7 Facts about Johnny Ringo You Won’t Learn from Movies
Johnny Ringo was a charismatic, B-list thug with an A-list reputation in American West history.
Best known as an outlaw who sided with the Cowboys against the Earps, Johnny Ringo has been portrayed inaccurately by the likes of Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter in 1950 and Michael Biehn in 1993’s Tombstone.
Variously characterized as a master gunslinger and brigand leader, the truth of the truth of Johnny Ringo is that he was neither. What Ringo was, however, was a character.
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7 Facts About Johnny Ringo
Invariably described as having a powerful personality, he marked his presence not so much by what he did, but rather what he had the potential to do. His intensity alone crafted a legend that while not factual, has stood the test of time.
This, as well as the mysterious circumstances of his untimely and violent death has ensured Johnny Ringo’s permanent entry into the annals of the Old West.
Here are seven facts about Johnny Ringo that you won’t learn at the movies.
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1. Johnny Ringo’s dad shot himself by accident.
John Peters Ringo was born on May 3, 1850 in Wayne County, Indiana.
According to Casey Tefertiller, at age 14, Ringo’s parents decided to move west to California. The journey to start a new life took a tragic twist on July 30, 1864. While on the wagon train, Ringo’s father, Martin died.
The Liberty Tribune reported that at about dawn he had left the wagons to look out for Native Americans, when his shotgun then accidentally discharged.
An eyewitness reported:
At the report of the gun I saw his hat blown up 20 feet in the air and his brains were scattered in all directions. I never saw a more heartrending sight, and to see the distress and agony of his wife and children was painful in the extreme. Mr. Ringo’s death cast a gloom over the whole company.”
He was buried on the wayside and now Mary Ringo, Johnny’s mother, was a widow. She wrote, “…if I had no children how gladly would I lay me down with my dead.” The impact of his father’s death upon Johnny Ringo is unknown, but one may presume that his life may have turned out quite differently had his father survived the westward trail.
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2. Johnny Ringo was charismatic.
Ringo and his family completed the journey west to California and settled in San Jose. At this point, Ringo fell out of the historic record only to reemerge around 1874 in the Texas Hill country.
From this point onward, reports and recollections about Johnny Ringo emphasize his dark magnetism. He was also considered to be well-educated. While the Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters asserts that Ringo did quote Shakespeare, it should be noted that watching the Bard’s plays was a form of popular entertainment in the 19th century.
It is unknown how much education Ringo actually had, but probably not so much that he would trade barbs in Latin with Doc Holliday as he did in the movie Tombstone.
Still, there was a certain theatrical charisma about him.
This was captured by the common law wife of Doc Holliday, “Big Nose” Kate, who wrote:
Ringo was a fine man any way you look at him. Physically, intellectually, morally. He was six feet tall, rather slim in build, although broad-shouldered, medium fair as to complexion with gray-blue eyes and light brown hair. His face was somewhat long. He was what might be called an attractive man. His attitude toward all women was gentlemanly. He must have been a gentleman born. Sometimes I noticed something wistful about him, as if his thoughts were far away on something sad. He would say, ‘Oh, well,’ and sigh. Then he would smile, but his smiles were always sad. There was something in his life that only he, himself, knew about …. He was always neat, clean, well dressed, showed that he took good care of himself. He never boasted of his deeds, good or bad, a trait I have always liked in men. John…was a loyal friend. And he was noble, for he never fought anyone except face to face. Every time I think of him, my eyes fill with tears.”
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3. Johnny Ringo was a cowboy, but not in the normal sense.
After Ringo moved to Texas he became involved with a renegade Texas Ranger named Scott Cooley. Together they became took part in the intermittent feuding between German and non-German settlers in the region, which became known as the Mason County War, or the Hoodoo War.
In the violence, Ringo and Cooley were jailed, where they were broken out of by their fellows. He then migrated to southeastern Arizona in 1879, which was to become Cochise County. It was there that he fell in with the so-called “Cochise County Cowboys.”
These cowboys were cattle rustlers who raided Mexican stock, then sold it in the United States. Never a fully cohesive gang, the cowboys were more of a loose confederation of outlaws.
In those days, to be called a cowboy in Arizona was to be called a criminal. Ringo was once called “King of the Cowboys,” but in truth he seemed just a prominent outlaw among equals.
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4. Johnny Ringo was not a good gunfighter, but a good backshooter.
Johnny Ringo had the reputation of being a deadshot. This might have been true since contemporaries reported he won contests shooting his revolver into the open neck of a beer bottle.
However, being a good shot is not the same as being a good gunfighter.
The first murder attributed to Ringo was that of James Cheyney during the Mason County War. Cheyney left his house to wash his face in a basin on his porch when Ringo and another man gunned him down.
In another instance of gun violence, while drunk at a saloon in Safford, Arizona, Ringo fell into talking with a man named Louis Hancock. Ringo offered to buy him a drink. When the man refused, Ringo got angry, pulled his revolver and shot the man without warning. Hancock survived.
Also in Safford, Ringo – drunk again – heard a man insulting a woman on the street. He marched up to the man, pistol-whipped him, then shot him through the neck, killing him.
In no case was Ringo ever in a real gunfight, so his skills are probably over attested. He was, however, an excellent “backshooter.” It is interesting to note that while imprisoned in the Travis County jail, he did meet the expert gunfighter and killer Wes Hardin.
It is unknown if Ringo picked up any tips from the gunfighter, but at least according to Outlaw Tales of Texas, Hardin complained about being confined with such a vicious man as Johnny Ringo.
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5. Johnny Ringo was an election overseer.
Johnny Ringo just wasn’t just an ordinary outlaw: he was also interested in politics.
Even before moving to Arizona, he won an election as a Mason County constable in 1878. After moving to Arizona, he wedged himself into local politics. For the 1880 election he was appointed a delegate to the Pima County Democratic Convention despite the fact he had no legal residence.
He then was appointed with Ike Clanton as an election official for the San Simon district, appointments which were subsequently officially revoked because of the residency problem. But this was not a setback for Ringo, who steamed ahead to oversee a very interesting election.
The San Simon district only had up to a dozen voters. However, election results showed 103 votes for the Democratic candidate to one for the Republican. This gave Democrats control of the territorial legislature.
This legislature formed Cochise County and also proved vital to overriding plans to send out the state militia against the cowboys. This allowed violence in the territory to increase, making Arizona truly an emblem of the wild West.
It was in this atmosphere that the famous gunfight near the O.K. Corral occurred in 1881.
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6. Johnny Ringo feuded with Doc Holliday.
It was during this time in Tombstone that Ringo came at odds with Doc Holliday. Tensions were high between the Earp and cowboy factions, and threatened to boil over into violence at any time.
Many figures on the Earp side of the feud pointed fingers at Johnny Ringo. This was true for Doc Holliday, who simply hated Ringo. Ringo himself was implicated in a stagecoach robbery in January 1882, though he was never charged.
Ringo became a more frequent, and drunken, visitor to Tombstone, which certainly ratcheted up Holliday’s ire. The two squared off on January 17, 1882 snarling and grabbing their revolvers. Wyatt Earp convinced Holliday, who suffered from tuberculosis, to back off while Jim Flynn grabbed Ringo.
But there seemed to be no end to violence, and when Morgan Earp was gunned down in a billiard parlor, Holliday was convinced Ringo was one of the gunmen. This came months after Virgil Earp was ambushed and shot by three cowboys in a dark alley in Tombstone.
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7. John Ringo’s death still remains a mystery.
On July 14, 1882 a teamster driving through Turkey Creek Canyon found the 32-year-old Johnny Ringo sitting at the base of a tree. A bullet hole had cut cleanly through the outlaw’s head.
In his hand he clenched his revolver.
His boots were off, but his cartridge belt was upside down. What’s more, it appeared that he was scalped. A coroner’s jury ruled that Ringo had died by suicide, though many in the community found this dubious.
It was debated, with many claiming they had heard Ringo threatening many times to take his own life over the years. There have been several theories posited as to what happened. One theory was that a frontier vigilante rancher killed a “John Ringold” (as described in his journal) shortly before he himself was killed.
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Several others then made claims to have killed the famous outlaw. Most of these accounts have been debunked or at least thoroughly questioned to make it inconclusive. Another popular theory was that Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp killed him, but neither were in the territory at the time. Doc Holliday was in court in Pueblo, Colorado on July 11, putting him definitively out of range to commit the murder.
So was it suicide? What about the scalp wound and the upside-down cartridge belt? It is possible that the scalping may have occurred due to an animal or from the percussion of the wound.
As for the belt, that remains unexplained. It seems clear that the mystery and magnetism of Johnny Ringo will carry on as long as stories of the Old West are told.
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References & Further Reading
- Boessenecker, J. (2020). Ride the Devil’s Herd: Wyatt Earp’s Epic Battle Against the West’s Biggest Outlaw Gang. Hanover Square Press.
- Clavin, T. (2020). Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell. St. Martin’s Press.
- Guinn, J. (2012). The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – And How It Changed the American West. Simon & Schuster.
- Hogan, R. (1964). Johnny Ringo: Gentleman Outlaw. J. Long.
- Hogge, K. (2018). The Troubled Life and Mysterious Death of Johnny Ringo. Cold West Publishing.
- O’Neal, B. (1991). Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters. University of Oklahoma Press.
Joseph A. Williams is an author, historian, and librarian based in Connecticut. He has authored three books: The Sunken Gold, Seventeen Fathoms Deep, and Four Years Before the Mast.