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Did Wyatt Earp Arrest Ben Thompson In Ellsworth In 1873?

By Gary Roberts

 

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The case AGAINST Earp’s arresting Thompson is the easiest to make. In fact, it is almost a no-brainer. There is no reference to Wyatt Earp in the Ellsworth Reporter's account, in the record of Judge Osborne’s police court, Dr. Duck’s coroner’s report, the coroner’s inquest on Sheriff Whitney, in the testimony at Billy Thompson’s trial for the murder of Whitney in 1877, in Ben Thompson’s authorized biography by Col.Walton, or in any other known source contemporary with the events. In fact, there appears to be no published reference to Earp’s role until the publication of Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal in 1931. Pretty compelling, huh?

 

Well, maybe. The most damaging words in the whole public record of the affair are the words from the Reporter that Deputy Sheriff Hogue “received the arms” of Ben Thompson. The problem is, as researcher Bill McVey pointed out to Bob Mullin in July, 1953, that the one who covered the story admitted that he was not sure of the facts. Ned Huycke, editor of the Reporter in the 1940s and 1950s told McVey that John Montgomery, who was editor at the time of the Whitney killing, told him that “he did not know if Wyatt Earp was in Ellsworth on August 18, 1873. He said the people were excited, and it was hard to get the facts.” Indeed, in the Reporter's account, the writer says: “the important points will PROBABLY [emphasis added] agree with the following particulars.”

 

What is most disappointing is that so far we have no press coverage of the incident independent of the Reporter's version–that I’ve found at least. Another problem is that the only other primary source which describes the surrender of Ben Thompson–Ben’s own account in Walton–depicts Hogue in very negative terms and makes the case that he had worked everything out with Mayor Miller to surrender his arms. He says that Hogue arrived on the scene late and unarmed. Here is Ben’s account: “The mayor, Mr. Miller, appeared…. He had been given an exaggerated account of the circumstances, and was disposed to go right over me, but the Henry rifle soon brought him to his senses, and he stood along by the side of Hogue and others. I then said to him: ‘Mr. Mayor, I respect, you and am inclined to surrender to you, but before doing so, must have your word of honor that no mob shall in any way interfere with me, and besides Happy Jack and Hogue must be disarmed, or rather the first must be disarmed, and the other not permitted to resume his….If you will go and disarm Happy Jack, and declare to me that Hogue shall not again be armed, until the law has dealt with me, I will surrender.’ He at once agreed to this proposition, and Larkin [see below for more comments about Larkin, the manager of the Grand Central Hotel]satisfying the mayor that I would stand, and at an agreed moment surrender, they went off together to disarm Happy Jack. Hogue and his two cubs in the meantime being in a sort of ‘pound’ which I surrounded with my Henry rifle. . . .When he [the mayor]gave the assurances I required I willingly surrendered, knowing that the law could not and would not touch me, so far as the death of Sheriff Whitney was concerned.” He makes no further mention of Hogue until he describes Hogue’s attack on his attorney at the hearing which followed.

 

Now obviously this account is somewhat self-serving. Stuart Lake says, and I’m not sure based on what, that Hogue was out of town when the shooting occurred and returned only as the standoff was ending, in other words, in time to escort Ben to Justice Osborne’s court after the situation was basically resolved. The phrase “received the arms” has always bothered me. The paper did not say that Hogue disarmed Ben or that Ben surrendered his arms to Hogue. The choice of words seems to imply something else. Indeed, if Ben insisted that Hogue be disarmed prior to his surrender, it is illogical to assume that Ben would have handed over his guns to the man he so obviously distrusted.

 

The records of the Whitney inquest, Osborne’s court docket, and the Ellsworth city council minutes do not help. NOR IS THAT SURPRISING. The inquest was about what Billy did, not Ben. Osborne’s docket would not have recorded an arresting officer unless he was an official policeman of the town. The city council minutes are about the dismissal of the police force and the replacement of the police force. The mechanics of Ben’s arrest were irrelevant to the proceedings. Furthermore, given Lake’s account of what happened, that Wyatt was given a badge on the spur of the moment and that he refused to take a proffered job as police officer, there was no reason for Earp’s name to appear in ANY of these records, since Miller’s offer was not a part of the council’s proceedings and since Earp refused the appointment.

 

Billy Thompson’s trial in 1877 was similarly about his killing of Whitney, not about Ben’s standing off the town. The only reference to Ben’s actions are found in his deposition of July 10, 1877: “I waited fully an hour at the Grand Central Hotel after my brother left Ellsworth for the purpose of surrendering myself to the mayor as soon as he could have Happy Jack, Sterling, and others disarmed.” Furthermore, key witnesses that might have provided detail did not appear. Hogue, for example, was in the Black Hills and did not appear. Wyatt apparently was not supoenaed. Wyatt returned to Dodge from Texas in July, 1877, but as a transient, whose whereabouts might not have been known by Ellsworth officials. Was he not supoenaed because he was not a witness? Or because his testimony was not relevant to the sheriff’s murder? Or because no one knew where to find him?

 

So far, this seems pretty convincing that Earp was not involved. Right? It is easy to see why Floyd Benjamin Streeter and others would conclude that Earp played no role. But denying Earp’s involvement IN SOME CAPACITY is based on a negative: He is not mentioned in the official record.

 

A couple of general points are worth noting before presenting the case for an Earp involvement. Remember, first, that THERE WAS NO REASON FOR WYATT EARP TO BE MENTIONED IN ANY OF THE OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS. The focus was the death of Sheriff Whitney, the processing of Ben’s arrest, and the firing and hiring of the city’s police force. (By the way, it is worth noting that Deputy Sheriff Hogue is not mentioned in the council minutes either.)Second, Earp’s role as told by Lake is so compelling that we automatically assume it would have been newsworthy, but the truth is that the newspaper’s focus was not on one man’s heroics but on the resolution of a crisis in the street. It is well to remember that Ellsworth was a powder keg that summer. The Ira Lloyd diary is critical for understanding the tensions between the townsfolk, the Texans, and the police force. Lloyd, who was an attorney, suggests that the townspeople were frightened of the police force and wary of the Texans. He specifically mentions the failure of the police force when Whitney was killed, though he does not go into detail about the episode, unfortunately. Given these facts, the newspaper, not wishing to exacerbate the situation, pretty much handled the situation with kid gloves. Third, and perhaps most importantly, as Don Russell observed to the Chicago Westerners following William McVey’s presentation to that group in 1953, “newspapers of that period had not yet adopted the theory of putting local news first and sometimes saw no point in telling a story that everyone already knew about.” He might have added that in the cowtowns, newspapers sometimes deliberately played down violent stories. This one had to be faced, and with indignation, but the author of the article did not dwell on the details of Ben’s arrest/surrender.

 

Okay, let’s start with Stuart Lake. Lake’s dramatic account of a high noon style face down is almost certainly embellished. He always kept to his guns on the topic though. The most useful item, and the closest thing to a real defense of his position that Lake makes, is found in a letter to Rober N. Mullin, August 17, 1953, in which Lake makes the following points: (1) He first learned of the Ellsworth episode from Bat Masterson while Bat was working for the New York Morning Telegraph (he told Mrs. Masterson he learned of documents Bat had when he knew Bat between 1912 and 1914); (2) Charles Hatton, John Madden, and Ham Bell (all old timers who knew Earp)knew about Wyatt’s role in the affair; (3) He said he “had quite a collection of letters from Ellsworth;” (4) Mrs. Masterson sent him a “bunch of letters to Bat from old timers” and an old copybook of Bat’s. In that copybook, he said, “I found Bat’s account of the Ben Thompson story,” adding, “I used it verbatim [in Frontier Marshal]. “Of the Ellsworth episode,” he wrote Mullin, “I took no man’s unsupported word for anything, not even Wyatt’s.” It might be worth mentioning that Lake and Mullin had a close friendship that lasted as long as both of them lived.

 

Perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence is Lake’s letter to Wyatt on his investigation of the Ben Thompson episode. At one point he writes: “The little Ellsworth paper of that time gives the story of the Whitney killing exactly in accordance with your memory, EVEN INCLUDING THE SHOT WHICH CLIPPED THE DOOR CASING [remember this; we'll come back to it]. Two things are obvious here: Wyatt gave Lake an account of what happened, and Lake believed it.

 

In the Cason Manuscript, Sadie Earp gave a description of the Ben Thompson story as well (contrary to what is said in I Married Wyatt Earp). Of course, it was post-Lake and could be dismissed as derivative of Lake. What is interesting though, is that her account differs from Lake on several points. At her hands, the arrest of Thompson is much more matter of fact than in Lake’s account. But one of the most interesting passages in the Cason is Sadie’s description of meeting Ben Thompson later on, in which she says she was surprised at Ben’s demeanor (his friendliness with Wyatt) and she pondered the Ellsworth situation in her mind at the time in light of her impressions of Thompson. Josephine also wrote a letter to an unnamed author who had questioned Wyatt’s arrest of Ben Thompson in a magazine article. Unfortunately, she addresses him as “Dear Sir” and does not identify the magazine. But she was angry. “Fortunately, there are persons living here in California who were present at Elsworth [sic] at the disarming of Ben Thompson. Their version of the affair differs from your explanation of the magazine article and they have condemned you for your utterances; it being their opinion that you are in search of a little personal publicity. . . .” She went on to demand a retraction because “so many have come forward in defense of Mr. Earp.”

 

George Jelinek was a local historian in Ellsworth who bought Lake’s version of the story. He told me in a letter in 1970 “locally we have no proof except tales told by old timers.” He mentioned specifically that one Charles Larkin “remembered seeing Wyatt Earp in Ellsworth.” Larkin was the son of A. Larkin who was the manager of the Grand Central Hotel in Ellsworth in 1873, and who was the individual Thompson mentioned as vouching for him on that fateful day [see part one]. Charlie Larkin always insisted that his father told him on several occasions that Wyatt backed Thompson down in front of the Grand Central. Since Jelinek did not meet Larkin until after Lake’s book was published, logically some will argue that Larkin’s account was derivative of Lake. Jelinek inherited Larkin’s library after Charlie died in 1948, and he reported that Lake’s book was not among Larkin’s books. Jelinek’s conclusion: “So from the type of literature that he read, one could assume that he had not read Lake.” That is a logical leap I wouldn’t place much faith in, but it should be mentioned.

 

An article published in 1958 in the Denver Post reported that when the old Grand Central Hotel caught on fire that year, Jelinek “rushed into the smoke and flames to rescue the old guest and cattle registers.” According to those accounts, the hotel register included Wyatt Earp’s signature, as well as the signature of the Thompsons and other frontier notables. Jelinek himself is authority for the statement that Larkin had the registers, and he claimed that Larkin had pasted the signatures of Earp and Thompson and others “on the base of a lamp as a show piece, which was later stolen from the Larkin home.” Some of the records of the hotel are now at the Kansas State Historical Society.

 

William D. McVey prepared a presentation for the Chicago Westerners which was later published in the Chicago Westerners Brand Book (November 1953). He included much material from Larkin. He was the man who also interviewed Ned Huycke from the Ellsworth Reporter, who told him the former editor had said “it was hard to get the facts” about the affair at the time. Samuel Crumbine, the Dodge City physician and author of Frontier Doctor, also wrote McVey: “I have no objection to you including my name in your list of people who really believe the story of Lake that Earp did arrest Ben Thompson in Ellsworth, Kansas at the time he said he did. I never had the least doubt about it.”

 

Finally, in doing research for Life Behind the Legend, Casey Tefertiller located the reminiscences of William Box Hancock in which he matter of factly says that Earp arrested Thompson and put him in jail. He apparently had heard the story from other drovers. (Another aside: One of the problems with doing cowtown history is that very few of the cowboys ever wrote anything down about their adventures in Kansas or their opinions of cow camp peace officers).

 

My conclusions are as follows:

 

First, Wyatt Earp was in Ellsworth on August 18, 1873, and witnessed the events that transpired there. Wyatt’s knowledge of details such as the bullet hole in the door casing (remember that) makes it almost certain that he was there, and the published reports that his name was on the hotel register makes it even more likely that he was present.

 

Second, Stuart Lake heard about Wyatt’s role in the affair from someone other than Wyatt Earp. While he doubtlessly embellished the account, the root story was told to him by someone and he consistently credited Masterson as the source. The available correspondence in the Lake Collection at the Huntington Library makes it clear that Lake was convinced of Earp’s role in the surrender of Thompson and Jelinek was similarly steadfast in sticking to the story, even after Streeter and others challenged it.

 

Third, I believe Earp may well have played a role in defusing the situation. It probably was not as melodramatic as Lake or even Sadie portrayed it. It could have been something as simple as Wyatt speaking to Thompson and suggesting to him that Billy was safely out of town and it would serve no purpose for him to hold out longer. Thompson’s fears (and rightly so)were of the city police (who were actually more afraid of him), and once they were disarmed, he had no further reason to hold out. Nothing dramatic. No walk down confrontation. Just a comment of the sort that was unlikely to be reported in a newspaper that wasn’t sure of its story and had its own fears of the police, but, at the same time, the kind of act that, in light of Thompson’s reputation, might have been remembered by eyewitnesses as a nervy act.

 

Fourth, the absence of a reference to Wyatt in the relevant court, county, and city records is explained simply by the fact that he was not acting in an official capacity. There was no reason to mention him in the documents. Ben’s recollections, not the documents, offer the most compelling case against Wyatt’s involvement, and he may well have thought that Wyatt’s admonitions were not important enough to include or that he wanted to portray himself as in control of the situation.

 

BOTTOM LINE: I can’t prove it conclusively, but I am convinced that Wyatt Earp was present and that he MAY have played a role in Ben’s decision to end his standoff. I’m still searching for proof, one way or the other. I might add that until a few years ago, I believed that Earp’s part in the affair was a fantasy. Now, I think the evidence that he was present as an eyewitness is compelling, and I SUSPECT he played some role in what transpired. Much of the case is weak, and there’s too much hearsay to say with authority exactly what happened, but there is too much of an accumulation to dismiss the story out of hand.

 

The standards of historical research are demanding, and they are stretched in this story, but remember that the absence of evidence is never proof that something did not happen. The historical record is sketchy at best, and events that you and I, as determined students of the Old West, finding compelling and important, were not necessarily seen in the same light at the time they occurred. Many of details you and I would most like to know simply slipped into the cracks or went unnoticed in a public press put off by some of these episodes. It is clear that some cowtown papers, Wichita for example, made it editorial policy to play down violent incidents. They ignored some altogether, and others they passed off simply by saying something like “There was a row at the bridge Saturday night. No one was hurt.” The participants in that “row” might tell it real “skeery” in their recollections–and even accurately–while you and I will never be able to PROVE it happened from contemporary sources. I’ve plowed this ground a long time and getting a feel for the attitudes of the times have modified my approach. Can I prove Wyatt Earp arrested Ben Thompson? No. Not yet. But I’d say the case is still open.

 

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: Since the above item was written and posted in the Archive, researcher Roger Myers has reviewed the registers of the Grand Central Hotel, now housed at the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, and determined that Wyatt Earp’s signature does not appear in them.

 

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