Thursday, March 19, 2015

Texas Throwback Thursday - 1884 Shootout

The Texas state legislature is considering a law allowing open carry of firearms. Opponents are predicting dire consequences if it passes, including a return to the days of the Wild West, complete with gunfights in the streets.

That leads us to the following story.

The San Antonio Express-News is celebrating its 150th year of publishing. As part of that, it is running a series of stories on historical persons and events. This one chronicles the type of gunfight that open carry opponents fear will come to pass if the bill becomes law.
Few events in San Antonio better capture the grit of the Old West than an 1884 shootout by Main Plaza that claimed the lives of feared gunfighters Ben Thompson and John King Fisher.

…the news…appeared in every leading Texas newspaper and even on the front of the New York Times...

…the San Antonio Express noted a “most remarkable fact” that the two renowned gunslingers were riddled with at least 22 bullet holes...

“They have died with their boots on, a death that is considered eminently genteel by desperate men,” the Express reported.

An inquest concluded that two other men killed them in self-defense…
22 bullet holes – that’s a serious case of self-defense.
Thompson, an English native, came to the United States as a boy with his family, which settled in Austin, and served in the Confederacy. He became an infamous cattle trail gambler, wandering from Texas to Kansas, and later ran a saloon on Austin’s Congress Avenue. He married and had two children, but was reputed to have killed about two dozen men.

Bat Masterson, famed lawman and gambler of the West who knew Thompson from their work with the railroads, once said there were few men of his time who could equal Thompson with a pistol “in a life and death struggle.”

Fisher, born in North Texas, was younger and known simply as King Fisher. He operated in the lawless area west of San Antonio along the Rio Grande, leading a group of thieves and killing his cattle-rustling cohorts when they crossed him. Because residents of the region feared him, Texas Ranger Capt. Leander McNelly once called Fisher’s ranching enterprise on both sides of the Mexican border “a perfect reign of terror,” according to Williamson…

“No witnesses can be found who will dare testify against the desperadoes…,” McNelly wrote in a report to the governor.
Sounds like the Clintons.
Fisher carried two silver-plated, ivory-handled revolvers, and often wore embroidered sombreros, vests and jackets, crimson sashes, silk shirts, tiger skin chaps and silver spurs that jangled. He married in 1876, had four daughters and became a deputy sheriff, then acting sheriff, in Uvalde County in the early 1880s.
Good thing he was married and a father. Otherwise, based on his dressing habits, I’d have to question what team he played on, if you know what I mean.
Thompson and Fisher both had spent time in jail, but were typically acquitted, pardoned or able to escape when charged with murder or assault. Events leading to their demise began when Thompson visited the Vaudeville Theater, perhaps San Antonio’s most popular gathering spot, in 1881, and “was cleaned out” playing faro at a card table run by Joe Foster.

“Liquored up and furious, he pulled his pistol and accused Foster of cheating…”
“Liquored up and furious" - not a good combination. But nothing happened that day. A year later, however, it was a different story.
Thompson returned to the theater in 1882 and confronted the owner, Jack Harris, once a friend from his military days, and influential political figure in San Antonio — then the largest city in Texas. Harris had a shotgun, but was killed when Thompson fired a six-shooter. Thompson was held in jail for several months, then acquitted.
That wasn't enough to satisfy Thompson. He still held a grudge against the card shark Joe Foster.
Foster and Billy Simms, a former friend of Thompson’s, took over the theater and saloon at Commerce and Soledad streets, on what became known as “the Fatal Corner,” because of frequent gunfights, on the north side of Main Plaza. Since Fisher was on good terms with Foster and Thompson, some have said he sought to reconcile their differences. Thompson had turned in his badge, and was said to be drinking heavily.

On March 11, 1884, Fisher, then about 30, and Thompson, 40, went drinking in Austin, then rode a train to San Antonio. They had dinner and saw a show at another venue, then arrived at about 10:30 p.m. at the Vaudeville Theater, where they drank some more and smoked cigars in an upstairs box or balcony.

Accounts of the fight have varied. According to Williamson, gunfire erupted after Foster refused to shake Thompson’s hand. Thompson and Fisher lay dead. Foster had a leg wound, possibly self-inflicted, and later died.

The inquest found that Foster and Jacobo S. Coy, a lawman and bouncer, killed Thompson and Fisher in self-defense. But…many believed Simms and Foster, tipped off that the pair were headed to San Antonio, had stationed a bartender, gambler and stage performer, each with a Winchester rifle, in a theater box, in case trouble began.

Thompson was buried in Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery in a large ceremony befitting a prominent community leader. The nonprofit Ben Thompson Preservation Foundation, which seeks to preserve his “authentic legacy,” dedicated a graveside marker in 2012.

By Fisher’s grave, in Pioneer Cemetery in Uvalde, is a state historical marker recalling a “celebrated outlaw who became a peace officer” and “once undisputed ruler of a 5,000-square-mile area” centered in Eagle Pass, known as King Fisher’s territory. The marker also mentions his “fine clothes and tiger skin chaps.”  
The “Fatal Corner” of the 1880s, where Commerce and Soledad streets now intersect on Main Plaza, included Hart’s Cigar Store, which had upstairs gambling rooms connected to the adjacent Vaudeville Theater, site of a famous 1884 shooting.

Ben Thompson, one of the most feared pistol fighters of his day, was killed in a San Antonio saloon on March 11, 1884.

King Fisher, acting sheriff of Uvalde County, was killed in a famous 1884 shooting at the old Vaudeville Theater and Saloon in San Antonio’s Main Plaza.


Bag Blog said...

Why hasn't this been made into a movie?! It reminds me of one of my favorite movies, "El Diablo."

CenTexTim said...

Here's a link to more info about John King Fisher and his last gunfight.

A quote that offers some insight into the times:

He developed a reputation as a gunslinger claiming, in 1878, to have been responsible for seven deaths "not counting Mexicans."

Bag Blog said...

Texas history is always a good read. My grandfather-in-law was named John King, a common enough name, but it's kind of funny. John King's grandfather had been in the Texas Navy and received free land in West Texas for his service. His French wife did not like the flatlands and moved back to the Dallas area.

Anonymous said...

We have open carry in North Carolina and in a number of years I've never seen anyone open carry except for uniform police. That's because the CCL is fairly administered and the 2nd amandment respected by the Republican law-makers.

CenTexTim said...

BB - There's no doubt outlaw blood flows through your veins... :-)

Toejam - The same sky-is-falling idiots worried about open carry said the same thing 20 years ago when concealed carry was passed. There haven't been shootouts in the streets or anything like that - in fact, violent crime has decreased since concealed carry passed. But the facts don't stop the same loons from trotting out the same old tired arguments...