The days of the old frontier produced men whose legend grew bigger than the dusty plains. In those wild years where the West was still growing, who was in the right in the eyes of the law was often decided by who had the fastest gun. One of the most notorious figures of South Texas in this era was King Fisher, a man who crowned himself the head of a cattle-theft ring and eventually became a lawman himself.
John King Fisher was born on his parents’ farm in Collin County in 1854. He knew much loss early in his life. His mother died when he was only two years old, and his stepmother died only a few years after that. The hardships of the years after the Civil War forced the family to move to Williamson County, just north of Austin, where his father still had family.
By the time he was 15, he ran afoul of the law. In two separate incidents just weeks apart, he was arrested on charges of horse theft. In 1870, he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison but only served four months. After his release, he fell into a gang of cattle rustlers and gunslingers in the Rio Grande Valley. He learned their ways quickly and began dressing in flamboyant outfits and going by the name “King.”
He soon took over his own gang, killing three Mexican men leading their own horse theft ring in the area. He soon built a network of hundreds of men dealing a brisk trade in stolen livestock. Before long, he owned his own ranch and routinely traded with such men as future Mexican President Porfirio Diaz in trading stolen cattle and gunning down anyone who stood in his way.
Fisher was known for his ruthlessness and his quick draw. Reportedly, he once said, “Fair play is a jewel. And I don’t care for jewelry.” Texas Rangers attempted to break up his criminal empire in 1876 and 1877, but local sheriffs refused to cooperate, making legal cases all but impossible. By 1877, he had been indicted for murder six times and for horse theft twice. Each charge was ultimately dismissed.
He married in 1876 and soon had four daughters. His life shifted dramatically as a result. By 1881, Uvalde County officials were anxious to get the area under control and hired him as a deputy. In spite of his shady reputation and previous criminal conviction, Fisher was respected and popular in the area. And the thinking was that there was no one better to out-think or out-shoot a criminal than Fisher himself. He was noted for his efficiency and dedication. By 1883, he was acting sheriff and looked to run for the position in the 1884 election.
On March 11, 1884, he went to a vaudeville theater in San Antonio with his friend Ben Thompson. Thompson himself had a notorious reputation. He had previously served as the city marshal of Austin until an incident in San Antonio in 1882. An argument over a card game with Jack Harris, who owned the vaudeville theater, erupted into a gunfight in which Thompson shot and killed Harris. Thompson resigned and was acquitted of murder.
Now the two gunmen strolled into the theater. Presumably the two were there to enjoy the show, but San Antonio was far from home for both. They had both made enemies in the city, but the two were skilled enough with the gun that enemies were never a problem for long. The two went to find their seats in a balcony section with one of the owners, a former partner of Harris, Joe Foster, and a local law officer, Jacob Coy. But trouble found them first.
As they went to sit, Fisher and Thompson were shot down in a blaze of gunfire from another balcony section. Fisher was hit by 13 bullets. Fisher pulled his gun and shot Coy, severely wounding him. As Fisher fired with his dying strength, Billy Simms, a theater owner, pulled his own gun and shot himself in the leg, dying days later. Fisher and Thompson died at the scene.
In the aftermath, a Bexar County coroner’s jury ruled that the deaths of Fisher and Thompson were a result of self-defense. The entire details of the ambush were never made clear, and San Antonio police were anxious to drop the matter. Fisher has been portrayed in television and movies in the years since. Like many characters of the Old West who lived by their wits and the speed of the draw, he left behind little and faded into legend.
Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Amarillo Globe-News: Bridges writes of John King Fisher, cattle thief and Texas lawman