheriff Whitney's dying declaration.

The trial lasted nine gruelling days, and the jury finally began deliberation on Friday, September 14. They reached a verdict one hour later. The Reporter stated "…When they came back with their verdict the courtroom was full and every one but the prisoner seemed intensely interested to learn the result. Thompson came in with the Sheriff and Deputies smiling as if he was sure that his bonds were about to be loosed. The clerk commenced reading and just as we expected to hear ‘guilty’ pronounced he read ‘not guilty,’ … all decorum was forgotten by the friends of the prisoner who congratulated him on his escape."

The editor of the Reporter astutely complimented Billy’s attorneys for their efforts stating "… Messrs. Case and Mohler … are very able men, and they used all their eloquence and ingenuity to save their client."

Billy Thompson and Robert Gill boarded a train for Texas the next day, and for three years Billy Thompson’s whereabouts are again mostly unknown. A Dodge City newspaper mentioned his arrival in that city during May 1878. That same year, his name appeared on the Texas Rangers’ List of Fugitives. Aransas county still sought him.


In June 1880, Ben Thompson was in Dodge City and his brother Billy was three hundred miles north, at the westernmost terminus of the cattle trail, Ogallala, Nebraska.  Billy had visited Ogallala before and had some hard feelings for a saloon owner there named Bill Tucker. The source of their dislike was rivalry over the affections of a woman commonly called "Big Alice", a well-known member of the demimonde. On Monday, June 21, as Tucker was pouring drinks for customers, a drunken Billy Thompson positioned himself in front of the building and fired two shots into the barroom. The second struck Tucker in the left hand cutting off one finger and mutilating the others.  Enraged, the rather game Tucker grabbed the shotgun he kept under the bar and took off after the retreating Billy.  Tucker fired both barrels at long range missing Billy. He reloaded as he continued the chase, and again fired both barrels. This time Tucker riddled Billy’s backside with buckshot from his neck to his heels. A doctor attended to both combatants. Billy was arrested, but allowed to convalesce at the Ogallala House Hotel rather than in the county jail. The Keith county sheriff knew Ben Thompson’s reputation and fearing his arrival hired extra deputies to guard Billy and help keep the peace.

Ben received word of Billy’s predicament by telegraph, and fearing a lynch mob if he attempted a rescue, asked his friend, Bat Masterson, to go to Ogallala in his stead. Masterson complied and travelled to Ogallala on July 6. After conferring with Billy, he paid a visit to the ailing Tucker at his home. Tucker was bitter, but willing to drop the matter for the right inducement. Unfortunately the sum he demanded was more than the Thompson's could raise. The only alternative was escape. With the help of a bartender friend, Masterson slipped a Mickey Finn to Billy’s guard, and with the guard out of the way hoisted Billy on his shoulder and carried him to the train station.  Masterson’s timing was perfect, they caught the Union Pacific eastbound flyer which made a water stop daily at midnight. With two new passengers comfortably seated, the flyer clicked along at forty miles per hour leaving pursuit far behind.

The train pulled into North Platte, Buffalo Bill Cody’s hometown, at 2a.m. Masterson carried Billy from the train to the saloon – the only building in town still ablaze with lights. Inside, they found Buffalo Bill relating stories to about a dozen friends. After hearing Billy’s story, Cody promised them a safe refuge from the Ogallala authorities and help in continuing their flight.

The following day, the two men left in Mrs. Cody’s expensive new carriage. For the next two hundred miles they rode through a driving rainstorm to Dodge City, and arrived dogged tired, filthy and soaked to the skin. Masterson wanted a hot bath and a bed but Billy insisted on stopping at the telegraph office first where he wired Ogallala to notify the sheriff of his safe arrival and invite him to visit Dodge City. The sheriff made no reply. But a Keith county grand jury indicted Billy, charging him with assault with intent to kill.


In January 1881, Billy was briefly held in Harris County, just north of Houston, until he escaped the jail and fled. Once again his whereabouts remain unknown, however his brother Ben was making headlines. Ben Thompson was twice elected city marshal of Austin and proved to be an excellent officer. On July 10, 1882, he travelled to San Antonio and the next evening shot and killed a man named Jack Harris with whom he had a gambling dispute of some years standing. Harris was one of the owners of the Vaudeville Theatre and a leading member of San Antonio’s sporting fraternity. Ben surrendered to authorities and spent six months in the Bexar county jail awaiting trial. For the first time, he would not be able to help Billy if the need arose.


On Monday, October 23, 1882, the Aransas County sheriff received a tip that Billy Thompson was hanging around El Paso’s tenderloin district. He immediately telegraphed the adjutant general in Austin asking him to direct the rangers in El Paso to arrest Thompson for the murder of Remus Smith. The adjutant general complied, and sent a wire ordering Captain George W. Baylor to find and arrest Billy. Baylor took him into custody without incident, but he could spare no one to escort Billy back across the state. Baylor turned Billy over to the El Paso county sheriff who in turn assigned Deputy Sheriff Frank Manning to return Billy to Aransas County. It may have been due to Billy’s own resourcefulness or just an incredible stroke of good fortune, but Billy's new guard had been a warm friend of his for the past sixteen years.

Deputy Manning and his prisoner arrived in Austin on Thursday night the 26th. Billy asked Manning for his liberty while in his hometown and pledged to return to Manning’s custody on Saturday morning. He told his friend he wanted to confer with his lawyers, have his picture taken and arrange other business. Trusting him Manning set him loose. Billy spent Friday drinking in saloons and visiting the Capitol State Fair grounds. Late Saturday morning, an embarrassed Manning reported Billy’s "escape." The Travis County sheriff and Austin city marshal made a search for Billy but he was nowhere to be found.

On January 20, 1883, Ben Thompson’s jury returned a not guilty verdict and he again avoided the hangman’s noose. Ben’s lawyers proved that Jack Harris held a cocked shotgun in his hands when Ben fatally shot him. That was good enough to gain an acquittal from any jury in Texas.


Billy’s never-ending problem with Aransas County rose up and bit him again. Spotted across the state line in Arkansas, the Aransas County Sheriff, P.P. Court acquired the proper extradition papers and travelled to Arkansas where he arrested Billy and returned him to Texas on May 10, 1883.

The Thompson brothers’ first move was to hire the finest, most influential legal talent in southeast Texas. They approached State Senator Rudolph Kleberg and United States Congressman William Crain who agreed to handle the case.

The assigned trial judge, Henry Clay Pleasants, was famous for keeping a shotgun resting on his lap as he held court. He listened closely to the facts surrounding Billy Thompson’s case, and when a $5000 bail was posted released Billy from custody. Kleberg and Crain then moved for a change of venue from Rockport, Aransas County to nearby DeWitt County. The prosecution agreed, and the trial was scheduled for December.

On December 11, Billy’s attorneys filed a motion to quash the murder indictment, claiming it was improperly written. Judge Pleasants ruled against the motion, and the trial proceeded. The prosecution faced the unenviable task of arguing a case fifteen years after the crime occurred. They called eight witnesses but the trial lasted only one day, and the jurors reached their verdict without leaving the box. Once again, Billy Thompson smiled, as he heard the words, "not guilty".

For the first time in many, many years both of the Thompson brothers were free and uncharged of the crime of murder. They returned to Austin where the opportunity to shun old vices and begin a new, respectable life lay before them. Ben considered purchasing a ranch, but old habits die-hard.  Instead, he and Billy drank harder and gambled more than ever. Beginning in January 1884 Ben Thompson’s life became more and more desperate.  Drunk, he roamed the streets of Austin late at night, firing his pistol and threatening people. The newspapers of Texas spent many a column inch complaining of his behaviour in article after article.


On March 11, Ben Thompson headed for San Antonio. Billy was already in the Alamo City when Ben stepped off the train. The brothers met and had a short conversation. Billy left Ben and returned to a gambling hall. Ben, accompanied by the greatly feared Neuces River valley gunman John King Fisher visited a number of attractions, ending up at the Vaudeville Theatre. Minutes after entering the building, Ben and Fisher lay dead on the floor. A later autopsy performed in Austin proved that Ben Thompson had been shot down from behind. The friends of Jack Harris had their revenge.

Word of Ben’s death spread like wildfire, and thousands swarmed the plaza in front of the theatre hoping for a glimpse of the famous gunman’s body. A weeping Billy paced the boardwalk in front of the Vaudeville for hours. The next day, he returned to Austin with his brother’s remains where his hometown gave him a monumental farewell. People attending the funeral service overflowed Ben Thompson’s home on University Avenue and sixty-two carriages followed his coffin to the grave site.  For several weeks Billy tried to find witnesses to his brother’s murder, but the San Antonio authorities showed no interest in prosecuting anyone for the crime.

At first, newspapers speculated that Billy would seek revenge on his brother’s killers, but he never made a move. Tucker’s shotgun blast and years of heavy drinking had shattered his health. He eventually moved to Houston and continued to earn his living as a professional gambler, but he never again showed the violent streak so prevalent in his youth. Most likely he learned a lesson from his older brother’s sudden death. At least one man who claimed a close acquaintance with Billy during his remaining years stated that he "… was a mild man who never got into any trouble."


During his years of running from the law, Billy Thompson drifted into Arizona and in Tombstone made friends with Wells Fargo agent Fred Dodge. In January 1892 Dodge was in Houston investigating the late night robbery of the Wells Fargo office there. Billy gave Dodge his first tip as to who pulled off the heist. Within days, Dodge knew the identities of all the men involved, but was unable to recover any of the stolen money, the robbers having lost it all playing faro.

Billy Thompson tried Cripple Creek, Colorado, however Houston and occasionally Galveston remained his home until the late summer of 1897. Sick and ailing from an abscess in the stomach he was taken to a Catholic hospital in Houston named Saint Joseph’s. Even with this care, the end came quickly. On Monday afternoon, September 6th, at the age of fifty-two he died, and later that evening by telephone his brother-in-law Robert Gill was notified of his passing. Gill directed that Billy’s remains be shipped to Bastrop for interment. With his two younger sisters among the mourners, Billy Thompson’s funeral services were officiated by Rev. D. H. Hotchkiss of the Bastrop Methodist Church. A long cortege of friends and relatives followed the hearse to Fairview Cemetery where his body was consigned to the earth. Probably out of respect for his sisters, the Bastrop Advertiser made no mention of his violent past. The Austin Statesman published nothing about his life or passing, but other Texas newspapers drew attention to the event. Remembering Billy Thompson with a memory fonder then the facts would suggest the San Antonio Express wrote "…though no means recognized as hard a citizen as his elder brother, [Billy Thompson] was still a man who carried half a dozen notches on his gun. His career as a gambler is hard to follow, it was one of travel and adventure. He had a roving spirit and in his ramblings travelled from the California slopes to the Mississippi river. Those were wild days, and a rover must have met with many thrilling incidents. He could have had a much longer record as a killer than he achieved, if he so desired as several men tried him out at different times, but were allowed to go after Thompson could have killed them."

Many years later one expert on western gunfighters expressed the following opinion of Billy Thompson. "Mean, vicious, vindictive and totally unpredictable, Billy’s survival was remarkable."

His ability to dodge the law for so many years and escape from custody at least four times was indeed remarkable. Chuck Parsons, another prominent western history researcher and author of a dozen books, offered up this explanation on how Billy Thompson lasted so long. "He must have been everybody’s pal, how else could he have survived to die with his boots off in a nice clean hospital bed." His older brother’s help and a tremendous amount of luck must have been part of it too.

Tom Bicknell

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