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
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.
Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/
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
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.
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
10, 2012 column
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