Johnny Ringo: The outlaw of the wild west is too scary to ever end up in prison (2023)

A gentleman gunslinger who could quote Shakespeare, Johnny Ringo was a mythical gunslinger who died a mysterious death befitting his legend.

Everyone has heard of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the James Younger Gang. But most know very little about the man whose story intersects them all. This other man, cousin of the younger and James brothers and for a time Wyatt Earp's main antagonist, was somewhat overshadowed in the story.

But those who have heard of Johnny Ringo know him for the fascinating character that he was. He was a gentleman's marksman who could spit Shakespeare and was romanticized by many writers as one of the Old West's deadliest gunslingers.

Johnny Ringo: The outlaw of the wild west is too scary to ever end up in prison (1)

Wikimedia CommonsJohnny Ringo

And to this day, the only thing that adds to the mystique of Johnny Ringo is the fact that his own death is shrouded in mystery - a death as legendary as his mythical life.

The Pre-Outlaw Days by Johnny Ringo

Johnny Ringo was born John Peters Ringo on May 3, 1850 to Martin and Mary Peters Ringo in Washington, Indiana. He was the first child in a large family of five children and was related to the notorious brothers Younger and James.

At 14, his family traveled to San Jose, California, but while he was crossing the country by car, his father was theredied in a tragic accident. A letter published in theliberty tribunedescribed the event in gory detail:

"[H]i's shotgun accidentally went off in his hands, the charge entered his right eye and came out on top of his head. At the bang of his gun, I saw his hat explode twenty feet in the air and his brain scatter in all directions.”

Despite this, like most frontier residents, the family was resilient and made it to San Jose after a year-long stay at the Youngers' home. But Johnny Ringo's teenage years between 1864 and 1870 are not well documented, although there is an unsubstantiated claim that he was a drunk and juvenile delinquent who abandoned his family and San Jose itself in 1869.

However, the San Jose Directory and the Federal California Census, both from 1870, place him in San Jose and working as a farmer. Additionally, his sisters later reported that he left San Jose sometime between 1870 and early 1871 as part of a harvest team.

(Video) Johnny Ringo Is The Most Interesting Old West Outlaw

According to some reports, Ringo's delinquency came later when he was charged with dumping his firearm in a public place in Burnet, Texas. Then came the notoriousHoodoo-Kriegand the outlaw legend of Johnny Ringo only grew from there.

The Hoodoo War

Johnny Ringo: The outlaw of the wild west is too scary to ever end up in prison (2)

Wikimedia CommonsWyatt Earp

In September 1875, Johnny Ringo was caught up in the Hoodoo War, a blood feud that had begun between Germans living in Mason County, Texas, and American-born residents of neighboring counties over cattle ownership.

Ringo's involvement was not related to livestock but was a direct result of the murder of Moses Baird and the serious wounding of George Gladden, both of whom were his close friends and implicated in the bloodshed himself. Baird and Gladden had been tricked into riding into Mason by local player James Cheyney, only to be ambushed in an attack orchestrated by Mason County Sheriff John Clark.

On September 25, Johnny Ringo joined another seven men in avenging Baird's death. As the men rode into Mason, Ringo and a man named Bill Williams parted from the party and made their way to Cheyney's house. There,They shot the playerwithout warning.

Ringo and Williams then made their way to the home of another suspected collaborator in the ambush named Dave Doole. When they arrived, they yelled for Doole to come outside, but when he came to his front door armed with a gun, Ringo and Williams were put off.

Both men then rode back to their party and bragged publicly over breakfast about killing Cheyney. According to a Texas Ranger report, either Williams or Ringo allegedly said they "made beef out of Cheyney and if someone didn't bury him, he'd stink."

More killings followed four days later when other members of the party struck three men. However, no arrest warrants were issued against Ringo for killing Cheyney.

Instead, he was arrested twice in December on other charges. The first arrest was for disturbing the peace in April, when he fired his pistol in the middle of Burnet. But he was soon released after the $150 bond was posted.

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The second charge was far more serious for Johnny Ringo. He and former Texas Ranger Scott Cooley were jailed for threatening to kill the Burnet County sheriff and his deputy. Fearing that her friends might try to break her out of prison, the authorities had her transferred to an Austin prison.

Along the way, Ringo gained a bit of notoriety, exemplified by theAustin Statesman, which reported on January 4, 1876 that Ringo "is said to have played an active part in the Mason County War".

But Ringo's name was misspelled as 'Ringgold' in the newspapers, causing confusion about the outlaw's identity ever since. The spelling may have come from translations in German newspapers, as official records confirm that his name was in fact John Ringo.

Whatever the case, the hoodoo war was now over, although tensions in Mason County lingered for a few more years.

It wasn't long before Ringo and Cooley were transferred again, first back to Burnet before their application to stand trial in Lampasas County was granted. Although they were both convicted and jailed for making threats against law enforcement, they appealed the verdict. But they did not want to wait until 1877 for their case to be tried. Luckily her cohorts agreed and freed her from prison in May 1876. However, Cooley reportedly died a month later.

Johnny Ringo: The outlaw of the wild west is too scary to ever end up in prison (3)

Wikimedia CommonsDoc Holliday

Despite being portrayed in the media as an infamous outlaw on the run, Ringo only evaded capture for a few months before being sent back to the Austin prison. Surprisingly, his earlier appeal went through and the charges were reversed.

However, they were soon overshadowed by a murder charge. His killing of Cheyney eventually caught up with him - but that too fell through when no witnesses were willing to testify against him.

So Johnny Ringo was released in May 1878 and settled in Loyal Valley, Mason County a short time later. In November, Ringo was promoted from outlaw to a job as constable for Loyal Valley Ward #4 (although it is not known for sure if he took the job).

(Video) Tombstone - Doc Holliday vs. Johnny Ringo

Johnny Ringo vs. Wyatt Earp

Johnny Ringo: The outlaw of the wild west is too scary to ever end up in prison (4)

Wikimedia CommonsTombstone, Arizona in 1891.

Throughout 1879 and 1880, Johnny Ringo continued to wreak havoc wherever he went, including shooting a man for wanting to drink beer instead of whiskey and holding a game of poker at gunpoint to pocket the $500 held by the players.

In 1881 he was taken to Tombstone, Arizona to stand trial for the poker incident, but he was more concerned about a rumor that he was involved in a recent stage robbery. He accused legendary local attorney Wyatt Earp and his gun-toting friendDoc Hollidayfor the rumor and all three men had a showdown on the streets of Tombstone. As tensions rose, the men reached for their sidearms as a police officer grabbed Ringo from behind, defusing the conflict.

Listen above to the History Uncovered Podcast, Episode 21: Tombstone, also available onAppleAndSpotify.

Still, the altercation got Johnny Ringo to take a personal interest in the long-running feud between the Earps and the notorious Clanton outlaws. While spending some time in prison in 1882, he learned that Earp and his squad were planning to arrest the Clantons in Charleston, so Ringo organized a quick processing of his bail and, upon his release, immediately made his way to Charleston to meet the Clantons to warn.

But Earp's brother James saw Ringo leaving Tombstone and was aware of his plan. He wrote an affidavit calling Ringo an "escaped prisoner" to thwart the arrest of a US Marshal. Based on the affidavit, a second group led by J.H. Jackson went after Ringo. However, they were intercepted by Ike Clanton and Ringo was informed of the warrant.

Johnny Ringo then returned to Tombstone where he was tried. But again witnesses refused to testify and Ringo was released.

From there, the situation in Tombstone only got worse. Morgan Earp was shot dead by an unknown assailant in March 1882. Many believed Ringo to be the culprit, but records from the time dispute this. In addition, testimony in Thetombstone epitaphstated Ringo no longer wanted to be part of the feud (Ringo's time in Tombstone was dramatized in the 1993 filmGrabstein- see below).

A meeting between Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo as depicted inGrabstein.


Meanwhile, Earp and his squad encountered further problems when they were accused of killing outlaw Frank Stilwell, so they fled Tombstone.

The next day, Sheriff John Behan rallied men, including Ringo, to capture the Earp force.

By then, Earp and his group had killed a Mexican named Florentino Cruz, who some believe was Indian Charlie, one of the killers responsible for Morgan Earp's death. Back in Tombstone, it was reported that Earp Curly shot and killed Bill Brocius in the Whetstone Mountains. And because Brocius was the most notorious outlaw in the area, his death overshadowed Earp's killing of Stilwell and Cruz.

In any event, in April 1882, Earp and his men fled Arizona. A month later, Johnny Ringo himself left Tombstone, cleared of all charges amid the swarming back and forth of lawyers and criminals in the area. But despite his luck, Johnny Ringo was found dead just two months later.

Murder or Suicide?

There is much speculation surrounding the death of Johnny Ringo on July 13, 1882. Many believe he committed suicide. The facts seem to support this, but many people point out some inconsistencies in the way the body was found, which could indicate foul play.

Sightings in Tombstone and the nearby town of Galeyville state that Ringo appeared depressed and was drinking heavily before his death. He was last seen around July 11, around the time he was leaving Galeyville. Three days later, he was discovered with his back to a tree, a .45 caliber Colt in his right hand, apparently dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

It seemed pretty dry and dry, but some people looked at the evidence then and in the years since and instead believe Johnny Ringo was murdered.

Speculations revolve around the number of cartridges found in his gun, possible missing powder burns on his hands (suggesting he may not have fired a gun himself), the position of his hat on his head, and admissions by his contemporaries, including Wyatt Earp, to his assassination.

But all of these lines of inquiry are flimsy at best. Jack Burrows, the author of the 1987 biographyJohn Ringo: The Gunslinger That Never Wasand David Johnson in his bookJohn Ringo: King of the Cowboyshave weighed the evidence and have concluded that Johnny Ringo most likely committed suicide - an unusual ending for a legendary outlaw of the Wild West.

(Video) TOMBSTONE Clip - Doc Holiday meets Johnny Ringo (1993) Val Kilmer

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