1848 - 1929
Birth And Early Life
Life In Missouri
Arkansas Horse Theft
Pimping In Peoria
Clay Allison Incident
Arresting Ben Thompson
Marshal Of Dodge City
Buntline Special Myth
AZ Deputy U.S. Marshal
Killing Curly Bill
Killing Johnny Ringo
Documents And Letters
About Steve Gatto
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Did Wyatt Earp Arrest Ben Thompson?
On August 15, 1873, Ben Thompson, a notorious Texas gunman (left), 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 romantic novel Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931), 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, wrote, in part:
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?
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 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 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. (pg. 9).
What's amazing about the recent Earp books that suggest that Wyatt played a role in arresting Ben Thompson is that the books do not present or consider 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 Texan 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 similar circumstances as the initial newspaper article. Thompson surrendered (on his own terms) after the Mayor assured him that Happy Jack was disarmed. So which account should we believe? Well, 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! In 1907, Bat Masterson, wrote some sketches of famous western figures that included Wyatt Earp and Ben Thompson but made no reference whatsoever to Earp arresting Thompson in Ellsworth.
Based on the best and strongest evidence available, Wyatt Earp did not arrest Ben Thompson. We can speculate that Wyatt may have been present in Ellsworth, though there is no documentation showing 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 as was portrayed in Lake's book, he would have simply stood by while the Mayor made an agreement with the Texan to surrender. Wyatt may have later said that he was present when Ben Thompson was arrested and over time the story grew into "Wyatt arresting Thomspon." If so, by 1928, Earp flat out told Lake that he arrested Ben Thompson, and it's very likely that he was responsible for the account that was presented in Lake's book. Thus, Wyatt in the late 1920s, when few people could dispute his claim, took the lion share of credit for an incident that rightly belonged to the Mayor. Of course, many people just cannot stomach the premise that Wyatt Earp, the most famous lawman of the old west, told a windy story, when he took credit for arresting Ben Thompson.
Your host is Steve Gatto, author of The Real Wyatt Earp (Edited by Neil Carmony) (2000), Johnny Ringo (2002), Curly Bill, Tombstone's Most Famous Outlaw (2003). Steve's latest work, Hurled Into Eternity, The Story of Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral has not yet been released.
Portions of the text appearing on this site come from the above books.
|"bravery and determination were requisites, and in every instance
proved himself the right man in the right place." Tombstone Epitaph|