The True Story of Clay Allison and Wyatt Earp
Original photograph of the 'Dodge City Peace Commission' in June 1883. Front, l-r; Chas. E. Basset, Wyatt S. Earp, Frank McLain, and Neil Brown. Back, l-r; W. H. Harris, Luke Short, W. B. Bat Masterson, and W. F. Petillon. This is the version with Petillon beside Masterson. All rights reserved. FCHS.
One of the most written about events of the Old West is the "showdown" between Wyatt Earp, assistant marshal of Dodge City, and Clay Allison, rancher and self-proclaimed "shootist" from New Mexico. The San Francisco Examiner of 1896 and nearly all biographies of Earp have featured it in some fashion. Charlie Siringo talked of the incident in his autobiography, Riata and Spurs. A somewhat different version appeared in Robert K. DeArment's Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend.
The issue of law enforcement was at the forefront of local matters in the summer of 1878. The Ford County Globe ran several items regarding the failure of the police to "suppress" thieves, confidence men, and robbers. The Globe also seemed to question whether this criminal element was under the protection of the police force. Frustration with the lack of enforcement of the laws against the tinhorn gamblers and their like had been apparent since September 1876, several months after Wyatt Earp came on the scene. The Hays Sentinel of September 20, 1876 carried the following: "The citizens of Dodge have organized a vigilance committee and last week the committee addressed the following pointed note to every gambler in the city; 'Sir: You are hereby notified to leave this city before 6 o'clock, a. m. of Sept. 17th, 1876, and not return here."
At the same time, the police were "buffaloing" herders with near impunity. An item in the August 6, 1878, issue of the Globe berates an unnamed officer for beating a Mexican prisoner unmercifully. "The policeman who pounded the Mexican over the head with a six-shooter last Thursday [August 1] night, did not display either much manhood or bravery. When we consider the fact that the poor 'greaser' was sitting on a bench almost helpless from the effects of a previous beating, we don't think that even a Dodge City policeman who is nearly the greatest man in the world, has any right to walk deliberately up to him without any provocations, and knock out one or two of his eyes." According to the Dodge City Police Court Docket, the arrested man was Guadelupe Flores for drunk and disorderly. Flores plead guilty to this charge. However, the police court docket contains this note: "But upon examination of the circumstances connected with the case the court finds that he is not guilty as charged and that he be discharged...." There can be little doubt that the court felt Mr. Flores had suffered enough at the hands of the Dodge City Police.
A meeting of the populace was called to discuss the inaction of the officers concerning the criminal element infesting Dodge. Even the allied Dodge City Times was wondering about the advisability of forming a grand jury to contend with the problem. Such was the dissatisfaction of the people during that summer of '78.
Concurrently, the cattlemen of Texas indignant about the perceived mistreatment of their men and were not about to stand for it. In a letter dated at Lewistown, Montana, September 30, 1934, cowboy Pink Simms wrote: "A drunken cowboy had been shot to death while shooting a pistol in the air in the streets of Dodge. He worked for, or at least, was a friend of, Clay Allison. Others had been robbed, shot, and beaten over the head with revolvers and the cowmen were indignant about it. It was stated that the marshals were all pimps, gamblers and saloonkeepers. They had the cowboys disarmed, and with their teeth pulled they were harmless. If they got too bad or went and got a gun, they were cut down with shotguns. Allison...[was] going to protest over the treatment of [his] men and of course the salty old Clay was willing to back his arguments with gunsmoke." The charged atmosphere around Dodge made an explosion a very real possibility.
Robert Andrew Clay Allison was already a western legend when he came to Dodge in 1878, while Wyatt Earp would not become famous for several years. The Dodge City newspapers noted Allison's comings and goings and the Kinsley Graphic of December 14, 1878, had this to say when Clay stopped there. "Clay Allison, well known on the frontier and western Kansas, but better known in western Texas, for daring deeds and the number of affrays with knife and navy he engaged in, has been to town for several days this week. His appearance is striking. Tall, straight as an arrow, dark complexioned, carries himself with ease and grace, gentlemanly and courteous in manner, never betraying by word or action the history of his eventful life."
Allison "notches" included Chunk Colbert, regionally infamous man-killer; Francisco Griego, another locally noted gunfighter; and Las Animas officer Charles Fabre. Numerous are the stories of his exploits, some fact, some fiction. All stories, factual or otherwise, led to Clay Allison being one of the most feared men of the west when he arrived in Dodge City, in September of 1878.
Front Street, Dodge City, 1874, with (from left) Rath and Wright's General Outfitting Store, Beeson and Harris' Long Branch saloon, and Hoover's cigar and liquor Store. All rights reserved, FCHS.
The first known written record of the
Allison/Earp clash is an interview with Wyatt Earp published in the San
Francisco Examiner of August 16, 1896. The pertinent parts of the
article are these:
"And so Clay Allison came to town, and for a whole day behaved like a veritable chesterfield [perfect gentleman]. But the next morning one of my policemen woke me up to tell me that the bad man from Colorado was loaded up with a pair of six-shooters and a mouth full of threats. Straightway I put my guns on and went down the street with Bat Masterson. Now, Bat had a shotgun in the District Attorney's office, which was behind a drugstore just opposite Wright's store. He thought the weapon might come in handy in case of trouble, so he skipped across the street to get it. But not caring to be seen with such a weapon before there was any occasion for it, he stayed over there, talking to some people outside the drugstore, while I went into Webster's Saloon looking for Allison. I saw at a glance that my man wasn't there, and had just reached the sidewalk to turn into the Long Branch, next door, when I met him face to face. We greeted each other with caution .... and as we spoke backed carelessly up against the wall, I on the right. There we stood, measuring each other with sideways glances. An onlooker across the street might have thought we were old friends.
Long Branch saloon interior, Front Street, Dodge City, circa 1878.
'So,' said Allison truculently, 'you're the man that killed my friend Hoyt.'
'Yes, I guess I'm the man you're looking for,' said I.
His right hand was stealing round to his pistol pocket, but I made no move. Only I watched him narrowly. With my own right hand I had a firm grip on my six-shooter, and with my left I was ready to grab Allison's gun the moment he jerked it out. He studied the situation in all its bearings for the space of a second or two. I saw the change in his face.
'I guess I'll go round the corner,' he said abruptly.
'I guess you'd better,' I replied.
And he went.
In the meantime ten or a dozen of the worst Texans in town were laying low in Bob Wright's Store, with their Winchesters, ready to cover Allison's retreat out of town, or help him in the killing, if necessary. From where he had stationed himself Bat Masterson could see them, but I did not know they were there. After the encounter with Allison I moved up the street and would have passed Bob Wright's door had not Bat, from across the street signaled to me to keep out of range. A moment later Allison, who had mounted his horse, rode out in front of Webster's and called to me.
'Come over here, Wyatt,' he said, 'I want to talk to you.'
'I can hear you all right here,' I replied. 'I think you came here to fight with me, and if you did you can have it right now.'
Several friends of mine wanted me to take a shotgun, but I thought I could kill him all right with a six-shooter. At that moment Bob Wright came running down the street to urge Allison to go out of town. He had experienced a sudden change of heart because Bat had crossed over to him with these portentous words: 'If this fight comes up, Wright, you're the first man I'm going to kill.' Allison listened to the legislator's entreaties with a scowl.
'Well I don't like you any too well,' he said, 'there were a lot of your friends to be here this morning to help me out, but I don't see them round now.'
'Earp,' he continued, turning to me and raising his voice. 'I believe you're a pretty good man from what I've seen of you. Do you know that these coyotes sent for me to make a fight with you and kill you? Well, I'm going to ride out of town, and I wish you good luck.'
Charles A. Siringo's very different account in his 1927 book Riada and Spurs, is often dismissed by historians due to lack of corroborating evidence (perhaps too, because his version makes Wyatt Earp look bad). As we will see, there actually is contemporary evidence backing Siringo's presence in Dodge at the proper time.
"About the first of October eight hundred fat steers were cut out of my four herds and started for Dodge City, Kansas.... I secured permission [from owner David T. Beals] to ... accompany them to Chicago....
"A 25-mile ride brought us to the toughest town on earth, Dodge City. It was now daylight, and the first man on the main street was Cape Willingham, who at this writing is a prosperous cattle broker in El Paso, Texas. Cape gave us our first news of the great Indian outbreak. [Dull Knife's raid through Kansas.] He told of the many murders committed by the reds south of Dodge City the day previous - one man was killed at Mead City, and two others near the Crooked Creek store. "Riding up the main street Ferris and I saw twenty-five mounted cowboys, holding rifles in their hands, and facing one of the half-dozen saloons, adjoining each other, on that side of the street [Front Street]. In passing this armed crowd one of them recognized me. Calling me by name he said: 'Fall in line quick, h--l is going to pop in a few minutes.'
"We jerked our Winchester rifles from the scabbards and fell in line, like most any other fool cowboys would have done. In a moment Clay Allison, the man-killer, came out of one of the saloons holding a pistol in his hand. With him was Mr. McNulty, owner of the large Panhandle "Turkey-track" cattle outfit. Clay was hunting for some of the town policemen, or the city marshal, so as to wipe them off the face of the earth. His twenty-five cowboy friends had promised to help him clean up Dodge City.
"After all the saloons had been searched, Mr. McNulty succeeded in getting Clay to bed at the Bob Wright Hotel. Then we all dispersed. Soon after, the city law officers began to crawl out of their hiding places, and appear on the street."
Robert K. DeArment, from this account, deduced in his biography Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, that the incident must have happened on September 17 or 18, 1878. Used as evidence is Siringo's placing the affair at the time of the Dull Knife raid through Kansas, specifically Meade. The papers of the day make it plain that the killings at Meade occurred on September 16, 1878. Dodge City heard of the raid on Meade on September 17, 1878.
With more than 40 years separating the incident and the retelling, Siringo's estimation of the first part of October is only a close approximation. An item in the October 8, 1878, issue of the Globe reinforces the year and indicates that in all probability the event happened in mid September. It says D. T. Beals shipped 25 carloads of cattle to Chicago between October 1 and October 7, 1878. The same issue of the Globe shows Dick McNulty, the hero of Siringo's story, to have shipped 18 carloads of cattle from Dodge City to Kansas City the same week, putting him in Dodge at about the same time.
Now consider the following news item from the Dodge City Times of September 21, 1878. "There was a scrimmage Thursday night, [September 19] between some of the officers and the party that were going on the Indian hunt. Several shots were fired. One man carries a bandaged head and a soldier was severely wounded in the leg. A disgraceful row occurred in the afternoon, in which it is said the officers failed to appear [emphasis added]. These occurrences are the subjects of much comment on the conduct of the officers."
Is this reference to a "disgraceful row" on September 19, the extent of the reporting of Clay Allison's "hunt for trouble?" That "the officers failed to appear" is consistent the account of not only Siringo but another participant, Chalk Beeson.
I recently re-discovered an interview with Beeson, datelined Topeka, January 17,  (Special). It seems to confirm the Siringo account. The interview is found in a Beeson family scrapbook on file at the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City, Kansas. The originating publication is not identified.
Chalkley McArtor Beeson was co-owner of the Long Branch saloon in Dodge, city councilman, two-time sheriff of Ford County, and four-time state legislator representing Ford County in Topeka. He was described by one newspaper as "a quiet, almost noiseless man of medium size." His hometown newspaper once described Beeson as the "man of the hour." Indeed, the city of Dodge named a street after him many years ago. Here are the pertinent portions of that interview.
"Topeka, Jan. 17. (Special.) ... Chalk Beeson is dean of the outfit. He migrated to the Western plains with the buffalo.... 'The noted Clay Allison with his gang of untamed cowboys came to Dodge one day to start some trouble,' continued Beeson. 'They soon found it. Erp [sic] was marshal [assistant marshal] at the time. He notified the boys to be on guard. I saw that a clash was coming.'
'Dick McNulty and myself held a brief conference. Something had to be done, and done quickly to prevent a wholesale killing. We took our lives in our hands and went to Allison and his gang and told them, as friends, that they had better not start anything. We argued with them while the lines were forming for a general battle. They finally yielded and handed us their guns, which we kept until they got ready to leave town. After giving up their guns they were in no danger. No one there would be so mean as to jump on to them when they were unarmed. That was against the rules of civilized warfare as construed in Dodge.'"
The only mention by Beeson of Wyatt Earp is that he "notified the boys to be on guard." Notice also, that Dick McNulty is responsible for disarming Allison - Siringo said the same thing.
Much weight must be given to the account of Chalk Beeson. Mr. Beeson's integrity has, to my knowledge, never been seriously questioned. He was in Dodge on September 19, 1878.
These three participants--Earp, Siringo, and Beeson--all tell of Clay Allison coming to Dodge City hunting trouble. The reason for Allison's trip could very well be the one put forth by Texan Pink Simms; the mistreatment of the cowboys in general and the shooting of George Hoy.
From these three accounts, perhaps a likely scenario can be put together. While the Texan Siringo wrote of the cowardice of the officers, Dodge City partisan Beeson takes a different stance. A case can be made for the following reconstruction of events.
It would seem that Charles Siringo hit Dodge on September 19, 1878, where he heard the reports of Indian depredations south of Dodge from Cape Willingham. There he met an indignant Clay Allison, backed by his "untamed cowboys". Allison was intent upon getting to the bottom of the George Hoy killing while forcing the Dodge City police to ease up on his friends. Likely the mob went from saloon to saloon, maintaining their courage with whisky at each stop. As the anger increased, so did the fury of the protestations with all its accompanying shooting and shouting until it became a "disgraceful row" by early afternoon.
Knowing that 25 rowdy cowboys backed Allison, Wyatt Earp and policeman Jim Masterson (Bat's brother) began to assemble their forces. In the meantime, Dick McNulty and Chalk Beeson intervened on behalf of the town, convincing Allison and his "gang of untamed cowboys" to give up their guns. The gang then dispersed. Two participants verify this action on the part of McNulty.
While the gang was being talked out of their guns, the officers still had not confronted Allison and his friends. This inaction would have seemed like cowardice to Clay Allison and his gang, dereliction of duty to the townspeople. Therefore, we have the Globe of the 21st adding, "it is said the officers failed to appear. These occurrences are the subjects of much comment on the conduct of the officers."
There seems to be no evidence that any kind of showdown occurred between Wyatt Earp and Clay Allison per the Examiner interview. Neither Beeson nor Siringo mention anything about it. In addition, there is evidence that Robert Wright and Bat Masterson could not be involved. They were both out of town during the Dull Knife raid.
Evidence for a "conversation" between Allison and Earp is sparse. A likely scenario for this meeting is the one put forth by Pink Simms. "I also heard that later Allison alone found Wyatt Earp seated in the lookout's chair at a faro game and he told him in no uncertain terms what he thought of the way some of the cowboys were being treated." We have in this a highly believable proposition. Allison had no fear of being gunned down. As Beeson so eloquently put it, "[n]o one there would be so mean as to jump on to them when they were unarmed. That was against the rules of civilized warfare as construed in Dodge.
Mr. Beeson's story seems to enforce the one told by Charles Siringo. It is clear that for whatever reason, Wyatt Earp backed by Bat Masterson did not quell the disturbance. That honor must go to Dick McNulty and Chalk Beeson.