Ben Thompson had a colourful career as a private in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War and subsequently fought in Mexico before being imprisoned for murder. After his release from prison Ben made his name as a gunman and a gambler before being offered the job as Marshal in Austin during which time he slashed the crime rate.
Thompson was born in Knottingley, Yorkshire, England. His parents moved the family to Austin, Texas, when he was still very young. Thompson began working as a printer while still in his teens, but discovered gambling, and quickly began traveling while making a living as a professional gambler. When he was 17, he stabbed and killed a young man in New Orleans, when the man accused him of cheating and attacked him. That would be the first of many killings that eventually would be attributed to Ben Thompson.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Thompson did not initially show any interest in joining. However, by 1863 his views had changed, and he shortly thereafter joined the Confederate Army in Texas, enlisting as a private. Although he did participate in some military action, his time in the service is most notable for killing a fellow Confederate soldier, Sgt. William Vance, during a dispute . He also, while in the army, shot and killed a teamster for attempting to steal an army mule.
After the war ended, Thompson left for Mexico, and joined the forces of Emperor Maximilian during the French intervention in Mexico. He only stayed for a short while, then returned to Texas. He had received word prior to his return that his brother-in-law, Jim Moore, was physically abusing Thompson's sister. Shortly after his return to Texas in 1868 he confronted Moore and killed him. He was charged with murder and sentenced to 2 years in prison, which he spent in the state penitentiary in Huntsville.
In 1870, Thompson left Texas for Abilene, Kansas, a newly expanding boom town that was just beginning to become popular, due to the cattle trade. In 1871, Thompson opened the Bulls Head Saloon in Abilene, with partner Phillip H. Coe. It is believed that Thompson and Coe had first met while serving in Mexico, but that has never been confirmed. They had known one another for some time by Abilene. The saloon prospered due to the cattle drives that gave Abilene a steady stream of cowboys passing through who were anxious to drink and gamble.
That same year, Thompson was injured during a fall from a horse, and in his absence, on October 5, Coe was involved in a shootout with town Marshal "Wild" Bill Hickok, in which Coe was killed. During that shooting, Hickok was holding off a crowd during a street brawl when Coe had fired on him, resulting in Hickok shooting back killing Coe. Seconds later, Hickok saw movement from the side of someone rushing toward him, and Hickok fired one round mistakingly killing Special Deputy Mike Williams, who was coming to Hickok's aid. This haunted Hickok for the remainder of his lifetime. Thompson never confronted Hickok over the shooting of Coe, feeling that Hickok was justified in the killing, and left Abilene shortly thereafter, as did Hickok.
Thompson moved to Ellsworth, Kansas, which for a short decade during that period also prospered as a cattle oriented boom town. However, not long after moving there, Thompson's younger brother, Billy Thompson, accidentally shot and killed Ellsworth town Sheriff Chauncey Whitney, while Whitney was standing beside the two brothers who were facing off against local police officer John "Happy Jack" Morco and gambler John Sterling over a gambling dispute they'd had with Ben. Whitney was a friend to both brothers, and numerous witnesses would later confirm that Whitney stated himself before he died that the shooting was accidental.
That incident stemmed from Ben Thompson attempting to collect a gambling debt owed to him by gambler John Sterling, and clashing with both Sterling and Sterling's friend, John "Happy Jack" Morco, a corrupt local police officer. Sheriff Whitney had intervened, being friends with both Thompson brothers, but when Sterling and Morco pressed matters, Billy Thompson accidentally discharged his shotgun into Sheriff Whitney. Morco filed charges of assault against Ben Thompson the following day, due to Ben having fired a shot in his direction prior to Whitney being shot, resulting in Hogue arresting Thompson. Police officer Ed Crawford killed Ben Thompson's friend, Cad Pierce, that same week, in an incident that Crawford provoked, while Morco and Hogue ran another friend to Thompson, Neil Cain, out of town. Morco, Hogue, and Crawford were all dismissed by the town council for inappropriate behavior. Morco was killed shortly thereafter by newly appointed police officer J.C. "Charlie" Brown when Morco pulled a gun during a disturbance. Crawford was soon after killed by Texas cowboy friends to Cad Pierce, while Ed Hogue fled town.
Although later lawman Wyatt Earp's biographer claimed that it was he that arrested the Thompson brothers, Earp actually was only present at the time, and Thompson was actually arrested by Deputy Ed Hogue. Billy Thompson fled Kansas, but eventually was returned to be tried in the death of Whitney. Billy Thompson was acquitted due to Whitney himself stating after being shot that it was accidental, and also due to Ben Thompson providing a strong defense team of attorney's.
In 1875, Thompson moved to Fort Elliott, in the Texas Panhandle. There he met and befriended gunman Bat Masterson. When Masterson shot and killed a Cavalry sergeant in a dispute over a woman, Thompson stepped in to prevent other soldiers from attacking Masterson. After that incident, both Thompson and Masterson were hired by the Santa Fe Railroad to intercede in a right-of-way dispute between that railroad and the Rio Grande Railroad.
After the railway war ended, Thompson returned to Austin, Texas, and opened the "Iron Front Saloon". One of Thompson's main competition businesses was the "Capital Theater", owned and operated by Mark Wilson. On Christmas Eve, 1876, Thompson and friends were at the "Capital Theater" drinking, when a fight erupted involving other patrons. When Thompson tried to intervene and stop the fight, Wilson produced a shotgun. A struggle ensued, during which Wilson fired one blast toward Thompson, missing, after which Thompson fired three shots in response, killing Wilson. Thompson also killed bartender Charles Mathews in that same gunfight, when Mathews produced a gun. Thompson was not arrested, and the shooting, which had numerous witnesses, was ruled justified self defense.
In June, 1880, Ben Thompson, saying he had already worn out his welcome up north, sent his friend Bat Masterson from Dodge City to Ogallala, Nebraska, at that time "the end of the Texas Trail," to rescue his younger brother Billy, who was in trouble again. Billy had been hanging around Ogallala that summer doing a little gambling and a lot of drinking. One afternoon he insulted Big Alice, the "leading lady" at Bill Tucker's saloon, Cowboys Rest, and Tucker threw him out. Billy sulked awhile and then decided the honor of the Thompson brothers required that he retaliate. He stepped through the door of the saloon and took a pot shot at Tucker who was just handing a glass of whiskey across the bar to Dillard Fant, one of the major cattle owners from Texas who every year sent three to seven or eight herds up the trail. The shot nicked Tucker's hand and cut off his thumb and two fingers. Tucker dropped to the floor behind the bar from the shock and Billy, thinking he had "killed his man," swaggered off down the street. Tucker recovered quickly and with blood pouring from his injured hand grabbed the shotgun he kept behind the bar, stepped to the doorway and filled Billy's backside with duck shot. Townspeople gathered the wounded pseudo gunman up and took him to his room at Ogallala House where he the shot was dug out and he was placed on his stomach to recuperate. When Masterson arrived, he got the guard Sheriff Martin DePriest had placed on his indicted prisoner, a man named Walter "Picidilly" Swan, falling down drunk and while the town was enjoying a community get-together at the school house. Materson slung Billy over his shoulder and stepped onto the east bound train as it reached the depot and took him to North Platte where he borrowed the brand new carriage William "Buffalo Bill" Cody had just purchased for his wife and took Billy back to Dodge City. (reference Bat Masterson's autobiography, Keith County, Nebraska, commissioners' minutes, Edgar Beecher Bronson's Reminscences of a Ranchman, and other sources.)
In 1881, Thompson was approached by the city of Austin to serve as City Marshal, a job that he accepted. He reportedly did well in the position, and Austin saw a drastic drop in the rate of crime while he was in office. However, in 1882, Thompson became involved in a dispute with "Vaudeville Variety Theater" owner Jack Harris, in San Antonio, during which Thompson shot and killed Harris, who also was armed. Thompson was indicted for murder, and resigned his position as Marshal. He was tried and acquitted, after which he returned to Austin, where he was welcomed by the citizens, but he did not return to his law enforcement.
See main article: Vaudeville Theater Ambush
On March 11, 1884, Thompson ran into gunfighter and rancher King Fisher in San Antonio. Both men were in town on separate business. The two men, who had known one another for several years, decided to attend a show at the Vaudeville Theater. Thompson was aware that friends to Harris had threatened to kill him, but he evidently had little concern about the threats.
Fisher and Thompson attended a play on that night at the Turner Hall Opera House, and later, at around 10:30pm, they went to the Vaudeville Variety Theater. A local lawman named Jacob Coy sat with them. Thompson wanted to see Joe Foster, a theater owner and friend of Harris's, and one of those fueling the ongoing feud. Thompson had already spoken to Billy Simms, another theater owner, and Foster's new partner.
Fisher and Thompson were directed upstairs to meet with Foster. Coy and Simms soon joined them in the theater box. Foster refused to speak with Thompson. Fisher allegedly noticed that something was not right. Simms and Coy stepped aside, and as they did Fisher and Thompson leapt to their feet just as a volley of gunfire erupted from another theater box, with a hail of bullets hitting both Thompson and Fisher. Thompson fell onto his side, and either Coy or Foster ran up to him and shot him in the head with a pistol. Thompson was not able to return fire, dying almost immediately. Fisher was shot thirteen times, and did fire one round in retaliation, possibly wounding Coy, but that is not confirmed. Coy was left crippled for life, but the shot may have been from friendly fire.
Foster, in attempting to draw his pistol at the first of the fight, shot himself in the leg, which was later amputated. He died shortly thereafter. The description of the events of that night are contradictory. There was a public out cry for a grand jury indictment of those involved. However no action was ever taken. The San Antonio Police and the prosecutor showed little interest in the case.
Fisher was buried on his ranch. His body was later moved to the Pioneer Cemetery in Uvalde, Texas. Thompson's body was returned to Austin, where his funeral was one of the largest the city has ever seen. He is currently buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Austin, Texas.
Thompson's will deeded all his property to his business partner, and it has been sold several times since.
On January 13, 2007 Ben Thompson's roulette table was just one of 550 western items sold at auction by A&S Antique Auction in Waco, Texas. The table had been on loan to the Ranger museum, on loan from the founding curator Gaines de Graffenried (Waco Tribune-Herald, January 17, 2007). Tom Burks, the curator of the A&S Antique Auction said that the table was used by Thompson in a gambling house he opened above the Iron Front Saloon on Congress Avenue in Austin (San Antonio Express-News, January 12, 2007).
One might wonder why a character with a background like Thompson's isn't so familiar to fans of popular Hollywood Westerns. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican (1997), "His voice, along with a penchant for cold-blooded murder and a reputedly ugly mug, made Thompson a less-than-desirable Western icon." In the article, Mark Kilmurry upon choosing Ben Thompson as the lead character for his theater production John Wayne Never Slept Here commented:
"Thompson wasn't charismatic, he wasn't good looking. He had thinning hair and a terrible mustache. And listen: Billy the Kid. Jesse James. Wyatt Earp. Those are great names. Ben Thompson? It just doesn't have that ring to it."
For these reasons many hollywood producers have been reluctant to iconise Ben Thompson, choosing the more more aesthetically pleasing Billy the Kid or Jesse James. Kilmurry stated that he chose Ben Thompson for his "current anonymity" and his "anti-hero qualities".