Wyatt Earp: Terrific and Famous Gunfight at OK Corral

Last week’s blog covered the case of Gary Triano, a Tucson, Arizona, real estate developer killed by a pipe bomb placed in his Lincoln Continental. This week, we take a short trip geographically but almost a century and a half in time to Tombstone, Arizona Territory. On October 26, 1881, gunfire erupted in the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral. Although he was only one of the men who took part, Wyatt Earp emerged as the fight’s most famous participant.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp is the stuff of legend, a legend burnished by Stuart Lake’s adulatory (and highly fictitious) 1931 biography, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. Books, films, and an eponymous television series built an image of a straight-arrow lawman fighting for justice. The truth is more nuanced. While Earp did serve as a lawman in various capacities, he also gambled and invested money in saloons. One can conclude that money and influence motivated him as much as seeking justice.

Wyatt Earp, age 21
Wyatt Earp, age 21

The man whose reputation rests on his association with the Old West began his life in prosaic Monmouth, Illinois. About two years after his birth, the Earp family joined a group planning to relocate to San Bernardino, California. However, when Wyatt’s sister, Martha, became ill, the family stopped and settled near Pella, Iowa.

Wyatt’s older brothers joined the Union army during the American Civil War. At the same time, his father recruited local men and drilled them as soldiers. At age 13, Wyatt also tried to join the army, but his father stopped him. Rather than fighting, he tended the family farm with Morgan and Warren, his two younger brothers.

Wyatt Earp Moves West

Wyatt’s first foray west was to join older brother Virgil as a teamster in California in the summer of 1865. After the stint in California, he bounced back and forth between the west and the Midwest. He stopped in places like Wichita and Dodge City, Kansas; Peoria, Illinois; and Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Occasionally he served as town constable or assistant marshal. Other times, he found himself in scrapes with the law.

Wyatt Earp and Bartholomew “Bat” Masterson (standing) in Dodge City, Kansas in 1876

Dodge City made a lasting impact on Wyatt. Not only did he serve as a lawman there, but he met John Henry “Doc” Holliday in Dodge. Wyatt and Doc became lifelong friends after Doc saved Wyatt’s life in a Dodge City saloon fight.

Holliday’s distinguished Georgia family saw bleak times after the Civil War. But Doc managed to attend the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in Philadelphia. Diagnosed with tuberculosis soon after graduating, he moved west. He gradually abandoned dentistry and earned a reputation as a gambler and gunslinger.

Wyatt Earp in Tombstone

By 1879, Dodge City started to settle down, no longer the wild cowtown of earlier days. Wyatt left Dodge in company with his common-law wife, his brother Jim and Jim’s wife, and Doc Holliday and his companion, Big-Nose Kate. The Earps and their women arrived in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, on December 1, 1879. Doc Holliday and Kate stayed behind in Prescott, where the gambling opportunities appeared more promising.

Tombstone, Arizona Territory in 1881 (photographed by C.S. Fly)
Tombstone, Arizona Territory in 1881 (photographed by C.S. Fly)

Wyatt’s brother, Virgil, became a Pima County deputy sheriff in 1880. He appointed Wyatt as his deputy soon after Wyatt arrived in town. On January 1, 1881, eastern Pima County split into a new entity, Cochise County, with Tombstone as its seat. Wyatt applied to be sheriff of the new county, but so did Johnny Behan. Behan, a wily—some say crooked—political operative, outmaneuvered Wyatt and became sheriff. This inauspicious beginning would have repercussions later.

Wyatt Earp at about age 39

Wyatt Earp and the Cowboys

The Clanton family owned a ranch twelve miles southwest of Tombstone and twenty miles from the Mexican border. The Clantons used the place as a base for their smuggling and rustling operations. The family patriarch, Newman Haynes “Old Man” Clanton, died when a group of Mexicans out to recover stolen cattle ambushed him and his party in August 1881. His sons, Ike, Phineas “Phin,” and Billy Clanton, carried on.

Clanton clan patriarch Newman Haynes "Old Man" Clanton
Clanton clan patriarch Newman Haynes “Old Man” Clanton

In the climate of the times, the Cowboys resented the growing influence of city residents on politics and law enforcement. Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan sympathized with the ranchers and supported them. The sheriff disliked the Earps and tended to ignore their complaints about the Clantons and their illegal activities.

Joseph Isaac "Ike" Clanton photographed in 1881 by Tombstone photographer C.S. Fly
Joseph Isaac “Ike” Clanton photographed in 1881 by Tombstone photographer C.S. Fly

The Earp faction opposed the Cowboys. Behan may have been country sheriff, but Virgil Earp represented the law in Tombstone as a Deputy U.S. Marshal and City Marshal. The Earps, of course, had strong family ties of their own.

The Earps Confront the Cowboys

The infamous gunfight stemmed from Virgil’s decision to enforce a city ordinance against carrying guns in town. He received reports that the Clantons and their allies, the McLaury brothers, left the livery stable and entered town while armed. The Cowboys’ recent (and repeated) threats against the Earps may have influenced his decision. He appointed Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc Holliday as special policemen to assist him.

The rebuilt OK Corral in 2004. The original corral was destroyed along with much of Tombstone by a catastrophic 1882 fire (Brian W. Schaller)
The rebuilt OK Corral in 2004. The original corral was destroyed along with much of Tombstone by a catastrophic 1882 fire (Brian W. Schaller)

The OK Corral gunfight didn’t occur in the Corral. It happened near the corner of Fremont and Third Streets. The Earps and Holiday walked west down Fremont Street to where the Cowboys stood near Camillus Fly’s boarding house and photographic studio. Afterward, it proved impossible to ascertain with accuracy where the participants stood. What is known is that the three Earps and Doc Holliday faced six Cowboys: Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, Billy Claiborne, and Wes Fuller.

John Henry "Doc" Holliday gave up dentistry for whiskey, gambling, and gunslinging. He and Wyatt Earp became friends in Dodge City.
John Henry “Doc” Holliday gave up dentistry for whiskey, gambling, and gunslinging. He and Wyatt Earp became friends in Dodge City.

Gunfight at the OK Corral

Virgil didn’t expect a fight as the two sides faced off. He called to the Cowboys, “Throw up your hands! I want your guns!” When Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton drew and cocked their single-action revolvers, he shouted, “Hold! I don’t want that!”

Virgil Earp was the official representative of the law at the OK Corral
Virgil Earp was the official representative of the law at the OK Corral

Who fired first is uncertain. Partisan witnesses gave versions favorable to their side, and impartial witnesses didn’t know the participants by sight. The dense smoke from black powder weapons added to the confusion. When the smoke cleared, the McLaurys and Billy Clanton lay dead or dying. Virgil and Morgan suffered slight wounds, and a bullet bruised Doc Holliday’s hip when it struck his holster. Ike Clanton, who did so much to stir up the fight, ran from the battle, as did Billy Claiborne. Wyatt Earp suffered no injuries.

Wyatt Earp and the Aftermath

Sheriff Johnny Behan attempted to arrest Wyatt as he walked to his home, but Wyatt rebuffed him. Ike Clanton later filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday. Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer held a hearing on the matter and eventually ruled that Virgil Earp acted within his office as the lawman in charge. He criticized Virgil’s decision to deputize Wyatt and Holliday but decided they were within the law.

Ritter and Reams undertakers displayed the bodies of the McLaurys and Billy Clanton in their window. A sign accompanying the display read, “Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone.”

Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton (left to right) in the window of the undertakers. This is the only known photo of 19-year-old Billy.
Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton (left to right) in the window of the undertakers. This is the only known photo of 19-year-old Billy.

On December 28, a shotgun blast struck Virgil Earp in the left arm and shoulder, costing him the use of the arm. Ike Clanton’s hat was found near where the shot came from. An assassin ambushed Morgan Earp on Marcy 18, 1882, as he played billiards. Morgan died within minutes. Convinced he wouldn’t get justice, Wyatt hunted down Morgan’s attackers and killed them, using arrest warrants as a fig leaf of legality..

Epilogue

Ike Clanton was indicted for cattle rustling in the summer of 1887 and was killed in a gunfight with lawmen while resisting arrest.

Wyatt Earp continued to live a colorful life. In his later years, he often advised Hollywood cowboy actors and Western film directors. He died in Los Angeles on January 13, 1929, at age 80.

Wyatt and Josephine Earp, in their mining camp near Vidal, California in 1906
Wyatt and Josephine Earp, in their mining camp near Vidal, California in 1906

Countless books, films, and television shows tell the story of Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral gunfight, but only some are accurate. One biography I found to be trustworthy is Casey Tefertiller’s 1999 biography, Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. A short book purporting to be a blow-by-blow account of the gunfight itself is Countdown to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, written by K.M. Lassiter and published in 2017. The movies and television shows from the 1950s might be enjoyable entertainment, but their picture of Wyatt Earp is quite distorted.

An older Wyatt Earp ca. 1920s
An older Wyatt Earp ca. 1920s

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Soapy Smith: Big Swindle Leads Man to Murder

Last week our case was in Kent, England, where we profiled Michael Stone and the horrific Russel murders. This week, we’re back in the states, traveling to the Old West. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a con man made a name for himself in Denver and Alaska. History knows him as Soapy Smith.

Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith
Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith

Soapy Smith

Jefferson Randolph Smith was a native of Coweta County, Georgia, born in November 1860 on the eve of the American Civil War. His grandfather owned a plantation, and his father was a lawyer. But the war ruined the family financially, so they moved to Round Rock, Texas to start over. Smith’s mother died when he was 17 and he left home shortly thereafter. But while in Round Rock, he witnessed the death of infamous outlaw Sam Bass.

Outlaw Sam Bass
Outlaw Sam Bass

From Round Rock he traveled to Fort Worth where he soon established a close-knit gang of shills and con men. They specialized in “short cons” that needed little setup and assistance. Their method was to run the con for a brief time, then move on to avoid repercussions.

Soapy Smith Gets His Nickname

Smith is best known for what the Denver papers called the “prize soap racket.” Smith would set up a display case on a busy corner and pile it with bars of soap. While he warmed up the crowd that gathered, he would wrap money around the bar, then wrap the bar in plain paper. The money would range from $1 all the way up to $100.

Next, Smith would feign mixing the bars with money in with the other bars of soap. He then sold the soap for a dollar a bar (some sources say five dollars). At some point, a shill in the crowd would tear open his bar of soap and loudly proclaim he’d won. This, of course, led to the sale of more soap bars.

About halfway through the stack of soap bars, Smith would announce that the $100 bill remained in the stack. He then auctioned off the remaining bars to the highest bidders. But the only money “won” went to his shills.

Smith didn’t always get away with the racket. One time, a policeman named John Holland arrested him on a bunko charge. When he went to write Smith’s name in the police logbook, he forgot his first name and wrote “Soapy” instead. The sobriquet stuck and Jeff Smith became Soapy Smith.

Soapy Smith Hits Colorado

Smith arrived in Denver in 1879. By 1882, he had a grip on vice in that Colorado city. His influence at city hall grew until, by 1887, he was reputed to be involved in most of the city’s criminal activities. Soapy opened the Tivoli Club, a combination saloon and gambling house, in 1888. Smith’s younger brother, Bascomb, joined the gang and operated a cigar store. It was a front for the dishonest poker games that went on in the back room.

Soapy Smith's Tivoli Club (at left) at 17th and Market in Denver, Colorado ca. 1890
Soapy Smith’s Tivoli Club (at left) at 17th and Market in Denver, Colorado ca. 1890

Soapy operated in and around the Denver area for several years. In 1892, he moved his operation to the mining boomtown of Creede, Colorado. In Creede, he established the Orleans Club, another saloon and gambling house. At some point, he acquired a mummified body named “McGinty” that he exhibited as a “prehistoric” human. This was untrue. Twenty-first century tests showed the body had been embalmed using arsenic-based embalming fluid. But that didn’t stop Smith from charging people ten cents to look at the “prehistoric” relic. While they waited in line, the ultimate con man fleeced his customers with shell games and crooked card games.

Main Street, Creede, Colorado ca. 1892
Main Street, Creede, Colorado ca. 1892

Creede’s boom went bust quickly. Smith left town and returned to Denver, taking McGinty with him. His timing was excellent. A huge fire destroyed most of Creede’s business district, including the Orleans Club, on June 5, 1892.

The Klondike Gold Rush

Gold was discovered in the Klondike region of Yukon, Canada on August 16, 1896. When word reached Seattle and San Francisco the following year, it started the Klondike Gold Rush. This seemed like an excellent opportunity to the seasoned con man, so Soapy Smith went to Alaska.

Soapy Smith in his bar in Skagway, Alaska Territory
Soapy Smith in his bar in Skagway, Alaska Territory

Much like he had in Denver and Creede, Smith soon established an empire in Skagway, Alaska. His base of operations there was a saloon he called Jeff Smith’s Parlor he opened in March 1898. One of the tactics his gang used was to befriend newcomers and steer them to dishonest businesses or crooked gambling halls.

The Soap Gang hangs out in front of Jeff Smith's Parlor in Skagway on July 4, 1898. Four days later, Soapy Smith was dead (University of Washington Library)
The Soap Gang hangs out in front of Jeff Smith’s Parlor in Skagway on July 4, 1898. Four days later, Soapy Smith was dead (University of Washington Library)

But Skagway wasn’t as compliant as Denver or Creede had been. A vigilance committee called the “Committee of 101” threatened to expel Smith and his gang. In response, Smith created his own “law and order society” to counteract the vigilantes.

Soapy Smith Meets His End

On July 7, 1898, a miner named John Douglas Stewart returned to Skagway with a sack of gold worth $2,700. Gang members roped Stewart into a game of three-card monte. When Stewart refused to pay his losses, the gang members grabbed his sack of gold and ran.

The Committee of 101 got involved. They insisted Smith return the gold, but he refused, saying Stewart had lost it “fairly.”

Frank H. Reid shot Soapy Smith dead, but died himself 12 days after the gunbattle
Frank H. Reid shot Soapy Smith dead, but died himself 12 days after the gun battle

On the evening of July 8, the Committee of 101 organized a meeting on the Juneau Wharf. Smith, with a Winchester rifle slung over his shoulder, started arguing with a man named Frank H. Reid. Reid was one of the guards blocking Smith’s way to the wharf. Unexpectedly, a gunfight broke out. Soapy Smith fell dead, shot through the heart. Frank Reid suffered severe wounds as well.

Jefferson "Soapy" Smith's grave in Gold Rush Cemetery, Skagway, Alaska. The age on the marker is incorrect; Smith was 37 when he died (Wikipedia/Notyourbroom)
Jefferson “Soapy” Smith’s grave in Gold Rush Cemetery, Skagway, Alaska. The age on the marker is incorrect; Smith was 37 when he died (Wikipedia/Notyourbroom)

Epilogue

Most of Smith’s gang fled Skagway after his death. Frank Reid died twelve days after the shootout from a bullet in his leg and groin. He was buried in Skagway Cemetery. Jefferson “Soapy” Smith lies nearby in Gold Rush Cemetery.

There are several books about Soapy Smith. These include Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, Soapy Smith: The Life and Legacy of the Wild West’s Most Infamous Con Artist, and King Con: The Story of Soapy Smith.

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Tom Horn: Colorful Hired Killer Spreads Terror in Wyoming

Last week we saw serial killer Donald Gaskins have his budding career cut short. This week’s case is that of Tom Horn, one of the authentic “hired guns” of the American west. Horn rose to fame (or infamy) as a hitman during the fading days of the Old West.

Tom Horn—Scout, Rancher, Detective

Thomas Horn, Jr. was born on his family’s farm in Scotland County, Missouri in the northeastern corner of the state. The fifth of eventually 12 children, young Tom was a lonely child who often suffered abuse from his father. At 16, he traveled to the Southwest where the U.S. Army hired him as a scout and packer. His performance as a scout earned him praise and promotion. By 1885, he was chief of scouts at Fort Bowie in Arizona Territory. While with the Army, he witnessed Apache leader Geronimo’s final surrender to Gen. Nelson Miles on September 4, 1886.

Tom Horn braiding rope. The rumor that he braided the rope he was hanged with was false.
Tom Horn braiding rope. The rumor that he braided the rope he was hanged with was false.

Geronimo’s surrender marked the end of the Apache Wars in the Southwest. Horn took the money he had earned as a scout and started a small ranch in Southeastern Arizona Territory. However, one night, thieves attacked the ranch and stole his 100 head of cattle and 26 horses. The theft left Horn bankrupt. It also marked the beginning of his intense hatred for thieves

Following his failed attempt at ranching, Horn wandered about, holding a number of jobs. Most often he worked as a cowboy, where he was expected to use his gun to watch over the stock. In 1889, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency hired him because of his reputation as a tracker and for being cool under pressure.

Tom Horn Becomes a Hired gun

The so-called Johnson County War was essentially a class conflict between the big (and wealthy) cattlemen and small homesteaders. It was fought mostly over land and water rights. Ranchers who raised sheep were especially targeted; sheep supposedly destroyed the common grazing lands. Typically, the cattlemen would accuse a small rancher or farmer of rustling, often falsely. Lynch mobs often dispatched the “rustlers.”

"The Invaders," gunmen hired by the WSGA to elimnate the alleged rustlers in Johnson County (Photo taken at Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, WO in May 1892)
“The Invaders,” gunmen hired by the WSGA to elimnate the alleged rustlers in Johnson County during the Johnson County War (Photo taken at Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, WY in May 1892)

The Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) hired Tom Horn as a “range detective,” a euphemism for hired killer. He also continued to work for Pinkerton’s when the agency was in the service of the WSGA or other cattle interests. Horn earned a reputation as a tough and fearless killer.

Tom Horn Kills Willie Nickell—Or Did He?

The Miller and Nickell families were neighbors near Iron Mountain, Wyoming. Jim Miller raised cattle while Kels Nickell raised sheep. Conflict between the two families was inevitable. On July 18, 1901, Willie Nickell, the 14-year-old son of sheep rancher Kels, was found murdered near the gate of the Nickell homestead. The violence continued. On August 4, someone shot Kels Nickell. The next day, Deputy Sheriff Peter Warlaumont and Deputy U.S. Marshal Joe Lefors arrived in Iron Mountain. They arrested Jim Miller and his sons Victor and Gus for the shooting of Kels Nickell. The trio bonded out the next day.

Kels P. Nickell and Mary Mahoney Nickell, Willie’s parents (WY State Archives)

Months passed. In January 1902, Deputy Marshall Joe Lefors questioned Horn about the Willie Nickell murder while discussing potential employment. Horn, still drunk from a bender the night before, allegedly confessed to killing Willie with his rifle from 300 yards away. The county sheriff arrested him the next day.

Willie Nickell
Willie Nickell

Horn On Trial

Horn’s trial began in Cheyenne on October 10, 1902. Because of Horn’s notoriety, the trial attracted large crowds and a carnival atmosphere prevailed. Cattle rancher John C. Coble, a long-time friend and employer, funded the defense. However, ninety years later, writer Johan P. Bakker proposed that Horn had become expendable to the WSGA’s members. The trial became a way of silencing him before he could talk too much about their shady activities. Bakker theorizes that although WSGA members forked over $1,000 each for the defense, they made it clear they wanted a minimal effort.

The prosecution case against Horn leaned heavily on his supposed “confession” to Deputy Marshall Lefors. Circumstantial evidence placing him in the general vicinity at the time tended to support the “confession.” The defense called one Otto Plaga, who testified that Horn was 20 miles away at the time of the murder.

Tom Horn in Jail in Wyoming awaiting execution in 1903
Tom Horn in Jail in Wyoming awaiting execution in 1903

The jury got the case on October 23 and returned a guilty verdict the next day. Several days later, Judge Richard H. Scott sentenced Horn to death by hanging. A petition to the Wyoming Supreme Court for a new trial failed.

Epilogue

Tom Horn was hanged on November 20, 1903. People still argue his guilt today. Author Chip Carlson researched the case and wrote Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon. He concluded that while Horn could have killed Willie Nickell, he probably didn’t. Another writer, Dean Fenton Krakel, believes Horn did commit the murder but did not realize he was killing a boy. His book, The Saga of Tom Horn: The Story of a Cattlemen’s War, contends the real target was Kels Nickell, Willie’s father.

Rancher Jim Coble paid for Horn’s coffin and a stone to mark his grave. He was buried in Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado on December 3, 1903.

Tom Horn's tombstone in Columbia Cemetery, Bolder, CO
Tom Horn’s tombstone in Columbia Cemetery, Bolder, CO

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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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