Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Clay Allison: Civil War Soldier Turned Gunfighter

A young Clay Allison

       Robert Clay Allison was born in 1840 in Waynesboro, Tennessee. Like Jesse James, Allison’s father was also a minister, but died when he was only five years old. At some point in his childhood he received a blow to the head that left a depression in his skull. This may explain why he suffered from wild mood swings and a very short temper that only got worse the older he became. 
       He was described as tall with an perfect posture and dark complexioned. He appeared to be a gentleman until one of his mood swings struck. Allison was also noted to have no fear of any man. 
       Although Clay Allison was born with a club foot, it didn’t prevent him from joining the Confederate army when the Civil War began. He enlisted in the Tennessee Light Artillery. Several times he threatened to kill his superior officers for not pursuing retreating enemy troops. 
       His commanding officers were probably looking for an excuse to get rid Clay, because he was medically discharged from the artillery for “emotional or physical excitement of a mixed character, partly epileptic and partly maniacal.” When Clay drank, this condition only became worse.
       Nine months after being discharged, Clay Allison enlisted in the 9th Tennessee Cavalry. He managed to serve the rest of the war without being discharged for his condition. He soon became a scout for General Nathan Bedford Forrest and grew his mustache and beard in the same manner. He would keep this look for the rest of his life. 

Allison in his Bedford Forrest style beard and mustache

       When Forrest surrendered his command at the end of the war, Allison wasn’t treated as a prisoner of war, but charged as a spy by the Federal army. He was then sentenced to be shot. The night before his scheduled execution, he killed his guard and escaped. 
       He returned to Waynesboro, Tennessee and joined the Ku Klux Klan. When a Union soldier arrived to seize the Allison’s property, he shot and killed the man. The Allison family then moved to Texas where he became a rancher. 
       It is believed he killed a neighbor with a bowie knife in a quarrel over the use of a waterhole. When a man named Charles Kennedy was arrested for robbery, Clay broke into the jail, tied a rope around the mans neck and dragged him behind his horse until he was dead. He then cut Kennedy’s head off and carried it to the St. James Hotel where he placed it on a post. 

St. James Hotel where Allison carried Kennedy's head

       In 1871, in an attempt to steal government mules, he accidentally shot himself in the foot. Chunk Colbert, a gunfighter with six kills came looking for Clay. He bragged that Clay Allison would be his seventh kill. Colbert found Clay and together they went to dinner. After eating, Colbert drew his gun beneath the table and fired. The bullet struck the table and deflected away from Clay. Clay then drew his pistol and shot Colbert in the head. When asked why he had accepted a meal with Colbert, Clay replied, “Because I didn’t want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach.”

Clay Allison after shooting himself in the foot

       Colbert’s friend Charles Cooper went missing two weeks after the murder and many blamed Allison, but no evidence was ever found to support this claim. 
       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. He then led a lynch mob that hung a Mexican named Cruz Vega that he believed was guilty of killing the minister. Vega was hanged, but told that his uncle  Francisco "Pancho" Griego was actually behind the murder. 
       Later that day, Francisco Griego arrived at a saloon where Allison was drinking. He attempted to draw his pistol, but Allison was too fast for him and shot twice killing him instantly. 
       In 1876, Allison killed a deputy sheriff who had shot his brother John while trying to disarm the two men at a local dance. His brother would recover and both men would be released because the shooting was thought to have been in self defense. 

Clay Allison two years before his death

       This would be the last killing by Allison. He would soon move to Missouri and bragged that he had killed fifteen men. In 1887, he fell from his wagon and the wheels rolled across his neck nearly decapitating him. He was forty-seven years old. He rests today in Pecos Cemetery, Pecos, Texas. He is famous for once remarking, “I never killed a man that didn’t need killing.”

Confederate tombstone for Clay Allison


  1. Interesting way to die! What an ornery old coot!!

  2. Clay Allison was my Great, Great Grandpa Allison. I had the pleasure of taking care of my Great Grandma Pearl in her last years of life. Im happy to have grown up knowing Pearl as a young girl through my early adult years. She lived to be 99yrs old. Grandma died on Christmas Day months before turning 100yrs old. She was a wild one. One of a kind. A very energetic, beautiful, interesting woman of her time.

    1. Ma'am, my name is Kenny Lane of Macon County TN.
      I've always been fascinated by Clay Allison and other shootists. My Great-grandfather was second cousin to Wes Hardin so it comes naturally.
      I'd be proud if you'd contact me, I'd love to hear your stories about Miss Pearl.
      Thank you.