Frank Leslie: Lust, Love, and Murder

Last week’s blog dealt with the infamous saloon murder of lawman, gambler, and gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok. I thought we’d keep with the Old West motif this week and take up the case of Frank Leslie.

“Buckskin” Frank Leslie

Nashville Franklyn Leslie was born in in Texas in 1842. Sources vary as to exactly where in Texas. While most accept San Antonio as Leslie’s birthplace, others identify Galveston. Like many Old West figures, the details of his origins and early life are sketchy at best. Leslie himself told colorful, often conflicting—and improbable—stories of his life. Some of his tales included medical studies at Heidelberg and a stint as an officer in the Confederate Army. He also claimed to have served as “Deputy Sheriff of Abalene [sic] under J.B. Hickock [sic].”

William Franklyn "Buckskin Frank" Leslie photographed at the Yuma Territorial Prison
William Franklyn “Buckskin Frank” Leslie photographed at the Yuma Territorial Prison

Another story had Leslie scouting for the U.S. Army during the Indian wars, where he supposedly acquired the nickname of “Buckskin.” No hard evidence exists to support any of these stories.

What the record does show is that in 1878, Frank Leslie was living in San Francisco working as a barkeeper. He worked at that capacity in at least two establishments between 1878 and 1880.

Frank Leslie Comes to Tombstone

About a year before the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Frank Leslie showed up in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. He wore the buckskins of a scout but quickly traded the frontier look for gentleman’s togs like those he’d worn in San Francisco. To accent the new look, he donned a fringed buckskin vest, enhancing his image as “Buckskin Frank” Leslie. He proceeded to open the Cosmopolitan Hotel at 409 Allen Street with partner William H. Knapp.

An unusual photograph of the Cosmopolitan Hotel taken by Carleton E. Watkins in 1880
An unusual photograph of the Cosmopolitan Hotel taken by Carleton E. Watkins in 1880

One of the hotel’s employees was a chambermaid named Mary Jane Killeen. Frank Leslie had attended Mary’s wedding to Mike Killeen in April 1880 and was even one of the official witnesses. Nevertheless, Killeen was extremely jealous of the relationship—whatever it was—between Leslie and Mary.

Mary Jane "May" Killeen. This 1880s cabinet photograph is part of a collection of Tombstone prostitutes, making it likely she wasn't just a hotel chambermaid.
Mary Jane “May” Killeen. This 1880s cabinet photograph is part of a collection of Tombstone prostitutes, making it likely she wasn’t just a hotel chambermaid.

On June 22, 1880, Leslie and a friend, George Perine, were sitting with Mary on the porch of the Cosmopolitan. An angry Killeen attacked Leslie, first shooting at him, and then clubbing him with his pistol. In the brawl, Killeen received a fatal gunshot wound. Before dying five days later, Killeen accused Perine of firing the fatal shot.

Authorities charged both Perine and Leslie with murder. Leslie claimed self-defense and testified that Perine had not fired his gun. The court accepted this explanation and dismissed charges against both men. Eyebrows in Tombstone raised, however, when Frank Leslie married Mary Jane Killeen only eight days after her husband’s death.

Frank Leslie Kills Billy Claiborne

A major fire destroyed much of Tombstone on May 26, 1882, including the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Frank Leslie and his partner, William Knapp decided not to rebuild. Instead, Leslie took a job as a bartender at the Oriental Saloon, one of the few buildings left undamaged by the fire.

Gambling at the Oriental Saloon about the time Frank Leslie would have been a bartender
Gambling at the Oriental Saloon about the time Frank Leslie would have been a bartender (Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum)

Leslie was tending bar at the Oriental on November 14, 1882, when a very drunk Billy Claiborne came in and began verbally abusing him. Claiborne, who had survived the infamous OK Corral shootout just over a year before, believed Leslie had killed his friend, Johnny Ringo. Leslie ejected Claiborne from the saloon, but Billy waited outside.

William Floyd "Billy" Claiborne was part of Ike Clanton's "cowboy" faction . He ran away from the infamous O,K. Corral gunfight because he was unarmed. His luck ran out a year later when he picked a fight with Frank Leslie.. He was only 22
William Floyd “Billy” Claiborne was part of Ike Clanton’s “cowboy” faction . He ran away from the infamous O,K. Corral gunfight because he was unarmed. His luck ran out a year later when he picked a fight with Frank Leslie.. He was only 22

Leslie stepped out onto the street and saw a rifle protruding from behind a fruit stand. He tried to convince Claiborne not to shoot, but Billy fired anyway, missing. Frank then fired a single shot into Billy’s chest. When Leslie approached him, Claiborne reportedly said, “Don’t shoot again, I am killed.” The coroner’s inquest ruled the killing justifiable in self-defense.

Murder and Prison

Frank Leslie’s wife Mary Killeen filed for divorce. Her complaint alleged that Frank had had sex with one Birdie Woods in July 1886. She further charged that he had choked and beaten her (Mary) on March 9, 1887. Judge William H. Barnes granted the divorce on June 3, 1887, ordering Frank to pay $650 in cash and Mary’s court costs.

Sometime after his divorce, a prostitute, “Blonde Mollie” Williams joined him at his ranch, presenting herself as his wife. Like many sex workers of the time, Mollie’s surname sometimes varied. She was Mollie Bradshaw when she arrived in Tombstone from Nevada with E.L. Bradshaw. She was Mollie Williams when she took up with Frank Leslie. Her real name was possibly Mollie Edwards.

"Blonde Mollie" Williams lived with Frank Leslie after Mary Killeen divorced him
“Blonde Mollie” Williams lived with Frank Leslie after Mary Killeen divorced him

On July 10, 1889, a drunken Frank Leslie returned to his ranch and saw Mollie sitting and talking with ranch hand James Neil. In a rage, he shot Millie in the head, killing her. He then shot Neil to eliminate him as a witness, but Neil survived. Leslie was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The Mohave Miner reported his arrival at the Yuma Territorial Prison on January 9, 1890. “The eleven convicts who were brought here from Tombstone yesterday, arrived in an intoxicated condition. One of the number, a life prisoner, Frank Leslie, was so drunk that he could scarcely walk.”

Epilogue

Territorial governor Benjamin J. Franklin granted Leslie a full and unconditional pardon on November 17, 1896. Shortly his release, he married a San Francisco divorcee named Belle Stowell on December 1, 1896. Apparently the two did not live together for long. The marriage officially ended on March 19, 1903, when Belle received a divorce on the grounds of “failure to provide.”

“Buckskin” Frank Leslie married at least once more, this time to Elnora “Nora” Cast on November 6, 1913. The last public record of his remarkable life found him living on Water Street in Sausalito, California on January 27, 1920. He was 77 years old at the time. When Nora died in 1932, Frank Leslie was not listed as a survivor.

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