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.
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.”
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
“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
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
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
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