Monday, April 2, 2012

Clay Allison - The Original Shootist

Clay Allison was the first to coin the term, "Shootist." And yes indeed, he once said, "I never killed a man who didn't need killing."

Some say he was an Outlaw, some say a Gunfighter, some say he was half-Devil and half Avenging Angel. He was for fact a killer, who believed that the Justice System didn't work and more than once lead a mob to take the law into their own hands. He certainly had his own idea of justice, and it had nothing to do with "Due Process."

Clay Allison was born Robert Andrew Clay Allison on September 2nd, 1840 in Waynesboro, Tennessee. He died on July 3rd, 1887. While alive, he would become famous as a killer of men.

Clay Allison was the fourth of nine children of John and Nancy (Lemmond) Allison. His father was a Presbyterian Minister who also raised cattle and sheep on a family farm. It's said that at some point in his childhood he received a blow to the head that is said to have left a depression in his skull. This may explain why he suffered from mood swings and had a very short temper that only got worse the older. And although Clay was known to be moody and wild as a kid, he stayed around and worked the family farm near Waynesboro, Tennessee, until the outbreak of the Civil War.

On October 15th, 1861, when Clay was 21 years old, he enlisted in the Confederate States Army in Captain W. H. Jackson's Artillery Battery. But almost immediately after enlisting, Clay Allison had problems. He wasn't in the Confederate Army very long because three months after enlisting he was medically discharged because he supposedly had a head injury. Actually, according to records, his discharge was because he was "Incapable of performing the duties of a soldier because of a blow received many years ago. Emotional or physical excitement produces paroxymals of a mixed character, partly epileptic and partly maniacal."

Some say he wasn't emotionally unstable. In fact, there's some that say of some sort of injury, he was medically discharged because of run- ins with superior officers and outbursts of what looked like uncontrollable rage. This made some assume his thinking was off and had him discharged. But it really didn't matter, fact is that the maniacal Clay Allison didn't let a discharge due to emotional instability stop him from joining the fight on the side of the South.

On September 22, 1862, Allison enlisted in the 9th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment, where he served under Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Allison is said to have served bravely and without fear the whole time. He was actually said to be well respected for being a good soldier.

At the end of the war, Allison surrendered with Nathan Bedford Forrest on May 4, 1865 at Gainesville, Alabama. After briefly being held as a prisoner of war, Allison and the others were paroled on May 10th and allowed to return home. Of course, Nathan Bedford Forrest is known as having served as the very first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. For folks who don't know, the Ku Klux Klan started as a secret organization by the Democrat Party in the South right after the war.

The Klan was set up to terrorize anything not a part of the Democratic Party, They went after Freed Slaves and Union Negros, Northern businessmen who had moved to the postwar South commonly known as "Carpet Baggers," Federal government administrators there during the Martial law years, and other Southerners who supported the Union during the war those known as "Unionists." And since Democrats started and lost the war in the South, it's a historical fact that Republicans of any sort were also targeted by the KKK during the Reconstruction Era and many years after that in the South. Republican administrators sent South during the Reconstruction Era were all targets and many were killed.

After the war, once back home in Tennessee, Clay Allison joined the Ku Klux Klan and soon was involved in several violent confrontations. Legend says when a Corporal from the 3rd Illinois Cavalry Regiment arrived at the Allison family's farm with intention of seizing it, after a rude confrontation and the breaking of his mother's vase which was an anniversary present from his father Clay Allison took a rifle from the house and killed him.

Legends about some of the famous, or infamous, are tough to prove. But to me, killing that Corporal sounds like something Clay Allison would have done without hesitation. Whether it was that incident or another, soon Clay Allison, along with his brothers Monroe and John, and his sister Mary and her husband Lewis Coleman, all moved to Texas to settle. He moved to the Brazos River country in Texas.

At a Red River crossing near Denison where he beat the tar out of ferryman Zachary Colbert in a fist fight. Allison had beaten Colbert because he tried to overcharge Allison for the ferry across the Brazos River. This incident was the match that started a feud between Allison and the Colbert family.

By 1866, in the cattle country of Texas, Allison seemed to settle down and all for practical purposes became an excellent cowhand while learning to ranch. During that time he met up with Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving and is said to have rode with them as they began their famous Goodnight-Loving Trail that expanded through Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

In 1870, Allison went to work for M.L. Dalton and Isaac Lacy, two cattle ranchers who were also legends in their own time. All Allison wanted in payment was three hundred head of cattle, enough to start his own ranch in Colfax County, New Mexico Territory, a town called Cimarron.

"I have at all times tried to use my influence toward protecting the property holders and substantial men of the country from thieves, outlaws and murderers, among whom I do not care to be classed," said Clay Allison in response to a Missouri newspaper which reported him with fifteen killings under his belt.

On October 7, 1870, Clay Allison showed the citizens of Elizabethtown, New Mexico, just how mean he could get. On that day, the panicked wife of a rancher by the name of Charles Kennedy came to Allison telling him that Kennedy had gone mad and was on a killing rampage.

Charles Kennedy had gone mad and murdered several strangers and his own daughter. Allison became enraged. Gathering a mob together, he led them out to the Kennedy ranch. When they got there, they found a very drunk owner of the ranch. To Allison's surprise there were no signs of foul play, but that didn't matter. Allison and the mob was worked up to the point where they grabbed the drunk Kennedy and hauled him off to the Elizabethtown jail.

Meanwhile back at the Kennedy ranch, others who stayed behind at the Kennedy house to search for victims had found the bodies of those Charles Kennedy had killed. Among the victim was Kennedy's own daughter. 

When Allison found out that Kennedy was a child-killer, it's said that he immediately became concerned that the rancher would have enough money to buy his freedom. In those days, it wasn't completely uncommon to get a high priced lawyer and maybe contribute to a judge's re-election fund as a way of getting away with murder. OK, so maybe times haven't changed all that much.

Allison and the mob became worked up again, and before you knew it, they burst into the jail where Kennedy was being held. They supposedly knocked the deputies unconscious, but I think the deputies stepped aside when the mob surprised them.

The mob took Kennedy, who was not as drunk as he was and was now kicking and screaming for help, and led him over to the local slaughterhouse. There they lynched Charles Kennedy.

But wait, Allison wasn't done yet. He not only lynched Charles Kennedy, but Allison decided to decapitate the corpse. Legend has it that he then rode the twenty-nine miles to Cimarron with Kennedy's head on a stick.

As I said before, Clay Allison had a different idea of "Due Process." The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution each contain a "Due Process Clause." The Supreme Court of the United States interprets the Due Process Clauses as being the mechanism that provides Americans with four protections: The first being procedural due process in civil and criminal proceedings, the second substantive due process, the third is a prohibition against vague laws, and the last as as a vehicle for the incorporation of our protections by way of the Bill of Rights.

Due Process is the legal requirement that the state must respect all of the legal rights that are owed to a person. Due process balances the power of law of the land and protects individual persons from it. Clay Allison didn't give a damn about the law of the land unless it worked for him.

It is said that Allison displayed Kennedy's severed head in Lambert's Saloon. But some say that Lambert's saloon wasn't built yet, so who knows what he did with Kennedy's head. If you're thinking it, yes indeed, Clay Allison was one bad hombre!

On January 7, 1874, his feud with the Colbert's come to a head in Colfax County, New Mexico. Ferryman Zachary Colbert, who he had beat unconscious, had a real bad hombre for a nephew by the name of Chunk Colbert. Uncle Zachary sent for him to get even with Clay Allison. Uncle Zachary probably had no idea that it wouldn't be all that simple.

Supposedly Chunk Colbert quarreled with Allison several years earlier. But this time it would be different, this time he showed up looking for a fight and he wanted revenge.

Now I'd love to write how Chuck Colbert met Clay Allison at a saloon and called him out into the dusty street to see who was the fastest draw. But friends, contrary to Hollywood, that's just not the way most of the killings in the Old West took place.

In this case, it was really different. According to reports, Chunk Colbert was a real bad hombre. He had supposedly killed at least seven men in his time. So imagine how strange it appeared when they met, and Colbert challenged Allison to a horse race. That my friends is definitely unusual when if you intent to kill a man. Yes, their duel was a horse race.

Well, supposedly the race ended in a draw. Then for some reason, the men decided to have dinner together at the Clifton House. During dinner everything seemed very friendly, both seemed to be getting along fine. But at some point during dinner, Colbert pulled his pistol with the intent of shooting Allison. One problem, the table got in the way.

That's right, after he jacked his pistol from its holster and while trying to raise his gun to shoot Allison, the barrel of his gun bumped the table instead of coming all the way up to be fired.

Allison was quick and he didn't bump the table. He fired a single round which hit Colbert in the head. It killed Colbert instantly. Some say Allison's one and only shot hit Colbert just above his right eye. When asked later why Allison would even accept a dinner invitation from a man who would likely try to kill him, Allison responded  by saying, "Because I didn't want to send a man to Hell on an empty stomach".
It's said that Allison's would-be assassin was buried behind the Clifton House where that all took place. Charles Cooper, who after hearing what happened to his friend Colbert, decided to go on out to see Allison and avenge his friend's death.
I think Cooper left for Allison's full of anger and probably not thinking one bit. Cooper was last seen riding out to the Allison ranch on January 19th, 1874. He was never seen again. So who knows what happened to Cooper?
Over the next few years, the notorious Clay Allison would build a reputation as a gunman that was fairly unmatched. Franklin Tolby, a minister and friend of Clay Allison was found shot in the back during the Colfax War and Allison decided to settle the matter himself. So on October 30th, 1875, Allison led another lynch-mob to kill Cruz Vega who was suspected of murdering the Methodist preacher. The mob hanged Cruz Vega from a telegraph pole near Cimarron.
On November 1, 1875, Vega's family members, led by Vega's uncle Francisco Griego, began making threats of revenge. They went to the Lambert Inn, where they confronted Allison and accused him of taking part in the lynching.

Griego reached for his revolver. Seeing Griego reach for his pistol, Allison was able to jerk his pistol just that much faster and shot Griego twice. Griego was killed instantly. A few days later on November 10, Allison was charged with the murder of Francisco Griego. But after an inquiry, the charges of murder were dropped and the shooting was ruled "self-defense."

Was he a mean one? You bet he was. I believe Clay Allison was probably one of the meanest killers ever to live in the Old West.

After sitting in a dentist’s chair in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and being injured by the dentist. Allison turned the tables on the dentist and started to forcibly pull out the dentist’s own teeth. The reason for that was that the dentist accidentally started drilling into the wrong molar in Clay's mouth. He would have continued pulling the dentist's teeth, except the doc's screams brought in people from the street and Clay Allison let things be.

On December 21, 1876, Clay Allison shot and killed Deputy Sheriff Charles Faber at the Olympic Dance Hall in Las Animas, Colorado. If it weren’t for Allison purposely stomping on the feet of other dancers, the law probably would never have been called.

Allison and his brother John rode into Las Animas, Colorado, where they stopped at the Olympic Dance Hall. Constable Charles Faber of Bent County went in and told the Allisons that they needed to surrender their pistols because a City Ordinance made it illegal to carry weapons inside the town limits. If not, leave town.

The Allisons refused to turn over their guns or leave. Hard liquor makes brave men. It also makes dangerous men absolutely deadly. Clay and his brother John were in town from their home in Cimarron, New Mexico. They had been drinking hard and created a disturbance so Deputy Faber would come back.

Faber returned, this time was armed with a 10 gauge shotgun. Remember that Faber had earlier attempted to have the Allisons check their weapons, but they refused. This time Faber figured he'd better his even odds. So he brought a 10 gauge shotgun and two citizens that he deputized two men.

When Faber returned to the saloon, he leveled the 10 gauge shotgun at John Allison probably mistaking him for the more dangerous Clay. Then suddenly someone shouted, "Look out!"

As John Allison began to turn, Faber fired one barrel that struck John Allison in the chest and shoulder. Clay Allison immediately turned and fired four rounds at Constable Faber, one of which struck him in the chest and killed him almost instantly. As Faber fell, his 10 gauge shotgun discharged again and struck John in the leg.

It's interresting to note that after Clay Allison turned and fired four shots, killing  Faber, the two deputized men fled. Then believe it or not, Clay Allison chased after them. They were lucky to have escaped such a rampaging killer. Later both Allison brothers would be arrested and charged with manslaughter, but the charge was dismissed because it was ruled that Faber had begun the fight. Imagine that!

Reading about the Old West, in many cases I shake my head in disbelief at some of the judgments that were handed down. This was one of them. A coroner's jury convened on December 22nd, and determined that Constable Charles Faber was in the performance of his official duty when he was shot by Clay Allison.

Clay was subsequently arrested and tried for manslaughter, but had to be released when no witnesses appeared to testify against him. No surprise there. While people in the Old West were tough, they weren't stupid and knew real well that if a maniac like Clay Allison was acquitted -- he'd probably hunt them down.

It is said that John Allison later recovered from his massive injuries - though I know that that is hard to believe. And by the way, that was the gunfight that made Clay Allison a legend.

Of course there is a story about an alleged confrontation with Wyatt Earp in March of 1877. The story goes that Allison sold his ranch to his brother, John. He then relocated to Sedalia, Missouri, the birthplace of his wife and sister-in-law. Clay next moved to Hays City, Kansas, where he established himself as a cattle broker. By the time Allison arrived in Dodge City, Kansas, with a herd of cattle. Some say they were rustled, some say they were bought honestly, but either way Allison's reputation as a killer preceded him to Dodge.

Ford County Historical Society, Dodge City, Kansas, reports:

"Robert Andrew Clay Allison was already a western legend when he came to Dodge in 1878, while Wyatt Earp would not become famous for several years. The Dodge City newspapers noted Allison's comings and goings and the Kinsley Graphic of December 14, 1878, had this to say when Clay stopped there.

[The Kinsley Graphic stated] "Clay Allison, well known on the frontier and western Kansas, but better known in western Texas, for daring deeds and the number of affrays with knife and navy he engaged in, has been to town for several days this week. His appearance is striking. Tall, straight as an arrow, dark complexioned, carries himself with ease and grace, gentlemanly and courteous in manner, never betraying by word or action the history of his eventful life."

Ford County Historical Society, Dodge City, Kansas, report goes on:

"Allison 'notches' included Chunk Colbert, regionally infamous man-killer; Francisco Griego, another locally noted gunfighter; and Las Animas officer Charles Fabre. Numerous are the stories of his exploits, some fact, some fiction. All stories, factual or otherwise, led to Clay Allison being one of the most feared men of the west when he arrived in Dodge City, in September of 1878."

Ford County Historical Society, Dodge City, Kansas, also states: 

"The first known written record of the Allison/Earp clash is an interview with Wyatt Earp published in the San Francisco Examiner of August 16, 1896. ... There seems to be no evidence that any kind of showdown occurred between Wyatt Earp and Clay Allison per the Examiner interview."

I've always found it strange that there are folks out there who want to poke at a rattler to see if it will indeed strike. I've always believed that it goes to their bloated egos thinking that they are somehow faster or more deadly than the rattle snake.

That seems to sum up the case of what happened when Allison's crew got to Dodge City.  Allison's reputation as a deadly rattler didn't stop the local law in Dodge City of mistreating several cowboys who worked for him.

Anyone who knows anything about the Old West knows that Dodge City was started as a "Cattle Town." Because of cowboys, who had spent long months on the range, letting loose and sometimes they abused their stay. Because of this, many "Cow Towns" enacted laws to prevent things from getting too out of hand. Those towns usually backed up those City Ordinances with force by way of their City Marshal and his deputies.

Many cowtowns had laws against carrying guns in town. If a drunk cowboy was found openly carrying a pistol, deputies like Wyatt Earp were known to hit drunks in the back of the head to knock them unconscious. It was called "buffaloing". The unconscious cowhand would usually have his gun taken from him, hauled to jail, and then hit with a steep fine which of course the deputies got a percentage of the fine. It was quite a racket.

In many cases, knowing that the cowhand that was "buffaloed" was a top hand with a cattle outfit, they'd impose a fine and an enormous unreasonable amount of money for bail to get him back to the herd. Yes, it was legal extortion. And yes, the deputies made out pretty good.

Many a law enforcement officer made a lot of money on the fines he could off of unsuspecting cowboys, drunk or sober, honest violator or simply framed. Money, power, and authority have always been great incentives for people to become "the law." In many cases, especially in the Old West, payoffs were given directly to the city marshal's office as a way to stay in business.

Wyatt Earp was the Deputy Marshal of Dodge City when Clay Allison's herd arrived in town. Some say Earp had not yet become famous in his own right. There are some, like me, who will say that Wyatt Earp was never really famous in the Old West. In fact, he really didn't become very well known at all until he was the key figure in fixing the 1896 Heavyweight Championship Fight in San Francisco. Some say he really didn't become famous until after his death in 1929 when his book was published.

As for him being fired for stealing collected tax money meant for the local school when he was a Constable, or his being arrested for stealing a horse and escaping jail, or his being arrested as a pimp a number of times in Peoria, Illinois, or his being fired from the Wichita Police Force for not turning over fines collected that, or his being fired from the Dodge City Police Force, or even his part in the shootout at the OK Corral, I don't think any of that made him famous as did his part in the swindle that was pilled during that fixed Championship Boxing Match in 1896.

I really believe that, though I get mail from people telling me that it really wasn't until after Wyatt Earp found writer Stuart Lake, who wrote his biography, that Wyatt Earp became famous. While Hollywood helped Wyatt Earp become well known after he died in the late 1920s and Lake publishing his memoirs in 1931, that wasn't the case for Clay Allison.

Clay Allison was a very famous gunman and killer. He was deadly, people knew it, and people feared him.
Clay Allison
after shooting himself in the foot

Earp's biographer Stuart Lake, and Earp himself, claimed that Wyatt Earp and his friend Bat Masterson confronted Allison and his men in a saloon, and that Allison backed down before them.

In truth, Bat Masterson was no where around as he wasn't even in town at the time. Fact is, other than the yarn spun by Wyatt Earp in that 1896 San Francisco Examiner newspaper article, there is no evidence of him ever coming into contact with Clay Allison at all.

In fact, it is believed that Wyatt Earp purposely stayed away from Allison for fear of his life. And some can defend him until the cows come home but that doesn't matter, because he wasn't part of arresting Clay Allison. And frankly, you folks can call me all the names you want to, but that still doesn't change what took place and Wyatt Earp was not a part of it.

What really happened is actually very simple. Fact is, a cattleman by the name of Dick McNulty and Chalk Beeson who was the owner of the Long Branch Saloon, convinced Allison and his cowboys to surrender their guns. They assured were said to have assured a nervous Wyatt Earp that they can handle it.

Of course, Wyatt Earp did not make his claim until after Allison's death. I think Clay Allison would have killed him if he had tried to do that before Allison got killed. Allison didn't like people spreading rumors about him that weren't true.

Charlie Siringo who would become a legend in his own right as a cowboy and later as a well known Pinkerton Detective had witnessed the incident and left a written account of what took place. Charlie Siringo described the situation that took place which agreed that it was in fact Dick McNulty and Chalk Beeson who actually ended the incident. Charlie Siringo said Earp was no where to be found and had not even approached Clay Allison.

Clay Allison ranched from 1880 to 1883 with his brothers, John William Allison and Jeremiah Monroe Allison. Their ranch was 12 miles northeast of Mobeetie, at the junction of the Washita River and Gageby Creek, in what was then Wheeler County, Texas.

On February 15, 1881, Allison married America Medora McCulloch in Mobeetie and became "a family man." Imagine that for a moment. Then in 1883, Clay Allison sold the ranch and moved to Pope's Wells. They purchased another ranch near the Pecos River crossing of the Texas-New Mexico line 50 miles northwest of Pecos, Texas. The area was supposedly a landmark on the original Goodnight-Loving Trail. Clay and his wife "Dora" had two children.

Death of a Gunfighter

Clay Allison's death was not what one would have expected. It seemed to have had everything to do with karma, and nothing to do with guns.

July 3rd, 1887, was a typical hot Texas day. Clay Allison, gunfighter, killer, rancher, "family man," was returning from Pecos, Texas, with a wagon full of supplies. It's said that the load in his wagon shifted and a sack of grain fell from the load. As the sack of grain fell from the wagon, Allison fell from the wagon as he tried to catch it and ended up underneath one of its wheels. As the horses reared and lurched forward, Allison's neck was broken, crushed, by the heavy buckboard.

There are those who said Clay Allison was almost decapitated. And frankly, some found it sort of ironic considering he had several years earlier decapitated a man himself. Clay Allison's short life of forty-seven years was ended.

Clay Allison was buried the next day in Pecos Cemetery, in Pecos, Texas. It is said that hundreds attended his funeral either to pay their respects or simply out of curiosity. Like it or not, gunmen like Clay Allison, Wild Bill, John Wesley Hardin, Tom Horn, were celebrities of sorts. There were those who wanted to tell their grandchildren that they attended the funeral of one of the West's most vicious killers.

Dora McCullough Allison re-married and  moved with him to Fort Worth. Allison's widow died on January 18, 1926 in Baltimore, Maryland and was interred in Oakwood Cemetery in Fort Worth. In a special ceremony held on August 28, 1975, Clay Allison's remains were re-interred at Pecos Park, just west of the Pecos Museum.

His grave marker provided by the U.S. Army reads:

SEP 2 1840
JUL 3 1887

A second marker was later placed at the foot of the Allison's grave, it reads, 
"He never killed a man that did not need killing."

For me, since he coined the term "shootist," I believe that quote sums up the life of the the original shootist Clay Allison. He was a Confederate soldier, a gunfighter, killer, cattle rancher, and believe it or not even a family man. Some say he was an outlaw and that he rustled cattle. Clay Allison is one of the best known historic figures of the Old West.

He was a man who was not pushed and would kill someone who he saw as an enemy at the drop of a hat. He didn't take anything off anyone, and in many cases took justice into his own hands to ensure justice was done.

While I don't see Clay Allison as the mad-dog killer that some have tried to paint him, I believe that he dealt out his own brand of justice to extremes. For example, some say he went too far in the case of decapitating Charles Kennedy. But think about it, Kennedy killed his own child. Kennedy's horrendous act set off Allison like never before. Kennedy was a child-killer, and Clay Allison and that mob didn't depend on the law to do its job.

Please believe me when I say that I'm not trying to justify what Clay Allison did. But keep in mind, killing a child was a hanging offense in the Old West. 

I believe the famous gunmen was indeed a Texas rattler. Don't mess with him and give him a with berth and all would be fine. Mess with him and find out what a mistake you made. To him, "he never killed a man that did not need killing." Of course, that's how he saw it. That was his opinion. And of course, right or wrong, it was an opinion that he backed up with deadly consequences.

That's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa


  1. In one of my past lives, I was the panicked rancher's wife that Clay helped out. He could see I was clearly freaking out, scared of my drunken husband. Unfortunately, when I left to get help, my family was still alive. Hiding, but alive. They were found and killed by my bastard husband.

    Clay took care of it for me. Truth was, had he not 'taken care of it', I would have myself. I lost everything that day. It just about killed me. I wouldn't have survived without Clay's help. Does anyone talk about that? No.

    Clay was my hero. Pure and simple.


  2. Thank you Tianca, for filling out more of the "real" story about what happened to you and your family.
    I hope justice has been served.
    God bless and peace be with you.
    Catherine Todd


Thank you for your comment.