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THOMPSON, WILLIAM [BILLY]

William Thompson (1845–1897).
Outlaw Billy Thompson. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

THOMPSON, WILLIAM [BILLY] (1845–1897). William “Billy” Thompson, notorious gambler and outlaw, was born in Knottingley, Yorkshire, England, on August 28, 1845. He was the son of William and Mary Ann (Baker) Thompson. Thompson and his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Austin in the early 1850s. When the Civil War began he volunteered for the Confederate army alongside his older brother Ben Thompson and served in the Second Texas Calvary

On March 31, 1868, Thompson shot and killed William Burke, chief clerk in the U. S. Adjutant General’s Office, in Austin, Texas, after a drunken altercation. Thompson went into hiding, but two months later in Rockport, Texas, he was involved in another altercation when Remus Smith, an eighteen-year-old stable hand, slapped Billy’s horse. Thompson shot Smith and once again went on the run after an Aransas County grand jury issued a warrant for first-degree murder. In 1873 Billy Thompson checked into the Grand Central Hotel in the cattle town of Ellsworth, Kansas, and was soon joined by his brother Ben Thompson. The Thompson brothers became in-house gamblers at Brennan’s Saloon. Around this time Billy Thompson married Elizabeth “Libby” Haley, a dance hall girl and prostitute. 

On August 15, 1873, Ben Thompson got into an argument over the profits of a high stakes game of monte at Brennan’s Saloon and a fight ensued. Local sheriff Chauncey Whitney, a friend of the Thompson brothers, tried to stop the fight but lost his life when Billy accidentally discharged his weapon. Billy left Ellsworth immediately after at the request of his brother, and a $500 reward was offered to anyone who captured him. Between 1874 and 1876 Thompson had several run-ins with the law and either evaded or escaped imprisonment. Two years later, in October 1876, during an unrelated incident over cattle rustling, Capt. John Sparks of the Texas Rangers captured Billy Thompson in Travis County, Texas. Thompson was extradited to Kansas for the killing of Whitney but was acquitted after the shooting was deemed an accident. 

Due to poor communications and confusion between law enforcement groups, Thompson was released without having to face extradition for the murder of Remus Smith in Rockport, Texas. In 1882 Texas Ranger Capt. George W. Baylor arrested Thompson in El Paso for the Smith murder. He was held in El Paso County jail and was to be extradited to Rockport, but while awaiting extradition, he convinced his guard, who was an old acquaintance, to let him have one night of freedom and promised to return before sunrise. Unsurprisingly, Thompson never returned and again went on the run until he was spotted in Arkansas. An Aransas County court issued paperwork for extradition and an Aransas County sheriff went to Arkansas and arrested Thompson. Thompson was returned to Aransas County on May 10, 1883, and faced charges of murder. On December 11, 1883, Thompson stood trial. Since the case was so old, with many witnesses either having left or died in the years prior to the trial, the prosecution could not prove the murder. Thompson was found innocent and did not have a warrant for his arrest for the first time in almost two decades. 

On September 6, 1884, Billy’s older brother Ben was shot and killed in San Antonio, and many speculated that Billy would seek revenge. He did not retaliate, however, and lived out the rest of his life roaming and continuing to gamble until a stomach ailment caused him to die on September 6, 1897, in St. Joseph’s infirmary in Houston, Texas. Thompson left behind his wife and several children. He was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Bastrop, Texas.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Tom Bicknell, “Whatever Became of Texas Billy Thompson,” Knottingley and Ferrybridge Online (http://www.knottingley.org/history/billy_thompson.htm), accessed November 1, 2016. Houston Daily Post, September 8, 1897. Leon Claire Metz, The Encyclopedia of Lawman, Outlaws, and Gunfighters (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2003). “William ‘Billy’ Thompson,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=32173337), accessed May 24, 2017.

Joseph Hancock

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Handbook of Texas Online, Joseph Hancock, "Thompson, William [Billy] ," accessed October 23, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fthom.

Uploaded on May 30, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.