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Texas State Flag - Lone Star Legends IconTEXAS LEGENDS

Bad Men of Texas

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By Emerson Hough in 1905

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Drawing a map in the sand by Erwin E. SmithA review of the story of the American desperado will show that he has always been most numerous at the edge of things, where there was a frontier, a debatable ground between civilization and lawlessness, or a border between opposing nations or sections. He does not wholly pass away with the coming of the law, but his home is essentially in a new and undeveloped condition of society. The edge between East and West, between North and South, made the territory of the bad man of the American interior.


The far Southwest was the oldest of all American frontiers, and the stubbornest. We have never, as a nation, been at war with any other nation whose territory has adjoined our own except in the case of Mexico; and long before we went to war as a people against Mexico, Texas had been at war with her as a state, or rather as a population and a race against another race.


The frontier of the Rio Grande is one of the bloodiest of the world, and was such long before Texas was finally admitted to the union. There was never any new territory settled by so vigorous and belligerent a population as that which first found and defended the great empire of the Lone Star. Her early men were, without exception, fighters, and she has bred fighters ever since.


The allurement which the unsettled lands of the Southwest had for the young men of the early part of the last century lay largely in the appeal of excitement and adventure, with a large possibility of worldly gain as well. The men of the South who drifted down the old River Road across Mississippi and Louisiana were shrewd in their day and generation. They knew that eventually Texas would be taken away from Mexico, and taken by force. Her vast riches would belong to those who had earned them. Men of the South were even then hunting for another West, and here was a mighty one. The call came back that the fighting was good all along the line; and the fighting men of all the South, from Virginia to Louisiana, fathers and sons of the boldest and bravest of Southern families, pressed on and out to take a hand. They were scattered and far from numerous when they united and demanded a government of their own, independent of the far-off and inefficient head of the Mexican law. They did not want Coahuila as their country, but Texas, and asked a government of their own. Lawless as they were, they wanted a real law, a law of Saxon right and justice.


Men like Crockett, Fannin, Travis and Bowie were influenced half by political ambition and half by love of adventure when they moved across the plains of eastern Texas and took up their abode on the firing line of the Mexican border. If you seek a historic band of bad men, fighting men of the bitterest Baresark type, look at the immortal defenders of the Alamo. Some of them were, in the light of calm analysis, little better than guerrillas; but every man was a hero. They all had a chance to escape, to go out and join Sam Houston farther to the east; but they refused to a man, and, plying the border weapons as none but such as themselves might, they died, full of the glory of battle; not in ranks and shoulder to shoulder, with banners and music to cheer them, but each for himself and hand to hand with his enemy, a desperate fighting man.


The early men of Texas for generations fought Mexicans and Indians in turn. The country was too vast for any system of law. Each man had learned to depend upon himself. Each cabin kept a rifle and pistol for each male old enough to bear them, and each boy, as he grew up, was skilled in weapons and used to the thought that the only arbitrament among men was that of weapons.


Part of the population, appreciating the exemptions here to be found, was, without doubt, criminal; made up of men who had fled, for reasons of their own, from older regions. These in time required the attention of the law; and the armed bodies of hard-riding Texas Rangers, a remedy born of necessity, appeared as the executives of the law.


The cattle days saw the wild times of the border prolonged. The buffalo range caught its quota of hard riders and hard shooters. And always the apparently exhaustless empires of new and unsettled lands -- an enormous, untracked empire of the wild -- beckoned on and on; so that men in the most densely settled sections were very far apart, and so that the law as a guardian could not be depended upon.




Battle of the Alamo by Percy Moran

It was not to be wondered at that the name of Texas became the synonym for savagery. That was for a long time the wildest region within our national confines. Many men who attained fame as fighters along the Pecos, Rio Grande, Gila and Colorado Rivers came across the borders from Texas. Others slipped north into the Indian Nations, and left their mark there. Some went to the mines of the Rockies, or the cattle ranges from Montana to Arizona. Many stayed at home, and finished their eventful lives there in the usual fashion -- killing now and again, then oftener, until at length they killed once too often and got hanged; or not often enough once, and so got shot.


To undertake to give even the most superficial study to a field so vast as this would require a dozen times the space we may afford, and would lead us far into matters of history other than those intended. We can only point out that the men of the Lone Star State left their stamp as horsemen and weapon-bearers clear on to the north, and as far as the foot of the Arctic Circle. Their language and their methods mark the entire cattle business of the plains from the Rio Grande to the Selkirks. Theirs was a great school for frontiersmen, and its graduates gave full account of themselves wherever they went. Among them were bad men, as bad as the worst of any land, and in numbers not capable of compass even in a broad estimate.


Some citizens of Montgomery County, Texas, were not long ago sitting in a store of an evening, and they fell to counting up the homicides which had fallen under their notice in that county within recent memory. They counted up seventy-five authenticated cases, and could not claim comprehensiveness for their tally. Many a county of Texas could do as well or better, and there are many counties. It takes you two days to ride across Texas by railway. A review of the bad man field of Texas pauses for obvious reasons!


So many bad men of Texas have attained reputation far wider than their state that it became a proverb upon the frontier that any man born on Texas soil would shoot, just as any horse born there would "buck." There is truth back of most proverbs, although to-day both horses and men of Texas are losing something of their erstwhile bronco character. That out of such conditions, out of this hardy and indomitable population, the great state could bring order and quiet so soon and so permanently over vast unsettled regions, is proof alike of the fundamental sternness and justness of the American character and the value of the American fighting man.


Yet, though peace hath her victories not less than war, it is to be doubted whether in her own heart Texas is more proud of her statesmen and commercial kings than of her stalwart fighting men, bred to the use of arms. The beautiful city of San Antonio is to-day busy and prosperous; yet to-day you tread there ground which has been stained red over and over again. The names of Crockett, Milam, Travis, Bowie, endure where those of captains of industry are forgotten. Out of history such as this, covering a half century of border fighting, of frontier travel and merchandising, of cattle trade and railroad building, it is impossible -- in view of the many competitors of equal claims -- to select an example of bad eminence fit to bear the title of the leading bad man of Texas.


Ben ThompsonThere was one somewhat noted Texas character, however, whose life comes down to modern times, and hence is susceptible of fairly accurate review -- a thing always desirable, though not often practical, for no history is more distorted, not to say more garbled, than that dealing with the somewhat mythical exploits of noted gun fighters. Ben Thompson, of Austin, killer of more than twenty men, and a very perfect exemplar of the creed of the six-shooter, will serve as instance good enough for a generic application. Thompson was not a hero. He did no deeds of war. He led no forlorn hope into the imminent deadly breach. His name is preserved in no history of his great commonwealth. He was in the opinion of certain peace officers, all that a citizen should not be. Yet in his way he reached distinction; and so striking was his life that even to-day he does not lack apologists, even as he never lacked friends. Ben Thompson was of English descent, and was born near Lockhart, Texas, according to general belief, though it is stated that he was born in Yorkshire, England. Later his home was in Austin, where he spent the greater part of his life, though roaming from place to place.


Known as a bold and skillful gun man, he was looked on as good material for a hunter of bad men, and at the time of his death was marshal of police at Austin. In personal appearance Thompson looked the part of the typical gambler and gun fighter. His height was about five feet eight inches, and his figure was muscular and compact.


His hair was dark and waving; his eyes gray. He was very neat in dress, and always took particular pains with his footwear, his small feet being always clad in well-fitting boots of light material, a common form of foppery in a land where other details of dress were apt to be carelessly regarded. He wore a dark mustache which, in his early years, he was wont to keep waxed to points. In speech he was quiet and unobtrusive, unless excited by drink. With the six-shooter he was a peerless shot, an absolute genius, none in all his wide surrounding claiming to be his superior; and he had a ferocity of disposition which grew with years until he had, as one of his friends put it, "a craving to kill people." Each killing seemed to make him desirous of another. He thus came to exercise that curious fascination which such characters have always commanded. Fear he did not know, or at least no test arising in his somewhat varied life ever caused him to show fear. He passed through life as a wild animal, ungoverned by the law, rejoicing in blood; yet withal he was held as a faithful friend and a good companion. To this day many men repel the accusation that he was bad, and maintain that each of his twenty killings was done in self-defense. The brutal phase of his nature was no doubt dominant, even although it was not always in evidence. He was usually spoken of as a "good fellow," and those who palliate or deny most of his wild deeds declare that local history has never been as fair to him as he deserved.


Thompson's first killing was while he was a young man at New Orleans, and according to the story, arose out of his notions of chivalry. He was passing down the street in a public conveyance, in company of several young Creoles, who were going home from a dance in a somewhat exhilarated condition. One or two of the strangers made remarks to an unescorted girl, which Thompson construed to be offensive, and he took it upon himself to avenge the insult to womanhood. In the affray that followed he killed one of the young men. For this he was obliged to flee to old Mexico, taking one of the boats down the river. He returned presently to Galveston, where he set up as a gambler, and began to extend his reputation as a fighting man. Most of his encounters were over cards or drink or women, the history of many or most of the border killings.


Saloon GunfightThompson's list grew steadily, and by the time he was forty years of age he had a reputation far wider than his state. In all the main cities of Texas he was a figure more or less familiar, and always dreaded. His skill with his favorite weapon was a proverb in a state full of men skilled with weapons. Moreover, his disposition now began to grow more ugly, sullen and bloodthirsty. He needed small pretext to kill a man if, for the slightest cause, he took a dislike to him. To illustrate the ferocity of the man, and his readiness to provoke a quarrel, the following story is told of him:


A gambler by the name of Jim Burdette was badly whipped by the proprietor of a variety show, Mark Wilson, who, after the fight, told Burdette that he had enough of men like him, who only came to his theater to raise trouble and interfere with his business, and that if either he or any of his gang ever again attempted to disturb his audiences that they would have him (Wilson) to deal with. The next day Ben Thompson, seated in a barber shop, heard about the row and said to a negro standing by: "Mack, damn your n***er soul, you go down to that place this evening and when the house is full and everybody is seated, you just raise hell and we'll see what that is made of." The program was carried out. The negro arose in the midst of the audience and delivered himself of a few blood-curdling yells. Instantly the proprietor came out of the place, but caught sight of Thompson, who had drawn a pair of guns and stood ready to kill Wilson.


The latter was too quick for him, and quickly disappeared behind the scenery, after his shotgun. There was too much excitement that night and the matter passed off without a killing. A few nights thereafter, Thompson procured some lamp-black, which he gave the gambler Burdette, with instructions to go to the theater, watch his chance, and dash the stuff in Wilson's face. This was done and when the ill-fated proprietor, who immediately went for his shotgun, came out with that weapon, Thompson fell to the ground, and the contents of the gun, badly fired at the hands of Wilson, his face full of lamp-black, passed over Thompson's head. Thompson then arose and filled Wilson full of holes, killing him instantly.


Cowboy & Old West T-Shirts exclusively from Legends of AmericaThe bartender, seeing his employer's life in danger, fired at Thompson wildly, and as Thompson turned on him he dodged behind the bar to receive his death wound through the counter and in his back. Thompson at the court of last resort managed to have a lot of testimony brought to bear, and, with a half dozen gamblers to swear to anything he needed, he was admitted to bail and later freed.


He is said to have killed these two men for no reason in the world except to show that he could "run" a place where others had failed. A variation of the story is that a saloon keeper fired at Thompson as he was walking down the street in Austin, and missing him, sprang back behind the bar, Thompson shooting him through the head, through the bar front. Another man's life now meant little to him. He desired to be king, to be "chief," just as the leaders of the desperadoes in the mining regions of California and Montana sought to be "chief." It meant recognition of their courage, their skill, their willingness to take human life easily and carelessly and quickly, a singular ambition which has been so evidenced in no other part of the world than the American West. It is certain that the worst bad men all over Texas were afraid of Ben Thompson. He was "chief."




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