In 1881, the Earp brothers fought against the McLaurys and Clantons in a lot behind the O.K. Corral. In 30 seconds, three people were dead. Wyatt Earp was the only man to go unharmed during battle.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it was lost on 1880s Tombstone miner and wannabe big-shot William Floyd Claiborne.

The 22-year-old traveled from his native Mississippi via Texas to join the booming mining operations in Hereford and Charleston near Tombstone, and fell in with the Clanton and McLaury gang of the infamous O.K. Corral shootout. They drank hard, cooked up schemes and stirred trouble.

About the same time, notorious outlaw William Bonney, known as “Billy the Kid,” met his maker in Fort Sumner, N.M., after a five-year crime spree across the plains and Southwest. Tales of gun fights, a daring prison escape and life on the lam created a mystique so potent for Claiborne that he now insisted that the folks of Tombstone call him “Billy the Kid.”

INGLORIOUS ARIZONA: Territorial Arizona had its share of drifters, drunks, misfits and thieves

With a tough yet unoriginal moniker, everyone would respect him, or at least, he would try and make them.

Found innocent

In October 1881, a few months after the original Billy the Kid was shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett, Claiborne exchanged heated words with drunkard James Hickey at the Queen’s Saloon in Charleston. Tough guy Claiborne would ultimately pull his gun and shoot Hickey just below the left eye, killing him.

But apparently, Hickey was not well-liked in the community, and Claiborne was found innocent at his murder trial and that he acted in self-defense.

But less than a month later, “his self-styled ‘reputation’ didn’t hold up after he’d run away from the gunfight near the O.K. Corral …  and left three friends to die at the hands of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday,” official state historian Marshall Trimble says. “Not good for a guy who wanted respect.”

His last words

Things came to a head for Claiborne when in November 1882 he confronted Oriental Saloon bartender “Buckskin” Frank Leslie about the suspicious death of his friend Johnny Ringo, who also ran with the Clanton and McLaury gang. To make matters worse, it was reported that Leslie refused to call Claiborne “Billy the Kid.”

The drunk Claiborne became verbally abusive, and by the collar, Leslie “tossed him out,” Trimble said.

“Billy returned later telling anyone who’d listen he was gunning for Leslie,” he said. “Buckskin Frank accommodated him, and gunshots were exchanged. Billy missed and Frank didn’t. Supposedly Billy’s last words accused Frank of killing Ringo.”

‘Pain in the butt’

Leslie was found innocent at trial, the jury citing self-defense, and the chaotic chapter of Arizona’s Billy the Kid came to a dubious close.

“He was kind of a pain in the butt” to folks in Tombstone, Trimble says. “In short, Billy was ‘all hat and no cattle.’”

The original would not approve.

Contact “Only in Arizona” columnist Mark Nothaft at [email protected]. Send him the weird and fun facts and places found #OnlyInArizona.


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