Baby brother added to gunfighter’s troubles
This week in Texas History
When a drinking buddy tried to throw him out in the street in his birthday suit on the night of Sep. 6, 1868, hot-tempered Billy Thompson plugged the prankster and headed for the hills.
A famous gunfighter with a reputation matched only by John Wesley Hardin and Bill Longley, Ben Thompson was a walking bull’s-eye for every barroom braggart out to make a name for himself. Staying alive was tough enough without having to look out for his baby brother.
Inseparable since childhood, the Thompson boys did not let a little thing like the Civil War come between them. Billy enlisted in the Confederate Army at 16 in order to stick close to his protective sibling, and they spent the conflict far from the front fleecing fellow soldiers in crooked card games.
Back home in Austin after the war, Ben’s proficiency with a pistol made him the uncrowned prince of the capital with more real power than most politicians. Lacking his own legitimate claim to fame, Billy played the part of the obnoxious little brother that no one dared harm for fear of antagonizing the ferocious family enforcer.
During a tour of the local red-light district in September 1868, Billy spotted three Yankee soldiers sound asleep on the front lawn of a brothel. He proposed to his unlikely companion, a sergeant in the occupation army, that they amuse themselves by stripping the troopers and stealing their uniforms.
Insulted by the suggestion, the sergeant not only declined to be a party to the foolishness but decided to subject Billy to the same humiliation. Waiting until the Texan retired for the night, he stole his clothes and ordered him to parade naked in public.
Billy jumped out of bed, grabbed his gun and shot the soldier dead. He then got dressed, mounted his horse and hightailed it out of town to wait for his big brother to tell him what to do.
Ben, however, was unavoidably detained by the Austin authorities, who locked him up that same evening for shooting his brother-in-law. But he soon posted bail, located Billy and took him to the Indian Territory beyond the reach of Lone Star law.
Reunited four years later, Billy dealt cards for Ben in his Abilene, Kansas saloon. The younger Thompson was as unlucky in love as he was at the tables, losing one girlfriend to Wild Bill Hickok and another to Bat Masterson.
Already a heavy drinker, his romantic misfortune gave the ne’er-dowell a convenient excuse for turning into a miserable lush. In a tragic episode the following year at another Kansas cowtown, his alcoholism proved fatal for a friend.
Hearing two gamblers were gunning for Ben; bleary-eyed Billy rushed to his aid. When he mishandled his shotgun and almost blew away several bystanders, Ben angrily confiscated the weapon.
Billy’s place was taken by C.B. Whitney, the local sheriff and a loyal ally, who joined Ben for the showdown. Determined not to miss the fireworks, Billy retrieved his shotgun just in time to put a lethal blast in the middle of the lawman’s back.
“My God, Billy!” shouted Ben. “You’ve shot your best friend!”
“I don’t give a damn!” snarled the drunk slurring his words. “I would’ve shot him if it had been Jesus Christ.”
As Sheriff Whitney lay dying, a couple of Texans put Billy on the nearest horse and forced him to leave town. He rode all the way to Colorado and spent the next three years in the Rockies before finally returning to Austin.
But the Texas Rangers were waiting with a warrant for his arrest and extradited Billy back to Kansas. In spite of the open-and-shut case, he beat the murder rap thanks to the usual string pulling by Ben.
Heeding sound advice from his brother to clear out of Kansas, Billy wandered west in search of a fresh start. But he was soon up to his old tricks and his skinny neck in trouble.
Although Billy technically won an Ogallala, Nebraska gunfight in June 1880, he looked a lot more like the loser with five bullet holes and the townspeople praying for his recovery so they could hang him. At Ben’s insistence, Bat Masterson slipped Billy past a lynch mob and hand-carried him back to his worried brother.
The night in 1884 that Ben Thompson walked into an escape-proof ambush in a San Antonio saloon, Billy was just down the street. Shattered by the sight of his invincible brother ripped apart by nine different bullets, he cried his eyes out until dawn instead of tracking down the killers.
Ben Thompson’s assassins were never caught, and Billy was never the same. Worthless while his big brother was alive, he degenerated into a doomed derelict after Ben’s death spending his last 13 years hiding in the shadows.