Sunday, September 22, 2013

Final Curtain at The Vaudeville

Ben Thompson
Hollywood has shaped our image of the Old West gunfighter; we picture him as a rather unsociable character with a piercing gaze, collected demeanor, donning a duster or serape, and crowned with a dark, wide brimmed, telescope creased hat.  Someone who doesn't have a lot of redeeming qualities, unless he shot an arch-criminal or two.

One of the most notable of Texas gunfighters was just the opposite; a portly, dapper Englishman that wore top hats, drank heavily, and had a fondness for musical theater.  Despite his appearance, Ben Thompson was probably the most dangerous gunfighter in the Old West.  Famed U.S. Marshal "Bat" Masterson wrote, "Ben Thompson was a remarkable man in many ways and it is doubtful if, in his time, there was another man living who equaled him with the pistol in a life and death struggle." He was a survivor that always managed to outthink his opponents. On March 11, 1884, his luck ran out in a San Antonio theater.

Born in the industrial town of Knottingly, England, Thompson immigrated to Austin in 1851. During the Civil War, he served with the 2nd Texas Cavalry under Colonel John "Rip" Ford.  Wounded twice, he saw action at the Battles of Galveston and La Fourche Crossing.  While in a Laredo gambling hall, he and his brother Billy got into a shootout with a company of Mexican American Confederates.  They killed two of them but were never charged, probably because the victims were Hispanic. 

After the war, Thompson again got into another deadly dispute, this time with an Austin teamster over a mule.  He shot the teamster while he reached for his shotgun.  Union occupation troops arrested him, but he escaped from jail and headed south into Mexico.  Serving under the Emperor Maximilian, he battled both Juaristas and the Mexican police.  When Maximilian was overthrown, Thompson returned to Texas with an attitude and even more experience with a pistol. 

Upon his return, he wounded his own brother-in-law in a family altercation.  Thompson served a two year sentence at Huntsville for attempted murder.  Upon release, Ben, Billy, and wife Catherine settled in Abilene, Kansas.  Ben and another Texan, Phil Coe, opened up the Bull's Head Saloon; a successful establishment that catered to a steady stream of free-wheeling cowboys and supported an outdoor painting of a manly bull with an oversized lower appendage.  Local society complained, so Sheriff "Wild Bill" Hickok painted over it.  While Thompson's family were recovering from a horse buggy accident, "Wild Bill"  killed Phil Coe, probably over Hickok's impromptu paint job.  Thompson decided to move back to Austin.

He became a professional gambler and joined a traveling circuit of the Old West's most famous: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Luke Short, John Wesley Hardin, "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and "Wild Bill" Hickok.  Like most gunmen of that period, he was more dangerous when drinking.  Using nearby street lights for target practice, you could say he actually shot better when he was drunk.  One of the most serious and notable  of many liquor induced shootouts was with the management of Austin's Capital Theater.  He shot the operator of the theater, Mark Wilson, and seriously wounded the bartender.  He was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. 

In 1879, Thompson became a professional gunman for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.  With his hefty railroad earnings, he opened up a gambling hall at the Iron Front Saloon on Congress Avenue.  Gaining a notable reputation for his gun fighting skills, fair play, and sense of charity, he was elected twice as Austin's City Marshal.  Needless to say, that reputation led to a considerable drop in the crime rate.    

Always one to compromise a lofty position with a festive nature, Thompson often traveled to San Antonio for a rollicking night of drinking and gambling.   His drinking got the best of him after he started losing his money at the popular Vaudeville Saloon and Theater; he pulled his gun on the dealer and demanded the return of his money.  The Vaudeville's gruff owner, Jack Harris, put the word out that Thompson was no longer allowed in the Vaudeville.  Thompson didn't take that as a warning but as a direct challenge. 

 On July 11, 1882, Ben Thompson returned to the Vaudeville.  Cradling a shotgun, Jack Harris waited for Thompson at the theater ticket office.  Thompson stood at the doorway, somewhat concealed by the evening darkness.  He spied Harris who was standing behind a wooden, latticework screen in the ticket office.  Thompson yelled, "'What are you doing with that shotgun?"  Harris replied, "Kiss my ass you son of a bitch!"  Before Harris could bring his shotgun to bear, Thompson fired two shots, mortally wounding Harris in the chest.  He surrendered to the San Antonio police that night. 

Texas courts were amazingly lenient where gunfighters and gamblers were concerned.  If both parties were armed, it was usually declared self-defense fair and square.  Neither murder nor manslaughter was considered; the victor was set free.

Thompson was acquitted and returned home to a hero's welcome.  He was now Austin's gunfighter; the man who took out their rival city's bullying theater owner.  Nevertheless, Harris' death weighed heavily on Thompson.  He resigned as City Marshal shortly after his return.  Many claimed Thompson was never the same; he became depressed and drank more heavily.

The end came when he took his depressed state back to the saloons and theaters of San Antonio. This time he was accompanied by an old friend, John King Fisher.  King Fisher was the deputy sheriff of Uvalde County; a former cattle rustler with an itchy trigger finger.  They both made their way to the Vaudeville where its new managers Billy Simms and Joe Foster were prepared for a worst case scenario.  The worst came soon enough.

Accounts vary but not the results - Ben Thompson and King Fisher were ambushed from behind in a Vaudeville Theater balcony.  As many as twenty guns, rifles and pistols, were fired into Thompson and Fisher.  The balcony was spattered with blood and gore as frantic people shoved their way out of the smoke filled Vaudeville.   

Thompson was found dead with his eyes wide open.  Considering the leg wound Foster suffered, Thompson may have gotten a few licks in before he fell.    King Fisher never got off a shot, he died immediately.  Eleven days later, Joe Foster died of complications from his leg wound.

The fact that Thompson had five bullets in his head lends evidence toward an execution rather than a face-to-face gun battle.  As usual, since all the participants were armed, a jury found Joe Foster and a Vaudeville bouncer named Jacob Coy not guilty on the grounds of self-defense.  Thompson's corpse was returned to Austin by his brother Billy and received one of the largest funerals in Austin history.  He was buried at Austin's Oakwood Cemetery.
Ben Thompson certainly had his fair share of supporters and detractors.  Austinites generally liked him, respected him and overlooked his drunken combative nature. San Antonians felt the opposite; they resented having their respected local businessman gunned down by Austin's hooligan marshal.  That resentment could certainly have swayed a local jury of Jack Harris'  peers.