The Arizona State Parks Board will shutter nine state parks on March 29, 2010 in an effort to save a projected $8.6-Million and help offset the state’s overall budget crunch. Among those slated for close-down are the historic Yuma Territorial Prison and the Tombstone Courthouse in Cochise County.
Fortunately, through a series of fundraisers and private donations along with matching money from the Yuma Crossing Heritage Area, the old West icon in Yuma at least will remain open and operated locally.
The very notion that such historic places that played pivotal roles in the country’s western development could be lost to future generations, inspired many of us to examine in detail some of characters whose misadventures led them to pass through the Tombstone Courthouse on their way to catch the fabled 3:10 train to Yuma from Tucson. There were many, of course, but there are a few whose dark side exploits warrant special attention.
One of these was Buckskin Frank Leslie.
According to most historians, notably among them Dennis McLaughlin, Leslie dusted into Tombstone in the first part of 1880. You’d have to forgive the locals had they momentarily thought the ghost of Buffalo Bill Cody had ridden into town (Cody had died in 1776).
Frank had long, blonde hair and a wide, drooping mustache. He wore a jacket festooned with fringed buckskin, yellow-braided cavalry pants, and a wide-brimmed hat – an altogether splendid outfit to which a “fully laden twin-gun harness added a lethal touch.”
Not much of Leslie’s life prior to his arrival in Tombstone is known. Plenty of rumors were afoot at the time including the number of notches he had accumulated in a suggested backtrail of violence. The vast majority of these tales could neither be proved nor disproved.
He soon got a job tending bar at the Oriental Saloon, a favorite hangout for the likes of Wyatt Earp whose Marshal’s office was on the second floor. In his new job, Frank took a liking to a lass named Mary, with whom he shacked up. Trouble was that Mary was married to a certain Mike Killeen.
Coincidental or otherwise, Mary became Mrs. Frank Leslie within weeks of her husband’s sudden demise.
Killen, according to McLaughlin, was “propelled into the unknown by a powdersmoke salute that Leslie is usually, but erroneously, credited with.”
But Frank’s marriage that had been so conveniently arranged by Colt’s firearms was not to last.
For you see, prior to any show of eroticism, Frank stimulated his whatever by having a terrified Mary freeze against the wall while he proceeded to outline her statistics in the plaster with bullet holes. A kinky practice, to be sure, but the judge over at the Tombstone Courthouse figured it was sufficient grounds to grant Mary a speedy divorce. Nevertheless, Frank’s exhibition of pistoleered pinups was to be admired for many years to come.
In November of 1882, Frank left the Oriental bar unattended for a few minutes, stepped outside and shot to death a highly inebriated trouble-maker named Billy Claiborne whom he had earlier thrown out of the place after the young Billy, a survivor of the OK Corral episode with the Earps, had become overly feisty in a heated conversation about politics. The shooting of Claiborne was described as “an incident that became an open-and-closed affair over the short period of time required by Frank to puff through a rolled cylinder of Bull Durham.” Since, it seemed, Claiborne was waiting outside the Oriental to ambush Leslie and, in fact, fired first, the killing was ruled justified.
By 1889, Frank was showing the toll of heavy drinking. He spent the summer of that year in a kind of rehab retreat at a ranch up in the Swisshelm Mountains northeast of Bisbee accompanied by a blonde-haired nifty named Molly Williams who, occasionally was listed as an attraction at Tombstone’s Birdcage Theater, was reputed to be much in demand by the army of “uncultured slobs who patronized Tombstone’s red-light section wherein she spent most of her time.”
But it was during his ‘drying out retreat’ the still buckskinned Frank came home drunk, unpleasantly so, again one night to find Molly chatting with a hired hand named James Neal. A violent jealous rage ensued and he shot the girl dead and put two more bullets into Mr. Neal. Thinking both were dead staggered away with the notion of blaming some person unknown for the deadly deeds. He was arrested, however, before he could sober up and was bound over for trial at the Tombstone Courthouse.
In a major and life-altering surprise for the defendant, the star witness for the prosecution was none other than James Neal. Leslie was sentenced to the Yuma Territorial Prison for a term of 25 years where he was assigned an easy job in the pharmacy which he held until 1893 when he was inexplicably pardoned.
Frank Leslie would thereafter drift on a trail that took him to several locations in California. It is believed he was 82 years of age when what were believed to have been his remains were found in a canyon just outside Martinez, California. The bones, however, were never ‘officially identified.’
To view a short film about the Yuma Territorial Prison, Frank Leslie and other of its infamous ‘guests,’ go to http://azstateparks.com/Parks/YUTE/