Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Ben Thompson, Lawman and Murderer
Ben Thompson stood trial for murder four times, and was convicted once, before the people of Austin made him City Marshal.
I learned about Ben Thompson earlier this year while reading a walking tour guide for a local cemetery. Most of the gravestones on the tour belonged to local figures of stature: Former governors, community leaders, the architectural woodcarver Peter Heinrich Mansbendel, and the sorts of people who have streets and university buildings named after them.
So you can imagine the surprise when I read the abbreviated biography of a man whose life was a bullet-list of bloodshed. Ben Thompson wounded another boy playing guns as a boy, stabbed a Frenchman in New Orleans, shot a burglar, killed three men during the Civil War in non-combat altercations, shot two men in a bar fight in Austin, shot the sheriff of Ellsworth Kansas, shot a theater owner in San Antonio, etc. etc.
The best online writeup of his life is at the Mad Monarchist Blog, which lists the salient murders and shootings, but also throws in relevent biographical info, like how Ben Thompson and his one-armed wife took care of orphans (the Mad Monarchist profiles Ben Thompson because of Thompson's stint in Emperor Maximillian's army).
Looking at such an extensive gunfighter resume, it's a wonder that Ben Thompson isn't more famous. My theory is his name was too dull. Ben Thompson was partners with Bat Masterson, got arrested by Wyatt Earp, and had a business partner killed by Wild Bill Hickok. All those people had far more colorful names. In comparison, "Marshall Thompson" is a pretty plain moniker.
During his lifetime, Ben Thompson had made a name for himself as a ruthless killer. Yet Austin made Ben Thompson City Marshal in 1881 (I haven't found out if this is an elected position). I think about this whenever I write an article about Leonardo Quintana, the Austin police officer who shot Nathaniel Sanders II. I think there is still a part of the collected Austin mindset that sees the world as brutal and cruel, and the only way to protect yourself is to befriend the worst of the lot.