Ben Thompson -
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The Threat of the Vaudeville Man
At any rate it got noised about town that the
Vaudeville man was thoroughly
organized for Ben and intended to kill him the first time he ever stepped inside
his house. Of course Ben was told what was being said about him by the
hurdy-gurdy manager, but only laughed and said that he guessed if he didn't die
until he got killed by the showman, he would live a long time. But reports of
the threats that were being made against his life by the vaudeville proprietor
kept reaching him with such regularity, that he finally began to think that
perhaps there might be something in them. At any rate be made up his mind to see
for himself how much there really was in those threats that he had been hearing
about for so long. So one night while the show was in full blast he told a very
warm personal friend of his by the name of Zeno Hemphill that he had made up his
mind to go over to the show and look over the arrangements he understood had
been made for his removal from this vale of tears.
"Zeno," said Ben' 'just fall in a few feet behind me and' holler' if you see
anything that doesn't look exactly right to you when I get inside that 'Honkitonk.'
"Remember, Zeno, I only want you along for a witness incase anything happens,"
remarked Ben, as he started to cross the street to the variety theater that was
soon to witness a terrible tragedy within its walls. Ben entered a door that led
to the bar-room from the street. This bar-room was a part of the theater,
although the stage upon which the performance appeared was in another part of
In order to reach that part
of the building in which a performance was being given it was necessary for
Ben to pass along the entire length of the bar, then through a pair of
swinging doors located about ten feet further on, through which it was
necessary to pass before a view of the stage could be obtained. When Ben
first entered the bar-room he took a hasty survey of the surroundings but
saw nothing to cause alarm. In fact he did not expect the attack to come
from that part of the house, if indeed an attack was made at all, but was
looking for it to occur after he had reached the theatre proper, which would
not be until after he had passed the swinging doors.
Ben did not stop in the
bar-room but kept on walking leisurely towards the swinging doors and just
as he was about to push them apart he heard Zeno, who had just then stepped
into the room, cry out, "Look out, Ben." But before Ben could scarcely move,
the bartender, whose name was Mark Wilson, had raised a double-barreled shot
gun that he had lying along the mixing board back of the bar, and emptied
both barrels, which were heavily loaded with buckshot, at Ben, who could not
have been more than ten feet away.
Incredible as it may seem Thompson escaped without a scratch. Mark Wilson, the
bartender, was known to be a courageous young fellow who had on several
occasions shown considerable fighting grit, and for that reason he had been
selected to kill Thompson the first time he entered the place. Wilson, however,
realizing that he was taking upon himself something of a job in agreeing to
dispose of Ben Thompson, concluded that it would be best to get a little help,
so he went to his friend Sam Mathews, and told him what he had made up his mind
to do and asked him if he would help him out in the matter.
"With great pleasure," replied Mathews, and straightway went for his trusty
Winchester rifle and immediately repaired to the variety theatre to help out his
friend Wilson in putting Ben Thompson out of the way.
When Ben entered the bar-room that evening he saw Mathews standing around the
corner of the bar, but did not notice that he had a Winchester rifle leaning by
his side; in fact did not regard Mathews, whom he know quite well, as an enemy
and perhaps for that reason did not look him over very carefully. But to get to
the point. The smoke from the shot gun had scarcely blown aside before Ben had
whipped out his pistol and like a flash of lightning had shot Wilson dead in his
tracks. Ben then 'noticed that Mathews had a Winchester rifle in his hand and
instantly concluded that he too, was there for the purpose of aiding Wilson in
killing him. Mathews seemed to anticipate what was passing through Thompson's
mind, for he ducked down behind the bar instead of attempting to use the rifle,
Thompson, instead of going around the end of the bar where he could see Mathews,
took a rough guess at his location and fired through the end of the bar. The
bullet struck Mathews squarely in the mouth and toppled him over on the floor.
When Case Was Called for Trial
Ben then turned around and walked out of the place with his friend, Zeno
Hemphill, who later on when the case was called for trial, was the most
important witness for the defense. Ben was kept locked up in jail pending the
preliminary examination and was then admitted to bail and subsequently
This is only one of a dozen of such occurrences that could be cited in the
career of this most remarkable man. Wilson and Mathews were unquestionably men
of courage, else they could not have been induced to enter into a plot to kill
such a desperate man as they knew Thompson to be; but when it came to the
scratch they both lost their nerve and Ben was privileged to add two more names
to the list of ambitious "gunfighters," who had sought to take his life.
Thompson served a term as chief of police of the city of Austin and all the
old-time citizens of the place remember him still as the best chief of police
the city ever had. While Thompson was known throughout all that vast territory
lying west and south-west of the Missouri River as the nerviest of men, and as
unerring a shot with a pistol as ever lived; there were several men
contemporaneous with himself who had the occasion arisen, would have given
him battle to the death.
All with Nerves of Steel
Such men as "Wild Bill" Hickok,
Joe Lowe and Jim Curry were all men with nerves of
steel who had often been put to the test -- anyone of whom would not have
hesitated a moment to put up his life as the stake to be played for. Those men,
all of them, lived and played their part and played it exceeding well on the
lurid edge of our Western frontier at the time Ben Thompson was playing his, and
it is safe to assume that not one of them would have declined the gage of battle
with him had he flung it down to anyone of their number.
In making this admission, however, I am constrained to say that little doubt
exists in my mind but that Thompson would have been returned the winner of the
contest. Ben Thompson was murdered along with his personal friend, King Fisher,
in a vaudeville theatre in
Texas, in March
Both he and
King Fisher were killed from ambush by a number of persons
who were concealed in the wings of the stage, and neither ever knew what
happened. Ben was hit eight times by bullets fired from a Winchester rifle, and
King Fisher was hit five times. All the shots were fired simultaneously and both
sank to the floor dead as it is possible to ever be. It was a cold-blooded,
cruel and premeditated murder, for which no one was ever punished by law.
of America, updated February, 2010.
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Complete List of Old West Gunfighters
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Bill Tilghman - Thirty Years a
About the Author and Articles Notes:
Though most of us know that W.B. "Bat" Masterson was famous as a gunfighter and friend of such characters as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Luke Short, many may not know that he was also a writer. After his many escapades in the American West, he
accepted a post of U.S. Marshal in New York state. However, by 1891 he was working as a sports editor for a New York City newspaper. In 1907 and 1908 he wrote a series of articles for the short-lived Boston magazine, Human Life. This tale of
Ben Thompson was just one of several of those articles. Masterson died in 1921 of a heart attack.
The article that appears on these pages is not verbatim, as it has been very briefly edited, primarily for spelling and grammatical corrections.
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