“Buckskin Frank” Leslie – A Tombstone Rowdy

Buckskin Frank Leslie

Buckskin Frank Leslie

A western gunfighter, Indian Scout, and prospector, “Buckskin Frank” Leslie was best known for having killed Billy Claiborne, one of the infamous Clanton Gang, who feuded with the Earps in Tombstone, Arizona.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, on March 18, 1842, as Nashville Franklyn Leslie, nothing is known about his early life.

He was working as a scout for the U.S. Army in Texas, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas during the early 1870s and was always seen wearing a buckskin jacket, hence the nickname “Buckskin Frank.” He later made his way to San Francisco, where he worked as a bartender.

By the time he arrived in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1880, the town was teeming with outlaws and other shiftless characters as the Earp Brothers attempted to tame the lawless settlement.

Though standing just 5 feet 7 inches and weighing 135 pounds, Leslie had already earned a reputation as a gunfighter. With a matched pair of six-shooters on his hips and shooting skills that Wyatt Earp would later describe as comparable to Doc Holliday’s, Leslie fit right in with the rest of Tombstone’s rowdy crowd. Quick to show off his skills, Leslie was known to demonstrate his shooting abilities frequently, often on the ceilings of the many Allen Street saloons.

Leslie was also an ill-tempered and violent man, especially when he drank. Even among the notorious rabble in Tombstone at the time of Leslie’s arrival, he stood out for his quick temper and swiftness with his gun.

The Cosmopolitan Hotel in Tombstone, Arizona

The Cosmopolitan Hotel in Tombstone, Arizona

Upon his arrival, he worked some at the Cosmopolitan Hotel on Allen Street and later filed several mining claims in the area. However, history tells us that he spent more time in the gambling halls than he ever worked. He immediately began to have an affair with a married woman named Mae Killeen. Though the dark-haired beauty was separated from her husband Mike, that didn’t stop the estranged husband’s jealousy, as he told everyone that he would shoot any man that he caught her with. Not long after, that’s exactly what happened when he found Buckskin Frank with “his” Mae on the porch of the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Mike made the mistake of confronting Leslie and wound up dead on June 22, 1880. The killing was officially ruled to have been self-defense. Just one week later, Leslie and the “aggrieved” widow Killeen were married.

After the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881, the Earps, who were allegedly friends with Leslie, moved into the Cosmopolitan Hotel, feeling safer there than in their homes.

Oriental Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona by Kathy Alexander.

Oriental Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona by Kathy Alexander.

Sometime later, Leslie badly pistol-whipped a man outside the Oriental Saloon. At that time, the Tombstone residents began to think that Buckskin Frank was a dangerous man, even in the midst of the rest of the notorious rabble of Tombstone.

When the famous Tombstone gunslinger John Ringo was found murdered, suspicions focused on Leslie, even though law officers could not prove his guilt.

After the Earps had left Tombstone, Leslie became involved in an argument with Billy Claiborne, a survivor of the O.K. Corral gunfight.

Claiborne, who demanded to be called “Billy the Kid” after the death of William Bonney, had been claiming that he had killed three men who had ridiculed him. Records indicate that he had killed only one man before his confrontation with Leslie. Ridicule had become a part of Billy’s life as his reputation suffered when the details of his fleeing the scene of the O.K. Corral gunfight made their rounds.

Billy Claiborne

Billy Claiborne

On November 14, 1882, Claiborne argued with Leslie when the gunfighter refused to refer to him as “Billy the Kid.” Later that night, Buckskin Frank was in the Oriental Saloon when a drunken Billy Claiborne staggered in and continued his argument with the gunfighter.

Fed up, Leslie escorted him to the door and threw him out of the saloon. However, Claiborne was determined and soon returned with a Winchester. He began to brag to anyone who would listen that he would kill Leslie on sight outside the saloon. When word of this reached Frank, he took up the challenge, exited the saloon, and the inevitable gunbattle began.

In the melee, Claiborne’s shots missed, but Leslie hit Billy several times. While Claiborne lay in the dusty street, Leslie walked up to him, and the wounded man said, “Don’t shoot me anymore; I’m killed.” His friends took him to the doctor, where he died six hours later. Allegedly, his last words were: “Frank Leslie killed John Ringo. I saw him do it.”

Claiborne’s epitaph read: “Billy the Kid takes shot at Buckskin Frank. The latter promptly replied, and the former quickly turns up his toes to the daisies.” (See historical testimony of Leslie about Claiborne HERE!)

When the Apache uprisings began in the mid-1880s, Leslie again worked for the U.S. Army as an Indian scout on at least two separate occasions.

Returning to Tombstone, things were not looking well on the home front, as, after seven years of marriage, he and Mae divorced in 1887. Mae claimed that one of the reasons for the divorce was Leslie’s habit of wanting to shoot her silhouette in the wall as she stood there, proving yet again his excellent shooting skills.

Bird Cage Theatre, Tombstone, Arizona by Kathy Alexander.

Bird Cage Theatre, Tombstone, Arizona by Kathy Alexander.

By this time, Leslie was working as a bartender in the Oriental Saloon but preferred to spend much of his free time at the Bird Cage Theater. There, he met a young singer and prostitute named Mollie Williams, and before long, the two were living together. The “lady” also went by the names of Blonde Mollie and Mollie Bradshaw. Her promoter’s name was Bradshaw, though he was not her husband. However, sometime later, he turned up dead, and Leslie was automatically suspected. Though he never admitted to killing the man, he never denied it, either.

From the beginning, Frank and Mollie’s relationship was based on their mutual love of whiskey, which led to frequent and violent quarrels. The violence escalated on July 10, 1889, and Leslie shot Mollie in the head. The murder was witnessed by another man named James Neil, who had the nickname “Six-Shooter Jim.” Leslie then turned on him and shot him as well. Though Mollie died, Jim survived and would later testify against Leslie.

Buckskin Frank was sentenced to 25 years in the Yuma prison. The town of Tombstone was glad to be rid of the gunfighter who had confessed to having killed 14 people.

However, after serving just seven years, Leslie won parole with the help of a young divorcee named Belle Stowell. Once he was released, the two traveled to California, where they were married in Stockton on December 1, 1896. The pair then went on a lavish honeymoon to China before returning to the United States and settling for a more peaceful life.

Reportedly, Leslie traveled to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush before moving on to San Francisco, California, in 1904. In 1913, he was running a pool hall in Oakland, California. The 1920 census has him living in a lodging house in Sausalito, California. He is listed as 77 years old, unemployed, and single.

By 1922, he had disappeared from public records. Though the manner of his death remains unconfirmed, some believe that he may have been a broke and homeless man by the same name who died in San Francisco in 1930.

Allen Street, Tombstone, Arizona, 1882

Allen Street, Tombstone, Arizona, 1882

© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2022.

Also See:

Old West Gunfighter List

Old West Outlaw List

Tombstone – The Town Too Tough to Die

Tombstone Historical Text