Yorkshire’s answer to Billy the Kid


Ben Thompson; pic courtesy of G.R. Williamson

THE words “Wild West” conjure up images of saloons and sheriffs; gun-slinging cowboys knocking back whisky like water on their way to a dusty showdown at the nearest corral.

It’s possible I put too much stock in the historical accuracy of 1980s Emilio Estevez films, but when I hear the words “West Yorkshire”, the same images do not spring to mind.

But thanks to the digging of an American historian, the two worlds are about to collide in a new book, The Texas Pistoleers: Ben Thompson and King Fisher.

Texan author GR Williamson has chronicled the life of an outlaw born in the Five Towns, with a reputation for being one of the Wild West’s most feared gun fighters.

The book, which is the culmination of years of research, describes in detail the short life of Ben Thompson – Knottingley’s answer to Billy the Kid – who died in a hail of shotgun bullets at a San Antonio saloon in 1884.

Mr Williamson, who hails from Kerrville, Texas, came across Ben Thompson as a teenager, spawning a lifelong quest for the truth behind the Yorkshire outlaw’s chequered past. 

He said: “Ben Thompson, in his day, was one of the most feared pistol fighters in the American West. Yet oddly enough, the chronicles of the Old West have largely ignored him.

“While volumes of books and accounts have been written about the exploits of his contemporaries, very little has been written about Thompson and his lethal skills with a pistol.”

According to records, Thompson, was born in Knottingley in November 1843 and spent his first few years in the former mining town before his family emigrated to Austin, Texas.

It was in America where the local lad carved out a reputation as a fierce dualist, unscrupulous gambler and in a bizarre twist for a full-time crook, a law  enforcer.

Mr Williamson, 68, said: “Thompson was certainly not a saint and was most definitely a sinner, but how should he be judged in light of the violent times of his era?

“He did break the law at various times in his life and was responsible for a number of premature deaths. To his credit, Thompson fought his gun battles ‘straight up’ against men trying to kill him.

“Unlike some of the other gun fighters of the Old West who jumped at the chance to shoot their victims in the back, Thompson faced his opponents with cool determination to stand his ground – win or lose.”

Thompson led a colourful life, turning to crime at 15. It was only a matter of time before he landed himself in trouble with the law and he was jailed at 22 for murder.

He bribed his way out of prison and fled to Mexico, where he became a mercenary fighter, and returned to Texas four years later where his days as a hardened gambler began.

For the next few years, life was quiet on the western front, in fact, despite the occasional shoot-out, the people of Austin twice elected Thompson as city marshal.

According to Williamson, this was due to him being “honest, loyal, generous and very proficient with a pistol”.
He added: “Billy the Kid, Jesse James, etc, were all immortalised in dime novels, newspapers, magazines, books and even theatrical performances.

“But in the view of some of the western writers today, none of these shooters would have emerged the winner in a stand up, face-to-face fight with Ben Thompson.”

Thompson met his end in shotgun bloodshed after a two-year feud with a San Antonio barman came to a head.  The long-running dissension between the Yorkshire gunslinger and Vaudeville Theatre and Saloon owner, Jack Harris, ended in a roar of gunfire when Thompson shot his foe dead.

A murder trial followed, of which he was miraculously acquitted, but he got his comeuppance two years later when an ill-advised return to the Vaudeville saw two of Harris’ friends ambush Thompson in a revenge attack which cost him his life.

The Knottingley-born criminal probably led a rather more exciting life than his Yorkshire contemporaries, in fact, news of his death made the front of the New York newspapers.

Mr Williamson said: “The Wild West was a magical time in the western movement of the pioneers that settled our nation.
The Texas Pistoleers is an honest attempt to tell Thompson’s story as accurately as possible – warts and all.”

Article originally appeared in the Pontefract and Castleford Express