Johnny Ringo

Johnny Ringo

John Peters Ringo (May 3,1850July 13, 1882), better known as Johnny Ringo, was a cowboy who became a legend of the American Old West because, among other things, of his affiliation with the Clanton Gang in the era of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona. That group of outlaws was known commonly as "the cow-boys" around Tombstone, and Ringo himself was called "the King of the Cowboys". However, short of verbal confrontations, he took no part in those events. Ringo was occasionally erroneously referred to as "Ringgold" by the newspapers of the day, but this was not his name, and there is no evidence that he ever deliberately used it.

Ironically, despite his fame and notoriety, there are no records that he ever actually had a single classic gunfight, shooting unarmed men not counting. Even his violent death may have been at his own hand. By comparison, companions such as former Texas Ranger turned outlaw Scott Cooley, who is little known today, better fit the title of "gunfighter" than did Ringo.

Louis L'Amour wrote that he had found nothing in Old West history to commend John Ringo as a particularly noteworthy "badman". According to L'Amour, Ringo was merely a common, surly, bad-tempered man who was worse when he was drinking, and that his main claim to fame was shooting an unarmed man named Louis Hancock in an Arizona territory saloon in 1879 for ordering beer after Ringo told him to order whiskey. L'Amour wrote that he did not understand how Ringo earned such a strong reputation as a "bad man" in legend. Other authors have concluded that perhaps Ringo's memorable name, coupled with his confrontations with the canonically "good" Earp brothers contributed to his latter-day reputation.

Early life

Ringo was born in Greens Fork, Indiana and his family moved to Liberty, Missouri in 1856. He was a contemporary of Frank James and Jesse James who lived nearby in Kearney, Missouri and a cousin of Cole Youngercite web |work=Gallatin North Missourian |url= |title=Johnny Ringo Called Gallatin Home as a Boy |date=1992-07-22 |first=Darryl |last=Wilkinson]

In 1858 the family moved to Gallatin, Missouri where they rented property from the father of John W. Sheets (who was to be the first "official" victim of the James Gang when they robbed the Davis County Savings Association in 1869).

On July 30, 1864, while the Ringo family was traveling through Wyoming on their way to moving to California, Martin Ringo (Johnny's father) stepped out of his wagon while holding a shotgun, which accidentally went off. The shotgun charge entered the right side of his face, exiting the top of his head. The 14 year-old John Ringo and the rest of his family buried him on a hillside alongside the trail.cite web |work=Tombstone History |title=John Ringo Family History |url= |first=Terry |last=Clanton |date=1997 |accessdate=2007-03-28]

Mason County War

By the mid-1870s, Ringo had migrated from San Jose, California to central Texas, in the area around Mason County, Texas. Here he befriended an ex-Texas Ranger named Scott Cooley, who was the adopted son of a local rancher named Tim Williamson. For years, relations between the American and German residents of the area had been tense (an extension of the Civil War), since most of the Americans supported the Confederates while the Germans were Union loyalists.

Trouble started when two American rustlers, Elijah and Pete Backus, were dragged from the Mason jail and lynched by a predominantly German mob. Full-blown war began on May 13, 1875, when Tim Williamson was arrested by a hostile posse and murdered by a German farmer named Peter Bader. Cooley and his friends, including Johnny Ringo, conducted a terror campaign against their rivals. Officially called the "Mason County War", locally it was called the "Hoodoo War". [cite web |url= |title=The Mason County Texas Hoo Doo Wars |work=Texas History |first=Glenn |last=Hadeler] Cooley retaliated by killing the local German deputy sheriff, John Worley, by shooting him, scalping him, and tossing his body down a well on August 10, 1875.

Cooley already had a dangerous reputation, and was respected as a Texas Ranger, and would kill several others during the "war". After the killing of Cooley supporter Moses Baird, Ringo committed his first murder of note on September 25, 1875, when he and a friend named Bill Williams rode up in front of the house of James Cheyney, the man who led Baird into the ambush. As Cheyney came out, unarmed, invited them in and began washing his face on the porch, both Ringo and Williams shot and killed him. The two then rode to the house of Dave Doole, and called him outside, but when he came out with a gun, they fled back into town.

Some time later, Scott Cooley and Johnny Ringo mistook Charley Bader for his brother Pete and killed him. After that both men were jailed in Burnet, Texas by Sheriff A. J. Strickland. Both Ringo and Cooley were broken out of jail by their friends shortly thereafter, and parted company to evade the law.

By November of 1876, the Mason County War had petered out after costing a dozen or so lives, Scott Cooley was believed dead, and Johnny Ringo and his pal George Gladden were locked up once again. One of Ringo's cellmates was the notorious killer John Wesley Hardin. Legend has it that Wes Hardin feared Ringo, due to Ringo's ruthlessness and unpredictable temper, but there is nothing documented to support the claim. While Gladden was sentenced to 99 years, Ringo appears to have been acquitted. Two years later, Ringo was noted as being a constable in Loyal Valley, Texas. Soon after this, he appeared in Arizona for the first time.


Ringo first turned up around Cochise County, Arizona in 1879 along with Joe Hill, a comrade-in-arms from the Mason County War. For the most part, Johnny Ringo kept to himself, only mingling with the local outlaw element when it suited him. In December 1879, a clearly intoxicated Ringo shot the unarmed Louis Hancock in a Safford, Arizona saloon when he refused a complimentary drink of whiskey, stating he preferred beer. Hancock survived his wound.

While in and around Tombstone, Arizona, Ringo kept his mouth shut while others walked in fear of him. He had a reputation as being bad-tempered by that time, but short of the two unarmed men Hancock and Cheyney, he had no documented shootings or killings to his credit. He possibly participated in robberies and killings with the "cow-boy" element, and rumour credited him with having a high position in the outlaw chain of command, perhaps second only to Curly Bill Brocius.

Johnny Ringo did not openly confront Wyatt Earp's faction until January 17, 1882, less than three months after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but not long after Virgil Earp had been removed from his office as chief of police by an assassination attempt. Ringo and Doc Holliday had a public disagreement, trading threats that seemed to be leading to a gunfight. However, before the fight could happen, both were arrested by Tombstone's new chief of police James Flynn, hauled before a judge for carrying weapons in town, and both fined.

Two months later, Ringo was suspected by the Earps of taking part in the murder of Morgan Earp on March 18, 1882. After Wyatt's revenge for this killing, Ringo was deputized by John Behan to apprehend the Earps at the beginning of the Earp Vendetta Ride. Within months, Ringo's best friends were either dead or chased out of the area; some of them killed in the vendetta. However, by mid-April the Earps and their friends had apparently left the area, and fled to Colorado.


On July 14, 1882, Johnny Ringo was found dead in the crotch of a large tree in West Turkey Creek Valley with a bullet hole in his right temple and an exit at the back of his head. His body had apparently been there overnight since the previous day (when a shot had been heard from the general area by a country resident), and his boots were found tied to the saddle of his horse, which was captured two miles away. A coroner's inquest officially ruled his death a suicide.

Nonetheless, many years afterward Wyatt Earp's wife of 47 years attributed the killing to Wyatt and Doc Holliday, with Wyatt delivering the fatal (and lucky) shot to the head from a distance with a rifle.cite book |first=Josephine Sarah Marcus |last=Earp |title=I Married Wyatt Earp, Collected and Edited by Glenn G. Boyer |location=Tucson, AZ |publisher=University of Arizona Press |date=1976 |pages=107-108, 111, notes 20, 21 and 22] Fred Dodge, the Wells Fargo detective and Earp confidant, attributed the killing to Johnny Behind-the-Deuce, as recorded by Stuart Nathaniel Lake, probably to cover for Wyatt's role in the killing.

Johnny Ringo is buried near the same spot where his body was found, on the West Turkey Creek Canyon (coor dms|31|51|49|N|109|20|16|W|city), near the base of the tree in which he was found, which still grows. The grave is located on private land presently, and permission is needed to view the site (see link below).

Theories of Ringo's death

Many people over the years have been suspected of killing Johnny Ringo, to include Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, a tinhorn gambler named Mike O'Rourke a.k.a. Johnny-Behind-The-Deuce, Buckskin Frank Leslie, and Earp supporter Lou Cooley. The 1993 film "Tombstone" features a dramatic eyeball-to-eyeball showdown where Doc Holliday shoots Ringo dead, which is one of the legendary ends of the "King of the Cowboys." However, the official version continues to be that he in fact committed suicide.

*According to the Coroner's report, Ringo committed suicide. A few weeks before Ringo's death, Tombstone's largest fire had wiped out most of the downtown area. The silver mines were producing less, and demand for beef was down. Many of Ringo's friends were gone, while his way of life was going. Ringo was depressed after being rejected by his remaining family members in California and the recent deaths of his outlaw friends. Stoked by a period of binge drinking, Ringo was preparing to camp in an isolated spot, far from the city. He tied his boots to his saddle, a common practice in Arizona to keep scorpions out of them, but the horse managed to get loose from his picket and run off. Ringo tied pieces of his undershirt to his feet to protect them (these were found on his body and noted by the inquest), and crawled into the fork of a large tree to spend the night. As evening came on, despondent over his overall state, now in Apache country without horse, fire, drink, or even boots -- Ringo shot himself. The single shot was heard by a resident down the valley. Ringo's revolver, one round expended, was found hanging from a finger of his hand, the next day.

*Wyatt Earp killed Ringo. Earp and Holliday returned to Arizona and met up with some friends at Hooker's Ranch. Among them were Charlie Smith, Johnny Green, Fred Dodge, John Meagher, and possibly Lou Cooley. They found Ringo camped about three miles from where he was found. Ringo grabbed his guns and ran up the canyon. He shot at the posse once, and then Earp shot him through the head with a rifle.

*Lou Cooley killed Ringo. The same story as above, only Cooley fired the fatal shot.

*Doc Holliday killed Ringo. Ringo and Earp were supposed to duel one day. Holliday, who hated Ringo, stepped in for his friend and shot him through the head. This theory has been popularized by the movie "Tombstone". Holliday, however, was fighting a court case in Colorado at the time of Ringo's death. Official records of the District Court of Pueblo County, Colorado indicate that both Doc and his attorney appeared in court there on July 11, 14, and 18, 1882, making it impossible for Holliday to have killed Johnny Ringo.

*Gunman Buckskin Frank Leslie killed Ringo. Leslie found Ringo drunk and asleep at a tree. Hoping to curry a favor with Earp supporters in office, he shot Ringo through the head. Billy Claiborne believed Leslie killed Ringo, and it was said that his fatal shootout with Leslie was due to this fact. However, in reality Claiborne was demanding that Leslie refer to him as "Billy the Kid", and when Leslie refused Claiborne challenged him. Claiborne was shot through the right side, the bullet exiting out his back, and died hours later. His last words were supposedly "Frank Leslie killed John Ringo. I saw him do it", another claim that has no evidence to support it.

*Mike O'Rourke killed Ringo. O'Rourke was in debt to Wyatt Earp for saving him from the lynch mob. Ringo was supposedly the ringleader of the mob. O'Rourke crept up and shot Ringo through the head. Ringo's friend Pony Diehl believed O'Rourke had killed him, and it was said that he killed O'Rourke shortly afterward. However, although Diehl was in town at the time O'Rourke was killed, his actual death was not witnessed by anyone, and in reality O'Rourke was killed shortly after being caught cheating at cards. As to whether the rumor of his involvement in Ringo's death had anything to do with it has never been proven, nor did Pony Diehl ever admit to the killing.

Popular culture

* In the 1950 film "The Gunfighter", the title character, played by Gregory Peck, is named Jimmy Ringo, undoubtedly a reference to the famous outlaw. In the film, Ringo is sympathetically depicted as a man constantly trying to put his notorious past behind him.

* Ringo is played by John Ireland in the 1957 film "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral". In this version the animosity between Ringo and Doc Holliday is caused by Big Nose Kate (called "Kate Fisher" here) leaving Doc to become Ringo's lover. This is non-historical, although in Kate's letters she does note that Ringo visited her when Holliday was in jail briefly in November 1881 in connection with the O.K. Corral Spicer hearing, and it is quite possible that Holliday grew jealous. The movie is further non-historical in that it portrays Ringo as a participant in the battle at the OK Corral, when in actually he was not present. The film depicts Holliday lecturing a wounded Ringo about the triumph of good over evil before he shoots Ringo dead.

* A 1959–60 television show used Ringo's name, but had little to do with his actual life (the real Ringo probably never wore a badge, unless as a town constable). "Johnny Ringo" aired for one season (38 episodes). Ringo was played by Don Durant and carried a LeMat revolver (A Confederate nine shot revolver with a second barrel designed to fire a shotgun shell).

* Ringo is the inspiration for the historically inaccurate, but highly popular song "Ringo" sung by then-"Bonanza" TV-cowboy Lorne Greene, which topped the pop charts at #1 in late 1964 (replacing The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack"). [cite web | |url= |title=Lorne Green lyrics "Ringo" |accessdate=2007-03-28]

* In the 1986 television remake of "Stagecoach" the Ringo Kid is played by Kris Kristofferson. The character of the gambler Hatfield is changed for Doc Holliday (Holliday is probably the inspiration for "both" Doc Boone and the gambler Hatfield in the original). In the remake, Holliday is played in name by Willie Nelson and Holliday and the Ringo Kid are allies, which is ironic given their relationship in real life.

* In 1993's "Tombstone", Ringo is played by Michael Biehn. In this version, he is second in command of the Cowboys gang. He is characterized as a violent sociopath who aspires to humiliate and destroy Doc Holliday. He is also characterized as highly educated, at one point trading Latin taunts with Holliday.

* In the 1994 film "Wyatt Earp", Ringo is played by Norman Howell. In this film, Curly Bill Brocius is the major antagonist.

* Johnny Ringo is the protagonist of a novel entitled "Confessions of Johnny Ringo" (ISBN 0451159888) by Geoff Aggeler. In the novel, Ringo's real name is Ringgold, and he is depicted as a young man studying the law who is driven to outlawry during the Civil War when his sweetheart is killed by Union troops in Missouri. He is killed by Wyatt Earp, who frees his spirit to reunite with the sweetheart.



*cite book |first=Jack |last=Burrows |title=John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was |location=Tucson, AZ | publisher=University of Arizona Press |year=1987 |id=ISBN 0-8165-0975-1
*cite book |first=Steve |last=Gatto |title=Johnny Ringo |location=Lansing | publisher=Protar House |year=2002 |id=ISBN 0-9720910-1-7
* [ Primary sources concerning Johnny Ringo]

External links

*imdb title|id=0052478|title="Johnny Ringo" (1959)
* - The most complete biographical info available on the web.
* - This site has a photo of Ringo, gives a valuable timeline for Ringo's life, and directions for finding Ringo's grave. Photographs of the grave/death site are included.
* - This is a second link to the gravesite.

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