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  • Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

    BEN THOMPSON’S TOMBSTONE

    by C. F. Eckhardt
    When the old Iron Front Saloon on Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas was torn down in the 1920s, a most peculiar object was found in the basement. It was a fine marble tombstone—but there was no inscription on it.

    The Iron Front was once the property of Ben Thompson, a very dangerous man. He was a gunfighter, he was known to have a very short fuze, and the more he had to drink, the shorter that fuze got. Strangely, he also had a sense of humor.
    Austin TX - Congress Ave., old post card
    Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas
    Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/
    A tombstone salesman named Luke Watts happened to be in Austin. Watts was a talented stonecutter. When he sold a tombstone he would often carve the name, dates of birth and death, and an epitaph suggested by the family, to be included in the price of the stone.

    Watts had done quite well in New Braunfels, San Marcos, and Austin, and he had a fair-sized roll in his pocket. Apparently the money was burning a hole in his pocket, so he came to the Iron Front to play poker. One of the players that night was Ben Thompson himself. Thompson was kidding Watts about making his money off dead people. Watts told Thompson there was a definite possibility he might die suddenly and Watts might not be available to sell the family a stone and carve it. He suggested Thompson buy a stone. Thompson replied that all he needed was a wooden board.

    Watts was not as good a poker player as he thought he was, and sometime after midnight he announced that he was cleaned out and was leaving the game. Thompson asked him how much his tombstones were worth. “It depends on what kind it is,” Watts replied.

    Thompson said he wanted the best tombstone Watts had. Watts told him he had a fine marble stone that was worth $200. Thompson told him to bring it up and put it in the game. Thompson would accept it in lieu of $200 cash. The game began again and Thompson won the tombstone. Watts suggested that he carve at least Thompson’s name and date of birth on it, but Thompson said no. The stone sat in the poker room in the Iron Front for a few months, until Thompson ordered it moved to the basement.

    Ben Thompson was ambushed and murdered in Jack Harris’s old saloon in San Antonio, along with John King Fisher. His body was returned to Austin. He was buried in Oakwood cemetery—but as of 1925 his grave still had not been marked. His tombstone remained in the basement of the Iron Front Saloon until it was demolished. Whether or not the tombstone Ben won that night now sits above his grave I don’t know.

    © C. F. Eckhardt
    March 10, 2012 column
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  • Ben Thompson’s Pistol by Mike Cox
    Whatever became of Ben Thompson’s six-shooter? Thompson, a British-born former Texas Ranger and soldier of fortune with a penchant for booze and gambling, made quite a reputation as city marshal of Austin in the early 1880s... more
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