The Killing of Phil Coe

On Ben Thompson's release from prison after being found guilty of the attempted murder of his brother-in-law James Moore, he returned home to Austin and remained there with his family for some months.  He once again began frequenting the local gambling haunts and had soon accumulated enough money to leave his family behind and try his fortune in the North Western states and territories, to where Texan's drove large herds of cattle each year.  Luck shone brightly on Ben, and he managed to win the grand sum of $2385.

Ben's desire was to gain control of a saloon business in some central location, where by proper management he could concentrate the Texan patronage on it.  The saloon business in Abilene, Kansas, where Ben was now operating, was the paying one.

Just at this time, Ben's old army comrade, Phil Coe arrived in Abilene and had with him some thousands of dollars.  Phil would attract attention wherever he traveled.  He was a good looking man who stood six feet four inches tall.  He was brave and generous and faithful to his close friends, yet forgiving of his enemies.  An agreement between the two was soon concluded and they combined their resources to become joint proprietors of the Bulls Head Saloon.  They directed all their energy to the establishment of the character of their business which through their determined work, became a very successful and profitable business.

Abilene was at this time a prosperous town and the Marshall of the city was Wild Bill Hickok.  Bill Hickok had a major say in the affairs within the town and was surrounded by some of the most unscrupulous men that ever lived. He and the city authorities were in colleague and in all things, acted together.  Ben Thompson and Phil Coe, saw it as their duty to protect the citizens, as far as they could, from the practices set upon them by the associated Abilene authorities.  This caused great anger and frustration to Hickok and his gang who were normally unrestrained in their imposition.

It was at this time, that Ben invited his family to join him in Abilene, and they became involved in an accident with the carriage in which they were traveling. The injuries they sustained, and the horror of Ben's wife undergoing the amputation of her arm, would keep Ben away from his business affairs for some time.

Wild Bill Hickok and Phil Coe were rivals for the attention of a woman in the town called Jesse Hazel.  One night, Coe and Jesse were out drinking wine in the Gulf Hotel when Bill entered and aimed a wild kick towards Jesse which struck her under the chin.  Phil Coe responded by kicking Bill out of the room and down the stairs and had it not been for the fact that Jesse required his attention, he would probably have killed Bill there and then.  Phil was furious, and after ascertaining that Jesse was well, he armed himself and went in search of Bill, though he was nowhere to be found.  The next morning, Bill sent a message to Coe asking for a meeting with him so that he could apologise for his actions the night before.  Coe agreed to meet him. Bill assured Coe that he had not meant to harm Jesse, and the blow was accidental and Coe was willing to accept his apology and forget all about the incident.

A few days passed and the Texan cattle boys were enjoying a last night in the town before their farewell the following morning.  While Phil and some friends were walking through the town, a savage dog leapt out at them and Phil instinctively shot it dead.  Wild Bill heard the gunfire and made his way to the rear of the saloon, in front of which Phil Coe was standing.  Calling out to Phil, he stated that he should not be shooting his pistol in the town.  At that moment an incident further up town caused Phil to glance away and Bill, grasping his opportunity, pulled two pistols from his pocket and shot Phil four times without prior reason or warning.  Coe, though mortally wounded, managed to return three shots towards Bill, who by this time had retired into the safety of the saloon, and the bullets merely hit the door frame and glanced away.  A member of Bills gang came running across and tried to enter the saloon.  Mistaking him for Coe, Bill shot him too and he fell to the floor dead.  Phil Coe collapsed to the ground outside and died later from the injuries he sustained.

Ben Thompson would learn about the death of his business partner and closest friend, when traveling home to Austin to recuperate after the family's carriage accident.  The shock was to affect him deeply and it would be many months before Ben felt able to venture out into the world once more.  By this time, the prosperous business that he and Coe had developed, was no more.  Wild Bill and his associates had absorbed everything that Coe had left behind.

Notes taken from William Walton's book of 1884 ; The Life and Adventures of Ben Thompson ; The Famous Texan



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