Scott Dyke: Johnny Ringo – The myth meets the truth

Johnny Ringo was found dead under this tree in Morse Canyon, Ariz., that’s undisputed. How he died is. Photo / P.K. Weis, SOUTHWESTPHOTO

By Scott Dyke

In the history of the Old West, no name captured more imagination than Ringo. Hundreds of times that name has popped up in books, TV Westerns and movies. The real John Ringo was, indeed, a celebrated gunman who roamed the Southwest in pursuit of an easy living. His image, like many from the Old West, had been blurred through the decades. What follows is a legitimate portrayal of the man whose very name is forever stamped in the annals of western history.

John Peters Ringo was born May 3, 1850, in Indiana. Even in his lifetime, the name Ringo was mangled, taking such forms as “Ringgold” and “Ringold.” That was cleared up in a sworn court testimony by the man himself.

His childhood was scarred early on when the family joined a wagon train bound for San Jose. On the way west, the group stopped on the Platte River in Wyoming Territory. It was here that his father, Martin, accidentally blew his own head off with a shotgun. More tragedy was experienced when mother Mary Ringo lost a child in birth at Salt Lake City. The remnants of the Ringo family reached San Jose in early 1865. They bunked in with Mary’s twin sister, who had married Coleman Younger, an uncle of the notorious Youngers, who teamed with the James boys in Missouri.

Young Ringo proved to be an unruly child. His schooling was not embraced and he often hung out with a tough crowd of boys, engaging in consumption of spirits. The popular 1993 movie “Tombstone” presents a well-educated, Latin-speaking Ringo, who even quotes foreboding Scripture. Myth, for sure.

Ringo headed for Texas (no doubt encouraged by the California family) in late 1870, to hook up with his grandfather. Texas was a wide-open haven for the lawless, and a young John Ringo would embrace the culture. His proverbial die had been cast. He showed up in a newspaper report, having been indicted for firing a pistol on a public street in Burnet, Texas, on Christmas Day 1874. Given the holiday, he probably was celebrating, aided by strong drink.

It was during this period that Ringo joined forces with infamous Scott Cooley and his gang. Their participation in a bloody conflict is well-documented in Texas lore. It was dubbed the Hoodoo War of Mason County, with cowboy interests battling German settlers.

Cooley, tough and brutal, served as a role model for Ringo. Cooley once killed an Indian and took the skin off the victim’s back and fashioned it into a quirt. Now, that is a dude to avoid. There was much killing on both sides and Ringo was right in the thick of it all. He survived several imprisonments and indictments and succeeded in leaving the Mason County murder fields and headed to New Mexico Territory.

He and fellow outlaw Joe Hill (real name Olney) settled in the San Simon Valley that lies between New Mexico and Arizona. The area was well-populated with hard cases, as they could easily move between the twin territories and Old Mexico, plying their trades which included cattle rustling and hold-ups. This loosely aligned group was called “The Cowboys.” There was no “band of brothers” mentality (another myth), nor did they wear sashes for identity. They were scattered here and there across eastern Arizona, favoring two particular towns. Charleston, to the south of Tombstone, was a popular hangout, the other was Galeyville, on the border of New Mexico Territory. Both featured absence of any real law. Ringo preferred the latter, as it was close to his “work.” Bad actors such as Curly Bill (real name Bresnaham), Ike Clanton, Pony Deal (real name Charles Ray) and Sherman McMasters and Billy Grounds (real name Arthur Boucher) dominated the surrounding area. They would all play a part in the legendary Tombstone story.

Ringo made headlines on Dec. 9, 1879, when he shot Lou Hancock in the neck for refusing a drink in a Safford saloon. It seems Hancock preferred beer when a whiskey was offered. He survived, and no doubt the wound changed his drinking habits. When a court date was set in Tucson, Ringo sent a letter that announced he would not be able to appear as he claimed, “I got shot through the foot.” Stories circulated later that he had done the deed himself.

Several authors have described him as a tall man. He did acquire the nickname “Tall John.”

He also was referred to as “Dutch.” Most reliable sources claimed he was as tall as six-foot-three, which made his appearance noteworthy in the 19th-century West. His hair was light and his eyes were blue.He also was acclaimed to have been a crack shot, notably by Safford store owner A.M. Franklin, and mentioned by former Deputy Sheriff Billy Breakenridge in his co-authored book,”Helldorado,” a less-than-factual account of the Tombstone story. But then again, Billy was there in the middle of it all, and knew Ringo well.

The Pima County Democratic Party appointed Ringo (and Ike Clanton) as an official for the upcoming sheriff election. Apparently, the Dems failed to notice his history of arrests and still-pending charge of shooting Hancock. Or maybe they thought that the outcome they were seeking would be in good hands. Democrat Charles Shibell won a tight election, beating Republican Bob Paul. Unfortunately for the Dems, the outlandish vote count in the San Simon district brought scrutiny. Shibell won the district, 103 to 1. One cowboy wag claimed he voted for Paul to ensure the outcome looked fair. It is also doubtful there were that many legal voters, unless you counted coyotes. The votes were thrown out and Paul won the election.

Strangely, Ringo was not involved in the OK shootout in October 1881. He did, however, make news that month in Galeyville. After losing his stash in a poker game, he returned to reverse his fortune and take all the table stakes. His .45 enhanced his win streak.

Ringo also apparently missed out on the Virgil Earp ambush in December 1881, although he did make headlines in January 1882, when he challenged Wyatt and Doc Holliday on the streets of Tombstone. The face-off was averted by a lawman. Reports gave an account that Wyatt was not interested, but Doc most certainly was game. The killing of Morgan Earp in March of 1882 was a bit much for Wyatt Earp. He swung into action with his own posse. He did mention Ringo as part of the adversarial group that was involved, but no substantive proof ever surfaced. Wyatt’s infamous vengeance ride in March of ’82 killed and scattered the Cowboys from Pima County. With the exception of Johnny Ringo. He hung around, mostly seen less-than-sober.

Maybe Ringo was that fearless. Maybe he thought himself blameless concerning the Earp/Cowboy feud. Maybe he had a death wish. If he embraced the latter, he certainly was rewarded. He left Tombstone for Galeyville on July 8, 1882. The next day, he stopped at the Dial Ranch in the South Pass of the Dragoon Mountains. He encountered the aforementioned deputy sheriff, Breakenridge, who later said Ringo was reeling in the saddle.

“He refused my suggestion of returning to the ranch and offered up a drink from a bottle.”

The encounter was mentioned as July 12. Breakenridge got confused as Ringo made it to Galeyville on July 9. If he saw Ringo, and given that his penchant for self-importance is well-represented in his 1928 book, it would have been days earlier. Ringo left Galeyville, still drunk.

On July 13, a single gunshot was heard mid-afternoon On July 14, a teamster named John Yoast saw what appeared to be a sleeping man lying in a cluster of black and live oaks, by Turkey Creek in Morse Canyon. Yoast’s dog made a fuss so he stopped his wagon and investigated. He found a man he knew well. John Ringo lay dead from a gunshot wound that entered between his right eye and ear and exited out the top. His pistol was in his right hand. A part of his scalp near the hairline was missing, as if cut out by a knife. He had two ammo belts around him, one of which was upside down. His boots were missing and his feet were wrapped with torn cloth. One shell was missing from his revolver. His rifle was propped against the trees. His horse was missing.

In record speed, even for those days, a hastily convened coroner jury assembled and wrote a report on their findings, and buried John Ringo a few feet from his last location. The grave was piled with river rocks. Naturally, given the heat of July, all were anxious to bury a body that was quickly decomposing. The coroner, Dr. Matthews of Tombstone, concluded it was suicide. His earthly possessions were listed: one Colt .45, one Winchester rifle, cartridge belts, one silver watch with chain, $2.60 in money, six additional .45 cartridges in pocket, five shirt studs, one comb, one block of matches, one piece of tobacco, a partial letter from a Tucson law firm.

Ringo’s death has stirred researchers for over 135 years. Was he murdered? He certainly had enough folks with cause. The upside-down belt bespeaks of someone arranging things hastily.

The torn rags on his feet were observed as not having been traveled upon, given it had rained and the area was muddy. The pistol lay neatly in his lap, which brings the question of how it got there when he had to have had his arm extended for the fatal shot. The cut piece from his brow could have been a trophy (or it could have been the work of a scavenger bird). If he contemplated suicide, why truss up the feet? Some theorized he was weary and fearful of reprisals for deeds involving the Earps. If that was the case, why did he stick around for months? Anti-Earp commentators for papers at the time painted Ringo as morose and fateful. Others claim he was dying of thirst and out of his head. Hard to accept when the gurgling Turkey Creek was just feet away. However, the most telling rejection for suicide was the lack of powder burns, an impossible feat.

If he was murdered, who would the suspects be. Frank “Buckskin” Leslie is a prime candidate. He was seen following Ringo on his fateful trip to Galeyville. He even claimed years later to have killed him. This author’s interview with Gerry Sanders, whose family ranch has Ringo’s remains, has Gerry adamant that his family’s oral history considered Leslie as the killer. Leslie was capable, all right, having dispatched several to the nether lands, including a wife. He also was a braggart and tale spinner whom did not seem to have a solid motive.

A Charleston boy named “Johnny Behind the Deuce” had it in for Ringo. However, his conviction of murdering a man year earlier, and escaping jail, probably negates him hanging around for a year after his escape to avenge some slight.

Local legend in Dos Cabezas pins it on a mill owner whose young daughter was involved with Ringo. Now, that’s a motive. Then there is the story Josie Earp tells of Wyatt, Doc, et al, slipping back into Arizona from Colorado where they had holed up after the vengeance ride. There are legitimate doubts given the logistics, and Josie’s veracity. Another well-respected source put the spotlight on a guy in the Wyatt group named Lou Cooley. He was, by today’s standards, a contract killer. So, what is the truth?

I resort to the late Glenn Boyer’s summation on it all. He figures it was Wyatt, because Earp had this bulldog tenacity when it came to avenging family. In the final analysis, Boyer thought that Ringo did not deserve the attention.

Whomever or whatever, he had it comin’.


Scott Dyke is an Wyatt Earp historian, western writer, lecturer and researcher. Article published at the Green Valley News and is republished here with the author’s permission. He can be contacted at:


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