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Arizona’s ‘Billy the Kid’

William Floyd Claiborne, age 22, was shot to death in the streets of Tombstone on Nov. 14, 1882.

William Floyd Claiborne, called Billy the Kid (not to be confused with the original “Billy the Kid” whose given name was William H. Bonney), was born in Mississippi on Oct. 21, 1860. He came to Arizona in the early 1880s and worked as an amalgamator at mines in Charleston (a town a few miles southwest of Tombstone) and at the Neptune smelter in Hereford. Claiborne eventually fell in with a group of heavy-drinking cowboys and became friends with Tombstone’s infamous Clantons and McLaurys. He was a hothead.

On Oct. 1, 1881, Claiborne killed James Hickey after a brawl at the Queen’s Saloon in Charleston. Hickey had been drunk for three days when he and Claiborne exchanged words. Claiborne drew his revolver and shot Hickey just below the left eye. Hickey’s death was unlamented; he had been abusive to most of the crowd at the scene. Claiborne was tried for the crime and was found innocent on grounds of self-defense.

Less than a month later, on Oct. 26, 1881, Claiborne managed to avoid more trouble when he backed out of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral at the last minute.

When the Rev. Endicott Peabody preached a sermon against alcoholism in Charleston, Claiborne wrote warning him to stay away from the subject.

Peabody replied that he would preach on any subject he chose at any time and heard no more from the bullying Claiborne.

A year later, Claiborne’s intemperate and aggressive ways finally caught up with him. He was shot to death after an argument with Frank Leslie, the bartender at the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone.

Here is how it happened: Claiborne butted in on a conversation among the patrons at the bar and was asked by Leslie not to interfere. He became enraged and shouted obscenities at the bartender, who took him by his coat collar and led him outside, telling him it was for his own good. Claiborne pushed him away and began using more harsh language, then vowed revenge on Leslie.

A while later, Otto Johnson, a saloonkeeper from Willcox, came into the bar and told Leslie that a man with a rifle was waiting outside to kill him. Leslie looked outside and saw a rifle barrel protruding from behind a fruit stand.

Leslie shouted, “Billy don’t shoot; I don’t want you to kill me, and I don’t want to have to shoot you.” But Claiborne raised his gun and fired, and Leslie fired back. George Parsons reported, “Frank made as pretty a center shot on the Kid as one could wish to.”

Billy gasped, “Don’t shoot again. I am killed.”

Officer James Coyle arrested Leslie and turned him over to Deputy Sheriff Cory who placed him in jail.

A coroner’s inquest was held that afternoon at Ritter’s undertaking room. The jury consisting of I.M. Isaacs, Thomas M. Young, Pat Holland, George William, J.E. Durkee, Daniel McCann, Charles Litchild and L. Hart, listened to testimony from several men who had run into Claiborne and Leslie that morning.

W.J. Mason testified he had planned to have breakfast with Claiborne, but Claiborne had said he was having trouble with someone and was going to get his Winchester and settle matters. The next time Mason saw Claiborne, he was lying on the ground gasping, “My backbone is all shot out.”

Otto Johnson testified he was about to have breakfast at the Can Can Chop House, when he met Claiborne with his Winchester. Claiborne was gunning for Leslie, threatening to go in and get him if he wouldn’t come out and fight. The next thing Johnson heard were gunshots; outside, he saw Claiborne lying on the ground about two feet from Leslie and Officer Coyle.

William Henry Bush, a Tombstone bootblack, testified also that he heard Claiborne say, “I am going to kill Frank Leslie.”

According to Officer Coyle, he heard the first shot and ran toward Leslie who fired again. Leslie told him that he did not want to kill Claiborne, but that the young cowboy was “laying to kill him.” John J. Reilly, an onlooker, claimed he heard three shots and that Claiborne had fired first.

Dr. O.C. Willis dressed Claiborne’s wound and gave him some stimulants (probably whiskey) to ease the pain. Before Claiborne lapsed into a coma, he told Willis that Leslie was a “murdering son of a bitch who shot people in the back.”

After the jury had deliberated, their inquest read:

“We the undersigned, a jury of inquest, summoned and impaneled by the coroner of said county to inquire the body submitted to our inspection, when, where and under what circumstances he came to his death, after viewing his body and hearing such testimony as has been brought before us, find that his name was William Claiborne, age and nativity unknown, and that he came to his death from the effects of a pistol wound inflicted by Frank Leslie, in the town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, on the 14th day of November 1882; and that the shooting was done in self-defense, and in the opinion of the jury, was justifiable.”

— Jane Eppinga. Photo courtesy of author.

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