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.


Dave Hardy said...

Thompson is overdue for some re-examination. I suspect that a lot of bar-fights involving notorious gunfighters are related to semi-covert turf battles for control of vice in frontier towns. Thompson's Austin & San Antonio shootouts may well fit that pattern.

The irony that brings to mind, is that the gunfighters kept their bloodletting among their own fraternity. Modern enforcement, with its emphasis on the split-second decision of what random encounter poses a threat, seems to spread the net of potential violence far more widely.

Chris Nakashima-Brown said...

How very Blood Meridian!

Matthew Bey said...

Most bios say that when Thompson was marshal, the crime rate in Austin was non-existent. That has got to be euphemistic for something else. Maybe Thompson had simply won his turf war, so he was the only one committing crime?

Dave Hardy said...

Ben Thompson didn't clean up the street crime, he WAS the street crime. IIRC, he was actually involved in a couple of drunken incidents in Guytown involving discharge of a firearm (yeah I know, red light district, discharge...)

I wonder, how has law enforcement changed. Maybe 19th century towns had as many pointless shootings of civilians as we do. Perhaps we tend only recall the ones involving corrupt marshals blazing away at gamblers and thieves.

What happens when you flood law enforcement with men trained in warfare? Leander McNelly tends to get denounced as a racist for his ruthless suppression of the border rustlers. To me his methods sound a lot like the ones he employed suppressing (mostly white) Unionists in Louisiana. So what if race wasn't the problem, but the militaristic approach to a problem of law enforcement? What does that tell us about law enforcement in the 21st century?

I confess I have few facts here, just speculations.