Thursday, April 13, 2017
King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 1 Part 2
King News by Moses KoenigsbergPublished by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
Murder with a Carom Shot (continued)link to previous installment link to next installment
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 their numbers.
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 Main Plaza.
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 lawyer.
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 of court.”
“What do you mean ?” asked Shardein.
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.
“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 conversations.
“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 confinement.
“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 positions.”
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 dispersing.
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.
“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 desperadoes.
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.”
“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 financial mess.”
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
Chapter 1, Part 3 next week link to previous installment link to next installment
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