Buckskin Frank Leslie: The Tombstone Connection
By Andrew Hind
Posterity remembers common men caught up in uncommon circumstances, and pays homage to acts of violence while deeds of quiet humanity are all too often ignored or forgotten. Such is the case with Frank Leslie, occasional western gunslinger with a reputation far worse than his actions ever warranted.
History forgets about his acts of selflessness tending to men ravaged by epidemics while incarcerated in Yuma Arizona Territorial Prison, or his honourable conduct while serving in the US Army during the Apache Wars. Likewise, his acts of pistol slinging have been unfairly exaggerated simply due to his personal and professional association with the Earps and Clantons. If he had never rode into Tombstone that February in 1880, it's likely posterity would not remember Buckskin Frank Leslie at all.
Not much is known of Leslie's existence before he arrived in Tombstone. His place and date of birth are lost to time, though we assume he was born in the early 1840's. It is certain that he served as a scout during the expeditions to hunt down Geronimo, and likely that he also served under General Nelson Miles in the north plains. Leslie's stint as a scout earned him the life-long "Buckskin" moniker.
Buckskin Leslie was a dashing figure, with long blonde hair, drooping moustache, and lively eyes. Only 5'7" and 133 lbs, Leslie habitually wore boots with 2" heels to lend credence to his confidence. By all accounts, he was quite charming and popular with the ladies. Shortly after his arrival in Tombstone, he got a job at the Oriental Saloon tending bar; his life would be irreversibly changed.
Wyatt and Virgil Earp, legendary frontier lawmen both, owned the Oriental. The speed at which Leslie got a job there suggests perhaps he had some prior relationship with the Earps, but this can't be proven conclusively. We do no hehad no part in the fateful Earp-Clanton feud that resulted in the gunfight at the OK Corral. Nevertheless, merely tending bar at the Oriental would tie Leslie to this brutal saga and earn him an uncomfortable notoriety for the remainder of his life.
Buckskin Frank began a romantic and passionate dalliance with local beauty Mary Killeen. Everyone thought they made a great couple, except of course Mary's husband Mike Killeen! Under the cover of darkness on June 22, the bouncer and thug began prowling the streets for Leslie, armed and in search of revenge. He spotted his prey on the porch of the Cosmopolitan Hotel with a friend, George Perrine. Leslie caught sight of Killeen as he approached. Pistols were drawn and emptied. Incredibly, all shots missed. Killeen then charged Leslie, grabbing hold of his arm in a vice-like grip, and began to pistol whip the smaller man with his own gun. Perrine stepped in and put a shot into Killeen's chest, who only survives long enough to make a deathbed statement to town marshal Fred White. Subsequently, both Leslie and Perrine were arrested.
Frank Leslie confessed to the murder, knowing full well he could get off easy, as the fight was a clear-cut case of self-defense. This would save both Perrine from imprisonment, and his own reputation from being soiled by the embarrassing fact that all six of his shots had missed. Both men were duly freed, and charges dropped.
Some how, Leslie managed to maintain his neutrality in the escalating feud between the Earps and the rival Clantons. Apparently, he played both sides of the fence, getting along well with all involved. Perhaps this was a survivors instinct to remain out of the line of fire. When the inevitable showdown came on October 26, 1881, Buckskin Frank was nowhere near the action.
Yet, his relationship with the Clanton gang fueled rumors that he occasionally joined them for a little lawlessness - holding up stages, robberies, perhaps a little rustling. No charges were laid ever and the accusations never proven, and his reputation was such that no one dared voice their suspicions in Leslie's presence. Certainly his relationship with the Earps did not suffer as a result, and from that we can assume the accusations were largely baseless. Indeed, Leslie had never demonstrated an affinity for larcenous lawlessness at any stage in his life.
In June 1882, Buckskin Frank reportedly went on a largely harmless two-week drinking and carousing spree with two surviving members of the Clanton gang, Johnny Ringo and Billy Claiborne. Shortly after they went their separate ways, Ringo was found dead beneath an oak tree in Sulphur Springs Valley. His feet and hands were tied, and a bullet had carved a neat hole into his head.
Inexplicably, people began to suggest Leslie had an involvement in the slaying, for no better reason apparently than because he was the last known person to have seen Ringo alive. Others blame Doc Holliday (as in the film Tombstone, but note the movie conveniently omits the rope bindings), Wyatt Earp, or cowpokes on the nearby ranch where Ringo's horse was later found. In 1929, shortly before he died, Earp confessed to having killed Ringo. So too did another gunslinger, "Johnny-Behind-the Deuce" O'Rourke. With two confessions and evidence pointing towards ranchers at the Chiracahua Cattle Company, and with nothing but conjecture against him, it seems likely that once again Frank Leslie was unjustly accused.
There can be no doubt that Buckskin Frank killed Billy Claiborne, however. On November 14, Claibourne was thoroughly looped and perhaps high on opium. He was causing quite a ruckus in the Oriental, threatening patrons and vandalising the premises. Leslie forcibly ejected Claibourne into the streets, which only infuriated the drunk further. Thoroughly inebriated and with delusions of grandeur of being the next Billy the Kid (despite his cowardly flight in the opening seconds of the OK Corral fight), Claibourne went for his pistols. Leslie's own .45 coughed first, dropping Billy before he could even free his guns from their holsters. The inquest into the death lasted just about as long as the gunfight; once again, the killing was considered to be in self-defense.
The death of Billy Claibourne proved to be the last act of the drama that was the Earp-Clanton feud. While the Earps moved on to other pastures, Frank Leslie remained in Tombstone. Mary walked out on him, and he soon took up with another woman. This time, the tables were turned on him, as he found his mate in a compromising position with another man. Drunk and jealous, Leslie flew into a rage, gunning down both his wife and her lover. After a decade of walking the fine line of justice in Tombstone, Buckskin Frank had tripped-up in his drunken stupor and had fallen hard on the wrong side. Without an alibi, and with the gunned down lover miraculously surviving his brush with leaden death and able to bear witness, Leslie was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
As it turned out, Leslie was a model prisoner and volunteered to serve in the prison hospital. He put his own health in danger while treating several epidemics, and never once wavered in his devotion to the care of his fellow inmates. The physician in-charge, Dr. P.G. Cotter noted that Leslie "was a most humane and self-sacrificing attendant". His excellent conduct earned him an early parole, after serving only 7 years of his term. Governor Franklin had personally crusaded on his behalf, noting his military record and "his exemplary conduct and valuable services" while serving in the prison infirmary.
Buckskin Frank drifted after his parole, turning up in Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush and then managing a pool hall in California for many years. He never again had any brushes with the law, though his death was a bit of a mystery. He disappeared in 1922, along with the pool hall owner's pistol. Three years later, the skeleton of an old man was found in a canyon near Martinez, California. Beside the body was a pistol with a serial registry that matched the one that the pool hall owner had reported stolen. In all likelihood, the skeleton was that of Frank Leslie, who would have been in his 80's by then. The circumstances surrounding his death remain shrouded in mystery.
In death as in life, Buckskin Frank Leslie is known for his association with the Earps and their enemies, the Clantons. Posterity remembers him as a gunslinger, a cohort of the pistol-jerkers that inhabited Tombstone and frequented the Oriental Saloon. This is perhaps an unfair and unfounded epitaph, for evidence suggests Leslie was no cold-blooded killer. Fast with his guns, yes, but not one to seek out a confrontation. But for that fateful day when he became an employee of the Earps, from which point his reputation became entwined with those he associated with, Leslie might be nothing more than a footnote in the annals of the west.