Ben Thompson: Portrait of a Gunfighter

Ben Thompson: Portrait of a Gunfighter

by Thomas C. Bicknell, Chuck Parsons

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781574417418
Publisher: University of North Texas Press
Publication date: 08/15/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 957,091
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Thomas C. Bicknell a native Chicagoan, has been studying the life of Ben Thompson for decades. His research and articles have appeared in various periodicals including True West and Wild West. Chuck Parsons is the author of Captain John R. Hughes and The Sutton-Taylor Feud and coauthor of A Lawless Breed, a biography of John Wesley Hardin. He lives in Luling, Texas.

Read an Excerpt



"No, I shall take my chances with you."

— Buckskin Sam Hall to Ben Thompson

The English are meticulous record keepers, and the registrar noted the birth of Benjamin Thompson to the minute. He was born on "the second of November 1843 at 25 minutes to 5 A.M. at Knottingley." A little more than three years earlier, his father, twenty-four-year-old William Thompson wed, his mother, a saddler's daughter by the name of Mary Ann Baker at Saint Giles Church.

Ben Thompson's birthplace was the river-port town of Knottingley located in central England in the county of Yorkshire. In 1820, the government passed legislation approving funds for the digging of a canal from Knottingley to the River Umber that empties into the North Sea. When officially opened in June of 1826, the Knottingley & Goole Canal caused land values to soar and local shipbuilding to boom. A period of prosperity ensued which lasted for decades. Several generations of the Thompson family would have dealings with the local maritime industry.

During the 1830s, Ben Thompson's grandparents, also named William and Mary, opened a small grocery at the top of Shepherd's Bridge, which served the eastern edge of Knottingley. As they reached middle age, their hard work and prudent investments in trading vessels placed them among the town's upper middle class. William's union with his wife produced four sons. They named their first born William, and like so many other young Knottingley men coming of age, he decided to pursue a maritime career. Official records indicate, young William learned his trade properly from the bottom up, even though his father was a ship owner of considerable prominence. William stated on his marriage license that his profession was "waterman." This simple title covered all the common laborers in Knottingley who worked the barges, docks, and boats of the inland waterway of the river and canal system leading to the North Sea. With the experience and knowledge he acquired over years of hard work, he progressed past the barges and river boats. William the mariner earned that title and became a valued crewmember of seafaring ships.

On August 28, 1845, less than two years after Ben's birth, Mary Ann delivered a second healthy son named William, though few would ever call him by his formal name. As he grew older he was occasionally called Bill, but most who knew him on America's southwest frontier simply called him Billy. A few days after Billy's birth, their grandfather died on September 1, 1845, at the age of fifty. He was laid to rest in Saint Botolph's Church graveyard on Knottingley's Chapel Road. William the grocer's substantial estate was valued at slightly less than one thousand pounds. While his last will and testament clearly stated that his wife was to inherit the bulk of the estate, he also remembered his friends, business associates, and other family members. For his eldest son, William the mariner, he bequeathed a yearly annuity of twenty pounds, generous enough at that time to nearly support a family. This generosity came with two strong stipulations, indicating William the mariner's poor handling of money. The will stated that the payouts would be made quarterly and the clause specifically prevented William from assigning or anticipating the annuity. Even more importantly, the payouts would cease if William ever annoyed, troubled, or inconvenienced his mother. Even from the grave, it seems the father was determined to control his son's undesirable behavior.

Like most seafarers of the time, William was a proud man and a hard drinker. The English mores of the nineteenth century, within sensible limits, certainly didn't frown too much on overindulgence, and Knottingley's most famous and enduring pub, the Buck Inn, was only a short walk from his home on The Island on Aire Street. Subsequent evidence points to William the mariner having an ongoing drinking problem, because his all too frequent drinking bouts in Texas would earn him the sobriquet of "Drunken Thompson." The lure of alcohol proved to be a problem that would also plague his sons Ben and Billy throughout their lives.

William honed his seafaring skills for at least five years. He first sailed the coast and then ventured out on open water. This experience qualified him to take the helm and pilot a vessel to France, Holland, or Spain. On December 31, 1846, thirty-year-old William Thompson was appointed the new master of the William, a single-mast sloop. This ship was designed to fit the restricted size of Knottingley's canal and river navigation, but it had a cargo hold large enough to make a voyage profitable. A ship such as the William required a crew of only three or perhaps four men. The sailors of nineteenth century Knottingley demonstrated their courage every time they hoisted sail in one of these simple vessels to risk the harsh and unpredictable waters of the cold North Sea. When fully loaded, these small sloops would settle very low in the water, and survival in rough weather depended upon the ability of the hatch and hold covers to remain watertight.

Mary Ann gave birth to a healthy girl they named Mary Jane on March 3, 1848, and a third child joined the Thompson family. She would go on to live ninety-two years and become the matriarch of the extended Thompson family in Texas.

Four years after the death of her husband, Ben and Billy Thompson's grandmother died on September 22, 1849, at the age of fifty-one. She was buried next to her husband in the Saint Botolph's Church cemetery. In January 1850, her estate was appraised at less than 450 pounds, and most likely was not completely paid out until the spring of 1851. By her declaration of "share and share alike," she split everything between William the mariner and his three younger brothers.

The 1851 English Census reveals the Thompson family had moved to a new Knottingley neighborhood by the name of Little Marsh. By this time, plans for a more dramatic and distant move may have been formulating. Mary Ann's older brother, William Baker, and his wife Matilda had long since immigrated to the United States. They left from the English port city of Liverpool, and arrived in New York on August 1834. The Bakers remained in New York for at least three or four years, and two of the six Baker children were born there. By 1840, they headed west, ultimately settling in central Texas near the state capital. In fact, the Baker home was only one mile outside of Austin. Baker earned his living as a carpenter and one of the local newspapers described him as an "industrious, worthy citizen," and his wife Matilda, a "highly esteemed ... intelligent exemplary wife and mother." Over the years, Mary Ann and her brother must have corresponded regularly. William Baker may have encouraged his sister and brother-in-law to seek a new life outside of England or, perhaps sadly and shockingly, the Thompson family decided to travel to Texas to aid their suddenly orphaned nieces and nephews.

Violence came to the Baker household at sunrise on July 11, 1851. A black man rode up to their home as five of the six Baker children were sitting down to their breakfast. The oldest child, eighteen-year-old John Baker, was not at home at the time. William Baker greeted the stranger and invited him to step down from his horse. After swinging out of the saddle, he began to ask Baker for directions when E. S. C. Robertson, a notable local citizen the Texas State Gazette identified with the title of Colonel, rode up to the Baker homestead. Suspecting the black man was a runaway slave, Colonel Robertson began to closely question him. When he was unable to adequately explain his actions or reasons for being there, Robertson and Baker tied him up and placed him in the house. Remounting his horse, Robertson rode off in search of the sheriff or one of his deputies.

A few minutes later, Baker met the runaway at the door to his home. The black man had managed to cut himself free with the large butcher knife he still carried. The two men grappled in the doorway, and the powerful man stabbed Baker three times in the back. His wife Matilda rushed to his assistance. She was stabbed once in the heart. Her death was almost instantaneous, but her husband would suffer well into the next day before expiring. The black man raced to his nearby horse and fled.

The hysterical screams of the five children caught the attention of their neighbors, and a large number of men hastily found weapons and rode off in pursuit of the killer. Medical help was summoned, but William Baker's condition was deemed hopeless and he died in agony early that Saturday morning. Roughly one mile from the Baker residence, the posse discovered the fugitive's abandoned horse and his baggage hidden in a thicket. The county sheriff offered a reward of $200 for the return of the fleeing killer to Austin.

The runaway slave eluded capture for fifteen days. On the twenty-sixth of July, he was spotted and apprehended near Austin. A jury of twelve slaveholders tried the man and sentenced him to death. The verdict was carried out on the spot before a large group of spectators, who witnessed what was, in effect, a lynching.

One year later in Liverpool, the Thompson family stepped aboard the steamship Granada. It was bound for New Orleans and on July 16, 1852, it arrived at the great southern port city. The names of William and Mary Thompson appear on the ship's manifest along with their three children, eight-year-old Benjamin, six-year-old Billy and four-year-old Mary Jane. After disembarking they traveled from New Orleans to Galveston, Texas, on their way to their new home in Austin.

America's Deep South was a strange place to the Thompson children. Having never seen a black person before, the three youngsters looked upon the slaves working on the wharf with both wonder and fear. Hiding behind her mother's skirt, little three-year-old Mary Jane pointed at the first black person she saw and in a tiny whisper, thinking he might be Satan himself, asked if he was "the Old Bad Man [?]" Her mother replied "that God had made them so, and that she must be as kind and polite to them as to anyone."

The Thompsons did not linger in Galveston. After loading their possessions into a horse-drawn carriage, they moved north through Houston where they ate dinner at a boarding house. Eager to have some of the interesting new cake she spied, little Mary Jane pestered her mother for a slice. Her eagerness soured with her first bite, and for more than eighty years she would recall the bitter disappointment of her initial taste of Texas cornbread.Continuing their journey north, the family traveled through the fledging community of Bastrop and soon crossed the Colorado River. They found themselves standing at the south end of Austin, gazing up a long flat hill at what was to be their new home. Apparently, the flavor of cornbread made a bigger impression on Mary Jane than her first view of Texas's capital city. As her parents stared at the humble looking town, they realized in more than miles, just how far they had come from their former home in England.

As the Thompson family went up Congress Avenue, the town's main thoroughfare, they could surely savor the smell of fresh-cut lumber and hear the many carpenters pounding nails in the dozens of new residences and business establishments being constructed. The early years of the 1850s marked the beginning of a building boom in Austin that lasted until the start of the Civil War. By the middle of the decade, the town boasted a population of more than 3,500 people. Once settled, the Thompson family became members of the congregation of St. David's Episcopal Church located at the corner of Bois d'Arc (present day 7th Street) and San Jacinto. Bishop Alexander Gregg, one of Austin's leading citizens and a significant slave-owner, was the prelate.

Following the tragic loss of their parents, sympathetic neighbors cared for the orphaned Baker children. Afterwards, William and Mary Ann Thompson helped their nieces and nephews, and as the years passed, the Baker children managed to stay together and remained a close family. Throughout their lives, the Bakers continued a friendship with their first cousins, the Thompson children. Ann, the eldest Baker daughter, married William C. Reager, age thirty-two, a Travis County farmer. In addition to marrying Ann, Mr. Reager on May 1, 1855, officially agreed to become the legal guardian of the younger Baker children.

To support his family, William Thompson turned to what he knew best: the water. As a commercial fisherman, he worked the Colorado River. The brothers joined their father in supporting the family. Ben picked up a job driving a water cart on the streets of Austin and with younger brother Billy's help, sold their father's catch to Austin's hotels, restaurants, and boarding houses. Later, the elder William worked as an accountant at Sampson and Henricks, a large dry goods store located in the center of town on the southwest corner of Bois d'Arc and Congress Avenue.

On March 21, 1858, Mary Ann Thompson gave birth to her fourth and final child. The baby was a girl and they named her Frances but everyone would call her "Fanny." Like her older sister Mary Jane, she was destined to live a long, exemplary life. In Fanny's case, she lived beyond the halfway mark of the twentieth century.

As a youth, Ben Thompson was considered a bright, handsome boy with a future full of promise. He caught the attention of a prominent Austin attorney, and a veteran of the War with Mexico, Colonel John A. Green. Colonel Green sent Ben to a formal school for one or two years at his own expense. Billy also enjoyed additional schooling through the support of Green. However, even with Colonel Green's financial assistance, the Thompson brothers enjoyed a limited formal education. Besides selling fish and working the water cart as an adolescent, Ben became a printer's devil for various newspapers in Austin, including John S. "Rip" Ford's State Times. As a grown man, he often spoke of the time he spent pursuing that trade during the 1850s. Ben seemed to have enjoyed being a printer. In his later years he still took pride in his proficiency to set type, and throughout his life he often socialized with the printers he apprenticed and worked with as a youngster. Not surprisingly, as he came of age, Billy followed his older brother into the printing profession.

As a young boy Ben Thompson "felt his first great hate against the brutal oppressors of poor men." One cold night Ben left his home in search of his father and soon found him lying in the street severely injured "with his scalp almost torn from his head by the club of a brutal policeman" who for an unknown reason, left William Thompson bleeding on the ground.

Later it was stated that the Thompson brothers grew up like most boys on the frontier, without strict guardianship on the father's side. As an adolescent, Ben spent most of his free time hunting for fun. He was known to be a fighter. Even in his early teens, Ben showed his ability as a tactician by forcing his opponent to become the aggressor and in the end, beating the fight out of his opponent. William the mariner was noted for his courage and, soon, so was Ben. Initially, he used his fists like his father, but like many other Texans, young Ben soon learned how to handle firearms and he chose to become a shootist. It was a few weeks before his fifteenth birthday when the punching stopped and the shooting began.

Many Old West gunfighters had a propensity to start their shooting careers while in their early teens and Ben Thompson was no exception. Stories of his violent youth abound and it is difficult to determine exactly when he began to settle his disputes with a firearm. However, one teenage shooting scrape is verifiable by both a contemporary newspaper article and court documents. The Austin Southern Intelligencer reported a shooting involving fourteen-year-old Ben Thompson in its Wednesday, October 13, 1858, issue. The short account was headlined simply as "Shooting." The editor reported that on Saturday evening Ben Thompson and another boy, James Smith, quarreled. Smith called Thompson hard names and in response, Thompson raised his shotgun and pulled the trigger. The weapon was loaded with small shot, and the entire charge hit Smith's back, except for two pellets that struck the boy's head. Thompson was apprehended and placed before Justice E. F. Calhoun, who questioned him and then discharged the youngster without punishment. These were the facts of the matter. The reporter continued, expressing his dismay at society's acceptance of young people going about Austin so well-armed. "It is a common thing here to see boys from ten to fourteen years of age, carrying about their persons, Bowie knives and pistols. We trust this will be a warning to every parent, and that such practices, so pernicious in their tendencies, may be checked in season."


Excerpted from "Ben Thompson"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Chuck Parsons and Thomas C. Bicknell.
Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
Foreword by Robert K. DeArment,
1. The Last of England,
2. The Civil War Years,
3. A Guerrilla Chieftain South of the Border,
4. A Presidential Pardon,
5. On to Abilene,
6. Tragedy in Ellsworth,
7. White Affidavits,
8. Ben Thompson on Ben Thompson,
9. A Little Christmas Frolic,
10. Shooting Up Austin,
11. Hired Gun,
12. A High Old Time in San Antonio,
13. The Best City Marshal in Texas,
14. Gunfire at the Vaudeville,
15. A Last Visit to Galveston,
16. Hellish Business,
17. Epilogue,

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