Johnny Ringo
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Biography for
Johnny Ringo (Character)
from Tombstone (1993)

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John Peters Ringo (May 3, 1850July 13, 1882), better known as Johnny Ringo, was a cowboy who became a legend of the American Old West because, among other things, of his affiliation with the Clanton Gang in the era of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona. That group of outlaws was known commonly as "the cow-boys" around Tombstone, and Ringo himself was called "the King of the Cowboys". However, short of verbal confrontations, he took no part in those events. Ringo was occasionally erroneously referred to as "Ringgold" by the newspapers of the day, but this was not his name, and there is no evidence that he ever deliberately used it.

Ironically, despite his fame and notoriety, there are no records that he ever actually had a single classic gunfight, shooting unarmed men not counting. Even his violent death may have been at his own hand. By comparison, companions such as former Texas Ranger turned outlaw Scott Cooley, who is little known today, better fit the title of "gunfighter" than did Ringo.

Ringo was born in Greens Fork, Indiana and his family moved to Liberty, Missouri in 1856. He was a contemporary of Frank James and Jesse James who lived nearby in Kearney, Missouri and a cousin of Cole Younger[1]

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).[1]

On July 30, 1864, while the Ringo family was traveling through Wyoming on their way to moving to California, Martin Ringo (Johnny's father) stepped out of his wagon while holding a shotgun, which accidentally went off. The shotgun charge entered the right side of his face, exiting the top of his head. The 14 year-old John Ringo and the rest of his family buried him on a hillside alongside the trail

By the mid-1870s, Ringo had migrated from San Jose, California to central Texas, in the area around Mason County, Texas. 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 (an extension of the Civil War), since most of the 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".[3] 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.

Cooley already had a dangerous reputation, and was respected as a Texas Ranger, and would kill several others during the "war". After the killing of Cooley supporter Moses Baird, Ringo committed his first murder of note on September 25, 1875, when he and a friend named Bill Williams rode up in front of the house of James Cheyney, the man who led Baird into the ambush. As Cheyney came out, unarmed, invited them in and began washing his face on the porch, both Ringo and Williams shot and killed him. The two then rode to the house of Dave Doole, and called him outside, but when he came out with a gun, they fled back into town.

Some time later, Scott Cooley and Johnny Ringo mistook Charley Bader for his brother Pete and killed him. After that both men were jailed in Burnet, Texas by Sheriff A. J. Strickland. Both Ringo and Cooley were broken out of jail by their friends shortly thereafter, and parted company to evade the law.

By November of 1876, the Mason County War had petered out after costing a dozen or so lives, Scott Cooley was believed dead, and Johnny Ringo and his pal George Gladden were locked up once again. One of Ringo's cellmates was the notorious killer John Wesley Hardin. Legend has it that Wes Hardin feared Ringo, due to Ringo's ruthlessness and unpredictable temper, but there is nothing documented to support the claim. 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 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, a clearly intoxicated Ringo shot the unarmed Louis Hancock in a Safford, Arizona saloon when he refused a complimentary drink of whiskey, stating he preferred beer. Hancock survived his wound.

While in and around Tombstone, Arizona, Ringo kept his mouth shut while others walked in fear of him. He had a reputation as being bad-tempered by that time, but short of the two unarmed men Hancock and Cheyney, he had no documented shootings or killings to his credit. He possibly participated in robberies and killings with the "cow-boy" element, and rumour credited him with having a high position in the outlaw chain of command, perhaps second only to Curly Bill Brocius.

Johnny Ringo did not openly confront Wyatt Earp's faction until January 17, 1882, less than three months after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but not long after Virgil Earp had been removed from his office as chief of police by an assassination attempt. Ringo and Doc Holliday had a public disagreement, trading threats that seemed to be leading to a gunfight. However, before the fight could happen, both were arrested by Tombstone's new chief of police James Flynn, hauled before a judge for carrying weapons in town, and both fined.

Two months later, Ringo was suspected by the Earps of taking part in the murder of Morgan Earp on March 18, 1882. After Wyatt's revenge for this killing, 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 either dead or chased out of the area; some of them killed in the vendetta. However, by mid-April the Earps and their friends had apparently left the area, and fled to Colorado.

DEATH On July 14, 1882, Johnny Ringo was found dead in the crotch 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.

Nonetheless, many years afterward Wyatt Earp's wife of 47 years attributed the killing to Wyatt and Doc Holliday, with Wyatt delivering the fatal (and lucky) shot to the head from a distance with a rifle.[4] Fred Dodge, the Wells Fargo detective and Earp confidant, attributed the killing to Johnny Behind-the-Deuce, as recorded by Stuart Nathaniel Lake, probably to cover for Wyatt's role in the killing.

Johnny Ringo is buried near the same spot where his body was found, on the West Turkey Creek Canyon ( 315149N, 1092016W), 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

Death theory Many people over the years have been suspected of killing Johnny Ringo, to include Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, a tinhorn gambler named Mike O'Rourke a.k.a. Johnny-Behind-The-Deuce, Buckskin Frank Leslie, and Earp supporter Lou Cooley. The 1993 film Tombstone features a dramatic eyeball-to-eyeball showdown where Doc Holliday shoots Ringo dead, which is one of the legendary ends of the "King of the Cowboys." However, the official version continues to be that he in fact committed suicide.

According to the Coroner's report, Ringo committed suicide. A few weeks before Ringo's death, Tombstone's largest fire had wiped out most of the downtown area. The silver mines were producing less, and demand for beef was down. Many of Ringo's friends were gone, while his way of life was going. Ringo was depressed after being rejected by his remaining family members in California and the recent deaths of his outlaw friends. Stoked by 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 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. Earp and Holliday returned to Arizona and met up with some friends at Hooker's Ranch. Among them were Charlie Smith, Johnny Green, Fred Dodge, John Meagher, and possibly Lou Cooley. 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 Earp shot him through the head with a rifle.[4] Lou Cooley killed Ringo. The same story as above, only Cooley fired the fatal shot. Doc Holliday killed Ringo. Ringo and Earp were supposed to duel one day. Holliday, who hated Ringo, stepped in for his friend and shot him through the head. This theory has been popularized by the movie Tombstone. Holliday, however, was fighting a court case in Colorado at the time of Ringo's death. Official records of the District Court of Pueblo County, Colorado indicate that both Doc and his attorney appeared in court there on July 11, 14, and 18, 1882, making it impossible for Holliday to have killed Johnny Ringo. Gunman 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 it was said that his fatal shootout with Leslie was due to this fact. However, in reality Claiborne was demanding that Leslie refer to him as "Billy the Kid", and when Leslie refused Claiborne challenged 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", another claim that has no evidence to support it. Mike 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 Diehl believed O'Rourke had killed him, and it was said that he killed O'Rourke shortly afterward. However, although Diehl was in town at the time O'Rourke was killed, his actual death was not witnessed by anyone, and in reality O'Rourke was killed shortly after being caught cheating at cards. As to whether the rumor of his involvement in Ringo's death had anything to do with it has never been proven, nor did Pony Diehl ever admit to the killing.

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