Saturday, November 20, 2010

In the archives with the pistoleer

I don't get to spend nearly as much time in archives as some contributors to this blog, so it was a bit of a treat when I stopped by the Austin History Center to page through their biographical file on Ben Thompson. A month ago on this blog I wrote about Ben Thompson, so I was hoping to glean a little more insight into the character of this notorious Austinite.

Most of the material in the file fell into three categories, relatively recent tabloid articles from England on Thompson (aren't all newspapers in England technically tabloids?), Austin newspaper articles from a number of time periods, and what appeared to be grade school essays about the gunman.

There wasn't a lot of new information, and some of it was contradictory, or interpreted differently than other material I'd seen. For instance, an incident which one biographer took as evidence that Thompson ran a protection racket in Austin's vice district was passed off as just lighthearted drunkenness by another account.

One source said that after Ben Thompson's notorious shoot-out in San Antonio, his coffin was followed by hundreds of orphaned children. Not the children of his victims as you might first expect, but the benefactors of his charitable largess.

(I read in G.R. Williamson's biography that Thompson had travelled with Buffalo Bill Cody's wild west show for a time, wowing the crowds with his trick target shooting. He also arrested a woman who was traveling with the Lampasas Sheriff for wearing pants, something which was illegal at the time in Austin. Luckily, you can now go topless in this town should you so wish.)

The most enlightening part of Thompson's biographical file was how the press from Austin and the press in England tackled different narrative themes.

The British articles (and there were about a dozen of them) all told the story of how a boy from Yorkshire went overseas into the distant and wild West and had fantastic adventures. So the stories they stressed had a tinge of exoticism and racial intolerance. They talked about Thompson pursuing Indians while a young man, something I don't remember reading in American accounts. They also stressed that as a boy Thompson wounded a black kid, shooting him in the buttocks with mustard seed (no American accounts mentioned that the victim was black, or that the victim was fleeing at the time of the shooting). The English papers also mention that Thompson probably left England because a slave stabbed his maternal aunt and Thompson had to care for the orphans.

And when Ben's brother Billy shot the sheriff of Dodge City, not only was that on purpose, but it was done with an English shotgun.

In 2000, the Daily Star devoted most of a page to Ben Thompson. A tiny photo of Thompson's grave (in the cemetery whose guidebook sparked my interest in him) came with the following caption: "Thompson - at one time a city marshal - came from Knottingley, but he was buried (right) in America's Wild West."

They don't mention that Thompson's Wild West grave is lit at night by lights shining from the University of Texas baseball field.

The Austin press wrestled with the dilemma of portraying Thompson as either criminal or hero, and had trouble fitting him into either category. On the occasion of the restoration of Thompson's gravestone in the 1980s, a paper called The Austin Citizen wrote an article explicitly addressing whether it was appropriate to celebrate Thompson. They quote Gaines Kincaid as summarizing Thompson's life with liberal parenthetical asides, "But even his worst enemies admitted that he was a kind-hearted man (when sober), a good husband and father (when sober) and, during his years as city marshal, he just about wiped out crime in Austin"

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