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.
By Christina Christensen