“We Will Show You How it is Done.”

May 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

The succulent aroma of Llano wafted through Guy Town this morning, which reminded me of the last time Llano infamously invaded Austin, back in 1876. The resulting altercation, just 4 blocks up Congress Avenue from our “Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que of Llano” outpost at the corner of Cypress (3rd Street) and Congress, was reported in every newspaper in America, in many different versions.

Llano exported rock heads as well as rocks back in the day.

This report appeared in the Austin Daily Statesman:

February 5, 1876

SHOOTING SCRAPE. — A shooting scrape occurred yesterday on the Avenue [mid-block between Bois d’ Arc and Hickory—Ed.] and in front of the Mitchell saloon, between a man named Hanna, of Llano, and Ben Thompson, of this city.

It is currently reported on the streets that three or four men, claiming to be from Llano, and on the rowdy order, had been hunting a fight during the day, and in the forenoon had pulled out their pistols in a saloon and bluffed around generally, saying that they wanted to show the Austin fighters the Llano style of fighting.

They especially wanted to encounter someone in Austin that had a reputation for fighting, and finally came up with Ben Thompson on the sidewalk of the saloon above named, and used offensive language and threw out a general invitation for a fight.

Thompson replied, it is stated, that he knew nothing of the Texas fighters; that he was down here from Boston for his health, but that he did not apprehend that the Llanoites could fight any better than anyone else.

Hanna thought they could, and said, “if you come up there we will show you how it is done.”

Thompson said, “if I should come up there I would serve the boys just so,” drawing his hand across Hanna’s face gently.

Instantly Hanna struck him with his fist, knocking off his hat, when the pistols were drawn and the firing commenced. It is said by some that Hanna fired first, and by others that he attempted to fire but that his pistol would not go off.

Thompson at this time was on the sidewalk and Hanna had stepped down into the gutter behind a post, and seemed to be trying to get his pistol to revolve, and while thus engaged, Thompson fired at him, the ball, perhaps, taking effect in his neck, and passing through one ear.

Hanna then started across the street, and while doing so, and after having reached the middle of the street, another shot, it is said, was fired by Thompson, which passed through Hanna’s side. Hanna then continued his retreat to the opposite sidewalk, and the fight was at an end.

Both parties were taken to the mayor’s office, and the wounds of Hanna, which were not considered dangerous, were dressed, and Thompson was put under bond for his appearance on trial. Shooting in the streets of a city is at all times entitled to the severest censure; but in this instance it fortunately happened that no one was hurt but the Llano man that was spoiling for a fight.

No doubt frontier “bad ones” will hereafter be a little shy of Boston invalids who are down in Texas to restore weak lungs.

Ben Thompson went on to become Austin City Marshal in 1880.

 

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What “Might Have Been.”

May 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

I offer this story for what it is, a reflection of the times: nothing more, nothing less. History is seldom pretty or simple. But we cannot ignore it.

July 29, 1901

“Old Uncle John Price,” Who was Known to Many Austinites

Editor, Statesman.

A short time ago the Austin Daily Statesman contained this simple notice. John Price, colored, was buried yesterday, aged 65.

That was all.

Few of those who read that short notice knew or cared who John Price was or had been. Just one more old Antebellum nigger shuffled off.

Brief as that paragraph was it revived memories in the hearts of a few.

Back in the stormy sixties, General W. R. Hamby, Captain W. C. Walsh, General A. S. Roberts, John G. Wheeler of Manor, Garland Calvin of Watters, Dr. L. D. Hill, physician at the Confederate home, and myself, all members of old Company D, Fourth Texas regiment, Army of Northern Virginia, knew that old negro and knew him well.

In camp, on the march, wherever the fortunes of war carried Hood’s Texas Brigade, Old Uncle John was there.

At the field hospital, a little back from the line of battle, where the wounded and dying are hurried in ambulances and on litters, that brave old black Samaritan could be seen, busy preparing bandages, scraping lint or helping the surgeons and nurses.

A field hospital is no bomb proof position, and it takes nerve, lots of it, to stay there and work to alleviate the agonies of the wounded. I had rather be on the firing line anytime than at a field hospital in close proximity to a battle.

As a rule, soldiers of every nation fire, too high while in action, and many of the shot and shells pass over the heads of the men at the front and do great damage in the rear, where the field hospitals are always established.

The Tom Green Rifles, afterwards Company D, Fourth Texas regiment, was the first company to leave Austin in the spring of 1861. John T. Price, former Sheriff of Travis County, was fifth sergeant in the company and took “Yeller John,” the only negro he owned, with him as body servant and cook. It was a familiar sight back in those eventful days to see Old Uncle John flooding along the dusty roads in Old Virginia, literally loaded down with cooking utensils, blankets, canteens and haversacks. Perhaps there were government mules that carried heavier loads of plunder than old John, but none of them carried a more general assortment or got to the place of destination any sooner.

Honest as the days were long, he was faithful to every trust and stuck to his old regiment through thick and thin. A negro cook in the Confederate Army had more privileges than his master, and could take shortcuts and forage through the country, as he was not required to stay in line or answer to roll call. The boys would furnish John with money, he would strike out through the rural districts parallel with the route of the army and at night come into camp loaded down with good things for old mess no. 5.

Some of us will never forget the old man at Gettysburg. On the memorable night of July 2nd, 1863, the Texas Brigade lay on the side of the mountain in a broken disordered line, the crest of the ridge 50 yards above us covered with Federal infantry and artillery. Both armies were whipped and both were vicious. The snapping of a twig or the misplacing of a stone brought a shower of many balls down upon us. All night we lay there, not speaking above a whisper, with our haversacks and canteens empty.

Just as the gray dawn was breaking Old Uncle John came slipping up the mountain with a camp kettle full of boiled beef, a bag of boiled roasting ears, cold water biscuits and several canteens of cold water. He had rambled up and down the line for hours hunting the Fourth Texas Regiment, which was a mere fragment in that great Army.

Giving the provisions to Lieutenant McLaurin he dropped down behind a big boulder and in two minutes was sound asleep. The heavy load and long search had worn the old man out, and he slept like a log with cannon booming all around him.

He had many opportunities to go with his so-called friends the federals, but he clung to those he knew and was as proud of his gray uniform as many of the Confederate soldiers. Many of the Negro cooks and body servants abandoned their masters on the Maryland and Pennsylvania raids but old John remained true through it all.

When the remnant of Lee’s army stacked arms at Appomattox on the 9th of April 1865, Old Uncle John with his white friends, what few were left, turned his footsteps westward and homework. Barefooted, ragged and hungry he tramped back to Texas, back to the land and people he loved, and for all this faithful devotion he has at least received his reward, a pauper’s grave.

The Statesman was misinformed in regard to the old man’s age; he was nearer 80 than 65. When the American National Bank of Austin was organized Major George W. Littlefield, president, and General W. R. Hamby, cashier, gave Old Uncle John the position of porter. This place he kept for a number of years, really to the detriment of the bank, for the old man was not able to do the work required of him.

Then they pensioned him on $10 per month, relieving him of all labor, paying him $2.50 every Saturday night. He soon became too feeble to care for himself, was alone in the world without kindred, and strange to say of one of his race was an old bachelor.

Knowing the history of this old man’s life, knowing how true he had been to his white friends in the Army and how he still stood by them through the dark days of reconstruction when his own color threatened to lynch him, I made an appeal through the Statesman to the managers of the Confederate home. I simply asked them to give the old man a place to rest his weary old bones and something to eat out of the bountiful supply of provisions out there. My appeal met with cold indifference.

In fact it was not noticed at all and the fate of this brave old black Confederate was “over the hills to the poorhouse.”

John was a proud old darky and felt the humiliation of becoming a pauper and he knew the days of his usefulness were gone, and bent with years and toil he accepted the charity of the county and now like Old Uncle Ned in the song:

“There is no more work for poor old John,

He’s gone where the good niggers go.”

That everlasting “might have been” looms up before us wherever we go and like the little word “if” is always chiding us and making us unhappy. We the old soldiers who knew John in the Army might have provided for the old man simple wants and not have permitted him to die at the poor farm a beggar.

But now that he has crossed over the Border beyond the reach of human ingratitude, Christian charity or what “might have been,” let’s do something that no ex Confederates have ever done before. Lest we forget the old man dead like we neglected him while living, let’s build a monument to his memory. A shift of grey granite will not cost much and it will be a fitting tribute to the services and faithful devotion of this old negro to the dead Confederacy.

I spoke to General Hamby, cashier of the American National Bank of Austin, in regard to this matter. And he heartily approves of it. He knew how faithful John had been through all those long years of Civil War and told this anecdote about him.

“John reached home before the federals arrived in Austin. It was on the morning of July 4th 1865 when the federal cavalry entered the city. The Sunday before their arrival John brushed up his old faded grey uniform and remarked to General Hamby’s mother, ‘Well, Miss Louisa, this is the last time I will ever wear this old uniform. The Yankees are coming and won’t let me wear it anymore.’”

True to the last and braver than some of our old soldiers, for I know one fellow who burned his uniform for fear the Yankees would find it and get him into another war. Some soldiers had a better excuse than that for burning their old clothes.

Now, if there are any who have any sympathy with this novel but worthy object and are willing to contribute toward building a modest shift over this faithful old colored Confederate, they can leave or send their contributions, no matter how small, to General Hamby. He will receipt for all monies contributed to the John Price Monumental Fund and at the proper time publish the names of the contributors in the Austin papers.
Signed, Val C. Giles

“No violation of any law of either God or me.”

May 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

This little story comes from my unpublished (and likely to stay that way) biography of Ben Thompson in Austin, and comes in response to a thread on Facebook today (May 11, 2017) about the present Texas Capitol and the limestone quarry at Oak Hill’s “Convict Hill.” The capitol was to have been built with Convict Hill limestone, but the rust stains resulting from the iron pyrite nodules that riddled the stone rendered it unfit for exterior use, prompting the use of the beautiful pink granite from Marble Falls.

On February 22, 1884, there was a kind of picnic out at Oatmanville (present-day Oak Hill), seven miles from Austin. The syndicate that was building the new Texas capitol had its rock quarries at Oatmanville, and the leading citizens, including Governor Ireland and other state officials, were invited out to look at the work. There were about 130 persons present.

While the picnic was in progress, who should drive up but prominent gambler and former city marshal Ben Thompson, in a handsome carriage drawn by a fiery team of horses. On his right was Colonel Bingham Trigg, Ben’s attorney and ex-city attorney. In the back seat sat Mr. C. D. Johns, the recorder of the City of Austin, by whom Ben had frequently been tried. The fourth gentleman was Ben’s long-time friend and defense attorney, George Pendexter, who was now Austin City Attorney, chief prosecutor of violators of the law. The appearance of this strangely assorted quartet on the grounds created some little sensation. For a time, they mingled with the other excursionists and partook of the cakes, oranges, cigars, etc., provided by the generous agents of the capitol contractors.

Sauntering up to Governor Ireland, Ben excused himself for not having come out sooner. “I was detained by my friend, the Recorder here, who fined me ten dollars for some fun I had yesterday; but, as your Excellency will perceive, I am fixed now. I’ve got the Court, and the Prosecuting Attorney, and my own counsel, and the corpus delicti, which is me, all in the same vehicle. If I commit any illegal indiscretion, we stop the carriage right in the road, and try the case then and there. I pay my fine, if my attorney can’t persuade the Court that I’m innocent, and then we drive on until I commit a fresh indiscretion.”

Governor Ireland smiled, and made some bantering reply, after which Ben and his friends resumed their places in the vehicle. Off they went at a breakneck speed, headed back to the capital city along the winding path from Oatmanville, amid the solitudes of a Texas cedar brake, Thompson driving the horses with one hand, while he plugged the trees with the revolver in his other hand. Recorder Johns joined in the fun as well, fairly matching Ben shot for shot, it is said.

But the eagle eye and acute ear of Travis County Deputy Sheriff Pace, whom Johns had fined $100 and costs (the maximum allowed by law) a few weeks earlier for discharging a pistol within the Austin city limits, were open. Pace happened to live in the township of Oatmanville, and when the rattle of the volleys awakened the echoes in the glens, he hastened thither and beheld the city recorder of Austin shooting his gun “on and across a public highway” in the State of Texas, which was a misdemeanor. No matter if the road be the poorest of paths, the law protected the poor as well as the fat. “Strictly in the line of his duty,” the Statesman remarked, tongue firmly planted in cheek, Deputy Pace caused information to be filed against Recorder Johns on two charges: one for carrying a pistol and the other for shooting “on and across a public highway.”

The charges were filed before Justice of the Peace D.C. Pace, one of the deputy’s brothers. Turnabout was indeed fair play in this matter, and as Deputy Pace had been before him, Recorder Johns was in it for all it cost, to get out of the meshes of wisdom surrounding a court of justice.

As it turns out, the cases against Johns were dismissed by the Travis County Attorney on March 3, on grounds that the facts didn’t constitute a violation of any state statute, or as Johns put it, “No violation of any law of either God or me.”

Officer William Howe made complaint on the evening of February 23 against Ben, charging him with shooting a pistol in his presence. Ben was not arrested, and afterwards rode around Austin in a buggy, firing his pistol off several times, just as he had done on the day he returned in his buggy from Oatmanville. This might have been very interesting for Ben, but it was certainly not amusing to the people whose lives were endangered by so much promiscuous shooting.

That night, Ben borrowed a hand organ from an Italian name of Michlo Penilo and went to several places about the city serenading his friends. When he took it back, Penilo said it was broken. Ben politely told him it was not, and requested the mendicant to “grind it,” which he did not seem inclined to do. Ben gave Penilo to understand he had to grind. Then Ben told him it had too much wind anyway and proceeded to shoot it out. After Ben had fired several shots at it, its usefulness as a hand organ was at an end. Ben was promptly arrested by Officer Callahan, and the next day he pleaded guilty and paid his fine, $10 dollars and costs, and also paid Penilo for his music box.

Penilo moved to San Antonio shortly thereafter, where he took up residence with his sister, Ignaciano. Fighting the world together, saving, scraping and denying themselves everything or anything which was in any way expensive, thus by degrees a sum of money was accumulated in one of the San Antonio banks to the amount of about $400, but over the half of which belonged to Ignaciano. Both seemed inordinately affectionate and doing all in their power for each other’s interests.

The sister’s show of love to her brother seems to have been sincere, but the brother’s was evidently a snare whereby to gain the sister’s confidence, and to have the whole power of managing the money in his hands. How this power was abused the unfortunate sister came to know when Michlo, drawing the whole sum from the bank, almost two months to the day after Ben deprived him of his livelihood, decamped for parts unknown, leaving her almost penniless.

On February 27, 1884, the Statesman noted, “Ben Thompson had a happy time late Saturday night and Sunday morning. He must have been omnipresent, for there is hardly a locality in the city that does not lay claim to be honored by the ‘whang’ of his gun. His young companions, too, are getting more glory than they like, it is surmised.”

Theodore Hillyer, one of the young men who was with Ben that Saturday night and Sunday morning, was charged before the recorder with discharging a pistol within the limits of the city. A similar charge was also filed against Ben. But the case against Hillyer for having a pistol was dismissed because he was a deputy sheriff, and thus permitted to carry arms.

Ben could have cared less; after he paid off Penilo the organ grinder he left town on the 6 p.m. Houston and Texas Central train. February 26 was Mardi Gras day, and King Dionysus in Galveston was beckoning. Ben changed trains at Houston and took the Texas and New Orleans to Galveston, arriving at 9 on the morning of the 25th.With all the festivities and the prevailing royal atmosphere that so appealed to Ben’s British roots, Mardi Gras was Ben’s favorite holiday, apart from Christmas with his family.

 

 

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