Thompson-Sterling shootout

Dakota Livesay

Sometimes, when liquor is flowing freely and boredom reigns, as we shall see, friends turn on friends.

It was the summer of 1873 in Ellsworth, Kansas. The temperatures were in the 90s. A lack of buyers was causing the cattle to pile up. And since the drovers had to stick around until they were sold, the taverns were packed with bored cowboys.

Ben Thompson and his brother Billy were in town. Ben had already developed a reputation as a gambler, gunman and general hard-case. And his “no good” brother was even worse.

On Aug. 15, 1873, Ben financed John Sterling in a high-stakes monte game on a 50-50 split of the winnings. Sterling won about a thousand dollars. Not anxious to split the winnings, he avoided Ben.

Later, Ben Thompson found Sterling. An argument ensued in which Ben was hit and left.

Later Ben encountered Sterling again. This time Sterling was with a no-good policeman named John Morco. They invited Ben to have at it. Ben went to get his pistol. Ben’s brother, Billy, joined the fight. Billy was so drunk that he accidentally discharged one barrel of his shotgun, narrowly missing bystanders.

As the fight started heating up, Sheriff Whitney, a close friend of the Thompson’s, showed up. Billy pointed the shotgun at Whitney. Whitney cried out, “Don’t shoot.” But it was too late. Ben immediately got his brother out of town. A dying Sheriff Whitney said, “he did not intend to do it, it was an accident, send for my family.”

Four years later Billy Thompson was arrested in Texas and returned to Ellsworth for trial. He was acquitted by a jury that some say was bribed. I would like to say that the killing of Sheriff Whitney lay heavy on the conscience of Billy Thompson, but then that’s going under the assumption that Billy even had a conscience.

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