Cowboy Biography Ben Thompson

About the famous cowboy Ben Thompson, history and biography, description and crimes, famous fights, favorite weapons, and how he died.


Name: BEN THOMPSON, born Nov. 11, 1842, in Knottingly, Yorkshire, England; died Mar. 11, 1884, in San Antonio, Tex.

Description: Stocky, 5 ft. 9 in., blue-gray eyes, thinning brown hair, waxed handlebar mustache. Wore dark Prince Albert suits and silk hats and often carried a cane. Drank heavily (Hennessy Three Star), becoming an alcoholic in later years. The absolutely fearless Thompson saw himself as an honorable man who fought only in self-defense. He did fight fairer than most, but was immoderately eager to avenge real and imagined insults with gunplay.

Resume: Immigrated with family to Austin, Tex., in 1849. Abandoned a typesetting job at age 18 for a lifelong career as a professional gambler, with interludes as Confederate soldier, mercenary for Emperor Maximilian, gunfighter for Santa Fe Railroad (with Bat Masterson), and Texas Ranger. Elected Austin city marshal, 1880. Resigned 12 months later when indicted for murder in San Antonio, of which he was acquitted.

Favorite Weapons: Colt 45 Frontier 1871 Peacemaker; Colt 1873 single-action Army. Also carried double-barreled shotgun, 16-shooter Winchester rifle, and bowie knife. Unofficially credited with inventing the concealed shoulder holster to circumvent municipal laws against wearing guns.

Speed on the Draw: Considered by contemporaries--including sometime partner Bat Masterson--one of the fastest, deadliest shots in the West. Thompson could literally shoot a gun out of a man's hand, and usually allowed his adversary the first shot in order to claim selfdefense.

Victims: Countless anonymous soldiers and Indians during wartime; a Creole named LaTour in a knife duel over a woman; Confederate Mess Sgt. William Vance; civilian John Coombs; owner Mark Wilson and bartender Charles Mathews of Austin's Variety Theatre; Jack Harris, proprietor of San Antonio's Vaudeville Theatre. Thompson also wounded many nameless gamblers and braggarts and served two years in prison for shooting his brother-in-law in the side.

Leading Fight: In August, 1873, Thompson and his younger brother, Billy--a drunken psychopath--were challenged to a shoot-out in Ellsworth, Kans. The only fatality was beloved Sheriff Chauncey Whitney, shot by Billy, who immediately fled. Ben stayed to hold off pursuit and refused to disarm without a guarantee from the authorities of protection from the mob. At this point, Wyatt Earp claimed to have fearlessly arrested Thompson, though Ben actually surrendered to Deputy Ed Hogue. The incident became legend because Earp--who was not in Ellsworth that day--persistently lied about it.

Earnings: Thompson's earnings as a professional gambler are impossible to estimate. He was easily capable of winning several thousand dollars in one night and losing it all the next. On the whole, he won more than he lost, and owned percentages of saloons and gambling tables all his adult life. He provided well for his wife and two children, gratified his expensive tastes in clothing and weaponry, and held property worth about $10,000 at the time of his death.

How Died: After being acquitted of the Jack Harris killing in San Antonio, Thompson went home to Austin. He did not resume his post as city marshal, preferring instead to drink, gamble, and shoot blanks at terrified passersby. On Mar. 11, 1884, 14 months after the trial, Thompson returned to San Antonio with his friend John King Fisher. They wandered into the Vaudeville Theatre, where Harris's surviving partners, Joe Foster and William Sims, were understandably displeased to see Ben again. They confronted him, but only after hiding some armed men nearby. The expected argument began, Ben drew his gun, and dozens of shots rang out. When the smoke cleared, Thompson's body had nine new holes in it. King Fisher and Foster were both mortally wounded. No one was charged in the killings. Ben Thompson's body was returned to Austin for a hero's funeral.

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