Better known as Johnny Ringo, John Peters Ringo (May 3, 1850–July 13, 1882), was a cowboy who became a legend mostly because of his affiliation with the Clanton Gang in the era of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona. Ringo was occasionally erroneously referred to as "Ringgold" by the newspapers of the day, but this was clearly not his name, and there is no evidence that he deliberately used it.
The Clanton Gang was known commonly as "the cow-boys" around Tombstone, and Ringo himself was called "the King of the Cowboys". However, there is no record that he ever actually had a single gunfight (he did shoot several unarmed men). Even his violent death may have been at his own hand.
Ringo was born in Greensfork, Indiana. His family then moved from Wayne County, Indiana to Liberty, Missouri in 1856. He was a contemporary of Frank and Jesse James who lived nearby in Kearney, Missouri and a cousin of Cole Younger.
In 1858 the family moved to Gallatin, Missouri where they rented property from the father of John W. Sheets, who was to be the first "official" victim of the James Gang when they robbed the Davis County Savings Association in 1869.
On July 30, 1864, while the Ringo lost his father Martin to a horrible shotgun accident as the family traveled through Wyoming on their way to moving to California. The family buried Martin on a hillside alongside the trail.
Author Louis L'Amour described John Ringo not as a "bad" man", but instead a surly, bad-tempered one who was worse when he was drinking. He said his main claim to fame was shooting an unarmed man in an Arizona Territory saloon in 1879.
By the mid-1870s, Ringo had migrated from San Jose, California to central Texas area around Mason County. Here he befriended an ex-Texas Ranger named Scott Cooley, who was the adopted son of a local rancher named Tim Williamson. For years, relations between the American and German residents of the area had been tense as an extension of the Civil War. Back then, most Americans supported the Confederates while the Germans were Union loyalists.
Trouble started when two American rustlers, Elijah and Pete Backus, were dragged from the Mason jail and lynched by a predominantly German mob. Full-blown war began on May 13, 1875, when Tim Williamson was arrested by a hostile posse and murdered by a German farmer named Peter Bader. Cooley and his friends, including Johnny Ringo, conducted a terror campaign against their rivals. Officially called the "Mason County War", locally it was called the "Hoodoo War". Cooley retaliated by killing the local German deputy sheriff, John Worley, by shooting him, scalping him, and tossing his body down a well on August 10, 1875.
After the killing of Cooley adherent Mose Beard, Ringo committed his first murder of note on September 25, 1875, when he shot down the man who lured Beard to his death, a man named James Cheyney, while he was washing his hands. Soon after this, Ringo and Scott Cooley mistook Charley Bader for his brother Pete and killed him. Jailed in Burnet, Texas, both men were broken out by their friends.
By November 1876, the Mason County War had petered out after costing a dozen or so lives, Scott Cooley was dead, and Johnny Ringo and his pal George Gladden were locked up once again. One of Ringo's cellmates was notorious killer John Wesley Hardin. Legend has it that Wes Hardin feared Ringo, due to Ringo's ruthlessness and unpredictable temper. While Gladden was sentenced to 99 years, Ringo appears to have been acquitted. Two years later, Ringo was noted as being a constable in Loyal Valley, Texas. Soon after this, he appeared in Arizona for the first time.
Ringo first turned up around Cochise County, Arizona in 1879 along with his friend Joe Hill, a comrade-in-arms from the Mason County War. For the most part, Johnny Ringo kept to himself, only mingling with the local outlaw element when it suited him. In December 1879, an intoxicated Ringo tried to kill Louis Hancock in a Safford, Arizona saloon when he refused a drink. Hancock survived his wound.
While in and around Tombstone, Arizona, Ringo mostly kept his mouth shut while others walked in fear of him. He probably participated in robberies and killings with the "cowboy" element, and rumor credited him with a high position in the outlaw chain of command, perhaps second only to Curly Bill Brocius.
Johnny Ringo did not openly confront the Earp faction until January 17, 1882, less than three months after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Ringo and Doc Holliday had a public disagreement that may have led to a gunfight. However, before the fight could happen, both were arrested by Tombstone chief of police James Flynn, and hauled before a judge for carrying weapons in town, and both were fined. This interruption of the quarrel was doubtless to the benefit of Ringo, who was merely a mean drunk, while Holliday was a genuinely dangerous man, both sober and drunk.
Two months later, Ringo was suspected by the Earps of taking part in the murder of Morgan Earp on March 18, 1882. Johnny Ringo was deputized by John Behan to apprehend the Earps at the beginning of the Earp Vendetta Ride. Within months, Ringo's best friends were dead or chased out of the area; many of them killed in the vendetta. However, by mid-April the Earps and their friends had apparently left the area, and fled to Colorado.
On July 14, 1882, Johnny Ringo was found dead at the bottom of a large tree in West Turkey Creek Valley with a bullet hole in his right temple and an exit at the back of his head. His body had apparently been there overnight since the previous day (when a shot had been heard from the general area by a country resident), and his boots were found tied to the saddle of his horse, which was captured two miles away. A coroner's inquest officially ruled his death a suicide.
Johnny Ringo is buried near the same spot where his body was found, on the West Turkey Creek Canyon, near the base of the tree in which he was found, which still grows. The grave is located on private land presently, and permission is needed to view the site.
Theories of Ringo's Death
---- Ringo killed himself. Tombstone was declining and many of his friends and way-of-life were gone. He was depressed by the recent deaths of his outlaw friends and rejection by some family members. After a period of binge drinking, Ringo was preparing to camp in an isolated spot, far from the city. He tied his boots to his saddle, a common practice in Arizona to keep the scorpions out of them, but the horse managed to get loose from his picket and run off. Ringo tied pieces of his undershirt to his feet to protect them (these were found on his body and noted by the inquest), and crawled into the fork of a large tree to spend the night. As evening came on, despondent over his overall state, now in Apache country without horse, fire, drink, or even boots -- Ringo shot himself. The single shot was heard by a resident down the valley. Ringo's revolver, one round expended, was found hanging from a finger of his hand, the next day.
---- Wyatt Earp killed Ringo. Wyatt and Doc returned to Arizona and met up with some friends (Charlie Smith, Johnny Green, Fred Dodge, John Meagher, and possibly Lou Cooley) at Hooker's Ranch. They found Ringo camped about three miles from where he was found. Ringo grabbed his guns and ran up the canyon. He shot at the posse once, and then Wyatt shot him through the head with a rifle.
---- Lou Cooley killed Ringo. Same story as above, only Cooley fired the fatal shot.
---- Doc Holliday killed Ringo. Ringo and Wyatt Earp were supposed to duel one day. Doc stepped in for his friend Wyatt, because he hated Ringo with a passion and shot him through the head. This theory has been popularized by the movie "Tombstone". Doc, however, was fighting a court case in Colorado at the time of Ringo's death, though records are unclear as to exactly where he was physically on the day Ringo was found dead.
---- Buckskin Frank Leslie killed Ringo. Leslie found Ringo drunk and asleep at a tree. Hoping to curry a favor with Earp supporters in office, he shot Ringo through the head. Billy Claiborne believed Leslie killed Ringo and ended up shooting it out with him. Claiborne was shot through the right side, the bullet exiting out his back, and died hours later. His last words were supposedly "Frank Leslie killed John Ringo. I saw him do it."
---- Johnny O'Rourke killed Ringo. O'Rourke was in debt to Wyatt Earp for saving him from the lynch mob. Ringo was supposedly the ringleader of the mob. O'Rourke crept up and shot Ringo through the head. Ringo's friend Pony Deal believed O'Rourke had killed him, and he killed O'Rourke shortly afterward.