Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Western Mystery: Who Shot Johnny Ringo? by Sarah J. McNeal

A Western Mystery: 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?

This is a repost of my article on Sweethearts of the West from June 2013. 

Beautiful June Wingate’s perfect marriage is in shambles—and she hasn’t even left the wedding reception! When she overhears two gossips discussing the real reason Kit Wilding married her, June believes there must be some truth to it—after all, things have happened just the way they said.  Is her marriage only make believe? Trust is hard for June to accept, and now, her faith in her husband has been broken—along with her fragile heart.

Kit Wilding has loved June since the moment he laid eyes on her—a vision in pink that he couldn’t get out of his mind. Now that he’s married her, he can’t understand the changes that have suddenly turned her secretive and distant. How can he make things right between them when he doesn’t know what he’s up against?

But the tables are turned when June’s father, a pillar of the community, is accused of a crime that brings shame on the Wingate family—along with prison time. Kit Wilding’s not the kind of man to give up easily, but with his budding political career at stake, will he be able to hold his marriage together? Or will he be forced to admit IT’S ONLY MAKE BELIEVE


     A loud slap echoed through the house. June’s hand stung as she placed it back in the pocket of her dressing gown, part of her vast trousseau paid for by her parents.

     Kit stepped back and rubbed his reddened cheek with his left hand while Snort, Kit’s dog, barked. June couldn’t help but notice the flash of his golden wedding band in the light of the dressing room. Her heart clenched at the sight of it. They’d been married only a few hours, and now this…

     “Hush that barking, Snort.” The dog quieted, but kept a sharp eye on June, just in case. Kit glanced from the dog to June. “What the hell was that for, June? Did I do something wrong by trying to kiss my wife?”

     “You bet you did. I thought you loved me, and now…” 

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Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author who writes diverse stories filled with heart. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press and Sundown Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. Sarah, I look forward to reading IT'S ONLY MAKE BELIEVE. I love the cover! What I know about Johnny Ringo--until your post--is only what I've seen in movies. They never give the same version. There was even a movie titled "Johnny Ringo".

  2. Caroline, I don't think I saw the movie, "Johnny Ringo", but I'm going to have to check it out. Until I researched Johnny Ringo, I thought Doc Holliday shot him. Now, I just don't know. I love a good mystery though. Maybe that's why I like Big Foot stories and hope they never find one because it's good to think there are things on Earth that are still undiscovered and unsolved.

    Livia Reasoner created that cover and I like it, too. I think she did such a great job of capturing the core of the story in it.
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting.

  3. Love this post, Sarah! I missed it the first time around, so I'm glad you re-posted it. I recall a TV series about Johnny Ringo when I was a kid. Of course it was heavily fictionalized, but I watched it along with my dad. He was a western fanatic and I became one watching every TV western that came down the pike with him.

    I loved Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. The scene where he confronts Ringo, saying, "I'm your huckleberry," is just perfect. Whether the real Doc actually beat Ringo to the draw and killed him or not, I don't care. I just love that scene!

    Thanks for sharing your research!

    1. Lyn, Tombstone is my favorite western movie--ever.

      I find it hard to believe that Johnny took his own life. I do recall in the movie when Doc (Val Kilmer) said Ringo had a hole in him that couldn't be filled. I wonder now if that was some kind of reference to a possible depression problem Ringo might have had. But I prefer the way the movie portrayed that scene when Doc took out Ringo with one shot and saved his friend, Wyatt.
      Thank you so much for coming by, Lyn.

  4. Ah, the lines between outlaws and lawmen certainly were blurred.

    That was not a suicide! LOL But who did it?

    1. You are so right, E. During several research projects I discovered frequently, an outlaw would become a lawman and visa versa--some of them real desperadoes, too.

      What's up with that? Do you think it had something to do with their skills with guns, or did their fierceness or maybe some kind of charisma have something to do with becoming lawmen? It does boggle the mind, doesn't it?

      Thank you so much for your comment and for taking the time to visit my blog.

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