Ben Thompson (1843-1884)

Wild West Gunfighter and Marshal of Austin, Texas

It is unlikely that many people born in Knottingley have had as eventful a life as Ben Thompson.

Ben Thompson, gunfighter and lawman, was born in Knottingley on November 2, 1843. Although he spent his early years in the town, his family emigrated in 1851 to Texas and settled near the Colorado River in Austin, Travis County.

As an adolescent, Ben worked for various Austin newspapers eventually learning the printer's trade. In 1861 on the outbreak of the Civil War, Ben Thompson enlisted in the Confederate Second Regiment Texas Mounted Rifles and remained with the Confederate forces until the war ended. He then fought for a period as a mercenary in Mexico, supporting the Emperor Maximilian against republican insurgents.

Back in Texas in 1869, after serving a prison sentence for a shooting, Thompson embarked on a new career as a professional gambler. In 1871 he opened a gambling hall in Abilene, Kansas. Throughout the remainder of the decade, in Kansas cattle towns and Colorado mining towns, he earned his living from gambling. Renowned as a hard drinker, he would often amuse himself by shooting out streetlights and using signs for target practice late at night.

During this period, Thompson joined a gang of gunmen including Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday, who had been hired to protect the property of the Santa Fe Railroad which was embroiled in a right-of-way dispute with the competing Denver and Rio Grande. Reportedly, Thompson was well paid for his services as a hired gun.

Back in Austin in 1879, Ben befriended William 'Buffalo Bill' Cody when Cody's acting troupe arrived there. They engaged in a series of shooting contests where Cody used a rifle while Thompson demonstrated his ability with a six-shooter, establishing himself as one of the finest pistol shots in Texas. Also in 1879, in an effort to gain social acceptance, he announced his candidacy for City Marshall of Austin, and although he lost the first election, he was elected on the following two occasions.

In 1882, while still serving as marshal, Thompson got into a fight in a saloon in San Antonio, where he killed the owner of the Vaudeville Theatre, Jack (Pegleg) Harris. He went on trial for the murder and resigned as marshal. After a sensational trial and acquittal, he returned to Austin to a hero's welcome. Later, in 1884, Thompson brashly returned to the Vaudeville Theatre and was shot and killed by Harris's partner.

For more information about this remarkable individual, see the thoroughly researched and detailed life of Ben Thompson on the Knottingley and Ferrybridge Online site.

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