July 1

This Day in History

Old West

Jul 1, 1887:

Gunfighter Clay Allison killed

Clay Allison, eccentric gunfighter and rancher, dies in a freak wagon accident in Texas.

Born around 1840 in Waynesboro, Tennessee, Allison seemed to display odd tendencies from a young age. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the Confederate Army but received a rare medical discharge for a condition that doctors called "partly epileptic and partly maniacal," resulting perhaps from an early childhood head injury.

After spending some time as a cowhand for the famous Texas ranchers Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight, Allison started his own ranch near Cimarron, New Mexico. For a time, he got along well with the local residents, but his tendencies toward violent rages soon became apparent. In October 1870, Allison led an angry mob that seized an accused murderer named Charles Kennedy from the local jail and hanged him. Such vigilante justice was not unusual, but many townspeople were shocked when a wild-eyed Allison decapitated Kennedy and displayed his head on a pole in a local saloon.

In 1874, Allison's dangerous reputation grew when he beat a famed gunfighter to the draw, coolly shooting his opponent squarely above the right eye. A year later, Allison joined another lynch mob and helped hang suspected murderer Cruz Vega from a telegraph pole. Again, merely killing the man did not satisfy Allison's blood lust. He shot Vega's corpse in the back and then dragged it over rocks and bushes until it was a mangled pulp.

In 1881, Allison married and moved his ranch to the Texas Panhandle. His wife eventually bore him two daughters, and perhaps family life mellowed him. His behavior, however, remained extremely eccentric, and he occasionally lapsed into violent rages. Once he rode nude through the streets of Mobeetie, Texas. On another occasion, he visited a dentist in Cheyenne, Wyoming, who began drilling on the wrong tooth. After having his bad tooth repaired by a different doctor, Allison returned to the offending dentist, pinned him down, and extracted a tooth with a pair of pliers.

On this day in 1887, Allison died while driving a freight wagon to his ranch north of Pecos, Texas. A sudden jolt threw Allison from the wagon and a wheel rolled over his head, crushing his skull and neck. In 1975, Allison's remains were moved to a grave in downtown Pecos where a granite headstone made the questionable assertion that he was a "Gentleman and Gunfighter" who "never killed a man that did not need killing."

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