A Very Handsome
By Natalie and Tom Bicknell
At the tender age of fourteen, tough Texas gunfighter and professional gambler Ben Thompson began to use violence to settle his 'difficulties' with others. Over the next two and a half decades he would be the victor of almost a dozen gunfights. But not all of Ben Thompson's 'shooting affairs' were deadly; some were between friends and held merely for fun and entertainment. These were bloodless demonstrations meant to show off a skill and precision with firearms few men possessed. Thompson's best-known series of shooting contests occurred when the Old West's most famous personality arrived at his hometown.
Early winter 1879 found William F. Cody touring Texas with his 'Mammoth Combination of Artists' performing a well-received play entitled KNIGHT OF THE PLAINS, or BUFFALO BILL'S BEST TRAIL. On Tuesday and Wednesday, December 9 and 10, Cody's troupe was booked for three performances at Austin's Millet Opera House.
When Buffalo Bill arrived in Austin it was only natural for Ben Thompson to call upon him. Born in England, Thompson grew to manhood in Austin and though he roamed much of the west he always returned there. During the 1870's as he gambled in the Kansas cow towns and Colorado mining camps his reputation as a 'killing gentleman' made him one of the most feared men on the frontier. Both men were renowned for their courtesy, gentlemanly-manners and love of fun. Possessing similar interests in firearms, gambling, alcohol and the sporting life in general, the two men quickly became fast friends.
Prior to the evening performance scheduled for the 9th, Cody and Thompson went to the outskirts of Austin and engaged in some competitive target shooting. The following day the Austin Statesman reported:
"Buffalo Bill went out of town yesterday with Mr. Ben Thompson and some other gentlemen, and he showed them a little crack shooting. With Mr. Thompson's rifle he struck six half dollars out of seven that were thrown up."
The next day Cody and Thompson went out again and the Statesman commented:
"...Buffalo Bill....again displayed his skill with handling a rifle. He is undoubtedly one of the best marksmen now on the American continent. His shooting was perfectly marvelous."
As Cody's acting troupe continued on to performances in San Antonio, Thompson accompanied him and there they again demonstrated their shooting ability for onlookers. It was later expressed by a San Antonio newspaperman that Thompson held his own against Cody's rifle and proved he was one of the best pistol shots in the United States.
Several days later when the curtain rained down on his final performance in the Alamo city, Cody traveled to a scheduled engagement at Galveston's Tremont Theatre leaving his new friend behind.
The following summer, the friendship formed between the two sporting men proved to be beneficial to Ben's younger brother Billy. While Ben Thompson was in Dodge City plying his trade as a professional gambler, Billy was at the far western terminus of the Texas cattle trade, tiny Ogallala, Nebraska. On June 21st he had a shooting scrape with William Tucker, a fellow Texan and popular Ogallala saloon owner. The difficulty began over an insult Billy offered to a local harlot employed by Tucker. Both men received painful but not life-threatening wounds. A bullet mutilated Tucker's left hand and from long range Billy was riddled in the rear from his neck to his heels with buckshot. Having fired first, Billy Thompson was arrested and placed under guard in his hotel room. Talk began to spread that he may be lynched.
When Ben Thompson learned of his brother's predicament he was also warned that Tucker's friends were waiting for him. Instead of rushing to his brother, Ben called upon his friend Bat Masterson and apprised him of Billy's situation. Masterson immediately agreed to help and hastened to Ogallala.
Masterson's initial strategy was to speak to the recuperating Tucker. He found him very bitter and the amount of money he demanded was beyond what the Thompson brothers could raise. The only option left for Billy Thompson was escape.
Enlisting the help of a bartender he knew well, Masterson was able to drug the hotel guard. He then rushed Billy to the train depot in time to catch the eastbound midnight flyer. Their plan was to reach Buffalo Bill Cody's ranch near North Platte, only eighty miles east of Ogallala by rail, and to secure Billy Thompson under Buffalo Bill's protection.
At 2am, they stepped down from the train and headed to the only building in North Platte still blazing a light. It was a saloon and as chance would have it, Cody was inside regaling friends with his many stories. Masterson and Billy Thompson were given a royal welcome, and upon hearing their tale Cody stated the words they wanted to hear; "The Ogallala authorities will not take you from here." The next day Cody gave the two fugitives a fine horse and his wife's carriage to continue their flight. Within a few days they easily reached the safety of Dodge City.
Throughout his life Ben Thompson exhibited his appreciation by giving friends and associates expensive mementos such as nicely engraved watches, walking canes and pistols. In this case it is not known exactly how he showed his gratitude to Masterson and Cody, but it can be assumed he presented each a substantial token for their efforts in rescuing his brother.
Despite Ben Thompson's drunken antics, which included using city street lamps as pistol targets, Austinites usually forgave his peccadilloes and he was very popular there. In December 1880 voters swept him into the office of city marshal. When news of Thompson's election reached Cody, Buffalo Bill decided to send an impressive gift to commemorate the occasion.
A package arrived addressed to Ben Thompson on June 14, 1881 and the Statesman took notice of it.
"Yesterday morning Marshal Thompson received a very handsome present from Buffalo Bill. It is a handsome and costly target pistol, manufactured by Stevens & Co., Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. The mountings are of gold, handle beautifully tinted pearl, while the glittering steel barrel is most artistically and beautifully carved. It is engraved on the handle; 'From Buffalo Bill to Ben Thompson.' It is the only pistol of the kind in the city, and is a marvel of skilled workmanship."
By 1881 Joshua Stevens (1814-1907), the founder of the firm that produced the Cody-to-Thompson pistol, already had forty-four years experience as a manufacturer of guns. Before starting his own company, he had learned his trade well working for or with many of the famed New England gun makers such as Eli Whitney, Samuel Colt and Edwin Wesson. Known more as a skilled toolmaker rather than an innovator, Stevens and men like him were essential to the American style of firearm production. The toolmakers created the fixtures and gauges necessary to manufacture the interchangeable parts that made up mass produced firearms.
On September 6, 1864, Joshua Stevens filed for his most important patent, it was a design for a single shot pistol with the barrel tipping upward from the rear. When released by a catch on the frame the tipped barrel discharged the spent cartridge and was ready to be reloaded. For many years Stevens virtually based his entire line of pistols and rifles on this tipping-barrel design.
In the 1880's, the single shot target pistol was in high demand by eastern sport-shooters because they were superior to revolvers in accuracy and the target pistols produced by J. Stevens and Company were widely recognized as the best available. Stevens received an immeasurable amount of complimentary publicity when Cody, and later Annie Oakley, used his line of target pistols during their performances.
To further help market his handguns, Stevens christened three lines of his single-shot target pistols after famous men of the time involved with firearms. Pistol series Stevens-Conlin No. 28 was named for James Conlin, the owner of the famous shooting gallery on Broadway Avenue in New York City. Stevens-Gould No. 37 was named for A. C. Gould, a noted firearms expert and writer. The model Cody selected for Ben Thompson, the Stevens-Lord No. 36 was named for Frank Lord, a prominent target shooter.
From 1880 to 1886 only six hundred Stevens-Lord No. 36 pistols were manufactured. A standard production model was either a heavy iron or brass frame finished with nickel-plate, the barrel: part round / part octagon was blued, and the wide checkered walnut grips were weighted and flared at the butt cap. It also came with a firing pin in the frame and a conventional trigger with a spurred guard.
Reportedly, Frank Lord had unusually strong hands. This may be the reason the Lord 36 model was built with an extremely long, heavy butt that a shooter with a small hand would find awkward to control.
Cody special ordered two of these weapons, one for Thompson (serial number 32) and another for himself (serial number 29, this pistol would remain in Cody's possession for more than thirty years before he gave it to John M. Phillips, a Pittsburgh industrialist, conservationist, hunter and friend of many westerners). The result was two deluxe Stevens-Lord No. 36 ten-inch barrel target pistols. The walnut grips were replaced with iridescent mother-of-pearl and the weapons were chambered to fire the .32 caliber shot Colt center-fire cartridge. On the Cody-to-Thompson pistol, the patent mark: 'J. Stevens & Co. Chicopee Falls Mass. Pat. Sept. 6, 1864' appears on the left flat of the half-octagon barrel.
The two pistols were then delivered to Louis Daniel Nimschke (1832-1904) of New York City, a free-lance metal engraver. Nimschke's work included jewelry, seals, silverware, watchcases and even dog collars but he was most famous for adorning firearms. During the last half of the 19th century, the golden age of firearms engraving, Louis Nimschke's skill was internationally renowned and many of his customers were made up of celebrities, rich South Americans and European royalty. Among the more famous recipients of his work were Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, Maria Cristina of Austria, widow of the King of Spain and Napoleon III, Emperor of France.
German born, Louis Nimschke arrived in the United States about 1850 and over the next fifty years he would decorate approximately 5000 weapons. Many firearms factories employed engravers on site, but often when their customers required the finest quality engraving they would commission Nimschke to perform the work. He was adept in both the English and American style of engraving. The treatment of scrollwork was the principal difference between the two styles. The American style called for rich and bold scrolling, while the English was very fine and delicate. The American style was very popular in the United States and Latin countries and it was the style called for by Buffalo Bill Cody to adorn his gift to Thompson.
Nimschke expertly worked at the metal surfaces of the Stevens-Lord No. 36 pistols with lush scrollwork and meticulous border patterns. A gold wash highlighted the embellishments. These weapons are classic examples of his superb work. Ben Thompson highly valued the gift and provided it with excellent care. Subsequent owners rightfully prized the pistol as much as Thompson did. Today, it exhibits little use and is in superb condition except for a little thinning of the gold washed surfaces.
Joshua Stevens extensive line of tip-barrel pistols and similarly designed small caliber rifles were viewed as sporting weapons and only his largest rifles were powerful enough to generate any sales west of the Mississippi. the Cody-to-Thompson pistol, as wonderfully crafted as it is, was simply not practical for use on America's Western frontier. Ben Thompson never used it in a life and death struggle. It was much too large to be carried as a 'hideaway' and as a single-shot weapon it was almost worthless in an extended gunfight or when facing multiple opponents. Thompson, like most westerners of his time, preferred single-action five or six shot revolvers.
As the world knows, Buffalo Bill Cody went on to become a world famous showman and one of the great fabled icons of the American West. As city marshal, Ben Thompson served his hometown well and was rewarded with re-election to a second term. Halfway through his second term, his violent ways ended his career as a lawman and set in motion the events that would eventually cost him his life.
On the evening of July 11, 1882 while on a trip to San Antonio, Thompson fatally wounded Jack Harris, the leader of the city's saloon and gambling fraternity and a local political kingmaker. Armed with a cocked double-barreled shotgun, Harris was unable to get off a shot. Witnesses to the affair attested to the speed in which Ben Thompson brought his revolver into action. He subsequently surrendered himself to the local authorities. The original animosity between Thompson and Harris grew out of a gambling argument and their hard feelings towards each other were common knowledge. As Thompson languished in the Bexar county jail he officially resigned as Austin's city marshal. He would remain in jail until January 1883 before a San Antonio jury declared him not guilty of murder and he returned to Austin.
When the end came for Buffalo Bill Cody and Bat Masterson, they died of natural causes. Even Billy Thompson died with his boots off in an hospital bed at the age of 51. Ben Thompson's fate would not be so peaceful. On March 11, 1884 he returned to San Antonio. This time accompanied by John King Fisher, a noted gunman hailing from the Nueces River valley. Fisher suggested they visit Jack Harris' old establishment, the notorious Vaudeville Theatre and Saloon, to try and soothe the hard feelings still existing between Thompson and Harris' former business partners. Word of Ben Thompson's eminent arrival preceded him and Harris' friends prepared a greeting. Within a few minutes of entering the upstairs theatre, a hail of bullets struck down and instantly killed both Thompson and Fisher.
On the night he died, Thompson was armed with a handsomely engraved, ivory handled nickel-plated, .45 caliber Colt revolver, of the single action design. He never had chance to bring it into play. An autopsy of his wounds proved he was gunned down from behind.
To avoid probate, Ben's widow gave many of his guns away to friends and neighbors. His Stevens-Lord No. 36 target pistol was presented to George Goldman, a family friend. Sometime during the 1890's Goldman left Texas and moved to San Diego, California. When he died, around 1920, the pistol passed on to his son-in-law, Samuel Fitch. For the next thirty years, Fitch cared for the weapon and between 1944 and 1952 he displayed it in a small private museum. Upon his death, his widow gave it away as a gift to an anonymous friend. It is now a centerpiece of The Michael Del Castello Collection of the American West, which features many artifacts associated with the life and career of Buffalo Bill Cody. The collection currently does not have a permanent home, but has been publicly displayed at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.
During the summer of 1999, the Cody-to-Thompson Stevens-Lord No.36 target pistol appeared among the Del Castello Collection on exhibition at the Royal Armoury, Leeds, England. Built at a cost of almost 100 million dollars, The Royal Armoury displays weapons from throughout the ages and is located just down the road from the small town of Knottingley, the birthplace of Ben Thompson.
Near the end of her career, Annie Oakley looked back and gave her assessment of who were the finest marksmen in the world.
"After traveling through fourteen countries, meeting and competing with the best marksmen...I can safely say America leads the world in shooting....[but].....were we to believe all we read and hear, the cowboy and the 'bad man' of the West were the greatest revolver shots in America. This however, is far from being true. I can find more and better revolver shots right in New York than any other place I know of. The cowboy and bad man have had their day, but when they were a plenty they were very much over-rated. There were exceptions to this, however, one of whom was Ben Thompson, a Texan. He was an exceptionally fine shot, and so quick was he with the revolver that his opponent had little chance if any."
Oakley never saw Thompson shoot, she must have learned of his skill with a pistol from the showman who for years witnessed the finest marksman in the world perform and compete; Buffalo Bill Cody.
©Natalie and Tom Bicknell
Recommended reading on Ben Thompson, William F. Cody and 19th century firearms engraving:
Ben Thompson: Man With a Gun by Floyd Benjamin Streeter.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West, An American Legend by R. L Wilson and Greg Martin.
Steel Canvas, The Art of American Arms by R. L. Wilson.
constructed and maintained by Michael Norfolk
This website is Copyright © 2000-2009 [Knottingley and Ferrybridge Online] All Rights Reserved
Any correspondence regarding this website should be addressed to Michael Norfolk, 21 Bassett Close, Selby, YO8 9XG, ENGLAND.
| HOME PAGE | SITE
INDEX | LETTERS | MEMORIES
| PHOTO GALLERY | GENEALOGY
| LATEST PHOTOS |
| YORKSHIRE ANCESTRY | PONTEFRACT WEBSITE | IMAGES OF YORKSHIRE | AJB PERFORMANCE |