About John Peters "Johnny" Ringo
John Peters "Johnny" Ringo became a legend of the Old West because of his alleged involvement in the gunfight at the OK Corral and his association with the Clanton Gang.
John Peters Ringo (May 3, 1850–July 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 and the Gunfight at the OK 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". Unfortunately for the reputation of this gunfighter, 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 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 Encyclopædia Britannica confirms the name Ringo.
Ringo was born in Indiana.
The Ringos moved from Wayne County, Indiana 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
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 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, scattering his brains. Young John Ringo and the rest of his family buried him on a hillside alongside the trail .
Louis L'Amour wrote that he had found nothing in Old West history to commend John Ringo as a "bad" man. Ringo was instead a surly, bad-tempered man who was worse when he was drinking, and that his main claim to fame was shooting an unarmed man (Louis Hancock) in an Arizona Territory saloon in 1879 for ordering beer after Ringo told him to order whiskey (Hancock survived). L'Amour wrote that he did not understand how Ringo got to be such a "bad man" in legend. Other authors have concluded that perhaps Ringo's memorable name had something to do with it.
Mason County War
By the mid-1870s, Ringo had migrated from San Jose, California to central Texas, specifically 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". 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 cell mates was notorious killer John Wesley Hardin. Legend has it that Wes Hardin feared Ringo, due to Ringo's ruthlesness and unpredicatable 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, a clearly 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 enemy 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 which might 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 fined. This interuption of the quarrel was doubtless to the benefit of Ringo, who was merely surly and a mean drunk, since 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.
On July 14, 1882, Johnny Ringo was found dead in the crotch of a large tree in West Turkey Creek Valley with a bullet in his right temple. His body had been there around twenty-four hours, and his boots were found tied to the saddle of his horse, which was captured 2 miles away. His death was officially ruled as a suicide.
Many people over the years have been suspected of killing Johnny Ringo, from Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, a tinhorn gambler named Johnny O'Rourke A.K.A Johnny-behind-the-Deuce, Buckskin Frank Leslie, or Lou Cooley. The 1993 film Tombstone, features a dramatic eyeball-to-eyeball showdown where Doc Holliday shoots Ringo dead.
Johnny Ringo is buried exactly at the same spot where his body was found, on the West Turkey Creek Canyon.
Theories of Ringo's death
Ringo killed himself. Depressed after rejection by his remaining family members in California and the recent deaths of his outlaw friends, stoked by a period of binge drinking, Ringo shot himself in a peaceful, isolated spot.
Wyatt Earp killed Ringo. Wyatt and Doc returned to Arizona and met up with some friends at Hooker's Ranch; Charlie Smith, Johnny Green, Fred Dodge, John Meagher, and one other (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 Wyatt shot him through the head with a rifle.
Lou Cooley killed Ringo. The 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.
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 ring leader of the mob. O'Rourke snuck 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.
In the 1950 film The Gunfighter, the title character, played by Gregory Peck, is named Jimmy Ringo, undoubtedly a reference to the famous outlaw. In the film, Ringo is sympathetically depicted as a man constantly trying to put his notorious past behind him.
A 1959–60 television show used Ringo's name, but had little to do with his actual life (the real Ringo never wore a badge). Johnny Ringo aired for one season (38 episodes). Ringo was played by Don Durant and carried a customized seven-shot revolver with a second barrel modified to fire a shotgun shell.
The John Wayne character "The Ringo Kid" in Stagecoach may have been used to suggest John Ringo.
Ringo is played by John Ireland in the 1957 film Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In this version the animosity between Ringo and Doc Holliday is fueled by the fact that Big Nose Kate (called "Kate Fisher" here, a known alias of Kate) has left Doc to become Ringo's lover. This is non-historical, although in Kate's letters she does note that Ringo visited her when Holliday was in jail briefly in November 1881 in connection with the O.K. Corral Spicer hearing, and it is quite possible that Holliday grew jealous.
Ringo is the inspiration for the historically inaccurate, but highly popular song "Ringo" sung by then Bonanza TV-cowboy Lorne Greene, which topped the pop charts at #1 in late 1964 (replacing The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack").  There is no "star" (badge) on the real Ringo's grave, and no reason for there to be one.
In the 1986 television remake of Stagecoach the Ringo Kid is played by Kris Kristofferson. The character of Doc Boone becomes Doc Holliday (Holliday is probably the inspiration for both Doc Boone and the gambler Hatfield in the original film). In the remake, Holliday is played in name by Willie Nelson. In the movie Doc and Ringo are allies, which is ironic given their relationship in real life.
One version of the Ringo story makes him a highly educated man, a fact suggested in having him trade Latin taunts with Doc Holliday in the 1993 film Tombstone. However, this myth also does not appear to have any substance (see the Burrows biography above). This Ringo, played by Michael Biehn, is given the role of a sadistic psychopath.
Ringo is played by in the 1994 film Wyatt Earp by Norman Howell. In this film, Curly Bill Brocius is the major antagonist.
Ringo was the inspiration for the name of the father of Django and Sabata, the protagonists of the Konami game Boktai 2: Solar Boy Django.
Johnny Ringo is the protagonist of a novel entitled Confessions of Johnny Ringo (ISBN: 0451159888) by Geoff Aggeler. In the novel, Ringo's real name is Ringgold, and he is depicted as a young man studying the law who is driven to outlawry during the Civil War when his sweetheart is killed by Union troops in Missouri. He is killed by Wyatt Earp, who frees his spirit to reunite with the sweetheart.
Primary sources concerning Johnny Ringo
Steve Gatto (2002). Johnny Ringo. Lansing: Protar House. ISBN 0-9720910-1-7.
Jack Burrows (1987). John Ringo: The Gunfigher Who Never Was. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-0975-1.