Benjamin “Ben” Thompson: The Old West’s Deadliest Gunfighter was an Englishman, Part 2
Monday, 31 December 2012
By Johnny Hughes
In 1873, Ben and his hapless brother Billy were running a gambling joint in Ellsworth, Kansas, when there was a dispute over a poker game. Ben had staked a man who would not give him his half of the winnings. The fight spilled into the street, and Billy came with a cocked shotgun to back up Ben.
Their friend, Sheriff Whitney, came to stand beside a drunken Billy. Billy’s shotgun accidentally discharged and killed the sheriff. Ben yelled, “My God, Billy, you’ve just killed our best friend!”
Ben and a few Texans held off an angry crowd with rifles while Billy made his escape. He was captured in Texas and returned for a trial where he was acquitted. Billy killed two sheriffs and a soldier, at different times, and Ben always paid for top legal talent. Following the incident, Ben moved on to Wichita and then Dodge City where he dealt faro in the famous Long Branch Saloon.
In 1875, Ben and Billy opened the Lady Gay, the fanciest gambling joint in Sweetwater, Texas, later called Mobeetie. When the townsfolk found out there was already a Sweetwater, they asked a Comanche for the Indian name for “sweet water”, and he told them “mobeetie”, which really meant buffalo dung. It was a gambling boomtown because of the buffalo hunters, the cowboys on the trail and the soldiers from nearby Fort Elliott. The Lady Gay had a band, dance floor, billiard table, saloon and gambling tables. Mobeetie was a legendary poker town, with many of the Old West’s most famous gamblers passing through: Poker Alice, Wyatt Earp, John Wesley Hardin, Bat Masterson, the Thompson brothers and Pat Garrett, the man who killed Billy the Kid.
By 1875, and for the rest of his life, Ben Thompson was a well-known figure near the Austin capital. He wore the finest tailor-made Prince Albert coats, a stiff white shirt, a tie and a huge diamond stickpin, called a “headlight”. He wore a silk top hat and walked with a gold-tipped cane. Ben was known as an easy touch and shared his wealth. Later, he would be well known for his favourite hobby of getting drunk and shooting out street lights.
When a friend of Ben’s was thrown out of the Capital Theater, owned by Irishman Mark Wilson, Ben returned with him. The friend had helped Billy escape from Kansas. When Wilson and his aides again jumped his friend, Ben came forward. Wilson had a shotgun and the bartender a rifle. Ben shot them both, killing the Wilson. It was judged self-defence.
There were large silver strikes in Colorado and all the circuit gamblers went. Leadville was the largest gambling town of all. Ben had a good bankroll and was looking for investment opportunities. He was playing poker and “bucking the tiger”, playing faro against the house. One night he got drunk and lost $3,000 at faro. He shot out the lights and the crowd fled. Of course, he paid the fine and damages, as always. Later, he was successful with his gambling concessions in saloons in Leadville. He wrote a long piece for The Austin Statesman about the high price of everything in Leadville.
When Buffalo Bill Cody’s stage play and shows played Austin for three weeks in 1879, he and Ben Thompson became fast friends and did public shooting exhibitions there and in San Antonio with rifles and pistols. A newspaper picture showed the two riding in a carriage.
When Buffalo Bill’s show returned to Austin, he gave Ben a gift of the largest buffalo head ever mounted, which had been killed by Russia’s Grand Duke Alexis on a famous buffalo hunt that included Wild Bill and Colonel William Armstrong Custer. Wild Bill also gave Ben a fancy target pistol with a long, artistically-carved barrel. It had gold and pearl handles and was inscribed “From Buffalo Bill to Ben Thompson”. A private collector now owns it, but it is shown in museums.
Back in Austin, Ben opened his most famous and successful gambling joint, the Iron Front, at Sixth and Congress. He had the gambling business upstairs. It was a few blocks from the capital and had the legislators and ranch owners in the big poker game. Ben was incredibly popular and a darling of the Texas rich. Once when the powerful Texas Livestock Raiser’s Association was having a luncheon meeting, Ben held 20 of them at gunpoint while he lectured them on insulting a friend of his, by throwing him out. He broke a few dishes and paid the fine and damages.
Ben Thompson always ran a square game. When he found his faro dealer had a crooked dealing box, he shot the chips off the table, then shot up the dealing box in his own gambling establishment. He said, “I don’t think that set of tools is entirely honest, and I want to help Mr. Lorraine buy another.” Of course, being Ben, he shot out his own fancy chandelier and all the lights. He then went next door and shot up the keno “goose” that holds the balls in a crooked joint owned by a rival. He left that place dark also, as was his custom. Later that same night, Ben went to another part of town and shot out a few street lights. He was quoted in the newspaper as saying they could buy some honest gambling equipment. The Statesman had an editorial praising Ben. As always, he paid the fine and damages.
With employees to run all the games of faro, keno, Spanish monte and chuck-a-luck, Ben played high-stakes poker each evening from eight to 2am or 3am. The Iron Front had one of the best known poker games in all Texas. It was through this game Ben met many of the rich and powerful who would come to his aid later.
Johnny Hughes' new book Famous Gamblers, Poker History, and Texas Stories is available from Amazon.