Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Who Shot Johnny Ringo?

Sarah J. McNeal is the author of western, time travel, paranormal, historical and contemporary romances.  
Who Shot Johnny Ringo?
                 Johnny Ringo

 In my all time favorite western, Tombstone, Johnny Ringo was portrayed as a well educated member of the criminal gang known as The Cowboys. He mentally sparred with Doc Holiday and was apparently the fastest gun in the gang. I remember the part where Wyatt asked Doc why Johnny Ringo did the terrible things that he did and Doc replied that Johnny was angry for being born which implies that Johnny had some dark childhood. In the end, Doc beat Wyatt to the wooded area where Johnny waited to shoot it out and shot Johnny Ringo in the head with one fatal shot while Johnny had his gun in his hand, but didn’t get off a shot before he died.

But what’s the truth? What really happened at that shoot-out? And who was Johnny Ringo anyway? Well I dug around doing some research and found some very interesting facts about Johnny Ringo and the mystery of what happened that day when Johnny Ringo died.

Johnny Ringo was born John Peters, May 3, 1850 in Greensfork, Indiana. His family moved to Independence, Missouri in 1856 where Johnny met Frank and Jesse James who lived in Kearney, a town nearby.  His aunt, Augusta Peters married Coleman Younger, uncle of the famous Younger outlaw making him their cousin. I can see the early connection he had to outlaws by the time he was six, but the coincidences didn’t end there.

In 1858 the family moved to Gallatin, Missouri where they rented a house from John W. Sheets who would become the victim of the James-Younger gang when they robbed The Daviess County Savings and Loan Association in 1869.
               The Younger Brothers with their sister, Henrietta.

The Ringo family was traveling through Wyoming when Johnny’s father, Martin Ringo, stepped off the wagon with his shotgun and accidently shot himself in the head. Johnny, then age fourteen, and his family buried Martin on a hillside along the trail.

Ringo moved from San Jose, California to Mason County, Texas in the mid 1870’s and became acquainted with Scott Cooley, an ex-Texas Ranger who was the adopted son of a local rancher, Tim Williamson. 

But life didn’t remain quiet for Johnny Ringo. Two American rustlers were taken from the jail and hanged by a predominantly German crowd. On May 13, 1875, an all-out war started when Tim Williamson was arrested by a posse and murdered by a German farmer named Peter Bader. Cooley and his friends, including Ringo, began a terror campaign officially called the Mason County War, but by locals, referred to as the Hoodoo War. Cooley killed a German ex-deputy sheriff named John Whorley. Cooley didn’t just shoot Whorley; he scalped him and dumped his body in a well on August 10, 1875.

Cooley killed several more during the “war” adding to his reputation as a dangerous man and, amazingly, gained respect as a Texas Ranger. When Moses Baird, one of Cooley’s supporters was killed, Ringo and his friend, Bill Williams, went to James Cheyney’s house (the man who led the ambush of Baird). He was unarmed when he came out on the porch and invited them in. Ringo shot and killed him. Next, the two of them rode to Dave Doole’s house and called him out, but when he showed up on the porch with a shotgun, the two fled back into town.

Later, Cooley and Ringo mistook Charley Bader for his brother Peter and killed him. They were jailed in Burnet, Texas for the crime by Sheriff Strickland. They weren’t there long before their friends broke them out of jail.

After the Mason County War ended and many lives were lost, Ringo and his friend, George Gladden, were locked up again. One of his cell mates was the notorious, John Wesley Hardin. Gladden was sentenced to 99 years and Ringo was acquitted. Two years later, Johnny Ringo served as constable in Loyal County, Texas. There seems to be a blurry line between lawmen and outlaws in the old west. Not long after that, Johnny Ringo migrated to Arizona. He showed up in Cochise County, Arizona Territory with his friend John Graves from the “war”. He got drunk in a saloon in Safford, Arizona and shot an unarmed man named Louis Hancock for refusing a complimentary drink of whiskey because he preferred beer. Hancock survived the wound. I should add here that Ringo did not take part in the gunfight at the OK Corral as some may believe.

Ringo and Doc Holiday got into a confrontation on January 17, 1882 that was about to lead to a gunfight when they were both arrested by Tombstone’s new chief of police, James Flynn. The former chief had been Virgil Earp who had suffered a bad wound in an ambush just a few weeks prior. Ringo and Doc were and fined for carrying guns in town and Ringo was rearrested and jailed over the weekend for outstanding charges of robbery.
Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp (they look a lot like Val Kilmer and Kirt Russel playing their parts in Tombstone.)

Ringo had a reputation for his bad temper by the folks in Tombstone and he may have had a connection with the outlaw gang known as the Cowboys for some robberies and killings. A couple months later, the Earps suspected Ringo of murdering their brother, Morgan, on March 18, 1882. Later in court, Pete Spence’s wife testified that her husband, Frank Stilwell, “Indian Charlie” Cruz and a half-breed named Fries had killed Morgan. The Earps tracked down the men and killed Cruz.

After Wyatt and his posse found and killed Frank Stilwell, the Cochise County sheriff, Johnny Behan deputized Ringo and 19 other men, mostly members of the Cowboys gang and friends of Frank Stilwell to tract down the federal posse, but they never found Wyatt and his men.

Wyatt Earp killed Ringo’s friend, Curly Bill, in a gunfight in Iron Springs, about 20 miles from Tombstone 2 days after he killed Cruz. Wyatt later told his biographer that Cruz confessed to being an outlook for Morgan’s murder and that Cruz said Johnny Ringo, Frank Stilwell, Hank Swilling, and Curly Bill were Morgan's killers.

                                William Brocius "Curly Bill"

On July 14, 1882 Ringo was found dead leaning against a tree with a bullet hole in his head that exited out the back. His gun hung from one finger. Now the mystery/controversy begins. Some said that Ringo’s gun had one shot out of the chamber and his feet were wrapped in pieces of his undershirt. They found his horse two weeks later with Ringo’s boots tied to the saddle. The coroner declared the official cause of death was suicide. Some reports revealed that no bullet had been fired from Ringo’s gun leading to the suspicion of murder either by Wyatt Earp or Doc Holiday. Of course, there was that memorable scene in the movie Tombstone where Doc Holiday challenged Johnny Ringo to a fight and shot him before Johnny could fire his drawn gun.

Ringo was buried at the site of his death In West Turkey Creek Canyon which lies on private property now. Visitors must request to view the burial site from the owners before they can be admitted to the area.

The controversy over Ringo’s death continues to this day.

It must be said that Louis L’Amour didn’t think much of Johnny Ringo as a tough outlaw. He perceived him to be a loudmouth, mean drunk who wasn’t even fast with a gun and that his only claim to fame was killing the unarmed Louis Hancock over a drink of whiskey. Some authors believe Ringo’s claim to fame only came because of his opposition to the popular good Earp brothers.

One thing’s for sure; there is nothing boring about the old west. No wonder we just can’t get enough western stories. So, what do you think? Did Ringo commit suicide? Did Wyatt kill him? Did Doc Holliday kill him? Do you think he was murdered or did he lose in a gunfight with either Wyatt or Doc?

You can find Sarah McNeal at http://wwwsarahmcneal.com.



  1. Sarah--To state the obvious, Johnny Ringo certainly led a full life and, along the way, seemed to work both sides of law and order. His death, however, seems so mysterious that I'm not sure whether it can ever be explained. Great research on your part and one heck of a fun read. Thanks.

  2. I enjoyed your post, Sarah. Nothing like those old West outlaws to make an interesting story.

  3. Gotta love a good mystery and I think the questions caused by Ringos death would be quite fun for a writer's creativity. Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. Hi Tina,
    Interesting character, Johnny Ringo. I think I tend to agree with Louis L'Amour's assessment of the man. From what I've read he was a drunk and a killer. There is some question as to whether Wyatt Earp was even there at the time of his death, let alone Doc Holiday. Frank Leslie is a candidate as he was there at the time Ringo died. Another man who went by the name of Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce, is a strong possibility because he was in the area avoiding a sheriff's posse at the time and had no love for Ringo. It also could have been an employee of the Chiricahua Cattle Company over a horse trading argument. Johnny's horse had been found on their range. Fun post Sarah.

  5. Sarah,
    So sorry. When I started my post I was thinking of someone else. I tried to fix it but it was already published. :(

  6. Sarah--You have a lot of history in this post. Odd, how so many men over a wide area were intertwined in one way or another.
    I'm very familiar with the Mason County War, called the Hoodoo War, as you say. There are German Settlements scattered around Texas, and Mason County was but one. That "war" cause hard feelings, that I believe are maintained to this day.
    And Johnny Ringo--he had quite a reputation and involvement all over the map. Funny, we don't hear as much about him, although he lived a very colorful life.
    And I agree the real photos of Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp really do resemble Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell.
    I don't think we can get enough stories about the Earps and their cohorts and enemies.
    Thanks for the excellent researched and written post--and of course, those photos!

  7. I love this post, Sarah. I watched Tombstone (again!) just a few days ago. The coincidences tying Ringo to so many other Wild West legends is awesome. Did I miss how he got the name Ringo? Your comment about these colorful guys blurring both sides of the law was spot on. Good job!

  8. Tom, thank you so much for your comments. I thought it was so interesting that no one really knew what happened the day Ringo was shot. Isn't it odd how many lawmen in those days had also spent some time on the other side of the law. Maybe that's what made the wild west even wilder.
    Thanks for coming by.

  9. Linda, I really appreciate you taking the time to visit my blog. Thank you.

  10. Ciara, I was stunned when I read about Johnny Ringo's life and his mysterious death. I had to share it.
    Thank you for your comment.

  11. Hey Kathy. I agree with Louis L'Amour when he said he didn't think much of Ringo being such a bad outlaw. He seemed more cowardly to me. I loved all your input and the addition of more suspects to who may have killed Johnny, too.
    No worries, Kathy. I've probably made the same mistake myself.
    Thank you so much for adding your comments.

  12. elia, I liked your comment about the bitterness surrounding the Mason County War and how it still continues to this day.
    I was amazed to learn how these outlaws and lawmen seemed to meet up with one another so much. The west sure was filled with some interesting characters. No wonder we still talk about them to this day. I wonder what any of them would be like in modern times.

  13. Tanya, the last name was actually Ringo. John Peters Ringo. His father was Martin Ringo.
    Thank you so much for commenting on the blog. I really appreciate it.

  14. I enjoyed your post, Sarah. I think Johnny was murdered, but have no idea by whom. Sounds as if there were a lot of likely candidates, doesn't it? Thanks for a great post.

  15. You're so right Caroline, there were a bunch of candidates for the murder of Johnny Ringo--if it truly was murder. He may have just lost the gunfight. And then, of course, there was that official report that he committed suicide--which I find hard to believe.
    Thank you for coming by and commenting.

  16. How interesting. I'd say he got his comeuppance dying like he lived. What I really thought strange is that he worked as a sheriff after he'd murdered someone. I am not sure my heart would have survived living in that part of history. Great post, Sarah.

  17. It's hard for me to believe that someone with such strong survival instincts would off himself, so I agree with Caroline, too. Thanks for writing such and informative post, Sarah!

  18. Paisley, I felt the same way about a lawless murderer serving as sheriff. Behan, if you recall, deputized the Cowboys, a ruthless gang of murderers to act as a posse against the federal marshalls in which the Earps were included. Now I thought that was just impossible, but there it is.
    However Ringo died, I'd say good ridence. Perhaps by declaring it a suicide, the coroner protected the person who actually committed the murder.
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting.

  19. Jacquie, I found that part pretty dang incredible. Apparently Tombstone burned almost to the ground and many of Johnny's cohorts in crime took off for better prospects elsewhere. I can't really imagine Johnny Ringo being that attached to anyone, not enough to feel depressed and take his life over it. I rather imagine he would have taken off with them to harass another town.
    Thanks for coming by, Jacquie.

  20. Sarah, what a great blog. You always just outdo yourself with these posts. So much research! And so interesting. What a fantastic mystery to ponder. I wonder, like you, if the coroner didn't pronounce it a suicide to protect whoever killed him. Food for thought, for sure!

  21. Cheryl, thank you so much for your compliment. I can't help but think about Marilyn Monroe and the mystery surrounding her death which was officially declared a suicide. What really happened to her? I feel the same way about Johnny Ringo. It just doesn't seem plausible that he would become so depressed he would take his own life.
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting. It's aways a joy to "see" you.

  22. Just letting y'all know I watched Tombstone AGAIN last night LOL. Great movie, great post here. xo

  23. Sorry I didn't get here yesterday, Sarah. What a great post! Mysteries fascinate us, don't they, and Ringo's death is one that will probably never be solved. Thanks for sharing your amazing research.

  24. I don't blame you for watching Tombstone again, Tanya. I can't get enough of it myself. Whoever did casting did a great job of choosing actors who looked a great deal like the real people.

  25. The research was positively fascinating, Lyn. We may never know what really happened to Johnny Ringo, but the fun is in trying to figure it out.
    You're not really late to the blog. Blogs last for 2 days here.
    Thank you so much for commenting.

  26. Thank you for this post. I'm not American, i live in Poland. I am interested Wild West and related stories. I'm intrigued what happened with Johnny Ringo after reading this post. Probably never be solved. Thank you for this knowledge, in Poland is hard find materials about Wild West, so great thanks for this post and photos. Tombstone one of my favorite movies. Sorry for my english and greetings from Poland

    1. Sanxzo I just saw your reply to my blog. Thank you so much for coming to visit and for your kind comments. If I only had one movie to watch for the rest of my life, it would be Tombstone. Sometimes real history can be even more mysterious and strange than books or movies. I hope you come to visit our blog more often in the future. I am so sorry I didn't see your comment when you posted it.

  27. I tend to agree with Michael Hickey, from his wonderful book, Johnny Ringo, The Final Hours. Most Earp scholars respect the work Hickey did in his 4 or 5 Tombstone related books and nobody can really know for sure, now, with every one dead. I personally loved the movie, Tombstone, version, where Doc Holliday killed Ringo, one on one, but the Hickey explanation rings with more truth. Mike Fair

    1. Mike, don't you just love the mystery of Ringo's death? What a dull world if we always had all the answers to everything that ever happened.
      I'm with you on hoping it was Doc Holliday who shot Ringo because he wanted to protect Wyatt, his only friend.
      The old west certainly had its fair share of interesting tales.
      Thank you so much for coming to my blog and commenting. I hope you'll visit our blog often in the future.


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