As a duellist, Indian fighter, Confederate Cavalryman, mercenary, professional gambler, hired gun and lawman, Ben’s fame grew as the newspapers of Texas chronicled his eventful life. Their accounts describe his remarkable ability with a pistol but also tell of his loyalty to his friends, his honour, courage, refinement, generosity and intelligence. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, John Wesley Hardin, Buffalo Bill Cody, James Butler Hickok and Bat Masterson were all well acquainted with Ben Thompson. Some of these men called Thompson a friend, others considered him a deadly enemy but none of their names commanded more respect or recognition than his during the post Civil War years in America’s Wild West. It was Masterson who later wrote,
"It is doubtful if in his time there was another man living who equalled him with a pistol in a life-and-death struggle"
Ben Thompson was born on November 2, 1843 in Knottingley, Yorkshire. The town is located on the banks of the River Aire and for many years Knottingley had been the highest navigable point on the river and had developed into an important inland port. Ben was the eldest of five children to William Thompson and Mary Ann (nee Baker) who were married on October 21, 1840 at St. Giles Church, Pontefract. Ben’s younger brother William (Billy) was born on 28th August 1845 and eldest sister Mary Jane was born in Knottingley on 3rd March 1848. A second sister, Sarah Ann was born in 1850 but died in infancy while the fifth and final child, Frances, was born into the Thompson family in Austin, Texas on 21st March 1858. At the time of Ben’s birth, life expectancy in England was 41 years for males and 43 years for females.
Ben’s grandparents, William Thompson and Mary (nee Parker) were owners or part owners of eight different sloop rigged sailing ships that operated mainly around the east coast of Britain, along the river estuaries and occasionally across the channel, mainly to France. A former mariner himself, William had retired early from the sea to take a grocery store at Shepherd’s Bridge in Knottingley but retained an interest in the maritime trade and invested heavily into Knottingley’s principal industry.
The occupation of mariner had been a long-standing tradition within the Thompson family household and the Industrial Revolution circa 1760-1840, brought with it a great demand for coal. This required the use of every available ship for transportation and consequently many men were provided with year-round employment instead of the more common seasonal work associated with many other occupations. However, accidents at sea were a common occurrence, sometimes entire families were lost without trace and often children were left orphaned. It is a tribute to William and Mary that they yearned a better life for their children.
Ben's father, William Thompson, also the eldest of five children, nevertheless pursued a successful maritime career, rising through the ranks of master mariner, captain and eventually sole owner of his own ship. He first went to sea as a young boy in 1831 and served eight months in the Royal Navy. With the death of his father on 7 September 1845, it is evident that under the terms of his father’s will there was concern within the household as to the conduct of the eldest son. It may imply that Ben’s father was either a gambler or heavy drinker; in any event it is clear that his father did not have complete trust in him where money was concerned.
The provisions of the will, dated 27 December 1843 and valued at £1,000 included:
On 13 March 1851, William Thompson sold all his interest in the ship ’Providence’, 32 shares to John Howard and 32 shares to Thomas Lee. These two gentlemen, executors of the will of his mother Mary, were obviously close family friends. It is possible, due to the impending plans of William and his family, that the vessel was purchased from him as a favour rather than as a form of investment, the ship being sold once again within the space of three months.
In the late spring of 1851, William and Mary Ann Thompson emigrated to Texas and settled near the Colorado River in Austin, Travis County, along with their children Ben, William and Mary Jane. Mary Ann’s brother William Baker and his wife Matilda had emigrated to Texas fifteen or so years earlier and this must have contributed to the Thompson’s decision to relocate in Texas. It is likely that ill health on the part of William was also a deciding factor in view of the events during the summer of 1850, the possibility of a better climate may well have been an inviting idea.
Some people believe that the gradual decline in the mariner’s trade in Knottingley had led William Thompson to seek new opportunities along the Colorado River but there was very little work available. The river had too many sand banks and was not navigable from Austin to the Gulf Coast. William himself may well have found it difficult to adapt in the frontier town of Austin where there were few educated men to visit with. With no gainful employment he managed only to maintain a bare existence by fishing in the river while Mary took in sewing and probably contributed more to the family income than he did.
Shortly after the Thompson’s arrival in Texas, tragedy was to strike the family when William and Matilda Baker were murdered. The Baker’s and their six children lived on farmland about 15 miles from where the Thompson family had settled and on the morning of Friday July 11 1851 both parents were mortally wounded attempting to apprehend a runaway Negro slave. It was left to the elder Baker sister, Ann, who married shortly after her parent’s were killed, to raise the orphaned children. The guardianship papers relate that Ann’s husband, who was the guardian of the children, paid Mary Ann Thompson to make clothes for them. The deaths of William and Matilda would undoubtedly have been a tragic blow to the Thompson’s, leaving them alone in a new and unfamiliar land and without the support of the Baker’s knowledge and experience.
At the time of the Thompson’s arrival in Texas, William Walton, a close family friend and Ben's biographer, described Austin as
As an adolescent, Ben Thompson worked for various Austin newspapers eventually learning the printers trade. When Ben was aged about 13, it is said that his father returned to his maritime career leaving him and his brother Billy with the task of supporting their mother and two sisters. The details surrounding the departure of Ben’s father are not clear and can only be assumed from the few details that are known.
In accordance with the terms of his mothers will, William Thompson would have become eligible for his inheritance from the residue of her estate in 1859. Family history recalls that he did indeed return to England circa. 1859 to conclude some business with the courts and was persuaded to purchase a ship. It is said that he made several voyages between Liverpool and Pensecola, Florida before contracting Yellow Fever and was lost at sea although no records have been uncovered to confirm this. The 1860 Census returns in America however, show William Thompson at home in Austin at which time he is described as a mariner.
Shortly before his fifteenth birthday, Ben had his first shooting scrape. He ended an argument about his shooting ability by peppering the backside of another youth with a shotgun blast causing a painful though not too serious wound. He was sentenced to serve sixty days but freed on March 12, 1859 when the Governor H.R. Runnels ordered his release.
Travelling to New Orleans to work for a former Austin bookbinder, Ben observed a Frenchman making rude and unwelcome advances towards an unescorted young lady. Intervening on her behalf he reputedly killed the man in a subsequent knife duel. On his return to Austin in the summer of 1860, he enlisted in the ranger battalion of veteran Indian fighter Captain Edward Burleson Jr. He served with Samuel "Buckskin Sam" Hall, a future Dime Novelist who’s adventure stories set in Texas often included Ben and his brother, William "Billy" Thompson. With this brief taste of fighting he forgot all about the printer's trade, events in Texas at this time were becoming far too exciting a nature for a young man of his temperament to stay in such a peaceful employment.
On June 16 1861, the day after an Austin newspaper announced the fall of Fort Sumter in South Carolina which signalled the onset of the American Civil War, Ben Thompson enlisted in the Confederate Second Regiment Texas Mounted Rifles under the command of legendary Colonel John 'Rip' Ford. Ben would see action at the Battle of Galveston on January 1 1863, where he was wounded, and in Louisiana at La Fourche Crossings on June 20-21 1863. On November 26 1863, Thompson returned home to marry Catherine L. Moore, the eldest daughter of Martin Moore, a successful Austin merchant and substantial landowner. Ben remained in the Confederate military until its final surrender.
Union forces occupied Texas in the summer of 1865 and prior to the arrival of Federal troops, Ben shot and fatally wounded a man who had threatened him with a shotgun. He was placed under arrest and held without bail by the Federal military. During his time spent in confinement, Ben's wife and mother visited him regularly, bringing him food, clothing and news from the outside world. He learned that Imperial agents had moved into Texas seeking recruits to fight in Mexico for Emperor Maximilian.
After weeks of imprisonment and with no immediate hope of release, Ben decided to plan an escape. He was able to bribe two sergeants who allowed him to secretly leave the jail late at night to visit his family and prepare for a prolonged stay in Mexico. Ben's plan was to join Mejia's garrison at Matamoros where he was to accept an officer's commission. On October 22, Ben, together with the two sergeants and five other deserters, slipped out of Austin and headed for Mexico. For the next two years he fought for and faithfully served Maximilian until the fall of the empire in May 1867. Emperor Maximilian was captured, tried for treason and executed. Ben was lucky to escape from the Mexicans with his life and he eventually returned home to his family in Austin, Texas.
Once again Ben found himself in trouble with the Federal military. On or around the 2nd September 1868, he was arrested for shooting and wounding his brother-in-law James Moore after Moore had struck Ben's pregnant wife with a gun, knocking her to the ground. Moore's wound was intentionally slight, Ben had no intention of killing the man, however, Thompson was convicted of assault with the intent to commit murder by a Federal military tribunal. On October 20, 1868, he was sentenced to four years hard labour to be served in the state penitentiary at Huntsville.
While Ben was in prison, his wife Catherine gave birth to a son, Benjamin, in 1869. It was later deemed that Ben had been tried illegally by a military tribunal and he received a presidential pardon from Ulysses. S. Grant and released after serving only two years of his sentence. He returned to his family and commenced the life of a professional gambler.
By the 1870's the era of the Texas cattle drives to Kansas began to mature into a major industry. Ben had heard of the financial opportunities available in the small Kansas towns that served as the railroad shipping points for the eastbound trains. He began a long time habit of running games of chance in the Kansas cow town's during the summer while wintering in Austin. His first stop in Kansas was Abilene. In the summer of 1871, he opened a gambling hall above the Iron Front Saloon on Congress Avenue in partnership with his Civil War friend Phil Coe. The venture was reported to be hugely successful.
Ben, missing his wife and young son very much, arranged to meet them in Kansas City, Missouri. The meeting was to end in tragedy when all three were injured when the buggy they were riding in overturned. Ben suffered a broken leg, his wife's arm was broken and his young son's foot was crushed. Catherine's injury was by far the most serious and Ben had to stand by and watch as his pregnant wife underwent the horror of having her arm amputated. The Thompson family remained in a Kansas City Hotel convalescing for many weeks before they were fit enough to make the journey home.
Ben's year of misfortune was to take a further turn when, travelling home in slow stages, they met on the road an Austin resident returning from Kansas. His name was Bud Cotton and in his charge was the body of Ben's business partner, Phil Coe. Ben was told how Phil Coe had been shot during a street fight with Abilene City Marshall J. B. (Wild Bill) Hickok and died several days later. Although the year of 1871 had been cruel and tragic, luck eventually shone once again on Ben when on December 12, 1871, Catherine gave birth to a healthy daughter whom they named Kate.
In June 1873, Ben and Billy went to Ellsworth, Kansas where they established themselves as house gamblers in an Ellsworth saloon, but it was not long before they found themselves in trouble with the law again. After another gambling dispute, an unarmed Ben Thompson was threatened by two men after a disagreement began over the settlement of profits from a card game. A drunken Billy, coming to the aid of his brother, accidentally shot and killed Sheriff Chauncey B. Whitney. Whitney was a popular officer and a friend of the Thompson brothers. Unarmed, he had intervened to prevent bloodshed between the arguing parties. Ben, with the help of some other Texans, assisted Billy's escape into the countryside from an outraged populace. Three and a half years later, Billy Thompson was arrested on a ranch outside Austin and extradited to Kansas to face a charge of murder. After a lengthy trial, he was acquitted by an Ellsworth jury.
Throughout the remainder of the decade, other Kansas cattle towns such as Wichita and Dodge City would learn of Ben Thompson and his Monte cards. The mining boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, received several visits from Thompson in 1879. During one of his trips to Colorado in June of that year, Thompson joined a gang of gunmen including W. B 'Bat' Masterson and J. H. 'Doc' Holliday, who had been hired to protect the property of the Santa Fe Railroad. The Santa Fe Railroad was embroiled in a right-of-way dispute with the competing Denver and Rio Grande for control of the vital Royal George passage. Reportedly, Thompson was well paid for his services as a hired gun and upon his return to Austin he acquired the concession to operate the Faro Tables above the Iron Front Saloon, Congress Avenue.
When behaving himself, Ben Thompson was extremely popular in Austin and well known for his loyalty, honesty and generosity. Over the years, at times a heavy drinker, he would often amuse himself by shooting out streetlights and using signs for target practice late at night. Many of the city's citizens forgave him and he was repeatedly elected an officer of a volunteer fire company whom he represented at the Galveston Firemen Convention in 1878.
In December 1879, Ben befriended William 'Buffalo Bill' Cody when Cody's acting troupe arrived in Austin. They engaged in a series of shooting contests where Cody used a rifle while Thompson demonstrated his ability with a six shooter, establishing himself as one of the finest pistol shots in Texas.
In 1879, in an effort to gain social acceptance, he announced his candidacy for City Marshall of Austin, and although he lost the first election, he was elected on the following two occasions. During his term as City Marshall from 1880-1881, he was widely acknowledged to be one of the best officers the city had ever had. He did not rely on the police officers under his command to make arrests, preferring to take an active part himself. Thompson arrested the deadly John Ringo, infamous for his participation in the bloody Mason County Feud, after he had threatened several men with a pistol
In June 1882, Ben joined Mt. Bonnell Lodge No.34, Knights of Pythias, an order dedicated to the cause of universal peace. Although he did not serve in any of the offices he evidently attended meetings on a fairly regular basis, being a popular member right up to the time of his death.
Ben proved to be a worthy lawman but his own personal code of honour made him ill suited to wearing the Marshall's badge. In 1880 while visiting San Antonio, Thompson had become embroiled in a gamblers feud with Jack Harris and the other owners of the notorious Vaudeville Theatre. The feud simmered for two years until Thompson, tired of hearing of Harris' continuous threats, shot and killed him on July 11, 1882. Armed with a shotgun, Harris proved too slow for Thompson's pistol and the sensational murder trial that followed was headline news throughout Texas. By the time that a San Antonio jury had returned a verdict of not guilty, Austin had already accepted Ben's resignation and elected a new City Marshall.
Thompson returned to a hero's welcome in Austin but within a year’s time his drinking bouts had become more frequent and his late night pistol antics more annoying and dangerous and sentiment within the city gradually turned against him. While Ben was sober there was not a kinder or friendlier man around, but the prolonged and heavy bouts of drinking which characterised the last four years of his life, earned him the reputation of being a troublesome character. Unfortunately, many accounts of Ben still portray him with the reputation he earned himself during his later years with total disregard to his previous behaviour.
On March 11, 1884, Ben surprisingly agreed to return to the Vaudeville Theatre accompanied by John King Fisher, a noted gunman from the Nences River valley. Fisher had friends among Thompson's enemies at the Vaudeville and perhaps he had offered to mediate reconciliation. However, word of their arrival in the Alamo City raced ahead of them and within minutes of entering the theatre, both Thompson and Fisher lay dead on the floor.
A hastily assembled coroner’s jury found the homicide's justifiable. The man who had never given his adversary the death shot in the back, was not himself treated so kindly. A later autopsy performed by two prominent Austin physicians proved beyond any doubt that Ben Thompson had been shot down from behind.
His hometown gave him a monumental farewell, sixty-two carriages making up the cortege. He was laid to rest in Austin's Oakwood Cemetery on Thursday March 13, 1884. His wife, two children, his brother Billy and two sisters, all survived Ben Thompson. His wife Catherine remarried and moved to Paris, Texas. The date of her death and burial place remains unknown. His son, Benjamin, died in 1893 and his brother Billy died from natural causes in 1897. Ben's daughter Kate received a college education and was raised to adulthood by his sister, Mrs. Mary Jane Thompson Gill of Bastrop.