On August 15, 1873, Ben Thompson, a notorious Texas gunman, held the entire
town of Ellsworth, Kansas at bay with a Henry rifle, while his brother,
Billy slowly rode away following the accidental killing of Sheriff Chauncey
Whitney. Over fifty years later, Wyatt Earp claimed that he was the
man who had arrested Ben Thompson on that August day in 1873.
Since Earp made the claim in the late
1920s, and since it was presented in Stuart Lake's Wyatt Earp: Frontier
Marshal (1931), romantic novel about Wyatt Earp, many people have asked,
"Did Wyatt Earp really arrest Ben Thompson?"
On August 15, 1873, Billy Thompson, Ben's younger brother, killed Sheriff Chauncey Whitney in Ellsworth Kansas. Immediately after the shooting, Ben urged his brother, who was drunk, to leave town. Billy got on his horse and, much to the dismay of Ben, slowly left Ellsworth. Meanwhile, Ben Thompson, who at the time was already consider a notorious man, held the town at bay for an hour with a Henry rifle. The Ellsworth Reporter, on August 21, 1873, published the following detailed article concerning the entire affair:
The trouble originated over a game of cards, the players being well filled with whisky. One or two blows were given and the parties rushed for their guns. Ben and Bill Thompson obtained their arms, went into the street and called out: "Bring out your men if you want to fight." At this time Mr. Whitney came over to them and asked them to stop their fussing; then they all started towards Brennan's saloon. Ben remained outside, walking up and down up front, with a rifle in his hands. Presently he pointed his rifle up street towards Beebe's store to Happy Jack, who was standing in the door-way, and fired; the ball hit the door casing, which saved Happy's life. The next moment Bill Thompson came out of the saloon with a double barreled shotgun, which he pointed at Mr. Whitney who made two attempts to get out of the way before he shot and said, "don't shoot." - Thompson fired and Whitney received the charge. He whirled around twice, screamed out that he was shot and called for his wife. Friends rushed to his aid and carried him home.
After the shooting Bill Thompson went back into the saloon, ad soon afterwards went across the street on horseback, towards the Grand Central. Ben met him there, gave him a pistol and said: "For God's sake leave town; you have shot Whitney, our best friend!" Bill replied that he did not give a d---! that he would have shot "if it would have been Jesus Christ!" He then rode slowly out of town cursing and inviting a fight. Ben Thompson retained his arms for a full hour after this, and no attempt was made to disarm him. Mayor Miller was at his residence during the shooting; he was notified of the disturbance and he went immediately to Thompson and ordered him to give up his arms, but his advice was not heeded. During this long hour where were the police?
No arrest had been made, and the street was full of armed men ready to defend Thompson. The police were arming themselves, and as the claim, just ready to rally out and take, alive or dead, the violators of the law. They were loading their muskets just as the Mayor, impatient at the delay in making arrests, came along and discharged the whole force. It would have been better to have increased the force, and discharged or retained the old police after quiet was restored. The Mayor acted promptly and according to his judgment, but we certainly think it was a bad move. A poor police is better than none, and if, as they claim, they were just ready for work, they should have had a chance to redeem themselves and the honor of the city. Thus the city was left without a police, with no one but Deputy Sheriff Hogue to make arrests. He recieved the arms of Ben Thompson on the agreement of Happy Jack to give up his arms!
Around 1928, Wyatt Earp told Stuart Lake, who was preparing a book on Wyatt's life, that he was the man that arrested Ben Thomspon in Ellsworth during August 1873. The claim was first published in a Saturday Evening Post article shortly before Lake's book - Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931)- was made available to the public. The book made Wyatt Earp the most famous lawman of the old west, and the Ben Thompson claim, presented first by Lake and attributed to Earp, became the cornerstone for Wyatt's legendary Kansas cowtown deeds. Stuart Lake's notes, evidently taken during an interview with Wyatt, describe Earp's courageous arrest of Ben Thompson, who was "backed by 100 Texas men:"
Despite Wyatt Earp's claim, made over fifty years later, the detailed newspaper article published at the time, does not even mention Earp's great confrontation and arrest of Ben Thompson. Following Lake's initial article about Wyatt Earp, which was published by the Saturday Eventing Post, Floyd B. Steeter, historian and librarian of Hays City Kansas State College, began an intensive search to find evidence of Earp's claim. He looked at newspapers, court documents, and every available source (including conducting interviews with people that witnessed the incident), and could not find any supporting evidence for the claim. No contemporary newspaper accounts, court records, diaries, or any other source can even place Wyatt in Ellsworth in August 1873. To this day, there is not a single shred of contempory evidence that Wyatt Earp arrested Ben Thompson. Over the years the Thompson story was repeated in many books and articles but it was largely discredited by the 1960s. Indeed not one of Ben Thomspon's biographers considered the claim to be valid. The debate then turned to whether to story was fabricated by Lake or Earp!
For years Lake took the majority of criticism for the story. Yet, letters and notes discovered in the Stuart Lake Collection at the Huntington Library, clearly show that Lake did not make up the Thompson claim. Wyatt Earp, in at least two letters, possibly more, indicated that he had arrested Ben Thompson. Recent authors of Wyatt Earp speculated that Wyatt may have played a role in Thompson's arrest, but that Lake's embellished what Wyatt told him. In Wyatt Earp, The Life Behind the Legend (1997), author Casey Tefertiller wrote:
|"While Lake probably embroidered the episode in Ellsworth, there are reasons to believe that Wyatt Earp did step in to mollify a tense situation. William Box Hancock, who helped drive herds to Kansas, said that he had heard the story that Earp "was appointed city marshal by the mayor of Ellsworth, Kansas, when the notorious Ben Thompson had threatened to kill everybody in town. [Earp] arrested him and put him in jail." Wyatt Earp, The Life Behind the Legend (1997), page 8.|
Terfetiller noted on page 345, note 14, that Hancock's manuscript had been written by his wife, Bertha, in 1934- three years after Lake's book was in print! He further commented: "Because it was written after Lake's book appeared, it cannot be considered absolute substatiation." (page 346). Nonetheless Tefetiller concluded: "While the exact story is unclear, it seems likely Wyatt Earp did in some way intercede to prevent a showdown between Ben Thompson and the citizens of Ellsworth, and the newspaper failed to accurately report the story, possibly because in the frenzy of activity the details never came clear or because the editors were intimidated by the police force." (page 9).
Of course, not! It just doesn't mention Wyatt Earp or backstop the claim that he boldly arrested the notorious Texan. The detailed article remains the strongest evidence of what happened that day. Rather than accepting the news account, Tefertiller, based on a hearsay account, written three years after Lake's book by Hancock's wife, speculates that "there are reasons to believe," and "it seems likely" that Wyatt did something that day. Interestingly, while none of Thompson's biographers believe tthe Earp claim, Earp's biogrpahers have gone both ways. Though two recent biographys of Earp do suggest that Wyatt may have played some role. The main reason for this- because letters in the Lake collection show that Wyatt made the claim- so he had to have played some role or he was a liar.
What;s amazing about the recent Earp books that suggest that Wyatt played a role in arresting Ben Thompson is that neither book cpresented or considered Thompson's own account, published in 1884, by a close friend. The following exert is from The Life and Adventures of Ben Thompson: The Famous Texas by William M. Walton:
|"While thus standing, life hanging on a thread, because no one could tell when the disarmed policeman would be reinforced. The mayor, Mr. Miller, appeared. He is a man of great decision of character, and brave, too. He had been given an exaggerated account of the circumstances, and was disposed to go right over me, but the Henry rifle soon brought him to his senses, and he stood along by the side of Hogue and others. I said to him: 'Mr. Mayor, I respect you, and I am inclined to surrender to you, but before doing so, must have your word of honor that no mob shall in any way interfere with me and besides Happy Jack and Hogue must be disarmed, or rather the first must be disarmed, and the other not permitted to resume his,' . . . If you will go and disarm Happy Jack, and declare to me that Hogue shall not again be armed, until the law has dealt with me, I will surrender.' He at once agreed to this proposition . . . the mayor and Mr. Larkin returned with Happy Jack unarmed. The mayor was an honorable man, at least I believed it. When he gave the assurances I required I willingly surrendered, knowing that the law could not and would not touch me, so far as the death of Sheriff Whitney was concerned." (pages 131-132).|
Ben Thompson's own account of the incident, written by 1882 and published by a friend in 1884, presents that same circumstances as the initial newspaper article. Thompson surrendered (on his own terms) after the mayor assured him that Happy Jack was disarmed. The one thing we know is that Ben Thompson was there! His account, like the newspaper article, does not mention Wyatt Earp at all. Thompson was not arrested- he surrendered, on his own terms, and he did it after the mayor gave him assurances. If anyone should be given credit for stepping in to mollify a tense situation, it should be the mayor, not Wyatt Earp!
Based on the best and strongest evidence available, Wyatt Earp did not arrest Ben Thompson. We can speculate that Wyatt was resent in Ellsworth, though there is no documentation showin this, and that he may have been one of the men attempting to help hogue and the others. But even if that was the case, he did not boldly arrest Ben Thompson, he would have simply stood by while the mayor made an agreement with the Texan to surrender. Wyatt may have said that he was there when
ben Thompson was arrested and over time the story grew into "Wyatt arresting Thomspon." If so, by 1928, flat out told Lake that he arrested Ben Thompson, and probably wa responsible to the bogus story present in Lake's book. Thus Wyatt, once again, took the lion share of credit, for an incident that he either witnesses or participated in a minor way.