Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"Don't shoot me anymore, I'm killed:" The Fleeting Fame of William Claiborne

To the last, all he wanted was a little fame and fortune and to be known as "Billy the Kid." For William Claiborne, though, fortune was hard to come by and his fame, found at the wrong end of a gun, was fleeting at best. Born October 21, 1860, William Floyd Claiborne hailed from Mississippi, most likely from Yazoo County, although no record seems to exist to show his lineage. That he was born in Mississippi, though, was verified in court by Claiborne himself in 1881. At that point, the twenty-one-year-old had taken a crooked path to the west and was a survivor of the most famous gunfight in American history.

Before going to Arizona in 1880, Billy Claiborne had gone to Texas and found work driving cattle. After arriving in Tombstone, he worked a variety of jobs, including as a miner at the Neptune Mining Company, owned by Col. William Herring, a New Jersey attorney who moved west to get rich in the silver mining industry. Billy Claiborne (right) also drove a buggy for Herring and other odd jobs. He had also managed to fall in with a rough set of cowboys, including Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury, and seemed intent on establishing a reputation as a gunfighter, although he hadn't really established a pedigree as such. When William "Billy the Kid" Bonney was killed in 1881, Claiborne saw a chance to gain some unearned fame and demanded that everyone  begin calling him "Billy the Kid." On Oct. 1, 1881, Claiborne got into a fight with a certain James Hickey at the Queen’s Saloon in Charleston, Arizona, a now-extinct mining town in Cochise County. Hickey, who was on a three-day drunk, refused to refer to Claiborne as "Billy the Kid," so Claiborne shot him in the face with his revolver. Since no one seemed to like Hickey anyway, he was acquitted on grounds of self-defense.

Less than a month later, William "Billy the Kid" Claiborne, as an ally of the Clantons and McLaurys (aka 'The Cowboys'), was recruited as reinforcement against the Earps and Doc Holliday, with whom The Cowboys had a running feud. Things boiled over on October 26, when the two sides squared off in a back alley of Tombstone, Arizona. Though the shooting lasted less than a minute, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral left Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury dead in the street. Ike Clanton, Billy's older brother, managed to get away unharmed and Claiborne, despite his desire to be a famous gunfighter, ran into a nearby establishment, the C.S. Fly photography studio, to escape the flying lead. He later claimed that he was unarmed. Ike Clanton subsequently accused the Earps and Doc Holliday of murder and the case went to a hearing, during which Billy Claiborne was called as a witness. During his testimony, Claiborne seemed to recall few details of the fight (which, given its brevity might be understandable) except  that the Earps were responsible for starting it, that Doc Holliday (left) was sporting a "nickel-plated pistol" and that one of the Earps said "You son-of-bitches, you have been looking for a fight!" just before the bullets started flying. He also denied having any particular association with The Cowboys other than as an acquaintance.

The defense attorney for Wyatt Earp was Billy Claiborne's old boss, Col. William Herring. In addition to the mining business, Herring took several cases in the Tombstone area, including one in 1889 involving a county treasurer charged with embezzlement. In that case, Andrew Jackson Ritter, a Union veteran who became an undertaker, carpenter and contractor (and who invented a fruit-canning machine in 1895) was accused of stealing $6,599.47 of county funds after overseeing the construction of the county courthouse (it's now a museum). With Herring as his attorney, the grand jury refused to move forward with the case and the charges were dropped. In 1881, Ritter was the undertaker who prepared the bodies of Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury, all of whom were photographed in their caskets (above) by Cadmillus S. Fly (who would himself die in 1901 of "acute alcoholism"). As in the Ritter case, Herring was able to get an acquittal for his client in the O.K. Corral shooting. During the trial, which was quite a public sensation, Herring carried a gun at all times in order to protect himself.

Following the O.K. Corral affair, William Claiborne left Tombstone for a time, no doubt sensing that his reputation as the new "Billy the Kid" had been tarnished by the trial and public exposure. He returned to Tombstone in November, 1882, however, and promptly got into a fight with Frank "Buckskin" Leslie, the bartender of the Oriental Saloon (seen here). Once again, the issue was that Leslie refused to call him "Billy the Kid," so Claiborne waited for him outside with a rifle, intent on bloody revenge. Claiborne also believed that Leslie was responsible for the death of Johnny Ringo, another outlaw associate of the Clantons. Leslie, however, learned that Claiborne was lying in wait and exited from a side door and surprised his would-be assassin. After shooting Claiborne in the chest, "Buckskin" Leslie (left) aimed a second time, at which Claiborne cried "Don't shoot me anymore, I'm killed." Taken by friends to a doctor, "Billy the Kid" Claiborne died a few hours later. His last words were supposedly another accusation about Leslie's guilt in the death of Johnny Ringo. After a jury met in Ritter's undertaking parlor, the shooting was ruled as a justifiable homicide.

William Floyd Claiborne died on November 14, 1882, and is buried in Tombstone's famous Boothill Graveyard, along with James Hickey (killed by Claiborne) and Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and Frank McLaury, the three "victims" of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. As the mystique of the shootout has grown through the years, so has their fame. Claiborne, however, never achieved the fame he so coveted while alive nor did he achieve it in death, as his grave marker makes no mention of his chosen nickname of "Billy the Kid." More famous by far is another grave in the cemetery, and perhaps the most famous western epitaph of all. It is that of Lester Moore, a Wells Fargo agent killed in 1880. His grave marker (as seen in the movie "Tombstone") reads:

Here lies Lester Moore,
four slugs from a .44,
no Les,
no more.

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Claiborne:
(2) O.K. Corral: original painting by Bob Boze Bell;
(3) Doc Holliday:
(4) C.S. Fly photo:
(5) Leslie:
(6) Oriental Saloon: http://shantishome.forumfree
(7) Lester Moore grave:

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