Death of Ben Thompson and King Fisher - A. H. Gregory
[From J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, June, 1928]
WHEN King Fisher, who has come down in history as the most notorious and colorful of all bandits on the Texas border, decided to reform, he did it in a whole-hearted manner and did the job good and thoroughly and in a manner befitting his station in life. When he killed his first man down in Goliad county, back in 1873, he was then 16 years of age, but showed that same meticulous care and precision that was to mark his life for the next few years. He kept a careful record of this killing—dates, names and all. He likewise kept a careful record of all future killings, including Mexicans, and when he finally submitted to the law he made $85.000 bond on 17 murder charges, was tried before Judge Thomas Paschal in Maverick county, acquitted and then reformed.
It was no doubt considerable relief to theTexas rangers and deputy sheriffs when the youthful bandit opened negotiations for an armistice. He was still in his early 20's and had not lived in Maverick county more than five years, but his ranch, located 35 miles from Eagle Pass, had come to be known as the rendezvous of the hardest gang of border bandits in history.
Possibly the same motives that prompts a reformed drunkard to join the anti-saloon league, prompted King Fisher to join the forces of law and order once his reformation was completed and his slate cleaned up in the district courts. At any rate he removed Immediately to Uvalde county, served two terms as deputy sheriff and was waging an active campaign for election as sheriff when he was killed in San Antonio at the age of 27 years in oneof the most spectacular battles in history.
Extant records of that fateful and bloody night of March 11, 1884, lend color to the belief that a couple of days before, Fisher had journeyed to Austin on one of his periodical visits to his old companion in arms, Ben Thompson. Fisher and Thompson started their little party in Austin and came to San Antonio to wind it up. Both returned to their homes for burial.
Thompson at that time, and for several years previous, had been chief of police of the Texas capital. Next to Fisher. he was the unquestioned champion gun thrower of the wide open spaces; had killed 21 men, not including Mexicans, and revelled when his exploits made page one of St. Louis and New York papers.
He was born in Nova Scotia of English parents in 1844, being 40 years of age when killed in San Antonio. With his parents he moved to Austin at the age of two years and first notched his gun at the tender age of 16 in a quarrel with another lad.
From the time he first tasted blood he roamed far and wide, visiting most of the mining camps of the West and collecting new laurels at almost every stop. He was an ardent State's Right Democrat and when the Republicans took over the reins of Texas government following the Civil War, Ben contributed his mite by killing two of their lieutenants and wounding two privates who accosted him on the streets of his native city. For this breach of etiquette the Republicans gave him his only trip to prison, whence he was released when carpet baggers were routed.
Between his terms as a peace officer, Thompson joined the band of the Mexican bandit leader, Cortines; was a paid killer for the Union Pacific Railroad when that road was battling for rights-of-way through the Royal Gorge in Colorado; lived as a free-lance gambler of sorts, and in varied ways made himself notorious and dreaded.
Two years before the reformed bandit pair were slaughtered in San Antonio, Thompson had incurred the enmity of San Antonio's gambling fraternity by killing the local leader, Jack Harris, proprietor of Harris' Variety Show, one of the famed resorts of the Southwest.
The night of the killing, Thompson and Fisher arrived from Austin, bought many drinks in local bars, attended a performance of East Lynne at Turner Hall and about 10 o'clock repaired to the Harris place for the avowed purpose of taking it in.
After the death of Harris, management of the place had fallen to Billie Simms and Joe Foster. It was a two-story adobe located at what is now the northwest corner of Soledad street and Main plaza. The lower floor was given over to the bar and some of the gambling games. The second floor had a bar at the top of the stairs, a stage at the opposite end and a small auditorium and dancing floor, typical of such amusement palaces of the old West.
San Antonio's underworld had been apprised of the impending battle and turned out en masse, packing the Harris house to capacity. One account of the night says that 'women rushed to and fro, dragging their skirts in the gore in their anxiety to get just one glimpse of the dead bandits, clear up to the time of arrival of Justice Anton Adam."
As this account was written back In 1884, it does not imply that gore was hip-deep to the ladies—skirts were different in those days. But the lady customers that night got a treat.
At the coroner's hearing next day a jury exonerated all parties of blame in connection with the killings. Evidence at the hearing indicated both dead men had an equal chance on the draw, but this has been seriously questioned by friends of the dead men who still claim that they walked into an armed camp and were ambushed from one of the boxes and from the stage. Thompson was shot twice above the left eye, once near the left ear, once in the left side and once in the stomach. Fisher was shot once in the left eye, once through the heart and once to the left leg. Both men were armed with single-action .44 Colts. Thompson inflicted wounds on Foster from which he later died, but Fisher never fired a shot.
Following is an account of the dual killing and events leading up to it, contributed by J. C. Cochran, a reporter of the San Antonio Times, who interviewed Thompson following the killing of Harris, and who covered the killing for his paper:
Ben Thompson was one of the noted, or rather notorious characters of the Southwest. A gambler by profession and from inclination, a gunman through the necessity of his calling and his environment, he lived in those eventful times when a mans life often depended upon his ability to draw quickly and shoot straight. That Ben Thompson possessed those attributes to a wonderful degree is beyond question. Adept with a pistol, possessed of great physical courage and an iron nerve, he was a fitting representative of one of the worst products of the times in which he lived. When sober and sane he was a suave and polished man of the world who gave but little, if any, intimation of the murderous malevolence that controlled him when deep in his cups.
While the tragedy attending his death, and the circumstances leading up to it, were but passing incidents in the exciting and oft times bloody history of the ancient city founded by the Franciscans, yet they went far toward forever liberating that city, and practically all of Texas, from the domination of gunmen and desperadoes.
The greater portion of the days of Ben Thompson's adventurous life was cast amid the exciting scenes of the mining camps and frontier towns of the West and Southwest, and as an associate of the rough and ready characters, hardy, fearless and reckless, who made up the life of those places. He trained with a fast crowd, and frequently set the pace. He was a gun fighter and a free booter, and as such had his part in the strife and turmoil, gun plays and bloodshed that were of almost daily and nightly occurrence. He lived a life of violence and died as so many of his class have died—with his boots on.
James H. French, a strong man, was elected mayor of San Antonio, and Phil Sheridan, quiet, determined, utterly fearless and indefatigable in his duty, was elected chief of police, or city marshal, as it was then called. Cowboys were no longer permitted to race their horses on the principal streets, shoot out the lights, or ride into a saloon when they desired a drink. A new order of things had been inaugurated, greatly to the disgust of that playful element that delighted in intimidating peace officers, stampeding quiet citizens and riding roughshod over all the laws of order and decorum.
Ben was generally on his job, and usually behaved right well, too, when at home. However, when there was nothing stirring in his city and the monotony became unbearable, or he wanted to 'throw a party,’ he would surrender the reins of government to his subordinates and hie him over to the Alamo City, where he was generally enabled to gather about him a coterie of choice spirits much more to his liking than the quiet inhabitants of the capital ctiy. Among these latter were Joe Foster, a typical gambler, immaculate in dress, dignified in appearance, abstemious in habits, cold-eyed and quick on the draw; Jack Harris, whose brutal methods controlled the rough element and intimidated the better, and as a matter of course, was a political boss; King Fisher of Uvalde; Billie Sims, who had not lived long enough to acquire the evil reputation of his older associates, and against whom there was no specific discredit save that he was a gambler with a hair-trigger temper and an inclination to use a gun, (with which he was an expert) without much provocation; Andreas Coy, an American citizen of Mexican descent, together with a few lesser lights who do not figure prominently as gunmen.
Ben Thompson was on one of his periodical visits to San Antonio, and Ben was drunk. When the city marshal of Austin had acquired a pronounced jag there was generally something doing. His first visit after arriving in the city was to his old friend, Jack Harris. After adding a few rounds to his already heavy load, Ben concluded that the most feasible thing in sight was to go up and break Joe Foster's farobank. Foster himself was dealing, probably through information that Thompson was drunk, well heeled and in a gambling mood, when Ben finally bought a few stacks of chips and began the fun. And what Joe did to Ben was a plenty. He not only annexed his large roll of money, but his watch, his diamonds and all his jewelry, even to his cuff links.
Ben was not accustomed to this sort of usage, and at first seemed rather dazed, but when he began to realize that he was entirely cleaned out, that the game had got him for everything he had save his wearing apparel, his whisky-flamed brain conceived the idea that he had been robbed. Then, with one of those lightning-like movements for which he was renowned, he had his revolver out and had Foster covered, who was compelled to elevate a hand that was darting like a snake, for a gun under the counter. At the point of a pistol whose owner never missed his target whether drunk or sober, Foster was compelled to make restitution of all the money and collateral that he had just won, when Ben, holding Joe and his lookout under the threat of his gun, backed from the room, left the building and took the first train for Austin.
This action on the part of their old friend greatly peeved Foster and Harris. Harris was especially bitter, and openly announced that if Thompson ever again visited San Antonio and appeared on the streets he (Harris) would furnish the municipal authorities of the capital city a chance to attend the funeral of their city marshal, or words to that effect. Ben, of course, soon heard of this threat, and his reckless and lawless spirit could not tamely brook such a defiance. As a consequence, but a few weeks elapsed before he was again in San Antonio. Harris was informed of his presence, and at once proceeded to get out the trusty sawed-off shotgun that he kept back of his bar for important emergencies. He carefully oiled the gun, inserted two fresh buckshot shells and started out on a still hunt for his quondam friend. Thompson, however, kept under cover and did not make his appearance on the street until after the shades of night had fallen. Between 8 and 9 o'clock he, with a companion, came along the street and passed Harris saloon. Through a small opening in the venetian blind that screened the bar from the street, he saw Harris parading in front of his bar with his shotgun in his hand. At the corner of Soledad street, Ben excused himself from his companion and started back the way he came. As he again passed the saloon, he fired from the sidewalk through that narrow slit and shot Jack Harris dead. He then commandeered a hack and was about to leave the vicinity when the hack was stopped by Leo Tasteton. Ben was placed under arrest and taken to the Bexar county jail, but was released in a short time.
In the meantime, the citizens of Austin, no doubt with considerable trepidation, had resolved to relieve Ben of his duties as city marshal. Ben's spirit may have been chastened by his imprisonment, as there is no record of his making any protest against his dethronement. He was very quiet and docile for a time, but life in Austin proved entirely too tame for his adventurous spirit and he and Fisher went over to the Alamo City with the hope, as he expressed it, of finding some excitement. And he did. It was his last.
On this occasion the pair took a preliminary drink or two and then started out to entertain themselves and their friends, and they certainly made a good job of it. They were ripe for any adventure, and at night announced to their associates in revelry that they contemplated taking in the show and dance at the vaudeville theatre run by Foster and Sims since the death of Harris. They were warned that it would be an unhealthy place for them to visit, as the proprietors, probably the only real friends that Harris had ever possessed, now sworn to have the life of Thompson in retaliation for the killing of their friend. But nothing would deter them.
Upon learning that Thompson was in the city and in company with King Fisher, and that both were drinking heavily, Joe Foster, Billie Simms and Andreas Coy hurriedly held a council of war. They felt sure that there would be trouble, and resolved to prepare for it and themselves take the initiative. Those attending the theatre that night, and there was a large crowd, the sporting fraternity having seemed fun and flocked to the scene, noticed that the curtains were down in front of one of the boxes near the stage. In that box, each with a pistol in his hand, were Joe Foster and Billie Simms. The performance had commenced, with performers and audience under the highest tension, when Thompson and Fisher finally came in, walked down the main aisle arm in arm and ostentatiously took seats in one of the front rows. They had barely settled themselves in their chairs when the curtains of the box were swept aside and a fusilade of pistol shots followed. Experts fired the shots, and their execution was deadly. Fisher was killed outright and Thompson mortally wounded. He lived long enough however, to draw his pistol and get in one shot, which found lodgement in Foster's thigh and eventually caused his death.
Coy was never identified with the killing, though it was generally believed that he was a participant. Simms was arrested and lodged in jail, where he remained until his health failed, when he was released on bond. He went to Galveston, where he was engaged in another shooting affray, but was eventually released and returned to San Antonio, where he died in bed, thus escaping the fate of most of his kind.
(EDITOR'S NOTE—We believe the writer of the above has somewhat overdrawn the picture in regard to King Fisher. No question about Fisher having been a killer and a bad man at one time, but at the time of his assassination he had been acquitted of all killing charges, and was a deputy sheriff of Uvalde county with the certainty of being elected sheriff within a few months, and had been to Austin on official business, when Ben Thompson accompanied him back to San Antonio from Austin to a great extent against his will, it is said. We have been told that Fisher had not been drinking while in Thompson's company, but that he was duly sober when they entered the Theater where the shooting took place.)
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