There are probably more untruths told about Johnny Ringo than any other gunslinger in the American West. At one point, writers dubbed him "Tombstone’s Deadliest Gunfighter," claiming he killed any number of gunslingers in dramatic face-to-face confrontations. Since he was a sworn enemy of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, he was presumed to have been the man responsible for the maiming of Virgil Earp and the murder of Morgan Earp. It was assumed that he took part in Texas’ Mason County range war of the 1870’s because his first arrest took place in Austin around that time. Many historians think he was born in Missouri because he went to school there. There’s even the story that he was better educated than most gunfighters, quoting Shakespeare and poetry, having attended William and Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. Except for the first sentence, it is all myth.
Born John Peters Ringo on May 3, 1850, the oldest child of Martin and Mary (Peters) Ringo in Washington, Wayne County, Indiana, Johnny became the proverbial black sheep of the family. He did go to school in Gallatin, Missouri, which was where his father moved the family in 1856 to escape the increasing vigilante activity in Indiana, but he only had an elementary school education. After two Confederate nightriders were lynched by Union forces on the Ringo farm in 1862, Martin Ringo decided to sell out. In 1864, Martin headed his family toward San Jose, California. Following an Indian attack in Wyoming, Martin Ringo accidentally shot his brains out when the trigger of his rifle was caught in his boot strap, leaving young Johnny to shoulder complete responsibility for his family’s welfare and safety. Johnny was a crack shot, and he took his family responsibility very seriously. His mother’s brother-in-law was Colonel Coleman Younger of the infamous Younger clan, and the Ringo’s lived for about a year on the Younger ranch at San Jose before moving into town.
In 1870, Johnny was a tall, handsome man with auburn hair, dark somber eyes, easy manners, and showing the marks of education and refinement. He left San Jose following the wheat harvest, earning enough money for passage to Missouri to visit with family members there. When word reached him that his younger brother had contracted tuberculosis, and concerned over the family’s finances, he traveled to Texas to take up the cattle trade. He met with a group of ranchers in Llano County, among them Moses Baird, who befriended him. The year was 1873, and over in neighboring Mason County, the war between German immigrants and local ranchers was just beginning to fester.
By September 1875, Johnny was part of the Scott Cooley faction of outlaw cattlemen in Llano County, and when Moses Baird was killed in a bloody ambush in Mason County, Ringo and a man identified only as Williams promptly took up arms and went after the killer, putting a bullet through the man at a water trough. Three months later, Ringo was arrested in neighboring Burnet County and charged with threatening another man’s life. Within days, the ranchers in all three counties were in an uproar over Ringo’s arrest, and he had to be secured under heavy guard in a Lampasas County jail to keep him from being broken out by his friends. It didn’t work. Four months later, set free by his rancher friends, Ringo headed to Mason County, where he was finally ridden to earth in Llano County in October 1876 by a combined force of Texas Rangers and local lawmen from Llano County. He was taken to Austin for safekeeping, but by this time, he had acquired a reputation in so many different counties that he was known as one of the most desperate men in Texas. It was while he was incarcerated in prison that he met the true Number One gunslinger of Texas, John Wesley Hardin. For the remainder of his short life, Johnny Ringo’s family would disown him and never acknowledge nor dispute the stories which grew up around his name.
It took two years for the charges against him to be dismissed, at which time he promptly ran for Constable of Llano County. He won the election, stayed on the job almost one year, and then pulled up stakes for Arizona Territory, which included a part of New Mexico, where he murdered two brothers in a saloon altercation. On the run from murder indictments in New Mexico, he drifted into Arizona, headed for Tombstone. His reputation as a gunslinger followed him, as Texans were now arriving in Tombstone to cash in on the mining bonanza. These Texans began spreading tales about his past. Unnerved by all the rumors and gossip, he began to suffer post traumatic stress syndrome and took to drinking heavily.
It wasn’t long before Johnny fell in with a loosely organized group of cattle rustlers known as the Clanton Gang. John Behan, the sheriff of Cochise County, had an agreement to look the other way when the Clantons rustled Mexican beef, but when Wyatt Earp came to Tombstone, things began to drastically change. After Old Man Clanton and half the gang were murdered in Guadalupe Canyon by angry Mexican ranchers, Ringo became head of the rustlers. His chief lieutenant was Curly Bill Brosius.
At the time of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in October 1881, Johnny Ringo was back in California visiting his sisters. No one knows exactly when he returned to Tombstone. On 28 December 1881, Virgil Earp was shotgunned and crippled for life by unknown assailants, and Wyatt charged that Ringo was one of the men responsible. Tired of Wyatt’s allegations against him, Johnny challenged Wyatt and Doc Holliday on the streets of Tombstone. It was 15 February 1882, and he was promptly arrested and tossed into jail before any shooting could take place.
One month later, Morgan Earp was assassinated while playing pool in Campbell & Hatch’s billiard hall. Ringo denied any involvement, but the next month, he quietly returned to California. Coincidentally, it was about this same time that Wyatt and his posse begin their witch hunt for Morgan Earp’s killers.
Ringo returned to Tombstone in May, but with Wyatt and his posse still on the hunt for Morgan’s killers, he wisely headed into Mexico, where he apparently lived under an assumed name for a couple of months. Returning to Tombstone in July 1882, Ringo sought to drown his sorrows in drink. For a solid two weeks, he, Billy Claibourne, and Buckskin Frank Leslie whooped it up all over southeastern Arizona. Leaving Tombstone one morning, a scorching ride across nine miles of mesquite and cactus brought them to a halt at Antelope Springs, where they spent another day of heavy drinking. They split up, and Ringo headed down the trail to Sulphur Springs for another day of drinking. Totally sotted, he finally staggered out to his horse and said he was going to Galeyville.
In West Turkey Creek Canyon stands a most unusual tree. Three trees have grown together around an eighteen inch boulder, forming a seat, like a chair. It was here, on 14 July 1882, that Johnny Ringo was found dead. Although putrefaction had set in, it was estimated that he had been dead only one day. His boots were missing, and his coat had been torn from him, strips of cloth from his coat binding his feet and hands. At his right side leaned his Winchester, and beside it was his hat. Two cartridge belts were about his body, one upside down. His pistol belt was full. The rifle belt had only seven cartridges in it. His right hand held a Colt .45. The gun sight, caught in his watch chain, prevented his hand from dropping into his lap. He had placed the gun against his head, above his right ear, and pulled the trigger. Only one shell had been exploded. His horse was later found far up the canyon with his boots tied across the saddle.
Wyatt Earp would later claim that he and Doc Holliday had killed Ringo and then painted the scene to make it appear suicide. Billy Claibourne pointed the finger of suspicion on Buckskin Frank Leslie, but Pony Deal, who knew Ringo as well as anyone, believed the killer was a fellow tinhorn gambler called Johnnie-Behind-The-Deuce O’Rourke. In fact, Pony Deal killed O’Rourke over Ringo’s death. When Buckskin Frank Leslie found out it was Claibourne who had fingered him, he promptly cut Claibourne to pieces. The official verdict was…and still is…suicide.
Johnny Ringo was merely a cattle rustler and bushwhacker, not the steely-eyed gunslinger depicted in western fiction. He was buried not far from Tombstone, beside West Turkey Creek, near the spot where his body was found in 1882. The location is on private property on Sander’s Ranch off Arizona Highway 181 in Southeastern Arizona. His grave can be visited, but only with permission from the land owner.
ADDENDUM: We received the following email from Aaron Ringo in December 2005. His genealogy research is extensive and makes a compelling case that Ringo's name was never 'Ringgold'. This information is different than the accepted historical records on which this article was originally based. However, the author now believes that Aaron is correct and the article has been changed to reflect this new information. If you are doing historical research and want a more detailed account his email and address are included here so you can follow up with him directly:
|Ringo was never a 'Ringgold'. John Ringo was a
direct descendant of Philip Janzen Ringo, who immigrated to The area of
what is now New York and New Jersey from a little place called
Zeeland, in the Netherlands, around 1640.
I know this, because my family has our genealogy pretty well pegged. There were Ringgolds that wound up here, who may be related to the Ringos. Story goes, at least one Ringo family changed the name to Ringgold to fool the carpetbaggers. Apparently, the Ringo name was heavily
associated with Southern sympathies, and this particular branch of the family didn't want anyone trying to take their home away.
One more interesting little tidbit for you. When the Earps were run out of Tombstone, Johnny Ringo was in the posse.
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