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Robert Clay Allison

A 19th Century depiction
Allison's after-dinner shoot-out with another killer, Chunk Colbert. The barrel of Colbert's pistol hit the table top as he tried to get the drop on Allison, who instantly drilled him.

Even in his most vicious moments, Longley never matched the volcanic and deranged deeds of Clay Allison of Tennessee. In two key respects, Allison was a deviant from the pattern of the loner. He was older than most when he launched his criminal activities, somewhere in his middle twenties. And, unlike Longley and other notorious killers, he may have derived his homicidal bent from physical as well as emotional damage in his youth. When the Civil War began, Allison left the family farm near Waynesboro and enlisted in the Tennessee Light Artillery. 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." Whatever the true nature of his aberration, Allison was a capriciously violent man, and the record of his progress through life sufficiently justified the almost superstitious dread in which he was held on the frontier.

After the war Allison, like many another young Southerner, could not abide the unrelenting reminders of defeat around his home. In the autumn of 1865 he migrated with relatives to the Brazos River country of Texas, where he became a cowpuncher and trail hand driving cattle into New Mexico. Five years later he acquired his own ranch in Colfax County, New Mexico. Already he had come to be feared - particularly when in his cups - and people around him believed that he had killed many men, although nobody alive could vouch for the details. In any event Allison, when sober, resented his sinister reputation. When he learned that a Missouri newspaper had accused him of 15 killings, he wrote an indignant letter 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."

This missive begged the question of how many men had actually fallen before Allison's wrath, or in what circumstances. But his neighbors were soon to get firsthand evidence of his primal savagery when aroused. One night in 1870, while drinking in a saloon in the tiny mining camp of Elizabethtown, he was approached by a distraught ranch wife with a tale of horror. She told him that her husband, a rancher named Kennedy, had gone berserk and killed a number of strangers in their cabin, then capped the bloody rampage by murdering their own infant daughter. Rounding up his drinking mates, Allison descended on the Kennedy ranch and found its owner soddenly drunk. No corpses were in evidence, but a few days later when a collection of bones was dug up in a search of the ranch property, Allison reached his own verdict on Kennedy's guilt - and proper punishment.

While medical experts were still debating whether or not the bones were of human origin - and they were by no means certain what their findings would be - Allison and a few companions broke into the Elizabethtown jail where Kennedy had been detained, seized him, dragged him to a nearby slaughterhouse and lynched him. Then, not yet content that justice had been fully served, Allison cut off the head of the corpse, impaled it on a pike, and rode with it 29 miles to the town of Cimarron, where he carried it in gruesome triumph into his favorite drinking haunt, Henri Lambert's saloon.

Chunk Colbert established a reputation as a gunman during the early 1870's, reputedly killing seven men in West Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. Two of these fights are on record, as well as his last shooting scrape. In 1874 he ran afoul of Clay Allison, and during the subsequent gunfight Colbert was shot to death.

Although his family resided in Santa Fe, by the 1870's Francisco Griego ("Pancho") was living in Colfax County, New Mexico, where he acquired a local reputation as a dangerous pistolero. His most spectacular exploit came in May, 1875, when he felled three soldiers during a violent gunfight in Cimarron. A few months later Griego's friend and business associate, Cruz Vega, was lynched by a mob led by Clay Allison. Griego sought out Allison and was killed by the vicious Tennessean.

It was almost inevitable that Allison would someday find himself confronted by a foe whose regard for human life was as slight as his own. The challenger was an outlaw named Chunk Colbert, who claimed seven kills. For no apparent reason other than the desire to burnish his reputation for gunslinging superiority, Colbert felt that Allison would make a suitable eighth. He invited his proposed target to dine with him at a Colfax County inn. Allison accepted with every appearance of amiable good fellowship, and the two men enjoyed a leisurely meal. The charade ended just as the coffee cups arrived at the table. Colbert reached for his cup with his left hand; but his right was slowly bringing his gun up from below the table. Allison went for his own weapon. Colbert fired in desperate haste, but his gun had not quite cleared the table top and the bullet went through the wood and was harmlessly deflected. Allison then calmly plugged his host just above the right eye. Later, asked why he had consented to dine with a man he knew intended to kill him, he said, "Because I didn't want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach."

Another meeting with a professional colleague had an outcome that was less lethal but equally bizarre. A formidable gunman named Mace Bowman sought Allison out, evidently toying with the thought of killing him. But instead of trying to destroy each other, the two men got drunk together and decided to practice fast draws. Allison could not match Bowman's speed at getting his gun out of his holster, and he suggested a new test of prowess. Both men pulled off their boots, stripped to their underwear, and took turns shooting at each other's bare feet to determine which of them performed the livelier dance under fire. When the contest - rated a standoff - was finally called on account of exhaustion, both terpsichoreans were miraculously unscathed.

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.

Closer to home, in Colfax County, Allison fell into dispute with a neighboring rancher. They hit upon a novel way to resolve their differences. Together they dug a grave and carried an unmarked tombstone to its edge. Then they negotiated an agreement whereby they would both descend naked into the grave pit, each armed with a bowie knife; whoever was able to climb out at the conclusion of the encounter would have the tombstone suitably engraved for the other. They set a date, but before the bout could be staged, Allison came to an inglorious end. On July 1, 1887, he was hauling a load of supplies home from Pecos, Texas, when a sack of grain fell off the pile; as it did so he tried to grab it and toppled from the wagon. One of the wagon wheels rolled across his neck, breaking it and killing him. In this oddly inappropriate fate Allison once again differed from his fellow loners who, for the most part, died by the gun or by the rope.

Summing up after his demise, a Kansas newspaper expressed puzzlement about his dual roles as a successful rancher and an explosive killer. Whether Allison "was in truth a villain or a gentleman," the editor of the paper observed, "is 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."

1870
Occasionally a menace to himself as well as to society, Clay Allison recuperates after shooting himself in the foot in a mule stampede. That same year, he helped lynch a suspected killer, then beheaded him.

Clay Allison, gunfighter, the fourth of nine children of John and Nancy (Lemmond) Allison, was born on a farm near Waynesboro, Tennessee, on September 2, 1840. His father, a Presbyterian minister who was also engaged in the cattle and sheep business, died when Clay was five. When the Civil War broke out, Allison joined the Confederate Army. In January 1862 he was discharged for emotional instability resulting from a head injury as a child, but in September he reenlisted and finished the war as a scout for Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. He was a prisoner of war from May 4 to 10, 1865, in Alabama.

At a Red River crossing near Denison he severely pummeled ferryman Zachary Colbert in a fist fight. This incident reportedly started a feud between Allison and the Colbert family that led to the killing of the ferryman's desperado nephew, "Chunk" Colbert, by Allison in New Mexico on January 7, 1874.

Allison soon signed on as a cowhand with Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight and was probably among the eighteen herders on the 1866 drive that blazed the Goodnight-Loving Trail. In 1867-69 Allison rode for M. L. Dalton and was trail boss for a partnership between his brother-in-law L. G. Coleman and Irvin W. Lacy. During this time he befriended the John H. Matthews family in Raton and accidentally shot himself in the right foot while he and some companions stampeded a herd of army mules as a prank. In 1870 Coleman and Lacy moved to a spread in Colfax County, New Mexico. Allison drove their herd to the new ranch for a payment of 300 cattle, with which he started his own ranch near Cimarron. Eventually he built it into a lucrative operation.

He is alleged to have had a knife duel with a man named Johnson in a freshly dug grave in 1870. Allison was a heavy drinker and became involved in several brawls and shooting sprees. On October 30, 1875, he led a mob that seized and lynched Cruz Vega, who was suspected of murdering a Methodist circuit rider. Two days later Allison killed gunman Pancho Griego, a friend of Vega, in a confrontation at the St. James Hotel in Cimarron. In January 1876 a drunken Allison wrecked the office of the Cimarron News & Press because of a scathing editorial. He allegedly later returned to the newspaper office and paid $200 for damages. In December of that year Clay and his brother John were involved in a dance-hall gunfight at Las Animas, Colorado, in which a deputy sheriff was killed. For this Allison was arrested and charged with manslaughter, but the charges were later dismissed on grounds of self-defense. Allison was arrested as an accessory to the murder of three black soldiers the following spring, but evidence was sketchy and he was soon acquitted. In 1878 he sold his New Mexico ranch and established himself in Hays City, Kansas, as a cattle broker.

In September 1878 Allison and his men supposedly terrorized Dodge City and made Bartholomew (Bat) Masterson and other lawmen flee in fear. Later, Wyatt Earp was said to have pressured Allison into leaving. Though Dodge City peace officers may have questioned him about the shooting of a cowboy named George Hoy, there is no evidence of any serious altercation.

By 1880 Clay and John Allison had settled on Gageby Creek, near its junction with the Washita River, in Hemphill County, Texas, next door to their in-laws, the L. G. Colemans. Clay registered an ACE brand for his cattle. On March 28, 1881, he married Dora McCullough. The couple had two daughters. Though Allison served as a juror in Mobeetie, and though age and marriage had slowed him down some, his reputation as the "Wolf of the Washita" was kept alive by reports of his unusual antics. Once he was said to have ridden nude through the streets of Mobeetie.

Paul Trachtman. The Old West: Gunfighters. Time-Life Books Editors. Time-Life, 1974.
C. L. Sonnichsen. Handbook of Texas Online. Allison, Robert Clay. June 6, 2001.


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