Year
1884

Gunslinger Ben Thompson dies

Texas gunslinger Ben Thompson dies in a San Antonio theatre where accomplices of his longtime enemies ambushed and murdered him.

Thompson’s career as a gunman began early. In 1858, when he was only 16, he wounded a black youth during a quarrel in Austin, Texas. Local citizens demanded action against Thompson, so he served a short jail term and paid a fine. A few years later, he left Austin and tried to make a peaceable living as a typesetter in New Orleans, but the gambling houses of New Orleans proved more attractive to Thompson than the boring grind of an honest day’s work.

As with so many other western gunslingers, Thompson’s real education as a killer came from fighting in wars. Although his record as confederate solider in the Civil War was undistinguished, he apparently quarreled and fought with his army comrades a great deal. After the war, he became a mercenary to the emperor of Mexico, where his talents as a killer were encouraged and rewarded.

In 1872, Thompson traveled to Ellsworth, Kansas, to join his brother Billy as a professional gambler. A year later, a local deputy angered the two brothers when he intervened in a gambling dispute. The Ellsworth sheriff, Chauncey Whitney, came to his deputy’s rescue and tried to calm the angry brothers. Whitney thought he had defused the situation, but as he walked across the street with the two brothers, the volatile Billy suddenly pulled his gun and shot the sheriff dead. Thompson came to Billy’s rescue by recruiting a large gang of Texas cowboys to intimidate the Ellsworth police long enough for Billy to escape.

No longer welcome in Ellsworth, Thompson spent the next decade drifting around Kansas. In 1879, he joined Bat Masterson and others as a hired gunman for the Santa Fe Railroad. With the money he earned working for the railroad, he invested in a chain of Texas gambling houses that eventually returned sizeable profits. Using his newfound wealth to buy respectability, in 1880 he returned to Austin and made a successful run for town sheriff.

Thompson’s shift to the side of law enforcement, though, did not end his involvement with the shady world of gambling. In 1880, he quarreled with three San Antonio gamblers-Joe Foster, Jack Harris, and Bill Simms-over a debt Foster claimed Thompson owed him. A few years later, the quarrel led to a gunfight in which Thompson killed Harris, further incensing the other two. In 1884, Foster and Simms laid a trap for Thompson at the Vaudeville Theatre in San Antonio. Apparently attempting to make peace with his two old enemies, Thompson approached them in the theatre. The men began to argue, and when the dispute threatened to become violent, a volley of shots rang out. Two hidden accomplices of Foster and Simms killed Thompson.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

MacArthur leaves Corregidor

After struggling against great odds to save the Philippines from Japanese conquest, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur abandons the island fortress of Corregidor under orders from President Franklin Roosevelt. Left behind at Corregidor and on the Bataan Peninsula were 90,000 American ...read more

Lithuania proclaims its independence

Lithuania proclaims its independence from the USSR, the first Soviet republic to do so. The Soviet government responded by imposing an oil embargo and economic blockade against the Baltic republic, and later sent troops.Lithuanians have lived along the Nemen River and the Baltic ...read more

Terrorists bomb trains in Madrid

On this day in 2004, 191 people are killed andnearly 2,000are injured when 10 bombs explode on four trains in three Madrid-area train stations during a busy morning rush hour. The bombs were later found to have been detonated by mobile phones.The attacks, the deadliest against ...read more

FDR signs Lend-Lease

On this day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program, which provides money and materials for allies in the war, goes into effect.The Lend-Lease program was devised by Roosevelt as a means of aiding Great Britain in its war effort against the Germans, by giving the ...read more

Confederate constitution adopted

In Montgomery, Alabama, delegates from South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas adopt the Permanent Constitution of the Confederate States of America.The constitution resembled the Constitution of the United States, even repeating much of its ...read more

Toyota sells 1 millionth hybrid in U.S.

The Toyota Motor Company announces on this day in 2009 that it has sold over 1 million gas-electric hybrid vehicles in the U.S. under its six Toyota and Lexus brands. The sales were led by the Prius, the world’s first mass-market hybrid car, which was launched in Japan in October ...read more

Paul McCartney knighted

On this day in 1997, Paul McCartney, a former member of the most successful rock band in history, The Beatles, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his “services to music.” The 54-year-old lad from Liverpool became Sir Paul in a centuries-old ceremony of pomp and solemnity at ...read more

Lawrence Welk is born

For the generation that grew up on the big bands of the 30s and 40s, The Lawrence Welk Show was a blessed island of calm in a world gone mad for rock and roll, and it aired like clockwork every Saturday night from 1955 to 1982.  But for the children and grandchildren watching ...read more

Frankenstein published

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is published. The book, by 21-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, is frequently called the world’s first science fiction novel. In Shelley’s tale, a scientist animates a creature constructed from dismembered corpses. The gentle, ...read more

COPS debuts on Fox

On this day in 1989, the hit reality-based television show COPS premieres on the Fox television network, and audiences hear the reggae beat of its distinctive theme song, Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys,” for the very first time.Created by the producing team of John Langley and Malcolm ...read more

Great Blizzard of ’88 hits East Coast

On this day in 1888, one of the worst blizzards in American history strikes the Northeast, killing more than 400 people and dumping as much as 55 inches of snow in some areas. New York City ground to a near halt in the face of massive snow drifts and powerful winds from the ...read more

COPS makes TV debut

On this day in 1989, COPS, a documentary-style television series that follows police officers and sheriff’s deputies as they go about their jobs, debuts on Fox. COPS went on to become one of the longest-running shows in television history.The show, which was created by John ...read more

Mikhail Gorbachev picked to succeed Chernenko

Capping his rapid rise through the Communist Party hierarchy, Mikhail Gorbachev is selected as the new general secretary and leader of the Soviet Union, following the death of Konstantin Chernenko the day before. Gorbachev oversaw a radical transformation of Soviet society and ...read more

Lincoln shuffles the Union command

On this day in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issues War Order No. 3, a measure making several changes at the top of the Union Army command structure.Lincoln created three departments, placing Henry Halleck in charge of the West, John C. Fremont in command of troops in the ...read more