Thursday, April 20, 2017
King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 1 Part 3
King News by Moses KoenigsbergPublished by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
Murder with a Carom Shot (conclusion)link to previous installment link to next installment
Austin’s pagan jubilation over Ben Thompson’s escape from the gallows gave impetus to the inter-city vendetta. The law-abiding residents of both communities disparaged the feud. They denounced it as a mere figment put forth by the criminal elements in extenuation of law-breaking activities. But the quarrel derived stature from an epic rivalry in finance. It was waged between Joseph Nalle and George W. Brackenridge, foremost capitalist of San Antonio. Miscreants borrowed from it the color of civic implication for stark criminality. For months, there were few defendants in felonious-assault cases, either in San Antonio or Austin, who failed to plead entanglement in inter-community vengeance.
All this was mere poppycock to the City Marshal of Austin, who held himself aloof from mass movements of every sort. He was above everything an individualist. If any gangs came from another city to vent their spleen on Austin, he would welcome them in his own way. He made no other comment concerning San Antonio, though he did inquire at every opportunity about the operation of the Crystal Palace.
Mention of Joe Foster was to him like the scent of a quail to a bird hound. It brought him to the point.
“That’s the thief that ‘rolled’ me,” Thompson would snap in a venomous burst that contrasted startlingly with his habitual drawl. It was Foster who had repelled his charge of a crooked game as a “cheap try at welshing.”
And Joe Foster was still alive, the active symbol of the most devastating humiliation of Ben Thompson’s career. It was true that Billy Simms, the other partner of Jack Harris, remained one of the owners of the Crystal Palace, but Billy had been a protege of Ben Thompson before he moved to San Antonio and he had preserved his friendship with his former patron through all the blistering trials it suffered. He had promptly disavowed any share in the “gambling parlor” imbroglio and he had made his peace with Thompson after the murder of Jack Harris. So, the incurable canker in the soul of Ben Thompson festered anew at every mention of Joe Foster’s activities.
Twenty months passed. March 11, 1884, arrived.
Fisher was dapper and suave, with many of the manners and some of the apparel of a Parisian boulevardier. As a member of the notorious Bill Bruton gang, he had ranged up and down the Rio Grande, a veritable terror. Fifteen Mexicans were assigned by unofficial count to his “private graveyard.” The reputation thus gained for daring and marksmanship had commended him to the cattle barons of the Southwest for the task of cleaning out the lawless pillagers who infested the section.
Horse thieves and cattle rustlers with their cohorts had continually raided the long stretch from Castroville to the Rio Grande. Fisher drove them out. In the course of his campaign, several of the marauding interlopers moved too slowly or in the wrong direction. They joined the list of “necessary fatalities” in Fisher’s personal record.
So, the reunion of Ben Thompson and King Fisher did not make the social columns of the Austin Statesman. It was, however, the subject of animated gossip in other quarters. This was an ominous massing of potentialities for sudden tragedy. Still, there was no show of public agitation until the pair were seen boarding a train for San Antonio.
Then there was real alarm. Thompson and Fisher together represented a merger of lethal facilities calculated to make the heart of any peace-lover skip several beats even in an amiable social gathering. On a train bound for San Antonio the combination spelled the certainty of dire consequences. Hadn’t word come repeatedly that Thompson would be mobbed if he ever again set foot in the Alamo city? Even if the danger of a public uprising were exaggerated, was it possible that the mere presence of Ben Thompson in San Antonio, accompanied by one of the most widely known killers of the time, would fail to provoke a critical outburst of violence?
The good citizens of Austin were deeply disturbed. They owed a duty to law and order. Telegrams of warning were flashed to police officials and to important friends in San Antonio. Then, in chagrin and foreboding, Austin sat back to await the inevitable.
The ride to San Antonio—the trip required three hours—was a grotesque gambol. Thompson behaved like a schoolboy on a spree. His boisterous pranks kept the passengers in trepid turmoil. The chief butt of his antics was the Negro porter. Thompson slashed the darkey’s cap into droll shapes and forced him to march through the train wearing each ludicrous design. Indiscriminate badinage, frequent swigs at a whiskey bottle and gruff whoops to startle cowering travelers alternated with rougher capers.
Two tight-lipped men swung aboard the train before it halted. They sought out the conductor. Evidently he gave them good news because, when the Southwestern Flyer drew up at the station, they waved “the high sign”—the O. K. notice—to several waiting watchers. These were scouts detailed to report the arrival of Thompson, to trail him and to keep police headquarters advised of his actions.
The train conductor felt Thompson’s visit was not hostile. The City Marshal of Austin, he explained, was merely accompanying King Fisher to a performance of Lady Audley’s Secret at the Turner Hall Opera House on Houston Street. The play had been performed in the Austin Opera House the night before. As city marshal, Thompson collected the license fee exacted from theatrical troupes, and in the course of official duty he had met Ada Gray, the star.
He wanted to see the performance again and he wanted to present King Fisher to the leading lady. Perhaps he was flipping a sly jest at providence when he insisted that history would be incomplete without a meeting between the Beau Brummell of gunmen and the exquisite lady of the theatre. Thompson and Fisher did attend the play.
King Fisher never met Ada Gray. The omission was not fortuitous. It could have been explained by Tom Howard, manager of the opera house. Thompson and Fisher made frequent excursions from the auditorium to the adjoining bar. Howard was always at hand. Proposals for a back-stage visit were skilfully shunted off. It was with a sense of supreme deliverance that Howard bade the two men goodnight at the close of the performance.
One block south across the St. Mary’s Street bridge brought the swaggering pair to Commerce Street. Two blocks farther west was the Crystal Palace. Between St. Mary’s Street and Main Plaza were several saloons. As Thompson and Fisher made their way past, a figure detached itself from the bunch of loiterers in front of each resort and, stepping into the street behind the passing twain, wigwagged a signal.
Billy Simms was standing in front of the Crystal Palace. He greeted both Thompson and Fisher with the cordiality of a pleasantly astonished friend. The trio entered the saloon. John Dyer, the same bartender who had served Thompson on the tragic evening twenty months before, was again on duty. He exchanged grins with Ben. Thompson’s smile was tauntingly flippant. Dyer’s was plainly wry and nerve-taut.
Simms sparkled with persiflage. Dyer knew he was “putting on a play” and tried to help. His misplaced snickers of applause would have challenged the attention of an alert observer; but Thompson and Fisher seemed to have laid aside their characteristic vigilance.
Simms was unable to persuade the pair to join him on a jaunt “across the creek.” It was his purpose to lure them away from the arsenal of death-loaded malice in which they were dallying. “Across the creek” was the vernacular designation of the red-light district that lay west of San Pedro Creek. Simms believed he had offered the most alluring diversion he could conceive for the delectation of these visitors.
It was with real despair that he finally yielded to Thompson’s insistence on “seeing the show from the balcony.” Simms led the way upstairs, carefully threading a course as far as possible from that part of the house in which Joe Foster sat.
The Crystal Palace—which had come to be better known as Jack Harris’ Vaudeville—was of the conventional pattern of the variety theatres or honkytonks of that era. The lower part of the auditorium lay on a level with the downstairs bar. The orchestra or pit was filled with folding chairs cleated to movable planks. When the show closed, these seats and boards were slapped together and stacked on each side of the hall with the same celerity and precision that attends the striking of a circus tent. The operation uncovered a dance floor.
Overhead, on either side of the auditorium, stretching from the proscenium to the balcony balustrade, was a row of boxes with curtains adjustable at the will of the occupants. One could remain in complete seclusion in these draped stalls. In fact, they were engaged chiefly for pursuits that in more modern circles would have been described as petting parties. They were designed to facilitate the exercise of feminine suasion toward wine consumption. On the night of March 11, 1884, not one woman was in any of these boxes.
None of the occupants was visible to Ben Thompson or King Fisher from their positions in the balcony. But details as minute as Fisher’s tiny watch-fob or the cleft in Thompson’s chin were plainly discernible to anyone peering from behind the curtains. And each box was occupied.
The female members of the theatre staff were hired as actresses. Between turns on the stage they moved among the audience in short skirts and red stockings. It was their chore to capture the attention of sociable patrons and to intimate with more or less subtlety their readiness to accept a drink.
To many a callow rambler from the cattle ranges, these approaches were roseate bids to romance. A smitten cowhand “rode the herd hard” in the gilded hour of conquest and his tipple mounted quickly from beer to wine. With each drink the waiter handed the girl a brass check, token of her sales commission. There was no pretense of concealment. Yet this crude routine of commercialism seemed only to fan the flare of flirtation. In such moments, the curtained boxes were most desirable. Nevertheless, on this night they were rigorously forbidden to the “drink hustlers.”
Jacobo Coy had joined the party when Simms ushered Thompson and Fisher into the balcony. Still a member of the police force, he had become an attache of the Crystal Palace by special license. He stood at Thompson’s right.
Waiters moved back and forth serving whiskey to Thompson and Fisher. The point of snapping nerves was at hand for Simms when Ben finally decided to accept the invitation for “a run across the creek.” The party moved toward the head of the staircase leading downstairs. Halfway, Thompson halted.
“I want to see Joe Foster before I go,” he announced.
Instantly Simms abandoned his pose of nonchalance.
“Don’t do that, Ben,” he pleaded with genuine anguish in his voice. “It’s crazy. You know Joe doesn’t want to talk to you. He sent you word to keep away from him. Let us get out of here without trouble.”
The depth of Simms’s anxiety was dramatized by the simple word “us.” It linked him with Ben in a crisis involving his own partner.
Thompson was unmoved. “To hell with all that,” he growled. “I want to shake hands with Joe. I want to make up with him. Where is he?” And craning his neck, he sighted Foster near the front row of the balcony.
“Hello, Joe!” he called.
Foster arose. Adjusting his pince-nez he made his way toward the man who had hailed him, puckering his eyes intently as he approached.
At that moment, Thompson stood in the unobstructed vision of everyone in the theatre. Foster came almost within arm’s length of Ben before he recognized him. Coy moved closer to Thompson. Simms stepped back a pace. Fisher, standing beside Ben, seemed mildly amused. Neither noted that, except for Jacobo Coy, they were alone in the center of a space that a second before had been crowded.
Every eye in the balcony was riveted on that spot. There was none to detect the moving of the curtains in the boxes.
“Joe,” Thompson spoke in a tone of obviously affected friendliness, “I want to shake hands with you.”
Foster appeared cool and in complete mastery of himself. He answered in a firm voice: “Ben, I have told you that there is room enough in the world for both of us without our paths crossing and I will not shake hands with you.”
Thompson seemed to consider this for a moment. “Then come and take a drink with me,” he said, with an awkward effort at a smile.
“No,” Foster answered, “I will not drink with you, either.”
“Then take this!”
A revolver was in Thompson’s hand before the last word left his lips. It was a feat of legerdemain, but Jacobo Coy moved with almost equal quickness. A dozen other men, with tightened nerves, had been waiting for hours for that fateful instant. They acted as if by common command.
A fan of ribbed flame swept across the auditorium. A dozen bolts of fire resounded as one blast.
Thompson and Fisher went down as if felled by a single cleaver. Foster, though struck first, toppled a second later.
Fisher’s left leg crumpled under him and his head lay across Thompson’s chest. The desperado dandy died with empty hands.
Though Jacobo Coy had grabbed Thompson’s gun arm, he did not save Joe Foster’s life. Ben fired one shot. His aim was deflected by Coy’s tackle, but the bullet found fatal lodgment.
The triple tragedy passed into the legends of the Southwest, more frequently the theme of bitterly disputed details than the subject of righteous review. There were many to deplore the passing of King Fisher as sheer assassination. Uvalde County seethed with indignation over the ambuscade of its most picturesque citizen.
It was pointed out that before the fusillade had ceased to echo, City Marshal Shardein rushed into the theatre at the head of a police squad. Why, it was asked, did he happen to be waiting in front of the Crystal Palace with so large a force of men? How did he explain the smoking revolvers he saw in the hands of Jacobo Coy and Billy Simms? Why, when he took charge, did he permit all save a few selected witnesses to disappear?
Why was no autopsy held? Was the omission designed to hide the fact that Thompson had been riddled with seventeen bullets, that Fisher’s body showed a dozen mortal wounds, that both men had been shot through the left eye and that a half-dollar would have covered two punctures in Thompson’s heart?
Weren’t the theatre boxes reserved for men armed with carbines, asked the partisans of King Fisher? Didn’t all the circumstances prove that it was an ambush organized with such thoroughness that each man had been assigned the very spot on the victims’ heads and bodies at which to fire?
All these questions were disposed of by a brief editorial in the San Antonio Express. It served as the community’s answer to the critics of that day and of the years that followed. It appeared in the issue of March 12, 1884. It was headed: “A Good Night’s Work.”
It was the journalistic practice to play down stories of lawless violence. Reviewers of a succeeding generation would have found abundant warrant for charging the newspapers of that period with truckling to the advertiser. They represented “the vested interests”—the business circles and property-owners. They demanded a “soft pedal on desperadoism.”
All this was to preserve the bait for tourists and new settlers. Newcomers would not flock to a region where popping guns and slashing knives were the fashion. They must be coaxed with alluring pictures of the romantic hospitality of a people flourishing in a plenitude of nature. So, there was great applause for the advertiser’s arguments against newspaper emphasis of those incidents that “retarded substantial growth.” And if the publisher, in response, was more paternalistic than journalistic, it must be said in his behalf that his readers, in the main, approved his policy.
Perhaps there was a prevalence of editorial strabismus. It might be traced to overstudy of the advertiser’s meretricious philosophy. Adequate publicity would have incited public measures for sterner law enforcement. The repression of news contributed contrary effects. It was generally interpreted as reflecting a common acceptance of a policy of laissez faire. Thus, while the journalist substituted the role of the promoter for his duty as a publisher and salved his professional conscience with the spurious anodyne of “greater public service,” the gun and the knife of the desperado had continued to flash hourly contempt of the law. The press of the day, muffling its columns, muffed one of its greatest opportunities to serve the very purpose for which they were blunderingly muffled.
A condensed account of the murder of Jack Harris was presented by the San Antonio Express on the morning after the tragedy. It was relegated to the back page. In sharp contrast, several months later, was the Express’ extended description of Austin’s delirious jamboree welcoming Ben Thompson home. It apppeared on the first page under a “top head.”
No episode of several years had commanded such keen public attention as the wiping out of Ben Thompson and King Fisher. It was not the mere killing of two adventurers. It was a massacre of desperadoism. Full newspaper pages would have been devoured by avid readers. But on the day after the spectacular slaughter, the San Antonio Express dismissed the epic story with less than a column on the last page. The heading was: "Jack Harris Revenged.” And the Express was then, as it has continued to be through succeeding generations, the foremost morning paper of the section, with a faithful devotion to its readers’ interests.
While the classic chapter of news bestirred only a modicum of professional enterprise, it yielded to me the first inspiration for journalism. I sensed the call during the inquest conducted by Justice Anton Adam.
Again resting on my father’s shoulder, I sat in the window opening from the patio into Justice Adam’s courtroom. The scene was quite unlike the picture presented at the arraignment of Ben Thompson for Jack Harris’ murder. Afterward, it was explained that the permission for my presence was a sentimental concession to my share in that evening twenty months before.
There was a good deal of confusion to me in the fact that while the solemn proceedings concerned the same man, it was the nature of his absence that occasioned them. But I understood clearly that I was never again to see the big fellow who gave a whole bunch of bananas to the boy that had escaped a thrashing.
The men in the courtroom seemed altogether different. It was more than the change from gaslight to sunshine. These men., though very grave, were not at all nervous. They were extremely quiet, as if eager not to miss a word spoken by each of the men who swore to tell the truth.
As the procession of witnesses moved in and out of the chair to which they were led, a young man in a loose white shirt, with sandy hair and a wee yellow mustache, asked their names, where they lived, how old they were and what they did for a living; and he wrote it all down. He was scarcely more than a boy, but he seemed to be the only person in the courtroom with work to do.
Justice Adam told each witness when he might leave his chair, but it was the blond young man who asked them to repeat words and sentences. There was another man who put questions to the witnesses, but no one except the boy with the little mustache seemed to have the right to stop what was going on whenever he wanted to.
It was very puzzling. How could a young fellow, only half the age of anyone else in the room, be so important?
“That’s John R. Lunsford,” my father explained. “He’s a newspaper reporter. He works on the Light."
There was never again any doubt in my mind as to what I would be when I grew up. Other boys could dream of being policemen, circus clowns, drum majors, firemen, broncho-busters, Indian scouts, street-car conductors and even calliope players; but all those seemed foolish beside a newspaper reporter.
Years later, when Lunsford was a star on a metropolitan newspaper staff of which I was city editor, I learned the real inwardness of his extraordinary activity that day in the courtroom in Veramendi Alley. Justice Anton Adam had no clerical staff. Ordinarily, he acted as his own clerk, transcribing in script such minutes as he deemed necessary. But the inquest into the killing of Ben Thompson and King Fisher was fraught with so many political and other complications that he wanted a more comprehensive record than his own memory might assure. Lunsford was present to report the hearing for his newspaper. Justice Adam delegated him to set down the testimony for the official records.
So, it was the functioning of a recording clerk instead of a newspaper reporter that captivated my juvenile enthusiasm for journalism.
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