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.