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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Ben's Pistol

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Whatever became of Ben Thompson’s six-shooter?

Thompson, a British-born former Texas Ranger and soldier of fortune with a penchant for booze and gambling, made quite a reputation as city marshal of Austin in the early 1880s. His life ended violently in San Antonio on the night of March 11, 1884 when someone gunned him down along with former outlaw-turned-lawman King Fisher of Uvalde.

The already-legendary shootist crumpled to the floor with his six-gun smoking, but the weapon he clutched in his hand when he died cannot be accounted for today.

Though neither Thompson nor Fisher could claim to be a church deacon, they had not been looking for trouble that evening. They were just out on the town in the Alamo City, taking in a variety show after dinner and numerous drinks.

But Thompson had a well-known temper, particularly when in his cups. A verbal sparring match led to Thompson slapping Joe Foster, the former business partner of the late Jack Harris, founder of the establishment where they stood, Jack Harris’ Vaudeville Theatre and Saloon. Moments later, lead started flying.

No matter the exact circumstances of what happened that evening, it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that it had something to do with the fact that Thompson had killed Harris back on July 11, 1882. Charged with the murder, he had been acquitted.

The coroner’s verdict concluded Thompson and Fisher died “from the effects of pistol shot wounds from pistols held and fired from the hands of J.C. Foster [who later died of the wound he received in the fight] and Jacobo S. Coy…and that the said killing was justifiable and done in self defense in the immediate danger of life.”

Former newspaperman and San Antonio historian Sam Wolford told Thompson’s story in a speech to a group of military historians at Fort Sam Houston on Nov. 18, 1953. The Witte Museum, where Woolford served as honorary curator of history, later published his remarks in a 17-page pamphlet with a small press run.

“There are countless gun collectors in the United States, and you know how much they would pay to own the six-shooter they took off Ben Thompson’s body that night,” he told his audience.

Black powder smoke still hanging in the air, just about every law enforcement officer in San Antonio rushed to the scene of the shooting that night. The ranking officers included San Antonio Marshal Phil Shardein and Bexar County Sheriff’s Capt. T.P. McCall. (McCall later got elected Bexar County sheriff, serving from Jan. 1, 1889 to Dec. 31, 1892.) Also on hand was deputy William Krempkau, a former trail driver.

One of the participants, special police officer Coy, later said in a sworn affidavit that he turned Thompson’s pistol over to Shardein that night.

“I examined it without revolving the cylinder and discovered that five shots had been fired,” Shardein said in his statement. “The cylinder has been moved since it was in my possession. When I had it the loaded cartridge was next to the barrel, and cocking it would have thrown the cartridge under the hammer…” In other words, for safety reasons, the marshal either moved the cylinder or took out the shell. (Removing the shell would have been the best bet.) At some point, Shardein turned Thompson’s pistol over to future sheriff McCall.

Historians are not even 100 per cent sure what caliber revolver Thompson had been packing that night. Unfortunately, no one in authority seems to have recorded the weapon’s serial number, long since standard police procedure in a criminal investigation. One writer, not offering a source, said the pistol in question was a pearl-handled, nickel-plated .45.

While that may have been the case, two years earlier when Thompson killed Harris the record shows he used a pistol chambered for .44-40 rounds, a popular Old West cartridge that could be used in a handgun or Winchester rifle.

“He bought ten cents worth, that is five cartridges,” San Antonio gun store owner Charles F.A. Hummel testified after the Harris killing. “They were central [center] fire forty-four caliber.”

Former deputy Krempkau could have answered the question as to caliber and style of the piece Thompson packed on his last night of life.

Only a young man at the time of the Thompson-Fisher killing, Krempkau later ran San Antonio’s Barrel House Saloon. “Uncle Billy,” as he came to be called, lived well into the 20th century. By the 1940s, he could claim to be the last principal in the case still kicking.

“Billy, whatever happened to Ben Thompson’s gun,” Wolford asked one day, hoping to land it for display in the Witte.

“Oh, after Captain McCall gave me the gun, it lay around the house for a few years and I finally sold it to a Mexican for $10,” the former deputy said.

For the next decade, Wolford pestered Krempkau trying to get him to remember the name of the man. To Wolford’s lasting dismay, Krempkau never managed to retrieve the name from his memory. The former deputy died on Oct. 11, 1953 and lies buried in San Antonio’s old City Cemetery.

Kurt House, curator of San Antonio’s famed Buckhorn Saloon museum has done considerable research on Thompson. But other than having a faint recollection that the late Tom Keilman may have auctioned a pistol supposedly once owned by Thompson, he does not know if that was Thompson’s death gun or where it is today.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
May 8, 2008 column

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Announcement
Mike Cox's "The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900," the first of a two-volume, 250,000-word definitive history of the Rangers, was released by Forge Books in New York on March 18, 2008

Kirkus Review, the American Library Association's Book List and the San Antonio Express-News have all written rave reviews about this book, the first mainstream, popular history of the Rangers since 1935.
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