Is That a Six-Shooter in Your Pants or Are You Glad to See Me?

June 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

Back on April 29, it was Ben Thompson day in Austin. First, a graveside ceremony with a plaque correcting his birthdate and recognition for his service in the Confederate Army. Followed by a Ben symposium at the Austin History Center.

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson was a featured speaker. He was also the driving force behind Texas’ current concealed handgun laws, and carries his pistol whenever he goes to the park, Big Bend included. Did so when it was illegal. He made it legal.

In his talk, the Commissioner obviously touched on Ben’s prowess — and reputation — with a six-shooter, but he also spoke of the now vs. then mentality in Texas concerning concealed weapons. Back in Ben’s day, during the 1880s, the outcry was for legislation prohibiting the wearing of concealed weapons, such as a six-shooter under or in your coat, pocket, wherever. Precisely to bring to an end the desperado/pistolero era in Texas, of which Ben was considered to be a high-ranking member. Certain men, like Ben, however, were allowed to carry concealed weapons when their life was considered in danger; Ben’s life certainly was. He told a friend late in life, “Yes I’m afraid it’s too late. I know it is. If I were to attempt any legitimate business, nobody would believe in me. You could not make people believe I would do the square thing. Then suppose I undertook to live peaceably, some bully would attempt to make a reputation by getting away with me. I would have to kill him; then would come courts, bonds, lawyers, fees, etc., all requiring a bushel of money. I couldn’t make a bushel in legitimate business. This is a dog’s life, though. Wish to God I was out of it.”

Ben was right to be concerned; he and King Fisher were shot to death in San Antonio at the Vaudeville Theatre, late in the evening of March 11, 1884. There is evidence that suggests a planned assassination, but Ben was also a fool for walking into the same place where he murdered Jack Harris, one of the owners, who was also an old friend from the Civil War days, less than 2 years earlier. But Ben was as drunk as a lord that night, anyway, and was in piss-poor shape for a face-to-face rencounter.

Ben’s death was a sensation and heightened the demand for an end to the concealed weapons era in Texas.

On Friday night, April 25, the Rev. G. W. Briggs delivered a lecture in Galveston’s Tremont Opera House, entitled “The Six-Shooter.”

Ladies and Gentlemen: The subjection which I have been invited to address you to-night has been furnished me by the newspapers. It might properly be called the newspaper crusade.

The pistol that killed Ben Thompson seems about to kill itself. The shots that echoed through the Vaudeville theater have been heard throughout the land. Since then the newspapers have declared “the pistol must go!” Nearly every important paper in the South has taken part in the discussion, and they are almost unanimous as to the remedy.

Says the Galveston News: “Society in Texas has progressed to that point where its conservative elements are strong enough to demand the overthrow of the barbarous reign of the knife and the pistol. “The pistol must go, and law and order take its place.” Says the San Antonio Times: “Pass stringent laws and the six-shooter must go.” Says the Atlanta Constitution: “The chief trouble is that this practice of carrying the pistol is not confined to the bully and the coward, but young men of good character adopt the custom, foolishly associating it with the idea of bravery and manhood.” Says the Nashville American: “There ought to be a crusade against the pocket pistol. It should be a penitentiary offense to own or carry one, and a hanging offense to manufacture one in a civilized country.” Says a Northern journal: “The whole business of manufacturing them should be suppressed. All notices printed or written informing people where they can be bought should be excluded from the mails, and all persons sending such notices prosecuted, fined and imprisoned.”

When so many influential papers agree as to the existence of a gigantic vice, it is the duty of the people to look into the question.

Suppose you had come to this lecture to-night armed with shot-guns, as if it was a land league meeting in the land of O’Donovon Rossa. And yet, from all that I have read, I dare not ask a show of pistols lest I should frighten the ladies out of the house. Suppose your merchants went down Tremont street every morning with shot-guns in their hands or a servant following and carrying each man’s arsenal? And yet I am told that every other man you meet is an unexploded powder magazine. Suppose every business house on the Strand had Gatling gun in the counting room trained on the door, and a stand of arms at each employee’s desk? And yet I am told that nearly every business desk has a loaded pistol in it, and every quiet merchant, as he fingers his watch chain and agrees with you about the price of a cask of bacon is ready to explode at the drop of a hat! And the thing grows doubly amusing when you reflect that the average man can not hit anything he shoots at. It is usually not the man aimed at but the bystander who catches the load. If the practice is to be kept up I propose that a chair of pistol-shooting be introduced into the curriculum of the State University, and as soon as Ben Thompson’s successor qualifies, put him in charge for the benefit of the rising generation.

The pistol creates the bully, and the bully is the shame of our modern civilization. Bill Longley, when confined in this city, said to an acquaintance of mine that he was so expert with the pistol that he could tantalize an enemy until a weapon was drawn, and then kill him before the weapon could be used, thus keeping inside of the law. I have heard from good authority that Ben Thompson relied on this, and made it his continual practice.
Monstrous!

On May 11, 1884, the Fort Worth Daily Gazette bellowed:

“Let lt Stay.”
The sentimental journalists of Texas are at this time engaged upon one of their maudlin and periodical attacks on “the pistol.” They shriek in chorus “the pistol must go” and, according to the nervous organization of the scribe, write passionately or temperately of the necessity for the departure of the “little pop.” Now, why should the pistol go? What has the pistol done that it should but incontinently hustled out of sight and use? Nay, do not the brethren themselves but inveigh in the abstract against the pretty piece of mechanism that has made so much news for the enterprising newspaper and, thus, themselves, given the strongest and most practical of negative to their sentimental affirmatives? What newspaper in all the land dare to belittle the gun in the concrete? But again, is not the work of the pistol the royal road to fame in this civilized land — in this enlightened nineteenth century? And do not the newspapers admit its potency when they write so pathetically of the murdered man and his wife and orphans at a distance and maintain such an eloquent silence concerning the rich murderer’s pistol practice on poverty-stricken white men and “niggers” at their own doors? Who can –who shall — deny the potency of “the gun?”

Is it not indeed an instrument by which men achieve fame? Jesse James with his pistol stopped railroad trains, rifled mail pouches, murdered conductors and helpless passengers, robbed men women and children and yet when he died as he had lived was it not the newspapers that howled about the “deep damnation” and the cowardly treachery of his taking off.

Ben Thompson with his pistol sent from fifteen to twenty men to the other world while he lived and walked the streets of the capital of Texas, a red-handed murderer, which newspaper dared to allude to him otherwise than as “Capt., Major or Col. Thompson, the genial companion,” etc. Is not Ben Thompson’s life and exploits with the little pistol now in the hands of thousands of boys, and was it not written by a distinguished lawyer who is said to be an aspirant for a high civic honor, in which place he would be expected to inspire a respect for law.

A San Antonio paper says, “the pistol must go,” and yet does that paper denounce the Vaudeville theater, where the crack of the little gun has oft reverberated and where human life has so often been endangered and lost? Cunningham took his pistol and shot poor Fleming to death on the streets of Fort Worth and a jury of his peers assessed the penalty as they would had the crime been theft of a forty dollar cow pony instead of murder. Willis Adams took his pistol and shot an unarmed man to death in Dallas after unbearable insult had been heaped upon his victim, and a Judge of the law considers it a bailable case and no Dallas journal protests. Frank James and his little pistol are credited with having aided in robbery on the highway and in murder; he is tried, bailed and feted and toasted.

A telegram to THE GAZETTE Friday stated that the jury in the case of Ike Loeb, charged with the murder of Emanuel McClarty, colored, brought in a verdict of not guilty. Loeb was warmly congratulated. And thus it goes by telegraph day in and day out: “The jury in the case of Mr. So-and-so, who was charged with murder brought in a verdict of not guilty!” The little pistol gets in its work and gives fame to its owner but never commits a crime! The law as administered takes care of the slayer, and it is the widow and the orphan the little pistol makes who must take care of themselves.

All over Texas — all over the South and over the Union – the work of the pistol goes on, the newspapers cry out, in the abstract, “the pistol must go,” and yet dare not find flaw in the verdict of juries or the decisions of judges. Public opinion has elevated the pistol and made it a means to attain fame. It will not go. Newspapers are insincere in denouncing it; lawyers uphold it as productive of rich fees. Judges do not discountenance its work; public opinion applauds its performances by acquittal or nominal punishment and even fair women vie with each other in slobbering over red-handed murderers. Let the pistol go. Why, the pistol is the mark of our civilization and Texas should inscribe it upon the state arms. Vox populi, vox Dei. The people have declared the pistol an adjunct of our civilization and the pistol will not go. Then let every decent, law-abiding man buy him one and be at least on equal terms with the bully and desperado who would take advantage of his helplessness and shoot him down like a dog. The law, judges, juries, the people nil glorify the pistol. Why do the heathen Journalists rage in the abstract and imagine a vain thing?

The pistol will not go.

Saloons weren’t faring much better, either, since they were considered to be walking hand in hand.

“Car toon,” an old friend of Ben’s, wrote: THE SALOON INFLUENCE: This is, perhaps, the leading evil of the times. It is the foundation of more than all other influences combined, and yet it has come to pass that a saloon-keeper occupies at least a semi-respectable position in society. He is especially recognized by that part of the public known as the political world. In fact, it goes without question that this influence is to-day the greatest power in shaping public political sentiment. Any man who is opposed by this influence gets little or no encouragement from the office-makers. Almost any political convention, although assuming to represent a party having great and vital principles (?), will virtually “sit down upon “any man whom this Interest opposes. He is not “available.” It is this interest that fosters and protects the next greatest evil factor.

“Are there any real ‘bad’ men In Texas now?” a Washington Post reporter asked Sheriff Rowan Tucker, of Fort Worth, one of the best known officers of the Lone Star State, at the National Hotel, in March 1894.

“I don’t know of a single one that would come in that category,” was Tucker’s answer. “The day of the desperado is over in our country. No duplicate of Ben Thompson is a possibility of the future. The last of the boys with a reputation as killers was a citizen of my town, Luke Short, who died a peaceful death a few months ago. Most of his predecessors died with their boots on. Luke was a quiet little chap, big-hearted and unaggressive. He had a taste for books rather than homicide, but fate put it in his way to rernove some eight or ten men who were reckless enough to cross his path. But Luke never shot a man in cold blood, and the world wasn’t any loser by the taking off of his victims. He was popular in business circles, and couldn’t say no to anybody that struck him for a dollar.

“Ben Thompson had the reputation of having killed twenty-eight men, which he owned up to once when drinking, though he explained that he hadn’t reckoned Mexicans and darkies in the total.
The main reason why killings are fewer now is that the men have, to a great extent, ceased drinking so much red liquor. The brewery has been a great institution for Texas, and the more breweries we get the lower the death-rate.”

I won’t quarrel with Sheriff Tucker’s pronouncement that the brewery has been a great institution for Texas, but I might quarrel with his prediction that the more breweries Texas got, the lower the death rate. I can’t quarrel with current statistics that show the annual murder rate in Texas has gone down since 1996, but I don’t know that the decrease can be attributed to the concealed handgun laws.

Bottom line:

Wear ’em outside, wear ’em inside. No Matter. In Texas, the pistol will not go.

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