Ben Thompson and Other Noted Gunmen


By W.R. (Bat) Masterson in 1907

Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson

I have been asked to write something about the noted killers of men I am supposed to have personally known in the early days of the western frontier and who of their number I regarded as the most courageous and the most expert with the pistol.

In making this request, I may reasonably assume the editor did not consider that he was imposing on me very much of a task, and had it embodied nothing more than the question of proficiency with the pistol, such would have been the case; but in asking me to offer an opinion on the question of physical courage as sometimes exemplified by them under nerve trying conditions, he has placed a responsibility on my shoulders that I hardly care to assume. I have known so many courageous men in that vast territory lying west and south-west of the Missouri River — men who would when called upon face death with utter indifference as to consequences, that it would be manifestly unjust for me even to attempt to draw a comparison.

Courage to step out and fight to the death with a pistol is but one of three qualities a man must possess in order to last very long in this hazardous business. A man may possess the greatest amount of courage possible and still be a pathetic failure as a “gunfighter,” as men are often called in the West who have gained reputations as “man-killers.”

Courage is of little use to a man who essays to arbitrate a difference with the pistol if he is inexperienced in the use of the weapon he is going to use. Then again he may possess both courage and experience and still fail if he lacks deliberation.

Any man who does not possess courage, proficiency in the use of fire-arms, and’ deliberation had better make up his mind at the beginning to settle his personal differences in some other manner than by an appeal to the pistol. I have known men in the West whose courage could not be questioned and whose expertness with the pistol was simply marvelous, who fell easy victims before men who added deliberation to the other two qualities. I will cite a few such instances that came under my own personal observation.

The Harrison-Levy Feud

Thirty-five years ago Charlie Harrison was one of the best-known sporting men west of the Missouri River. His home was in St. Louis but he traveled extensively throughout the West and was well-known through the Rocky Mountain region. He was of an impetuous temperament, quick of action, of unquestioned courage and the most expert man I ever saw with a pistol. He could shoot faster and straighter when shooting at a target than any man I ever knew; then add to that the fact that no man possessed more courage than he did, the natural conclusion would be that he would be a most formidable foe to encounter in a pistol duel.

In 1876 he started for the Black Hills, which was then having a great mining boom on account of the discovery of gold at Deadwood. When Charley reached Cheyenne he became involved in a personal difficulty with another gambler by the name of Jim Levy, and both men started for their respective lodgings to get their pistols and have it out the first time they met. It looked like 100 to I that Harrison would win the fight because of his well-known courage and proficiency in the use of the pistol. Little being known at that time about Jim Levy, Harrison was made a hot favorite in the betting in the various gambling resorts of Cheyenne. The men were not long in getting together after securing their revolvers, which were of the Colts pattern and of 45 caliber in size.

Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1868

Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1868

They met on opposite sides of the principal street of the city and opened fire on each other without a moment’s delay. Harrison, as was expected, fairly set his pistol on fire, he was shooting so fast and managed to fire five shots at Levy before the latter could draw a bead on him. Levy finally let go a shot. It was all that was necessary. Harrison tumbled into the street in a dying condition and was soon afterwards laid to rest alongside of others who had gone before in a similar way.

That Harrison was as game a man as Levy could not be doubted; that he could shoot much faster, he had given ample proof, but under extraordinary conditions he had shown that he lacked deliberation and lost his life in consequence. The trouble with Charley Harrison was just this-he was too anxious. He wanted to shoot too fast. Levy took his time. He looked through the sights on his pistol, which is a very essential thing to do when shooting at an adversary who is returning your fire.

Johnny Sherman, another well-known Western sport and a near relative of the famous Sherman family of Ohio, was another remarkably fine pistol shot.

When he happened to be where he could not go out and practice with his pistol, he would hunt up a shooting gallery and spend an hour or so practicing with the gallery pistols.

Wanted to Shoot Too Fast

In this way he became an adept in the use of the revolver. He was, as everyone who knew him can testify to, as courageous as a lion and yet, when he started in to kill a dentist in a room in a St. Louis hotel, who had, as he claimed, insulted his wife, he emptied his pistol at the dentist without as much as puncturing his clothes, and mind you, the dentist was not returning his fire. Sherman, like Harrison, was in too big a hurry to finish the job and forgot that there were a set of sights on his pistol.

I'm the kind of cowboyyour Momma warned you about.Levi Richardson is another case in point that will serve to show that coolness and deliberation are very essential qualities in a shooting scrape, and unless a man possesses them, he is very apt to fall a victim to the man who does. Levi Richardson had been a buffalo hunter with me on the plains of western Kansas for several years. We were very close friends and shared our blankets with each other on a great many cold winter nights, when blankets were a very useful commodity. He was thoroughly familiar with the use of fire-arms and an excellent shot with either pistol or rifle. He was a high-strung fellow who was not afraid of any man. He got a notion into his head one night in Dodge City, Kansas, that a young gambler by the name of Frank Loving, generally known as “Cock-eyed Frank,” had done him some wrong, and forthwith made up his mind to kill him on sight. He publicly declared what he intended to do to Loving as soon as he met him, and some busybody who had been listening to the threats hastened away to put  Loving on his guard.

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