Johnny Ringo was quite well known in Tombstone Arizona. In fact his name still reverberates in town today. Who was this man of infamy in the old Wild West?
He was born May 3, 1850 and given the name John Peters Ringo.The town of his birth is now Greensfork Indiana, but was first called Washington. It's not the same town of Washington that's in Indiana today. His parents were Martin and Mary. Johnny Ringo's middle name came from his mother's maiden name "Peters." He was their first child. His ancestry on his father's side is from the Netherlands.1
Four years later, his brother Martin was born. When he was 6 years old, the family made a move to Gallatin Missouri. Johnny began school there. A sister, Fanny Fern came a year later in 1857. In 1860 another sister was born, Mary Enna. And a final child was born to his parents in 1862, a girl named Mattie Bell.2
Johnny Ringo was actually the in-law cousin to Coleman Younger (of James Gang fame), through his aunt Augusta Peters.5 We could wonder if that relationship influenced him at all.
Disturbing troubles as a result of post civil war issues caused his father to push Westward in 1864.1 While trekking to San Jose California, they went through Wyoming. A terrible accident happened there, near the Platte River.8 As his father Martin climbed down from their wagon, his gun accidentally discharged, sending buckshot up into his eye and through his brain. He was dead, and the family had to bury him alongside the trail.4 His gravesite is about 2.7 miles West of State Hwy 95, on U.S. 20 near present-day Glenrock, Wyoming. A marker is on the spot.
Some say John Ringo had a college degree - for instance some writings by his future Tombstone friend, Billy Breckenridge. He wrote: "Ringo was a mysterious man. He had a college education, but was reserved and morose. He drank heavily as if to drown his troubles; he was a perfect gentleman when sober, but inclined to be quarrelsome when drinking. He was a good shot and afraid of nothing..."13 Though such stories say he was well educated, - his schooling probably ended when they left Missouri, or shortly thereafter.3 He may have read a lot on his own, which gave the impression of a good education, however.
When the family got to San Jose, the widow took her family to her sister's. The ranch they stayed on while getting settled was that of her brother-in-law, Thomas Coleman "Cole" Younger. He was the Uncle of the more well-known, youthful namesake who went to prison for robbery and murder. John helped out on the ranch while living there.1
About the time John Ringo was 23, he headed for Texas to try ranching there. In Llano County, he became friends with rancher Moses Baird. An area conflict called the Mason County war (aka Hoodoo War) was heating up in 1873. It involved strong disagreements between German immigrants and local ranchers. Johnny Ringo got involved in the conflict and was arrested in late 1875 for being involved in a murder.4 He'd gotten to know and become friends with ex-Texas Ranger Scott Cooley. Cooley took the law into his own hands after the killing of his adoptive father.6 He felt the Germans were behind lax attitude of unaccountability for his father's murder.
The ranchers were outraged at Ringo's arrest. They aimed to break him from jail, but the authorities moved him to Austin. While in prison there he became acquainted with outlaw John Wesley Hardin.1 This era was probably another large influence in his life.
It's said that starting about this time, his family heard of his exploits, refused comment, and disowned him. He was imprisoned for 2 years when finally the charges were dismissed. When he got his release, he ran for Llano County, Loyal Valley Constable and was elected. But after a year he moved along.4
It seems that he may have started down the road to heavy drinking at this time. He was aware of his sisters' disapproval of his actions. In late 1879, we know Johnny Ringo is now in Arizona. It's obvious because he makes a disturbance in Safford. It gets into a Tucson newspaper. He was released when he posted bond and later scheduled to go before the Grand Jury in March 1880.
Instead of appearing, he wrote a letter to Sheriff Charles Shibbel, with an excuse for his planned no-show. He wrote: "I write to let you know why I can not appear--I got shot through the foot and it is impossible for me to travel for awhile." He also asked that the District Attorney be notified. He requested they send any required paperwork for him to fill out, and he stated his concern that his bond be continued. He was worried about his future in the area, because he planned to remain in Southern Arizona.3
But the DA was not sympathetic. He told the court to revoke his bond. The next thing we know, Johnny Ringo is in New Mexico dealing in mining property sales. But by July 1880 he's back in Arizona, and working along with the Clantons. He was with Ike and a few other Cowboys on a cattle drive.7 He was living in San Simon, a very small settlement in Southeast Arizona. Often he hung out in Galeyville, as well.
By October 1880, were his Arizona legal problems resolved? He was given a position as a Judge for the election in the San Simon Precinct. And his friend Ike Clanton was an Inspector. The tally totaled for Republican Bob Paul for Pima County Sheriff was just 1. While the total for Democratic candidate Charles Shibell was 103! The results in the San Simon Cienega Precinct were therefore evaluated, and then thrown out. This caused a reversal in the election, making Bob Paul the winner.8
The early part of 1881 Ringo travels to Texas. He has a small incident there, falsely accusing three guys of stealing money from him. As a result Austin's infamous gun-slinging Marshal, Ben Thompson, arrests him when Ringo's not cooperative. He just receives a fine.7
Then he moved on to Missouri. But by early July 1881, he was back in Arizona - in Tombstone. In early October he went to Galeyville, playing poker. He wasn't winning, and he wasn't happy. Ringo left the game, when the other players wouldn't loan him funds to continue.3 But after thinking about it - he returned. Pointed his gun at the players - he left with the cash that was there on the table.8 Ringo was brought to court by Deputy Sheriff Billy Breckenridge for charges in the matter. No witnesses came forth, so the case was postponed.3
He again left the area.8 He went to California to visit his sisters in October 1881. Maybe he tried to get back into the family's good graces. But with their strong religious beliefs, it was a hard sell which didn't seem to work.3 Therefore, he was in the San Jose area of California when the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place - he wasn't in town.
But on January 21, 1882, Johnny Ringo was in Tombstone. It's certain he heard from the Cowboy faction, including Ike Clanton, about October's Shootout. He knew the Earps and Doc Holliday were to blame, from their stand-point.
On December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was badly injured when he was shot that night on Allen Street. His brother, not known for timidity, Wyatt Earp - included Johnny Ringo as one of the assailants. But there was no evidence ever produced for that. Wyatt was able to become a Deputy U.S. Marshal, in place of Virgil, by contacting U.S. Marshal Crawley P. Dake.
As reported in the Nugget on January 22nd, Ringo was on Allen Street, in front of the Occidental Saloon. And who else was there that morning - but Doc Holliday. The newspaper pointed out the history of bad blood between the two. They described the action of that day: "words were exchanged and both parties stepped back, placing their hands on their weapons with the intention of drawing and using them. Fortunately Chief of Police Flynn was at hand and placed both parties under arrest. They were taken to Judge Wallace's court and fined $32 each for carrying deadly weapons."9
While in court, it was noted by Judge William H. Stilwell that John Ringo had outstanding charges on him. Remember his poker take robbery in Galeyville - that was it! He was arrested and put in jail over the weekend.10 He got out after his bond was posted by his lawyer. Sheriff John Behan allowed his release even though the court hadn't yet approved it - he always favored the Cowboys.
While in the jail, Ringo heard of Wyatt Earp's plan for an arrest of the Clantons and friends, who were staying in Charleston. Ringo headed straight there. Now James Earp saw Ringo riding away - and believed he was escaping! On January 23, 1882, an affidavit was sworn by James on the matter, stating "the purpose and intent of said Ringo is to intercept one Wyatt S. Earp a marshal intrusted with the execution of warrants... and . . . believes that the purpose of said Ringo is to obstruct the execution of said warrants."3
On January 28, 1882 John Ringo returned to Tombstone to face his Galeyville charges. Bond was arranged for Ringo. On the court date in February, again no witnesses against him appeared.3
Then on March 18th when Wyatt's younger brother Morgan Earp was murdered, Ringo was among the accused. But court testimony by Pete Spence’s wife blame her husband, plus Frank Stilwell, “Indian Charlie” Cruz and someone named Fries.5
Wyatt obtained warrants, and formed a Vendetta Posse to go after those responsible for the attack on Virgil and the murder of Morgan. The Earp contingent, and Doc Holliday were in Tucson, when the family sent Morgan's body to California for burial. While there, Wyatt saw Frank Stilwell attempting to take their lives.3 Wyatt shot Stilwell dead that night on March 20, 1882.
Pima County Sheriff Paul issued warrants for Wyatt & his posse for Stilwell's murder, as a result of the Coroner's jury. Paul telegraphed John Behan to take them in custody. Wyatt blew him off. Behan didn't give up. He decided to gather a posse to go after Wyatt's posse. Wyatt continued searching for more of the Cowboys involved in his brothers' attacks.11
Johnny Ringo was among those in Behan's posse. Tombstone diarist George Parsons commented on Behan's chances of capturing Wyatt: "they will never do it. The cow-boy element is backing him strongly-John Ringo being one of the party-there is a prospect of bad times."3
In April, Ringo was seen in the Tombstone area, according to newspaper reports. In May his rescheduled trial for the Galeyville robbery was to take place. In mid May again no witnesses came forth, and the judge finally dismissed the charges. He was free to go with nothing more pending against him.3
Johnny Ringo was last known to be in Tombstone on July 12, 1882. He left there right after that, going through the South Pass of the Dragoons where he stopped for a meal at Dial's Ranch. Then he moved on to Galeyville. All the while people he encountered said he was drinking a lot. Plus he was having somber conversations about impending death. He surmised his would be by someone else's hand. After that, apparently he went to the Morse Canyon area.12
On Thursday afternoon, July 13th, two women passed along Turkey Creek Rd. Mrs. Young and Mrs. Smith stated they saw a man at the bottom of a tree who seemed to be sleeping, and they passed on by. That afternoon, residents of the nearby (only 700' away) Smith house heard a single gunshot.12
The next afternoon John Yoast came down the road. He also noted this sleeping man in the tree. He kept moving his horse team along. But Yoast's dog ran over to the man, sniffing and making odd yelps. So he got down to see what the problem was, and found the man was dead. He also saw that he knew the man - Johnny Ringo. He reported it right away, and swiftly twelve others were on the scene to give report to the Sheriff and Coroner.12
The condition of Ringo's body, plus the evidence indicated he was dead about 24 hours when he was found. He was described as "in a clump of oak trees" - "in a sitting posture, facing West, the head inclined to the right.... a bullet hole at the top of the head on the left..." From the forehead up through some hair, a small area seemed to be cut out - like a small area "scalped."12
His clothing was described, and then the odd thing about his feet were noted. He wore socks. On his feet were strips of an undershirt, seemingly wrapped around them for protection. It looked like he may have walked a short distance with them this way. His rifle rested near him on the tree, but his gun was in right his hand. Something odd was the way his cartridge belt was strapped on upside down.12
The possessions found on him were turned over to teamster Frederick Ward for care-taking. They were:
They stated his body was buried near the site where he was found.12
Immediate conjecture from witnesses in the area was that Johnny Ringo must have found his horse gone. While walking to find the animal, his feet began to hurt, so he removed his boots. To protect his feet, he took an undershirt and made these resourceful booties. They believed he was despondent of all his circumstances, and decided to end his own life.12
The Coroner officially ruled it a suicide death on July 13, 1882. Ringo's horse was found wandering the Turkey Creek area about two weeks after his death. Ringo's boots were hung saddle-side, as was safety-tradition when taking them off.3 But there has been, ever since, a lasting controversy on the Coroner's ruling. There have been a few other theories put forth - some quite plausible.
In Autumn after Ringo died, Cowboy Billy Claiborne was heard arguing with Buckskin Frank Leslie. Billy had been complaining to friends that he was angry with Frank for killing Johnny Ringo. It seems that maybe Claiborne had some inside information on the situation.
Eyewitnesses who have descendants in Cochise County today, had reported seeing both Leslie and Claiborne in the area of Turkey Creek around July 13, 1882. In fact, a story through the generations was that the pair rode to Galeyville searching for Ringo. They came upon this ancestor and asked if he'd seen Johnny Ringo. Later on he found Ringo was dead and already buried.14
Leslie, Claiborne and Ringo were all aligned with the Cochise County cowboy faction. So they'd been essentially known as friends. The motivation for their intention to go after Ringo, and then for Leslie to kill him has never been discovered.
Billy Claiborne did go after Buckskin Frank. Frank was bartender at the Oriental Saloon, at the Northeast corner of Allen and 5th. Billy went inside the Oriental and confronted him there. He left, but came back with a rifle - calling Frank out. But Buckskin Frank was fast, and Billy Claiborne got it instead. Leslie testified he shot at Billy's breast.15
The only possible indication of a connecting motive for Ringo in what Billy said on his deathbed, would be stretching it. Dr. G.C. Willis stated Billy talked of Frank that "he was a murdering son of a b---- to shoot a man in the back. I was examining the back when he made that remark. I think he received the wound in front."15
Sometime later Buckskin Frank was sent to Yuma Territorial Prison. While there it's been claimed he admitted to a guard that he killed Johnny Ringo. He said it was self-defense.14 It's never been verified, and the evidence is way too cold to even try to make it a "Cold Case" - really! But this may be the most plausible of the theories.
When Wyatt Earp was getting older, he began reminiscing about his "Wild West" life. His wife Josephine also influenced his story - making sure it was told in a heroic, solid manner. In the 1920s they both began speaking with authors who could get his biography down on paper, and subsequently as a book for sale.
One specific account was that Wyatt killed Johnny Ringo. He claimed this occurred when he was with his Vendetta Posse, as they completed their tracking and were about to leave Arizona. He drew a diagram for these biographical authors that would make the tale seem more valid.13
The problem is that the Posse crossed the border into New Mexico in March 1882.13 They left because they were wanted men. When they crossed the Arizona border, it was four months before Ringo was found dead. The group knew they were wanted via warrants in Arizona. It seems unlikely they'd stay - or return, with the risk of arrest. They moved on to Colorado after NM. And then Wyatt went to California. He didn't return to Arizona for many, many years.
Most old Western history authorities don't believe Wyatt Earp had anything to do with killing Johnny Ringo. There are too many discrepancies, and Wyatt himself contradicted himself a number of times. In his later years Wyatt made may embellishments of his life. It was encouraged by Josie, for sure. There are a few historians, however, who do support his version.
His real name was Michael O'Rourke (newspapers cut off the "O"). He went by his nickname of "Johnny Behind the Deuce" as he was a roving old West gambler. On January 15, 1881 he was in Charleston with a friend. They were in a hotel bar eating and having a few beers. Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce said he was insulted by P. Schneider, a popular mining engineer from Charleston.16
O'Rourke was brought to Tombstone first, to Vogan's Saloon, and then on to jail in Tucson. The newspaper account says a mob was following to Tombstone - wanting to do vigilante justice. The prisoner was protected by Constable McKelvey, Marshal Sippy and local Tombstone officers.13 That certainly included Virgil Earp.
Other likely prisoner protectors would be Wyatt Earp - deputized by his brother. In fact, that's supported by Tombstone diarist George Parsons.17 But some rumor-mongers say the vigilante mob was led by Johnny Ringo, or even get Ike Clanton involved. There isn't one ounce of evidence anywhere in the documentation to back this up. The mob consisted of miners who liked Mr. Schneider.
Considering the fact O'Rourke felt he acted in self-defense, and fearing for his life - he didn't take any chances with the local law. He made an escape from jail on April 18th. He was last seen in Arizona in early May. The Tombstone Epitaph reported on May 13, 1881: "'Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce’ was seen three days ago, we are informed, in the Dragoon Mountains. He was well mounted and equipped, and was on the eve of departure for Texas.”17 He made his exit of Arizona, never to be seen there again!
This version intertwines with that of Wyatt Earp. Glenn Boyer is a Cochise County resident, retired U.S. Air force Lieutenant Colonel, novelist and editor, and Wyatt Earp self-proclaimed historian. He wrote a chronicle of what he heard from Josephine Earp about the killing of Johnny Ringo.
He was with Wyatt for the Vendetta Posse ride. When they went to track Ringo, he was there. Instead of Wyatt, he made the fatal shot. But the same problem arises with the Wyatt version - the timeline. There are some who say that a group made their way back to Arizona from Colorado in July. That could have included Wyatt, as well as Doc Holliday. With the warrants for their arrest, again this would have been an unlikely chance for them to take. Most historians, for a wide variety of reasons, disagree with the chance of this possibility.
The place it was portrayed, was in the 1993 Movie: Tombstone. It made for a great tale. But from all valid evidence, it does seem to us far-fetched, as we'd made our own evaluation. What do you think. We'd like your input - Click Here>
Ringo's grave was prepared right after his body was discovered. He was buried a short distance from the oak tree where he was found. On the flat stone in the bottom of the tree's "crotch" which spread out from its base.
The gravesite is on private property. For quite a while you had to get permission from the property owners to enter. It seems it was a bothersome thing for the owners to always respond to these requests for this old West Cowboy legend. So they've rearranged the access, but ask for your respect.
Please follow their instructions when you visit. Everything is posted. It is kind of them to allow these visits, as it is on their private property. I remember in years past, how it was even difficult to locate the site - because of that. Now, because of the owners' hospitality, and cordiality, you can visit it. While being mindful of the considerations.
Please follow along, as you see how we respectfully visited Johnny Ringo's grave:
1 Paul, L. (2005, December). Johnny Ringo. Retrieved from www.thehighchaparral.com/historic6.htm
2 Geni (2018, May 23). John Peters "Johnny" Ringo. Retrieved from www.geni.com/people/John-Ringo/366337246580011841
3 Gressinger, J. (2010-2018). Who Killed Johnny Ringo? Retrieved from southernarizonaguide.com/death-johnny-ringo/
4 The Wild West (1999-2018). Wild West Outlaws and Lawmen: John Ringo. Retrieved from www.thewildwest.org/cowboys/wildwestoutlawsandlawmen/186-wildwestoutlawjohnringo
5 McNeal, S.J. (2013, June 18). Who Shot Johnny Ringo? Retrieved from sweetheartsofthewest.blogspot.com/2013/06/who-shot-johnny-ringo.html
6 Caldwell, C. R. (2011). A day's ride from here: Mountain Home, Texas. Volume 1. Charleston, SC: The History Press. ISBN 978-1-60949-393-6.
7 Gatto, S. (n.d.). Johnny Ringo history page. Retrieved from www.johnnyringo.com/
8 Dyke, S. (2017, Aug. 23). Meandering the mesquite: Johnny Ringo: The myth meets the truth. Green Valley News. Retrieved from www.gvnews.com/get_out/meandering-the-mesquite-johnny-ringo-the-myth-meets-the-truth/article_f57261fc-84fd-11e7-88d1-b3deace369b0.html
9 Arizona Weekly Citizen (1882, Jan. 22). Almost a tragedy. As reported by the Tombstone Nugget. Retrieved from www.newspapers.com
10 Roberts, Gary L. (2007). Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend. New York, NY: Wiley, J. p. 544. ISBN 978-0-470-12822-0.
11 Brand, P. (2007, March). Wyatt Earp’s vendetta posse. Wild West. Retrieved from www.historynet.com/wyatt-earp
12 Tombstone Weekly Epitaph (1882, July 22). Death of John Ringo: His body found in Morse's Canyon, probably suicide. Retrieved from www.newspapers.com
13 Bell, B.B. (2005, Aug. 1). The mysterious death of John Ringo: John Ringo vs. himself? True West. Retrieved from truewestmagazine.com/the-mysterious-death-of-john-ringo/
14 Stockmar, S. (2016, April 27). Who killed Johnny Ringo? Herald/Review Media. Retrieved from www.myheraldreview.com/news/who-killed-johnny-ringo/article_0419b66c-0cd0-11e6-8094-63edd32e8c67.html
15 Tombstone Weekly Epitaph (1882, Nov. 18). Leslie's luck: "Billie the Kid" takes a shot at "Buckskin Frank." Retrieved from www.newspapers.com
16 Arizona Weekly Citizen (1881, Jan. 15). Another murder: Mike Rourke shoots and instantly kills P. Schneider, chief engineer of the Tombstone Mill - Rourke narrowly escapes lynching - two conflicting reports. Retrieved from www.newspapers.com
17 Bell, B.B. (2005, March 1). Gunfight at the Stilwell corral: Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce vs. Phillip Schneider. Retrieved from truewestmagazine.com/gunfight-at-the-stilwell-corral/