There are many outlaws from the late 19th century that have gone down in the history books as fearsome desperados, angry and mean, but few could be called gentlemen. Johnny Ringo was one. The stories make him sound like an idealized embodiment of the mysterious, gentleman outlaw, showing courage, honesty and chivalry. Those that knew him in Tombstone lionized him to the point of celebrity status and that view has dominated history's image of him.
He is characterized as an intellectual, a reserved and morose man who drank too much, an educated man obsessed with violence yet possessed with a sense of honor. William M. Breakenridge, deputy sheriff, so described him, "Ringo was a very mysterious man and with 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, and had great authority with the rustling element. Although he was the leader on their trips into Mexico and in their raids against the smugglers, he generally kept by himself after they returned to Galeyville. He read a great deal and had a small collection of standard books in his cabin."
The poetic figure in reality was not as romantic. John Ringo was born on May 3, 1850 in Wayne County, Indiana. The Ringo family moved to California when Johnny was about fourteen, his father dying along the way from an accidental gunshot wound. They arrived in San Jose and lived for a short time in the home of Coleman Younger. It is said that Ringo was a cousin of the Younger brothers, who rode with Quantrill before they teamed up with their kinsmen, the James brothers who in turn were related by marriage to the Daltons. If indeed the relationship is true, he came from a long line of romanticized outlaws. There is no record of a formal education, but there is evidence that he may have been a well read man and better mannered than his outlaw friends.
At nineteen he left California and went to Texas, joining relatives. By then he was already an alcoholic and this is where the real record of his life began. In Texas he became involved in the Hoodoo War, one of Texas' numerous feuds. It began when a large body of citizens lynched four men for cattle rustling. It became two years of murder and mayhem and Ringo was involved in two murders. He managed to escape and never stood trial for either one. When things got too hot for him in Texas, he moved on to Arizona. By that time he was known as "one of the most desperate men in the frontier counties."
By 1879 he was in southeastern Arizona and involved with Curly Bill Brocius and the Clanton-McLaury crowd, stealing cattle on excursions into Mexico. They called him Dutch, and he was considered a loner, he drank too much and was feared as a deadly man with a gun. In certain accounts he is called the real brains of the gang and by general agreement he was the most dangerous man among them.
There are three incidents in the Tombstone area deserving mention of Ringo showing his mean side. The first took place in 1879, when he shot Louis Hancock in the neck, apparently because the man wouldn't drink whiskey with him. There are conflicting stories about Hancock and whether he lived or died, but it did establish Ringo, as a man who would pull the trigger and that was exactly what he needed to gain a reputation of such proportions.
The second incident occurred in Galeyville, Arizona on August 5, 1881, when Ringo was cleaned out in a poker game. He returned a short while later and relieved the players of $500 in cash. Once he sobered up, he returned the money, but was still arrested by William M. Breakenridge, a deputy sheriff, then quickly set free.
The third incident is more speculative as to his involvement. In January of 1882, the Bisbee stage was robbed not far from the Clanton Ranch. The strong box carried $6,500 and the driver was threatened with death if he should reveal the identity of one of the robbers, indicating that he was well known in the area. The Los Angeles Times reported that man as Johnny Ringo, but the papers in Tombstone reported nothing. There was some speculation that Doc Holliday was involved, but nothing ever proven. It is unlikely that Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday would have collaborated together considering the company each kept.
Johnny Ringo did confront Doc Holliday on the streets of Tombstone and offered to shoot it out with him. The men were disarmed and a few days later Ringo jumped bail for the robbery charge. In March he sent a message to the Earp brothers that he had no quarrel with them, Wyatt Earp suspected that Ringo was involved in Virgil's shooting in December 1881 and the message was received just hours before Morgan Earp was murdered. Leaving Wyatt no doubt in his mind that Johnny Ringo was party to the ambush.
Now the story goes that sometime after the Earps left Tombstone, Ringo returned to San Jose, visiting his family. He received a cool reception though and being rejected returned to Arizona in July 1882. Accounts say that he became despondent and drank heavily. He was found dead on July 13th; exactly three months after the Earps left Arizona. He was found not far from Rustler's Park, West Turkey Creek Canyon, a few miles from Tombstone. He was sitting against a large black oak tree, a Colt .45 in his right hand, and in his temple a bullet from that or a similar gun. Without today's testing it's impossible to be sure if the wound was self-inflicted or if one of the other scenarios played out. The coroner's report didn't make it clear whether the pistol contained one empty chamber, or a chamber with an empty shell casing. It is said that an experienced gun handler always left the hammer resting on an empty chamber or a chamber with an empty shell casing. This fact has cast speculation over the truth of Ringo's death and still spurs arguments in Tombstone's saloons today. There are some accounts that insist that Frank Leslie, a drinking companion killed him. Other accounts claim that Michael O'Rourke, a young gambler known as Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce, shot him. Wyatt Earp also left a manuscript account detailing how he killed Ringo. The questions go unanswered and the mystery remains.
There is a strong tendency to romanticize Ringo, endearing him to the romantic heart with the story of his fallen position. It's hard not to with tales of the gentleman outlaw so prevalent. There is current lore that he was a squire of dames, some talk of him having a sort of Traveler's Aid Bureau dedicated to sending wayward girls home to their parents. It may have happened, but doesn't seem to be well documented. What can't be doubted is his skill with a gun and his willingness to use it. He was a man to be feared when he was drinking even by his own associates.
Wyatt Earp, The Life Behind the Legend by Casey Tefertiller
Inventing Wyatt Earp by Allen Barra
Doc Holliday by John Meyers Meyers
Under Cover for Wells Fargo edited by Carolyn Lake
The New Encyclopedia of the West edited by Howard Lamar
Johnny Ringo Indepth Bio
Essay On The Death Of Johnny Ringo: The Facts
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