The Wolf of the Washita
Clay Allison was one of the most violent gunmen of the old West. There may have been a physical, as well as characteristic reason for this: immediately on the outbreak of the Civil War, Allison, just 20, left the family farm near Waynesboro, Tennessee and enlisted in the Tennessee Light Artillery. But only three months later he was given a medical discharge by Confederate Army doctors; they described him as "incapable of performing the duties of a soldier because of a blow received many years ago. Emotional or physical excitement produces paroxysmals of a mixed character, partly epileptic and partly maniacal."
All his life Allison drank great quantities of alcohol. Probably the combination of that and his youthful injury caused his extreme and wild behavior. He participated in several one-on-one knife and gunfights, as well as being involved in a number of vigilante jail break-ins and lynchings. He once rode his horse through town wearing only his gunbelt. He was even said to be dangerous to himself, accidentally shooting himself in the foot. Clay Allison was not a temperate man.
When once asked what he did for a living, he replied that he was a “shootist”. I myself believe that this was jocular; as a practitioner of art is an artist, so he was a shootist. But joke or not, the word stuck, as we know. Even John Wayne was The Shootist. Webster’s tells you in all seriousness, “Shootist: one who shoots, marksman.” In 1895, a certain O Widmann, talking of bird shooting, wrote, “Not being a shootist, I cannot lay the bird before you”. In 1947 one Charles J Lovell wrote, “Such terminations in -ist were very common at one time; my collection includes swimmist, sparrist, ballist, walkist, shootist, saloonist, and several others.” Anyway, Allison was a shootist.
His father was a Presbyterian minister who raised cattle and sheep, and Clay, the fourth of nine children, grew up on the farm. Some say he was born with a club foot. The father died when Clay was five. After discharge from the CSA, he wouldn’t take no for an answer and in September 1862, he re-enlisted, one imagines omitting to mention his earlier service, this time in the 9th Tennessee Cavalry, where he served under the famous General Nathan Bedford Forrest (Allison began sporting the Vandyke beard he wore the rest of his life in imitation of the flamboyant cavalry commander). He surrendered at Gainesville, Alabama along with Forrest's men on May 4, 1865. After briefly being held as a prisoner of war, Allison and the others were paroled on May 10. The Legends of America website says that he was “convicted of spying and sentenced to be shot. But the night before he was to face the firing squad he killed the guard and escaped.” Maybe. At any rate he was allowed to return home. He was still only 23.
Clay, his brothers Monroe and John, sister Mary and her husband Lewis Coleman then moved west. One story, possibly apocryphal, says this was on account of his shooting dead a Union corporal trying to seize the family farm. At any rate, he fetched up in New Mexico.
Legends of America says that Clay “signed on with Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving in 1866 and accompanied them on their Goodnight-Loving Trail through Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. Around 1867 Clay worked as a trail boss for M.L. Dalton.”
In Elizabethtown, in the fall of 1870, a man named Charles Kennedy was being held in the local jail, suspected in the disappearance of several strangers and his own child. Allison is said to have led a mob, broken into the jail, taken Kennedy from his cell, and hanged him. Allegedly, Allison cut off the man's head and carried it in a sack for 29 miles to Cimarron, where he placed it on display on a pole in front of the St. James Inn. When Kennedy's house was later searched, the bodies of those missing (including his son), were found; whether Kennedy killed them we shall never know.
Also in 1870 Allison is alleged to have had a knife duel with a man named Johnson in a freshly dug grave.
Apparently (this post will be full of apparently and it is said and possibly; undoubted facts are hard to come by in Allison’s life) he learned to handle a gun from a friend, a certain Mason Bowman, and became extremely proficient. The dime novels lay much stress on the fast-draw skills he acquired, though as we seen here, that is by no means certain.
Legends of America tells us that “On April 30, 1871, Allison and two others were said to have stolen 12 government mules belonging to the Fort Union Commander, General Gordon Granger. In the fall, he tried the same stunt again, but when military men came running to the corral, Allison accidentally shot himself in the foot during the confusion. The would-be rustlers escaped to a hideout along the Red River, where Allison sent his friend David Crockett (a nephew of the American frontiersman) to fetch Dr. Longwell from Cimarron. Though Clay was treated, he spent the rest of his life with a permanent limp.” Perhaps it was that and not a club foot.
He himself said that he came across a small farm being besieged by Comanche Indians. His request for assistance from the US Cavalry being turned down, he assembled a posse of ranchers and cowboys to mount a rescue party. They charged the Comanche and killed one of them before the rest fled.
On January 7, 1874, Allison killed a man named Chunk Colbert in the Clifton House, an inn in Colfax County. They had been racing horses together but the pair ‘went back’: Allison had beaten up Colbert's uncle, Zachary Colbert, when he tried to overcharge Allison for a ferry ride across the Brazos River. During their meal, so the story goes, Colbert suddenly drew his gun and attempted to shoot Allison; however, the barrel of the pistol hit the top of the dinner table, allowing Allison the time to pull his own revolver, firing one shot which struck Colbert in the head. Asked afterward why he had accepted a dinner invitation from a man likely to try to kill him, Allison replied, "Because I didn't want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach."
Allison’s career of violence continued. In October 1875 he is alleged to have led another lynch-mob, this time to kill a certain Cruz Vega, who was suspected of murdering the Reverend FJ Tolby, a Methodist circuit-rider. They hanged the man from a telegraph pole near Cimarron. On November 1, members of the Vega family, led by his uncle, Francisco Griego, confronted Allison in the Lambert Inn (now the St James Hotel), and Allison shot Griego, twice, killing him. On November 10, Allison was charged with the murder of Francisco Griego, but after an inquiry, the charge was dropped and the shooting was ruled self-defense.
Legends of America says that “At about 11 p.m. on January 19, 1876, Allison and two other men, reacting to a scathing editorial where the paper had pointed a finger at Clay Allison as a leader catering to mob violence, broke into the News and Press office and set off a charge of black powder. Then they threw the press in the river."
The article adds, “Governor Axtell, bothered by Allison’s antics and spurred on by the attorney Mills, was quoted as saying that he 'intended to have Allison indicted and punished, or compelled to leave the county.' On February 21, 1876, the governor gave life to a dormant Allison warrant by issuing a $500 reward for Clay, 'who is guilty of the crime of murder in killing Charles Cooper', Chunk Colbert’s friend who had disappeared back in January 1874.”
The next gunplay occurred in December 1876, when Clay Allison and his brother John stopped at a saloon in Las Animas, Colorado, but refused to check their guns, as was the law. The local constable, Charles Faber, went away, deputized two men and returned with them to the saloon. In the subsequent mêlée John Allison was hit three times (in the chest, arm, and leg). Clay Allison fired four shots, one of which killed Faber. The two deputized men fled. Both Allison brothers were arrested and charged with manslaughter, but the charges were dismissed as the constable had initiated the gunfight. Clay Allison seemed to have nine lives.
There are many other stories, true or not. For example, in an article The Spell of the West, the anonymous author says:
Allison's flair for harrowing improvisations was even more vividly displayed when he felt wronged. Once, arriving in Cheyenne with a trail herd of cattle and a raging toothache, he repaired to one of the two dentists then practicing in the town. By an unfortunate professional error, the dentist began drilling on the wrong tooth. Allison left, went to the other dentist and paid $25 to have the damage corrected. He then returned to the first dentist, pinned the man to his own chair, seized a forceps, pried open his victim's mouth and wrenched a tooth from it. He was at work on a second extraction, with a section of the dentist's lip inadvertently gripped in the instrument, when the man's screams brought help and interrupted the operation.
It seems that when in his cups Clay Allison reveled in his reputation as wild man, but when sober he was different. When he learned that a Missouri newspaper had attributed to him fifteen killings, he wrote indignantly to the editor, "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."
The Kansas paper the Kinsley Graphic would probably have agreed. An editorial of December 14, 1878 declared, “His appearance is striking. Tall, straight as an arrow, dark-complexioned, [he] carries himself with ease and grace, gentlemanly and courteous in manner, never betraying by word or action the history of his eventful life.”
In March 1877, Clay Allison sold his ranch to his brother, John and relocated to Sedalia, Missouri, and thence to Hays City, Kansas, where he established himself as a cattle broker.
Showdown with Wyatt Earp
We now come to the disputed encounter in Dodge with Wyatt Earp. Earp’s sensational biographer Stuart Lake wrote that Wyatt Earp, then assistant marshal in Dodge City, claimed when talking to Lake in the 1920s that in 1877 he and his friend Bat Masterson confronted and faced down Allison in the street in Dodge. Allison backed off and left town. The trouble with this story is that Lake habitually put words in the mouth of his subject, attributing verbatim quotes to Earp which were Lake’s own words.
According to contemporaneous accounts, a cattleman named Dick McNulty and owner of the Long Branch Saloon Chalky Beeson convinced Allison and his cowboys to surrender their guns. Charlie Siringo, a cowboy in Dodge at the time, later a well known Pinkerton detective, claimed to have witnessed the incident and left a written account. He said that it was McNulty and Beeson who ended the incident; he further wrote that Earp had not even approached Clay Allison that day. Another source says that Masterson wasn’t in town.
Whatever the truth of it, it makes a good story. As with Allison, disentangling myth from fact in the case of Wyatt Earp is problematic, to say the least.
From 1880 to 1883 Clay ranched with his brothers John and Jeremiah near Mobeetie, Texas at the confluence of the Washita River and Gageby Creek. They were neighbors of brother-in-law Coleman. It was at this time that he was supposed to have made his naked ride while intoxicated.
By 1883, Allison had sold his ranch and moved to Pope's Wells, a landmark on the Goodnight–Loving Trail, buying a spread near the Pecos River crossing of the Texas-New Mexico line, 50 miles from Pecos, Texas. He was now married, to Medora McCulloch, known as Dora, and they had two daughters, Patti, born 1885, and Pearl, born 1888, seven months after Clay’s death.
Clay Allison did not die in a bloody gunfight. On July 1, 1887 he was hauling a wagonload of supplies when the load shifted, and a sack of grain fell from the wagon. Allison lunged for the sack, tumbled off the wagon and a wheel rolled over him, breaking his neck. He was 45 years old. He was buried the next day in Pecos Cemetery. His tombstone shows the incorrect year of birth, but never mind.
A Kansas newspaper suggested that people would wonder whether Allison "was in truth a villain or a gentleman," suggesting that it was "a question that many never settled to their own satisfaction. Certain it is that many of his stern deeds were for the right as he understood that right to be."
In August 1975 Clay Allison’s remains were disinterred and reburied at Pecos Park, just west of the Pecos Museum.
Curiously, I think, Clay Allison has not appeared often in Western movies or TV shows. You’d think that such a career would be ripe for portrayal on big screen and small. Possibly his being an unapologetic Confederate, a racist and, according to some, member of the KKK, as well as being an alcoholic and a sociopath, as well as a vigilante, and the fact that he didn’t die by the gun, all disqualified him as a screen hero, or even bad guy.
I don't know of any feature-film Western in which he figures (leave a comment if you do) but he did appear in a 1954 Stories of the Century episode, played by Jack Kelly, and a 1956 episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, played by Myron Healey. There was also a Tales of Wells Fargo one in 1959 when he was played by Warren Stevens. They were all historical hooey, of course, but that was par for the course.
Allison does turn up as a character in a few pulp Western novels – for example he is heading a trail drive in JT Edson’s Trigger Fast.
There are many books about Allison, though how well researched, balanced and authoritative they are is for you to decide.
There was an 80s rock band called Clay Allison. I don’t know if it was in honor of the killer.
Doubtless we’ll be back with other gunfighters and sensational figures of the old West. Well, you gotta.