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Clay Allison, Notorious Gunfighter

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Written in 1930, here is a description of infamous Old West gunfighter Clay Allison:

"What keeps the name of Clay Allison alive among these oldtimers is not so much the large number of his killings, as the boisterous dare-deviltry, the grim diablerie, with which the man seemed possessed even when he was taking someone's life. Allison sober was an exceedingly pleasant and kind man, but Allison drunk was quite a different being. He became a man dangerous to cross. 'He was a whale of a fellow,' said a contemporary of Allison, 'and considerate of his companions; but throw a drink into him, and he was hell turned loose, rearin' for a chance to shoot-in self defense.'

In physical appearance, Clay Allison was a striking, not to say magnificent figure. I have searched hard for a photograph of him, but have never been able to acquire one. Thus for details of his appearance, I have to fall back on word-portraits. He was about six feet two inches in height and weighed between 180 and 190 pounds. He is said to have had the blue eye that seems to have been quite the distinguishing characteristic of the killer, although one who knew him well insists that his eyes were black. His face is described as large, with all its features prominent. Usually there was a serious cast to his countenance; some even speak of it as having a 'melancholy look.' His hair was worn down to the shoulders, and his mustache was long and formidable, after the fashion of the times. For a man of such large physique, he was remarkably active and quick in his movements...

Clay Allison was born in Tennessee about 1840 [and] shortly after the Civil War drifted into the West . . . in what then was called Indian Territory [Oklahoma]. In the course of time Allison drifted into Texas. He seems to have worked for awhile as a cowpuncher at some ranch, probably on the headwaters of the Brazos.

While Allison was working in the Brazos section and apparently was on the road to becoming in the course of time one of the cattle kings of that section, he became involved in a serious difficulty with a friend and neighbor. Allison himself never told the cause of the difficulty, but the trouble was so grave it was impossible to settle it amicably. The two men therefore agreed to fight it out.

Allison's grim originality showed itself in the details under which the duel was to take place. It was agreed that a grave should be prepared, of the usual length and width, but with the exceptional depth of seven or eight feet. The two men were to strip themselves to the waist and then seat themselves inside the grave at the two ends, each grasping in his right hand a Bowie knife of a stated size.

At a given signal, they were to arise and start fighting. This they were to keep up until one or the other was dead. A final stipulation required the survivor then and there to cover the dead one with the earth removed in digging the grave. The story gives Allison the victory, but it also attributes to him such a high degree of remorse that it was impossible for him to remain in that vicinity. Therefore he sold out his interests and moved to Colfax County in New Mexico."

----- "Clay Allison," by Maurice G. Fulton, Southwest Review, Vol XV, Winter 1930

Note from Traces: Allison later became a rancher and cattle broker in Pecos, where he was killed in a freak accident at the age of 46 and where he is buried. And is it just me, or is there something cold and unfeeling in his stare?


clay allison.jpg

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