Published on Wednesday, August 10, 2014
Buckskin Frank Leslie
By Gary Every
At Appomattox, General Robert E. Lee handed his sword of surrender to George Armstrong Custer. General Phillip Sheridan purchased the table upon which Lee and Grant had signed the documents outlining the terms of surrender and ended the Civil War. Sheridan presented the table as a gift to Custer for his beautiful wife Elizabeth "Libby" Bacon Custer. Custer strapped the table to the back of his horse and proudly marched back home.
To celebrate the end of the bloody conflict which had nearly rent the United States apart, President Lincoln held a formal party at the White House where Abraham Lincoln shook the hand of all the war heroes in attendance, personally thanking them for their role in preserving the Union. There is no record of Lincoln's impression of George Armstrong Custer; the vainglorious military officer who coveted Mr. Lincoln's elected position. However, the president was quite captivated by Custer's beautiful, effervescent wife. The president lingered to speak with Libby Custer. It must have painted quite a picture, the tall and lean president; a giant, homely, man bending over to speak with the tiny blushing bride - as beautiful as a ballerina.
"Madam," the president said, "I hear that your husband leads every battle charge, racing out in front of the troops, atop the back of his stallion; and letting loose with a war whoop and a holler."
"Yes sir he does. He leads every charge." Libby Custer replied, her adoring eyes stealing a glance at her new groom..."And I hope he always will."
"You ma'am," Lincoln said as he held Libby's tiny hand inside his own gigantic paw. "You will make a lovely widow."
Libby Custer did make a lovely widow and transformed herself into a national celebrity in the process. She wrote books about life with her famous and tragic husband. Some of these, such as Boots and Saddles went on to become bestsellers and frontier classics. Libby went on tour and spoke regularly to packed auditoriums.
She was not the only one promoting the Custer legacy. Anhueser Busch commissioned a large lithograph of the battle at the Little Bighorn, with Custer in the center, his sword drawn and gun blazing with his long golden locks waving in the furious breeze. This giant lithograph was given away free as a promotional item and hung in bars and saloons all across the United States. In fact, the lithograph became the second most reproduced print in the United States, trailing only the picture of George Washington which hung in every schoolroom.
A large version of this lithograph hung behind the bar in the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. In the spring of 1880, a train pulled into the depot and Buckskin Frank Leslie disembarked. He strolled across the street and entered the nearest saloon, The Oriental. Buckskin Frank walked through the doors with long blonde hair, drooping mustache, and he was wearing a buckskin fringed jacket with yellow braided cavalry pants. He was a dead ringer for the General Custer in the giant lithograph. People looked at Buckskin and then looked at the painting and then looked back again. Buckskin Frank Leslie was hired on the spot as a bartender.
Buckskin Frank walked about atop two inch heels on his boots and always wore fully loaded twin holsters on his hips. He claimed a dangerous and violent past, serving as a scout for General Miles, and as a soldier for Al Sieber during the Apache wars. He also claimed to have killed fourteen men. The only problem is that the only evidence was Buckskin Frank's own braggadocio – nothing can be proven or disproven. We do know for certain that Buckskin Frank Leslie was skilled at handling his revolvers.
The handsome bartender soon began a romance with the beautiful Mary Killeen. The only problem was Mary was still wed to Mike Killeen. The cuckold confronted Buckskin Frank and his wife while they were sitting on a porch swing with a friend. Conflicting testimony causes confusion about what happened next but the end result was that Mike Killeen was dead and Mrs. Mary Killeen became Mrs. Leslie. The romance would not last.
When Buckskin Frank wanted to get romantic his favorite form of foreplay involved getting Mary to stand in various poses against the wall, whereupon Buckskin Frank would use his guns to outline her fine feminine form, drawing in the silhouette with bullets. Terrified, Mary filed for divorce and a court of law ruled this was a pretty good reason. After the married couple went their separate ways their former landlord charged five cents each to tour the room and look at the bullet hole silhouettes.
Busckin Frank was rumored to have taken part in several stagecoach robberies. In 1882, an altercation in the bar ended with Buckskin Frank killing Billy Clairborne. A jury ruled our favorite bartender had acted in self-defense. In July of 1889, Buckskin Frank was "drying out" from a drinking problem, staying at a ranch in the Swisshelm Mountains with a pretty blonde named Molly Williams. Buckskin Frank became jealous of attention Molly was giving to a young ranch hand named James Neal and shot them both. Molly died, and while Buckskin Frank believed he had killed James Neal, the young man survived two bullet wounds to testify at the trial. Buckskin Frank was found guilty and sentenced to twenty five years in Yuma Territorial Prison.
In 1893, Buckskin Frank was given a pardon and left for California where he spent the next several decades tending bar. In 1924, the manager of a San Francisco pool hall reported the sudden departure of an employee believed to have been Buckskin Frank along with a stolen revolver. The pool hall manager gave the serial number of the stolen gun to the police. Three years later the skeleton of an old man was found in a remote canyon outside the town of Martinez beside a rusted revolver which bore the same serial number.
Gary Every is an award winning journalist, including for stories such as The Apache Naichee and Losing Geronimo's Language. He is the author of Shadow of the OhshaD (OhshaD is a Native american word for jaguar) and Battling the Hydra, a collection of encounters with mostly wild animals. His poetry has been nominated for both Pushcart prizes as well as the Rhysling Award for the years best science fiction poem. His work appears in a variety of magazines such as Arizona Highways, Desert Leaf, Weber Studies, Tales of the Talisman, and many more.