Ben Bickerstaff the Noted Desperado
By T. U. Taylor
Ben Bickerstaff was a fruit of the war. Although he was instinctively a gentleman, high strung, and of pronounced social ideals, his becoming a "bad man" was one of evolution in the popular sense. His father lived several miles east of Sulphur Springs, Texas, and Ben entered the Confederate Army with all the fiery ardor of youth. One of his acquaintances in conversation with me, vouchsafed the statement that "Ben was a red hot southerner." At the close of the war, Ben's fortunes led him to Louisiana. The Freedman's Bureau, the nearest fort of the U. S. Army (known in popular phraseology at that time as "Yankee Forts") served to give the negroes an exalted idea of freedom and many of them began to "put on airs", the result being a clash with the Southern whites. In one of these encounters, Ben Bickerstaff shot a negro. The result was that the Federal officers were soon after him and in these troublesome times no Southerner believed that he could get justice before a court dominated by "carpetbaggers and scalawags.”
Ben escaped across the line into Texas, getting a few men around him, and set up a camp in the bottoms of White Oak Creek, about four miles northwest of Sulphur Springs. The inevitable result happened. The U. S. Army decided to establish a fort at Sulphur Springs, within four miles of Ben's camp. A train of supplies was started towards Sulphur Springs as a basis for the fort. This was in 1866 or 1867.
The train arrived at a point on the prairie west or northwest of Sulphur Springs. It was suddenly surrounded by some unknown parties. The mules were taken out of the wagons, the wagons were drawn up close together with all the supplies, the harness taken off the mules and placed in the wagons, the torch was applied and in a short while the wagons, harness, government supplies, etc., were in a smoking ruin. The next day there were many visitors at the scene and one of these told me that all that was left was some ashes, smoke, wagon tires, and the iron work of the wagons. The unknown parties had decamped with the mules leaving the drivers on foot as a rather severe warning. This act was charged to Ben Bickerstaff and his followers, but it was never established. The nearness of his camp to the scene of the holocaust naturally led to this conclusion.
As a sidelight on Ben Bickerstaff's character, Colonel W. B. Wortham, now of Austin, Texas, and ex-State Treasurer, relates that he lived in Sulphur Springs in his youth and owned a pony that disappeared. Knowing Ben Bickerstaff's character, he mounted a horse one day and ventured to interview Bickerstaff in his camp on White Oak Creek. Mr. Wortham relates that after giving his name to Bickerstaff, he was asked, "Are you a son of Col. Wortham of Sulphur Springs?" Billie replied that Col. Wortham was his father. Bickerstaff then instructed him to inspect some horses that were tied a short distance from camp and report to him whether his pony was in the bunch. Billie inspected the horses and found his pony among them. He reported to Bickerstaff and the head of the outlaws said to one of his men, "Give this boy his pony." Billie Wortham was then given his pony, and took him back to Sulphur Springs and related the event to his friends. He acknowledges to this day that to his chums he told an ungodly tale which placed him in a position of holding up Ben Bickerstaff and his gang, and taking his pony from them single-handed. However, he told the truth of the matter to his father, who attributed the incident to Ben's kind disposition.
The U. S. fort was soon established at Sulphur Springs after the burning of the wagons, and the troops made it too hot for Bickerstaff and his followers to remain. Accordingly, they next appeared at Alvarado, Texas. From his camp near Alvarado Bickerstaff was wont to make forays on the town, shoot it up, and take what he wanted in defiance of the authorities. By this time Ben had become a ruthless outlaw and had gathered around him men who were of the same type. His friends believe that he had reached the outlaw stage by gradual steps, none of which could possibly have been foreseen.
While in East Texas Ben Bickerstaff had been associated with Cullen M. Baker, one of the bad men produced by the war. Bickerstaff was known as a graduate of the "Cullen M. Baker School of Bad Men." While camped near Alvarado he changed his name to Thomason, and had as a companion a man by the name of Thompson; a former resident of Alvarado, Johnson county. Bickerstaff and Thompson had been camping several months near Alvarado, and it was their habit to visit the town late in the evening or during the night, to shoot up, and rob wherever they pleased. Their repeated crimes and holdups became unbearable and some determined citizens organized for the purpose of putting an end to this reign of terror. They had their guns ready, loaded, and secreted, and on April 5, 1869, the fray took place.
About sundown Bickerstaff and Thompson were seen coming to town. As they neared the hitching post they saw all the men running into the stores and places of business and shutting the doors. The two desperadoes attributed this to fear on the part of the people, and with their pistols in hand they advanced. Bickerstaff was heard to exclaim in a loud voice, "Rats to your holes, D— you." Both Bickerstaff and Thompson rode up to the hitching rack, tied their horses, and had just turned from their horses, when the fusilade of buckshot was rained on them from men concealed in the nearby stores. It seems that the citizens were more anxious to kill Thompson than Bickerstaff on account of the fact that he had been a former resident of Alvarado, and had turned against his old friends and acquaintances. Thompson fell dead at the first volley, and I heard it said that forty-two bullets pierced his body and clothing. Only three hit Bickerstaff, one of these striking him in the right eye and bursting the hall thereof, but notwithstanding this, he raised himself on his elbow and fired shots at individuals and at random. Later the men crowded around him and he conversed with them for some time, cursed Thompson for dying so easily, talked very freely to the crowd, and at one time exclaimed, "You have killed as brave a man as there is in the South."
For a while it was suspected that some townspeople of Alvarado were in collusion with Bickerstaff and Thompson but nothing was ever proved and this impression finally died out. Photographs were taken of the two dead outlaws in the street, and I had a copy for years but it disappeared and I have not been able to find it.
Under date of August 27, 1868, Major General J. J.Reynolds in charge of the five military districts for the state of Texas issued special orders, No. 16, in which he offered a reward of $1000.00 for delivery of each of the following named persons:
BEN F. BICKERSTAFF
CULLEN M. BAKER
Cullen M. Baker was killed a few months after this order was issued. Ben F. Bickerstaff was killed April 1869, and Bob Lee was killed in Fannin county in late spring or early summer of 1869 by the federal soldiers and two citizens.
As a sequel to the killing of Bob Lee, it can be stated that one of the two citizens who aided the federal soldiers in the killing of Bob Lee was killed three months later by Bob Lee's twelve-year old son, in September, 1869.