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John Peters Ringo

Johnny Ringo was a mysterious individual thought to be one of the deadliest gunmen of his time. Too little is known about the man, however, to accord him ranking among the elite of Western gunfighters. Ringo was quite well cultured (he attended William and Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri) and was known to quote Shakespeare.

John Peters (Johnny) Ringo, cattleman, feudist, and outlaw, son of Martin and Mary (Peters) Ringo, was born on May 3, 1850, at Green's Fork, Indiana. In 1854, John's only brother, Martin, was born. By 1857, the family relocated to Missouri, eventually settling in the town of Gallatin. There three sisters were born: Fanny Fern, Mary Enna, and Mattie Bell. In 1864, due to Martin Ringo's tubercular condition, the Ringos resolved to resettle in California. They joined a wagon train at Liberty, but during the voyage west Martin Ringo accidentally killed himself with his rifle. The family continued to San Jose, where they lived for some time with Coleman Younger, the husband of Mary Ringo's sister Augusta.

Younger, a prominent man in the area, was an uncle to the outlaw Younger brothers that rode with Jesse and Frank James. John Ringo, though not a direct relative of the Younger brothers, was connected to them by his aunt's marriage. Ironically, Ringo was also connected to Jesse and Frank James in a similar manner. Benjamin Simms, an uncle on Ringo's mother side of the family, married the James' widowed mother prior to the Civil War.

John Ringo remained in California until late 1869, when he left for Texas. By Christmas day 1874 he was in Burnet, Texas, where he fired a pistol across the town square, an act for which he was fined seventy-five dollars: John Ringo . . .on the 25th day of December A.D. 1874, did then and there unlawfully discharge a pistol in and around the public square and . . . on a public street in the town of Burnet . . . did then and there unlawfully . . . disturb the peace.

After the beginning of the Mason County War (Hoodoo War) and the killing of Moses Beard and the serious wounding of George Gladden in September 1875, John Ringo became involved in a blood feud. Began as a conflict ostensibly over cattle ownership between German settlers in the Mason County area and American born men who lived in neighboring counties. An underlying ethnic prejudice helped to fuel the antagonisms between the factions. The Germans in the area had supported the North during the Civil War, and there was still a great deal of hostility in the area as a result of this. After a series of violent confrontations the trouble soon escalated into a situation similar to a blood feud.

Moses Baird and George Gladden, were contacted by James Cheyney, a well known gambler in the area, who apparently told the men they were wanted for some reason in Mason. The two men quickly mounted their horses and began to ride toward Mason. Baird and Gladden rode straight into a waiting ambush party led by Sheriff John Clark of Mason. Ringo and a man identified as Bill Williams rode to Jim Cheyney's home and killed him in revenge for luring Beard to his death.

During the following months Ringo was prominently featured in Texas newspapers and was considered to be a leading member of the Cooley faction. On December 27, 1875, he and Scott Cooley were arrested in Burnet. During the next few months the two were transferred variously between Austin, Ringo was jailed in Austin with Sutton-Taylor feud veterans Bill Taylor, John Wesley Hardin, and Mannen Clements, and Burnet and were finally sent to Lampasas, where a mob of their friends broke them out of jail. Ringo and feudist George Gladden were recaptured in Llano County in November. Ringo spent the duration of 1876 and most of 1877 in jail during his trial for the Cheyney killing and was freed in May 1878, when the case was dismissed.

After the murder charge against him was dismissed, he then settled in Loyal Valley, Mason County, where on November 5 he was elected constable of Precinct Four. It appears that he did not serve long. Ringo next drifted west to Shakespeare, New Mexico, and by December 1879 he was in Arizona, where he shot and wounded Louis Hancock at Safford during a saloon quarrel on December 14. Ringo was arrested for shooting Hancock. However, he gave a bond and was released. The cowboy was scheduled to appear before the Pima County grand jury in March 1880, but did not.

Except for a visit to his family in California, Ringo appears to have remained in Arizona during most of 1880. On March 8, 1881, he was present at Camp Thomas, Arizona, when cattle rustler Dick Lloyd was killed. Contrary to folklore, he took no part in the shooting. He was an associate of the Clantons and the McLaurys, and he became involved in a handful of verifiable shooting scrapes. Although he rustled cattle in the Tombstone area, for a time he held a deputy's commission from Sheriff John Behan.

That group of outlaws was known commonly as "the cowboys" 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.

On August 5, 1881, the cowboy got into a poker a game and began to lose all his money. He left the saloon but soon returned with a man named Dave Estes. The two men held up the poker game and stole around $500 and a horse. Ringo, on November 26, 1881 was indicted for this robbery . Deputy Sheriff William Breakenridge went to Galeyville to bring Ringo to Tombstone to answer the indictment.

In January, 1882, it appears that rumors began to spread that Ringo was involved in a recent stage robbery. When Ringo appeared in Tombstone he learned of the talk and became furious. On January 17, he challenged Wyatt Earp, gunman John H. (Doc) Holliday, and other members of the Earp faction to a street fight. Constable James Flynn stopped the conflict when he grabbed Ringo from behind.

On January 28, 1882, he was arraigned for the second time on his Galeyville indictment. On January 31, he pled not guilty and was released on a $3000 bond. A hearing was scheduled for February 2, 1882. Deputy Breakenridge went to Galeyville with bench warrants for the witnesses against Ringo and brought the men to Tombstone. However, it appears that the following day the men again did not appear in court to testify against John Ringo.

Two days after Morgan's death, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and others escorted Virgil Earp to Tucson. At the train station they apparently ran into Frank Stilwell, who was found dead the next day shot several times. The Earp party returned to Tombstone and refused to submit to arrest by Sheriff John Behan, who had been telegraphed by Pima County Sheriff Bob Paul and asked to hold the Earp party for the killing of Stilwell. The Earp party rode out of town. The next morning Sheriff John Behan assembled a posse to go after the Earp party. Ringo was one of the men in this posse, having been given Breakenridge's horse and rifle to use.

John Ringo, who had ridden with Behan's posse for ten days, probably returned to Tombstone and then left the town. John Ringo resurfaced in Tombstone on May 7, 1882. The Epitaph noted: "Jack Ringold is in town." Ringo's robbery hearing was scheduled to begin on May 12th. The trial was continued on the 12th and rescheduled to May 18th. Apparently, no witnesses were available to testify against Ringo and the court dismissed the compliant against him and returned his $3000 bond. In May 1882, Ringo left Tombstone free of all criminal charges against him. Two months later, the notorious cowboy was dead.

Following a two-week drinking trip with Buckskin Frank Leslie in the summer of 1882, Ringo was found dead in Turkey Creek Canyon. He had been killed by a bullet in the head, and suicide was proclaimed as the cause of death. On July 13, Ringo apparently committed suicide after a long spell of drinking, although some observers think he may have been murdered by some of his numerous enemies. Ringo had been scalped, and on his person were found a rifle and two six-guns - all fully loaded. Billy Claiborne said that Leslie had killed Ringo, but Pony Deal, Ringos friend and a fellow gambler, was convinced that another gambler named Johnny O'Rourke was responsible. Pony Deal sought out O'Rourke and in the ensuing gunfight shot him to death.

Though the legend through the years has been that he died at the hand of Doc Holliday, Doc would neither confirm nor deny the story, he merely stated that Ringo, who supposedly was waiting for Wyatt Earp to fight him, had been so depressed at his depravity that he killed himself; how Doc knew this was left unspoken. However, it is most likely that Doc merely liked people to think that he killed Ringo, when in fact he was in Colorado at the time.

Ringo remains a controversial figure of the Tombstone years because of the popularity of Wyatt Earp and Earp's accusations that Ringo was involved in cattle theft there. No contemporary evidence has been located indicating that Ringo was ever charged for this in Arizona.

There are probably more untruths told about Johnny Ringo than any other gunslinger in the American West. At one point, writers dubbed him "Tombstone's Deadliest Gunfighter," claiming he killed any number of gunslingers in dramatic face-to-face confrontations. Johnny Ringo was merely a cattle rustler and bushwhacker, not the steely-eyed gunslinger depicted in western fiction. He was buried not far from Tombstone, beside West Turkey Creek, near the spot where his body was found in 1882. The location is on private property on Sander's Ranch off Arizona Highway 181 in Southeastern Arizona. His grave can be visited, but only with permission from the land owner.

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The Old West At Its Best - And Worst | Boothill | All The Major Towns Had Brothels | John P. Clum | The Slopers And The Easterners Soon Collided In Tombstone | The Gunfight At The O.K. Corral | Courageous And Trustworthy Men | The Clanton Gang aka The Cowboys | The West's Deadliest Dentist | Doc Holliday | The Earp Family | Morgan Seth Earp | John Peters Ringo | Virgil Earp | Baxter Warren Earp | No Individual Has Caused Greater Controversy In Western History | Wyatt Earp
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