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Meet Austin's Gunslinging Lawman, Ben Thompson

Austin History Center

Today’s Wayback Wednesday recognizes the 134th anniversary of Ben Thompson’s assumption of the position of City Marshal. The 134th anniversary of what was ostensibly a city police chief may not seem like an auspicious anniversary to revisit, but Thompson wasn’t your typical police chief.

In his life, Thompson was a gunfighter and professional gambler, served as a member of the Confederate Cavalry, was a hired gun for the first (and only) Emperor of Mexico and was indicted (and later acquitted) for murder while serving as the city’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer.

Thompson was born in Knottingly, England in 1843, and his family moved to Austin in 1851. Six years later, while working as a newspaper typesetter, Thompson shot somebody – presumably for the first time. His friend, 14-year-old Joe Brown, bet Thompson that he couldn’t shoot.

Brown turned around – daring Thompson to try and hit him – and was shot by Thompson’s single-barrel shotgun.

Somehow, Brown wasn’t killed, but Thompson was indicted and tried for “assault with intent to kill and murder,”  according to an 1884 biography from his close friend William “Buck” Walton. He was ultimately convicted of aggravated assault, but was pardoned by Texas Gov. H.R. Runnels, who saw the shooting as a foolhardy accident, rather than a malicious act.

Credit Austin History Center

Years later, in 1859, Thompson moved to New Orleans to continue work as a typesetter, but took to gambling. Shortly after, he was involved in an altercation with a Frenchman, who he reportedly stabbed. In June 1861, he and his younger brother Billy enlisted in the Second Texas Cavalry, serving under Col. John Salmon “Rip” Ford, where he fought at the Battle of Galveston Bay and the unsuccessful Confederate skirmish at La Fourche Crossing in Louisiana.

Thompson returned to Austin in November of 1863 to marry Catherine L. Moore. He served out the rest of the war, returning again in April 1865. Shortly after, in May, he was arrested after allegedly fatally shooting a local union boss. But Thompson escaped federal custody, answering a call put out by the French provisional government to Civil War veterans. Thompson became a major in Emperor Maximillian I’s army, serving shortly before the government’s collapse at the hands of Benito Juarez.

Credit Austin History Center

Upon his return to Austin, Thompson assaulted his brother-in-law in 1868 and was sentenced to two years in Huntsville Prison. He was eventually pardoned, moved to Kansas to open a saloon, and reportedly had run-ins with William “Wild Bill" Hickok and Wyatt Earp over the next five years.

On Christmas Eve of 1876, he shot the owner of the Capital Theater, Mark Wilson. Thompson inadvertently hit Wilson in a brawl, writes Walton. Wilson then shot at Thompson. Thompson responded, fatally shooting Wilson three times and mortally wounding bartender Charles Matthews, who later died. A court later acquitted Thompson for the shootings.

Credit Austin History Center

Just over three years later, Thompson owned a card parlor on Congress Avenue called the Iron Front Saloon and announced his candidacy for City Marshal. A year later, he killed Jack Harris, the owner of San Antonio’s Vaudeville Theater. He was indicted, and later acquitted, but handed in his resignation to the Austin City Council.

A year after that, Thompson returned to the Vaudeville Theater and was ambushed by multiple shooters along with fellow gunfighter King Fisher.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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