Share This Article

Ben Thompson: Portrait of a Gunfighter, by Thomas C. Bicknell and Chuck Parsons, University of North Texas Press, Denton, 2018, $34.95

Years before meeting his ultimate fate, Ben Thompson saw it coming: “Whether by nature or not, I am from habit a gambler, willing to take the delights of the excitement that belongs to such character, and yet not afraid to meet and contend with the adversaries that in due and natural course meet such men.…Yet I continue in that line of life…which will probably follow until I am dead.”

Born in England but living out most of his days in Texas, Benjamin Thompson first displayed his short temper and affinity for using a gun to express his displeasure at age 14. Over the next 26 years he showed a growing penchant for getting himself into trouble or his brother Billy out of trouble—in either case displaying cold-blooded mastery with a pistol, as well as a knack for picking first-class lawyers.

As to Thompson’s place among gunfighters: In 1907 William B. “Bat” Masterson classed him alongside such former acquaintances as Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Bill Tilghman, Charley Bassett, Luke Short, Clay Allison, Joe Lowe and Jim Curry. “He was absolutely without fear,” Masterson recalled, “and his nerves were of the finest steel. He shot at an adversary with the same precision and deliberation than he shot at a target.…He had during his career more deadly encounters with the pistol than any man living and won out in every single instance.”

Given that reputation, and considering the source, Thompson is another of those Western legends crying out for a reappraisal of the truth. He gets that in spades in this tag-teamed book by longtime Thompson enthusiast Thomas C. Bicknell and “Texan by choice” Chuck Parsons, whose meticulous research provides a very detailed portrait of the gunman and virtually everyone associated with him, each playing his role. That includes, of course, fellow pistoleer John King Fisher, who was fated to die alongside Ben under circumstances so sudden and confused the authors had to review every available contemporary account to sort it out. What emerges from their research—which some readers might regard as overkill (pun intended) and others as long overdue—is a character whose mythical notoriety can stand on the facts.

—Jon Guttman