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Ben Thompson - Page 3

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The Threat of the Vaudeville Man

Vaudeville Actors, 1899At 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 the building.

 

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 acquitted.

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, Wyatt Earp, BillyTilghman, Charley Bassett, Luke Short, Clay Allison, 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
San Antonio, Texas, in March [11], 1884.

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.


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America,
updated February, 2010.

 

 

Also See:

 

Bat Masterson - King of the Gun Players

Complete List of Old West Gunfighters

Wyatt Earp - Frontier Lawman

Luke Short - A Dandy Gunfighter

Bill Tilghman - Thirty Years a Lawman

 

 

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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