King News by Moses Koenigsberg
Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
Murder with a Carom Shot (continued)
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Justice of the Peace Anton Adam was ready at every moment of
the night or day to tie a nuptial knot, preside over a mortuary inquest, make
out a bail bond, conduct a misdemeanor trial or perform any of the varied
functions for which he was competent “under the authority vested in him by the
Commonwealth of Texas.”
As if chopped out of a square block, his five feet of height
was matched by his breadth. Each contour of his face harmonized with his
figure. The chin and jaws suggested the handiwork of a woodsman with a dull
adze. One gentle brown eye, disdaining the preoccupations of its mate, gazed
steadily beyond those present. It might have been the orb of a dreamer in rapt
contemplation of mystic realms. The other eye was startlingly different in
color and behavior. A bright marine blue, it seemed driven by a tremendous diligence
in never-ceasing scrutiny of all visible minutiae. Few persons sought to trace
in Justice Adam’s countenance any hint of his thoughts. It was no more
revealing on the bench than in a poker game.
The magistrate was seated under the single gaslight in the
tiny courtroom when the posse with Ben Thompson deployed in Veramendi Alley.
The desk behind which Anton Adam sat, his back against the east wall, was so
scarred and battered that its mere aspect offered a rowdy taunt to the majesty
of the law. The only other furniture was two benches and an assortment of camp
stools and kitchen chairs.
Fully forty perspiring men squeezed into the smoke-filled
room behind Ben Thompson and his police guard. Among them were several friends
of the prisoner, including Lee Tarleton, a lawyer hurriedly fetched by Ben’s
brother, Bill, who had been for several years a resident of San Antonio. From outside, through Veramendi
Alley, came the sullen murmur of the waiting crowd. All the adjacent streets
were now choked with a surging mass of men, their stern faces more ominous than
Policemen and county peace officers, with drawn revolvers,
blocked off both ends of Veramendi Alley, the two strategic points that
commanded the only open routes to Justice Adam’s courtroom. The cell-like
chamber in which Ben Thompson awaited arraignment was also accessible through a
window that opened from the north wall into a patio shared by the residents of
the block. For a mob to reach that patio, however, would have entailed breaking
through one or more of the houses surrounding it; and thus far there was no
hint of such an extremity.
It was into one of these buildings that I was led by the
policeman detailed by Marshal Shardein to restore me to my father. Perhaps a
painful scene would have followed the reunion were it not for the salving
influence of official attention touched by the policeman’s genial humor.
Instead of the thrashing that ordinarily would have attended a similar set of
circumstances, there was an animated discussion of what I had seen and heard on
In a few moments, excited neighbors were questioning me, and
presently the party repaired to the patio for more comfortable conversation.
Then I saw Ben Thompson the second time. He was seated beside the window
opening into Anton Adam’s court.
I never understood my parent’s indulgence on that occasion,
but it required little wheedling to have a table moved from his shop to a point
at which, though outside the building, we joined the spectators of Justice
Adam’s courtroom, actually nearer to the magistrate himself than most of the
persons inside. My father’s elbows rested on the windowsill. Standing on the
table, I leaned over his shoulder.
Ben Thompson was whispering with Lee Tarleton and another
Marshal Shardein was in close conference with Jacobo Coy and
several other officers.
The prosecution was in a dilemma. Coy’s canvass of the evidence
had yielded a unique problem. There was no question about the corollary facts. It was generally
known that a bitter enmity had subsisted for months between Thompson and the
proprietors of the gambling parlor over which Joe Foster officiated in the Crystal Palace. Thompson had openly charged that
he was fleeced out of a large sum of cash in a monte game. He had been heard
repeatedly to threaten to “clean out the joint.” He had visited the Crystal Palace earlier that day and demanded to
see Jack Harris.
In mid-afternoon, Coy, learning that Thompson had announced
an intention to return and “get” Harris, sought out several of his friends. A
program was arranged to keep Ben engaged in other parts of town until he could
be persuaded to return to Austin,
eighty miles north. At sundown, a messenger brought word that Thompson had
disappeared from a poker game in a resort “across the creek,” eluded his
friends and supposedly gone on a rampage. It was then that Coy took up his
vigil under the shadows of San Fernando Cathedral.
Thompson slipped through the loungers in front of the Crystal Palace shortly after seven o’clock.
Stepping to the bar, he ordered a pint of champagne. Barney Mitchell, a
habitue, greeted, “Howdy, Ben!” and was out of the front door before Thompson
could respond, leaving him alone with John Dyer, the bartender.
No patron ever received prompter or politer service.
Thompson quaffed the wine as if it were water.
“Now give me your best Havana
see-gar,” he ordered.
Dyer was pushing forward a box of cigars when Thompson
demanded, “Hasn’t that bastard, Harris, come down yet?”
According to Dyer’s circumstantial account to Coy, repeated
later on the witness stand, he answered, “I’ll go look for Mr. Harris.”
“Well, tell him we’ll settle for these drinks in my private
office in hell.”
Thompson sauntered toward the street while Dyer climbed to
the upper floor. There he reported to Harris that the blustering visitor from Austin awaited him below.
Harris came slowly downstairs. Perhaps until that moment he had hoped to avoid
a meeting with Thompson. He peeped through the three-inch aperture between one
of the swinging fiber doors and the wall on which it hinged. Billy Simms was in
front talking with Thompson. Everybody else had vanished. Simms was trying to
mollify his old friend, Ben.
The ticket office, a tiny enclosure the inside of which was
open to view from all parts of the saloon, stood back of the swinging fiber
doors. When incomers entered, they continued straight north to the bar or
turned west to the ticket window. Dyer, again behind the bar, had an
uninterrupted vision of everything inside tile main entrance. He saw Harris
walk into the ticket office and pick up a double-barreled shotgun. He saw Simms
step back into the saloon.
It was possible for Thompson and Simms to glimpse each other
through the space between the two swinging doors and Dyer heard them exchanging
words. Thompson on the sidewalk was invisible to Harris, and Harris in the
ticket office was completely out of Thompson’s sight.
“Why don’t you make that yellow-bellied bastard come out and
fight?” Thompson yelled to Simms.
Harris laid the shotgun in the crook of his left arm and
braced himself against a chair. The barrel projected across the opening through
which he had peeped a moment before. The muzzle pointed due east. A line drawn
from the triggers straight south would have passed through Thompson’s chest a
dozen feet away.
Alongside Harris stood an iron pillar, twin of another
column on the opposite side of the fiber doors, both serving as props of the
upper story. They were round and smooth, each eight inches in diameter.
Measurements taken afterward showed that Harris stood a full foot north and
west of the iron shaft nearest to him.
“Why doesn’t that stinking coyote come out?” Thompson
called. “Is that him behind the door with a shotgun?”
“Yes, you dirty -----,
I’m here,” Harris answered.
A revolver-shot crashed. Harris slumped down. The shotgun,
undischarged, slipped from his arm. Another pistol blast came while he lay
crumpled on the floor. That bullet was never traced.
Simms and Dyer helped Harris upstairs. A lead slug had
pierced his chest, rupturing die right lung. Death came before the doctor.
“There won’t be any dispute about these things,” Jacobo Coy
told his police confreres, “but what’s a jury going to do when Ben’s lawyers
prove that there was no straight line between his gun and any part of Jack
Harris’ body? Won’t they have a lot of fun showing that you can’t curve a
pistol-shot like a baseball pitcher curves his throw? I know what happened, but
a smart lawyer could make my testimony sound like a joke. They’d laugh me out
“What do you mean ?” asked Shardein.
“Ben killed Harris with a carom shot,” was the answer. “He
couldn’t have done it any other way. He laid his sight through the crack in the
door against the iron post so that the bullet would carom off into Harris’
body. I’ve taken all the measurements and marked all the positions with chalk
lines. I found a sliver of lead on the iron shaft where the bullet glanced
off. And Dyer swears he doesn’t know whether the shots were fired over the
doors, through die opening between them or through a crack on one side.”
A sharp rap on the magistrate’s desk halted the whispered
“A prima facie
case has been presented and the defendant
will be held for the action of the grand jury,” Justice Adam announced. “No
arguments will be heard at this time. It would be foolish to consider any
question now except the safe conduct of the prisoner to the proper place of
“In view of the circumstances plain to all present, the
court expects the fullest cooperation of all within the hearing of my voice.
Certain arrangements have been made. Those not charged with their execution
will, immediately upon the adjournment of court, file outside in an orderly
manner and refrain from any comment of any kind among themselves or to others
until such time as their intelligence indicates that the need for silence has
passed. Until court is adjourned you will remain quietly in your present
Two mounted policemen were dispatched for a cab. There was
no secrecy about their errand. In fact, they made a good deal of fuss over it.
At the moment the hack arrived, the courtroom crowd was
emptying into the narrow street. The squat figure of Justice Anton Adam was
conspicuous. Immediately behind him, a group moved into a huddle, apparently
surrounding and screening someone. The magistrate paused a moment as if
presenting himself for observation. Then he stepped into the cab. The compact
bunch of men following him gathered around a door of the vehicle. Suddenly,
three of them were thrust inside. The movement was so swift and abrupt that
even the mounted policemen at hand could not have identified the trio.
The courtroom light went out and a constable appeared in the
entrance, slowly closing the door and then turning the lock. The cabman lashed
his horse. Eight mounted policemen set off, two on either side in Indian file,
two ahead and two behind.
A shout, starting at the corner of Veramendi Alley and Acequia Street,
rolled through the neighborhood: “They’re taking Thompson away!”
Justice Anton Adam stuck his head through the open cab
window. “Disperse! Go home! Respect the law!” he roared.
Perhaps the nine galloping horses alone would have forced a
path through the weltering crowds; but the grisly visage of Anton Adam, drawing
added austerity from his hoarse shouting, left no doubt of the sortie’s
success. Men fell backward in real alarm.
The cab and its escort whirled south on Acequia Street, across Main Plaza
and then turned eastward on Market
Street. It was a mystifying move. Every man in the
mob had believed the cab was carrying Ben Thompson to the county jail; but that
building lay in the opposite direction. What, they asked, did this mean? Was
the killer being hurried to a friendly refuge?
Shouts of mixed perplexity and resentment arose. The horde
that had filled the contiguous streets broke into knots and small groups moving
eastward, less in purposeful chase than in befuddled quest. The mob was
Ben Thompson was not in the cab with Anton Adam. The instant
the lamp in the tiny courtroom was extinguished, the prisoner, in the hands of
four policemen, made his way through the window into the tomb-like darkness of
the patio. By the light of a small lantern, he was taken into the living-room
that lay behind the Koenigsberg shop on Soledad Street. There, with hushed
voices, Thompson and the four policemen sat while my father busied himself
among the shelves in front. I spent the interval examining my five companions.
Thompson showed evidence of impatience. He had been an
intent listener while Justice Adam was explaining the plan to outwit the mob.
He had sneered at the detail of climbing through a window, but he offered no
objection when the moment for action arrived. Now the vigil in the back room
obviously irked him. He asked for a drink of whiskey. No one had a flask.
He urged that one of the policemen do a bit of
reconnoitering. It would afford opportunity to pick up a pint of liquor. The
officers were companionable but not obliging. Then Thompson had an inspiration.
“Why don’t one of you get something for the kid?” he asked. “I’ll pay for a
bunch of bananas if you’ll get it for him.”
That thought found receptiveness. Anyhow, each of the men in
the room was eager to know what had been happening outside. Two of the
officers, in mufti
, strolled through the shop into Soledad Street. Ten minutes later they were
back with a bunch of bananas. No one offered me a counsel of moderation. That
is why my recollection of Ben Thompson, though poignant, has been vastly more
visceral than mnemonic.
A knock at fhe front door was followed by the entrance of a
deputy sheriff. “The coast’s clear,” he announced. “The crowd’s scattered.”
The four policemen and the deputy sheriff led Thompson to
the Houston Street
side of the patio, where egress had been meanwhile arranged. Two cabs waited
outside. In ten more minutes, the City Marshal of Austin was safely lodged in
the Bexar County jail. There he remained for
months until his trial for murder.
The records of Bexar
County show that the
prosecutors of Ben Thompson exercised every precaution against being “laughed
out of court.” Details indicating that the fatal bullet was a carom shot were
scrupulously withheld from the testimony at the inquest over the body of Jack
Harris, at the preliminary hearing of Thompson before Justice Anton Adam and at
his long-drawn-out trial before Judge George H. Noonan. Apparently, the police
dread of ridicule affected the presentation of their case. At all events, Ben
Thompson was finally acquitted of the murder of Jack Harris.
His exoneration supplied abundant tinder for a feud between
two cities. The acquittal was cited by his Austin
friends to emphasize the harshness of the treatment Ben had suffered in San Antonio. Now that
this man’s innocence was certified by a jury of his peers, it was shocking to
recall “how he had been held for hours before the dangling noose of a mad mob.”
No mollifying effect flowed from the ruse by which the
police had spirited Thompson through the throngs gathered around the
neighborhood of Justice Anton Adam’s court. On the contrary, indignation in Austin was sharpened by
the fact that such a stratagem had been necessary.
When Thompson returned to Austin after his formal acquittal, he was
greeted as a conquering hero. The International & Great Northern Railroad
depot was festooned in flowers and decorated with banners and enormous placards
acclaiming the valorous city
marshal. Thompson was carried from the train on the
shoulders of clamorous admirers to a waiting carriage. Then the horses were
unhitched from the vehicle. Ropes were commandeered to attach to the shafts so
that a long line of shouting citizens might pull the carriage through the main
street to the great granite capitol building. Confetti wasn’t in style at the
time. Instead, 45-calibre Colt revolvers echoed in salvos while bands blared,
whooping horsemen dashed to and fro, bibulous orators vied in panegyrics and
the capital city of Texas
turned itself loose in a wild celebration.
“Austin has neglected one
tribute to Ben Thompson,” wrote a wag in a San Antonio newspaper of that week. “It
should erect a bronze monument to commemorate his invention of ‘the forced loan
The quip epitomized one of the outstanding traditions of the
Southwest. It was linked with as large a share of Thompson's infamy as his
reputation for killing. The story attributed to him the origination of a
practice afterward adopted with varying degrees of finesse by other
The technique was best exemplified by an account of its
first presentation to Joseph Nalle
, the wealthiest man in Austin. Thompson devoted the night before
that historic occasion to one of his many losing bouts at table stakes poker.
“Frozen out,” he exhausted all his resources for borrowing. Daylight found him
seated on the front step of Nalle’s banking house, reeking with liquor, his
head between his hands, his elbows on his knees, the embodiment of melancholy.
Nalle always rose before dawn. His first stop of the day was
at his bank before any of the employees arrived. It was with considerable
misgiving that he discovered Thompson on the doorstep.
“Howdy, Ben?” the banker greeted. “Is there anything wrong?”
Thompson got slowly to his feet, rolled a pair of bloodshot
eyes and mumbled in tragic tones: “Good morning, Mr. Nalle. I’m terribly
“Sorry for what, Ben ? What’s happened ?”
“Well, you see, Mr. Nalle,” drawled Thompson, “I know you’re
my friend and I’ve come to you because I want to keep out of trouble. I never
get into trouble unless I’m worried and I’ve never been so much worried as I am
now. You know I never shot a man in my life except after I got into a nervous
spasm from worry.
When I get worried my head gets all churned up. It feels as
if it were splitting and then something happens inside of me and I don’t know
what I’m doing. I guess it’s a sort of a fit. That’s the only time I get into
my scrapes. And it feels like one of those times now.”
Nalle would have been delighted to thrust a city’s width between
him and his visitor; but that was impossible. To dash into the bank seemed
futile. Thompson might suffer a seizure before Nalle could open the door.
“What are you worried about?” the banker parleyed.
“That’s kind of funny, you asking me,” Thompson responded.
“I thought you knew I never worried about anything except
money. I just can’t stand owing anybody anything and I’ve got myself into a bad
There was real relief in Nalle’s voice when he said, “Come
on in, Ben, and let’s see what we can do about it.”
Of course, the imminence of one of Thompson’s fits was not
lessened indoors. It must have weighed heavily on the consciousness of the
banker because Nalle acted promptly and effectively in applying the preventive
treatment Ben prescribed.
And that was how Ben Thompson got his first loan from Joseph
Nalle. It was $5,000. Thompson insisted on executing a promissory note and on
receiving in return a memorandum signed by Nalle indicating the amount and the
due date. This document not only served to quash any taint of extortion, but it
also supplied a formal record of the Ben Thompson system of forced loans.
Chapter 1, Part 3 next week link to previous installment link to next installment
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