THE CONFLICTS OF BEN THOMPSON
It had never been our intention to go into lengthy accounts of the numerous conflicts and gunfights that involved Ben Thompson. Our belief is that after the passage of so many years, it is not possible to give a true account of the events but to merely speculate on what little is actually known. The details we present here are composed of notes taken from the book "Life and Adventures of Ben Thompson ; The Famous Texan" by William Walton of 1884, who became Ben's lawyer and close personal friend. There may well be many inaccuracies contained in these short extracts and we would welcome your views on any aspects you care to write in to us about.
What is apparent, in all the accounts that we have read about Ben's conflicts, is that Ben was never acknowledged as being the aggressor or perpetrator in the acts. Though it is widely known that he repeatedly took human life, it was only ever done in defense of himself. He sought only to protect the weak from those having the power and advantage, and those who would use it ruthlessly, regardless of right or circumstances.
Ben Thompson's first encounter with the law came when he was just 13 years old. In 1856, Ben and his boyhood friend Joe Brown, were fooling around with a small, but loaded, shotgun. Obviously unaware of the danger, Joe urged Ben to fire at him, a request to which Ben foolishly complied. Whether Ben intentionally aimed the gun at Joe or not, Joe was peppered with shot and cried out "Oh, Ben, you shot me." Ben dropped the gun and ran to the wounded boy to offer assistance and ensure him that he had not meant him any harm.
Joe was not seriously wounded, he soon recovered from his ordeal and was up and about again. But that was not enough to satisfy public sentiment and Ben was put on trial, charged with assault and Intent to Kill. The trial proceeded to the end detailing all the facts and circumstances surrounding the unfortunate incident. The twelve Jury members found Ben to be guilty of an aggravated assault but recommended him to the mercy of the Court and clemency of the executive, because there had obviously been no intention to kill the boy. Ben was eventually extended pardon and discharged.
Although in society today, we would not wish for youngsters to be playing around with firearms, loaded or not, the above tale is reminiscent of the many pranks that, young boys especially, find themselves involved with. It was simply a foolish game that went horribly wrong, by two young men, quite unaware of the dangers involved.
Emil de Tour
Ben was growing weary of the laborious life of being a printer and believed he could better his fortunes by going to the gold fields of California. He worked hard and saved enough money to pay for a trip to San Francisco and to bear his own personal expenses on the passage. Obtaining his ticket, he bid farewell to all he had known and proceeded to meet the steamship that would take him to the Pacific slope. However, through some misunderstanding, the ship had left hours in advance of the time Ben had understood it to depart and he was left despondent at the quayside. A thousand miles from home and penniless, there was no alternative but to return again to the print and type.
He decided to take an omnibus to relieve the distance and joined with a party returning from a ball. Ben sat himself unobtrusively in a corner of the vehicle. In the omnibus was a young Frenchman, Emil de Tour, who was much the worse for having consumed too much wine that night. He was in high spirits. Also on board was a young girl who appeared to shrink from the elated feeling that characterized the rest of the party. Emil de Tour approached the young lady, forcibly taking her hand and attempting to kiss her. She resisted as best she could and called for help, but none was forthcoming. The rest of the party were too engrossed in their own pastime.
Ben rose from his seat and intervened in the situation. The Frenchman rose up and struck Ben in the face, but no sooner had the blow been given, he received a stab in his side with a knife in the hands of the assailed. In an instant, the wild good humor was ended and friends gathered around the wounded man. Secreted arms were drawn and Ben was forced to flee for his life. He jumped from the omnibus and took refuge through a cafe close by.
The Frenchman was not wounded as seriously as first thought and within a few days he was back on his feet again. He began searching for the youth who had wounded him and challenged him to a duel. Ben, being the challenged party, had a right under the code to name weapons and distance. Under the advice of some friends, he named pistols at a distance of ten paces, but the challenger declined to fight in that manner. Eventually it was decided that they would fight with daggers in a darkened room.
The room was in and out of the way locality and they entered, the Frenchman going in first, followed by Ben. On the inside they parted, Ben going left and the other to the right. There was a deathly silence. Who would move? Who would be the aggressor? "Are you ready?" asked Ben. The sound gave the Frenchman notice of when he had to strike and he did so with all his might, but unfortunately he did not reach Ben who had move aside as he spoke. He stumbled, fell and was easy prey to Ben. Emil de Tour was dead and Ben was a fugitive.
This was the first man that Ben ever killed and in William Walton's book it is stated that Ben "..regarded these unfortunate circumstances as the influence that led him to lead the life he had."
Sergeant Vance & Lieutenant Haigler
During the early part of Ben's army career, fighting in the Civil War, he became involved in a confrontation with two of his superiors. Stationed at Fort Clark, Ben, through one cause or another, was generally late in getting to the point where rations were issued, and it often happened that the rations were completely exhausted by the time he made his appearance. About one week after pitching camp, Ben was once again late and was informed by the Sergeant that the rations were out, but with that exception he could be supplied. Ben was fully aware that the sergeant had issued an undue quantity of bacon and candles to his own mess, though he mentioned nothing of it. Ben received what the sergeant offered, and in turning he noticed on one side of the tent a ration of bacon and candles. Ben wanted the candles particularly so that he could make 'layouts' for the boys at monte. On inquiring to whom the rations belonged, he was informed that they belonged to the laundress. Waiting a while for the opportune moment, Ben slipped the rations into his own sack and proceeded to his quarters.
Within a short while, Billy Vance came out and shouted in a loud voice "What damned thief stole the rations of the laundress?" Ben replied "I took them, but I did not steal them; you can replace them out of the over issue of rations you made to your own mess." The sergeant angrily denied making an over-issue to his own mess and approached Ben menacingly. Ben warned him not to come any closer, but he continued his approach and began to draw his gun. He was not quick enough however, Ben drew his pistol and fired simultaneously with the sergeant. The sergeant was hit, but Ben miraculously was unscathed even though the sergeant was within a few feet of him at the time he fired. Lieutenant Haigler, who was standing a short distance away, came running across, but instead of arresting Ben or even ordering his arrest, he began to swing at Ben with his sword, obviously with the intention of cutting him down. Ben fought him off as best he could and demanded that he should cease his assault. The Lieutenant was determined to continue the onslaught, Ben presented his pistol and fired. The officer was hit in the neck and fell.
The captain then stepped up and instructed Ben to surrender his weapon. Ben handed his pistol over and said "Yes captain, I surrender to you, and would have yielded to either of the others had they sought to arrest rather than kill me."
It was at first assumed that both the sergeant and lieutenant were dead, however the sergeant slowly recovered from his injury though the lieutenant died some four weeks later.
Ben was taken to the guard house and according to Walton "was subjected to the greatest cruelty by the commanding officer....was chained on the floor, flat on his back....in this condition he remained more than a month."
Ben never stood trial for shooting the sergeant and killing his lieutenant. His term of enlistment having expired, no court martial could take jurisdiction of the case, and the shooting took place in the dense wilderness, where there were no courts to administer the civil law. As Walton says "...had he been tried, or were he to be tried now, but one verdict could be found by the jury, and that would be; "Not guilty, because done in self-defense."
Ben had been detailed by Colonel Ford to raise a company and join the regiment of Colonel Beard, to operate in the northwest against the Indians and also to intercept the large trading trains that passed between Independence and St. Louis to Santa Fe, in New Mexico. Thompson asked for the subordinate position of lieutenant in preference to the position of captain that was offered him initially, and Colonel Beard accordingly commissioned him in that rank. At Ben's request, the captaincy was given to John Rapp, who Ben felt was well qualified for the position, and whom Ben had known for some time. They commenced enlisting men to join the company and were meeting with a good deal of success.
At this time there was a company called the 'home guards' in Austin whose duty it was to do nothing other than draw rations from the commissary and clothing from the quartermasters department. Some of Austin's best citizens belonged to this company and they would do anything in their limited power for the welfare of the people and safety of society. Although there were many good men in this organization, there were also many who were shirks and cowards, lazy and worthless.
Captain L. D Carrington was captain of the company of home guards in Austin at this time. He was one of the oldest citizens and regarded as one of the best and most honorable men around. John Coombs, a violent and aggressive man, was a member of the home guards, and he had a special animosity toward L. D. Carrington. On numerous occasions he would attempt to provoke Captain Rapp, knowing him to be a friend of Captain Carrington.
One evening Rapp was in the beer hall of John Wahrenberger, drinking beer with some of his friends when Coombs entered, obviously under the influence of drink. Coombs began to slander his old captain though Rapp did not respond to this provocation. Rapp excused himself and made for the exit, but Coombs drew and cocked his pistol with the evident intention of shooting. Rapp grabbed the weapon but managed to trap his hand between the hammer and the lube. Coombs wrenched the pistol away and tore out the flesh between the thumb and forefinger of Rapp's hand. Coombs then drew his knife and attempted to use it but others intervened and Coombs was led away. Rapp had wounds to both hands and required the assistance of Dr. J. M. Litton, an old but skilful surgeon.
Rapp went along to Ben's house and related the tale of events, which up to that time Ben had not been aware of, and asked him to accompany him to get some new clothes to replace the bloodied ones he was then wearing. On the way, they were informed by a young negro boy that Coombs and about twenty more men with him, were in an alley and had the intention of killing both of them. At that moment, Coombs and his men appeared and opened fire with guns blazing. By the light thus created with the gunfire, Ben noticed a man, quite near to him, hiding behind a post. He rushed forward, shot him and then turned instantly and shot another man who was on horseback. The fall of these two men, demoralized the attackers and they fled. Ben was later informed that he had killed John Coombs and seriously wounded another man.
Ben and Captain Rapp were both granted bail and though Ben's trial did not occur until after the war, the verdict was an acquittal by the jury.
To be continued....
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