A Man with a Thirst for Violence


The rancher turned gunman rode into Cheyenne, Wyoming, with a toothache causing him unbearable pain,  so he chose the nearest of the town’s two dentists.

When the dentist accidentally drilled into the wrong molar, the patient got angry, leaped out of the chair, and left to see Cheyenne’s other dentist.

After the problem was resolved, the patient returned to the first dentist’s office, shoved him into his own chair, grabbed a forceps, and tried pulling out the dentist’s teeth. Depending on the version of the story, the dentist’s screams apparently alerted the townspeople who rescued him.

The patient was Clay Allison, a short-tempered gunman given to violent mood swings.


Most men seemed to mellow with age, but Allison proved the exception. The older he got, the meaner he became.

Allison, whose actual first name was Robert, was the fourth of nine children, born on September 2, 1840, on a farm near Waynesboro, Tennessee.

At 21, he joined the Confederate Army, despite being born with a club foot.Three months, later, however, he received a medical discharge three months later because of an old head injury. Doctors ruled Allison “incapable of performing the duties of a soldier,” adding that he was given to “epileptic and partly maniacal” behavior when engaged in any kind of excitement.

On several occasions, for example, he threatened to kill superior officers for making decisions not to pursue retreating enemy troops.

But, the ruling only amounted to a temporary deterrent. Less than a year later, he joined the 9th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment. Several reports say Allison served with some distinction

After returning home, he got involved in several violent encounters before leaving for Texas along with his brothers, and a sister and her husband.


Allison worked as a cowhand for Texas ranchers Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight, and then got his own ranch near Cimarron, New Mexico, which began to establish his reputation for violence.

In October 1870, he led an angry mob of vigilantes who removed accused murderer Charles Kennedy from the local jail and hanged him.

But Allison wasn’t satisfied with just lynching the man. In a move the shocked the other vigilantes, he decapitated the dead man and displayed the man’s head on a pole in a local saloon.

Four years later, in Santa Fe. Alison joined another lynch party that hanged suspected killer Cruz Vega.

Seeing Vega dangling from the end of a rope didn’t satisfy Allison, so he fired several shots into the dead man’s back, before cutting him down and dragged him over brush and rocks, mutilating it beyond recognition.

A relative of Vega – Francisco “Pancho” Griego, considered a dangerous- vowed revenge against Allison.

The two men confronted each other at Lambert’s Saloon in the St James Hotel. Minutes later, Griego fell to the floor with three bullets in him.


The Cimarron News and Press, in January 1876, ran an editorial dressing down Allison.

The piece so enraged the gunman, a drunken Allison stormed into the office and wrecked the place. Accounts say he later returned and paid $200 to cover the damages.

Within a year, or so, was involved in another shooting, and killed Deputy Sheriff Charles Faber who had shot Allison’s brother, John, who in the process of trying to disarm both men at a local dance.

Allison and his brother, who recovered from the wound, were taken into custody.

Both, however, were released because the shooting was said to have been in self defense.


In the summer of 1878, Allison and lawman Wyatt Earp supposedly confronted each other.

Different versions of the so-called showdown exist, including an account by the San Francisco Examiner, in an interview with Earp that appeared August 16, 1896.

Details of the the face-off are included in various biographies of Earp.

Pinkerton agent Charles Siringo included one in his autobiography. In his version, Allison seems to get the upper hand on Earp.

The Ford County Historical Society of Dodge City, Kansas, published was it titled: The True Story of Clay Allison and Wyatt Earp Dodge City, KS.


After the killing of the Deputy Sheriff Faber, Allison often bragged he had killed fifteen men over his career.

Despite his reputation as a stone-cold killer, most of the documentation indicates he killed only four men over the years.

Unlike others with similar backgrounds, Allison did not die from a bullet.

He was killed while driving a freight wagon to his ranch north of Pecos, Texas, on July 1, 1887.

Allison claimed credit for coining the term Shootist.

He once said, “I never killed a man who didn’t need killing.”


A novelist, storyteller, and naturally curious amateur historian, Tom’s new three-volume collection, TALL TALES FROM THE HIGH PLAINS & BEYOND, features more than 180 true stories featuring characters and events of the Old West, crafted with a fictional technique that drops readers into the middle of the action. 
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