Johnny Ringo

John Peters Ringo (May 3, 1850 – July 13, 1882), known as Johnny Ringo, was an American Old West outlaw loosely associated with the Cochise County Cowboys in frontier boomtown Tombstone, Arizona Territory. He took part in the Mason County War in Texas during which he committed his first murder. He was arrested and charged with murder.[1] He was affiliated with Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, Ike Clanton, and Frank Stilwell during 1881–1882. He got into a confrontation in Tombstone with Doc Holliday and was suspected by Wyatt Earp of having taken part in the attempted murder of Virgil Earp and the ambush and death of Morgan Earp. Ringo was found dead with a bullet wound to his temple which was ruled a suicide. Modern writers have advanced various theories attributing his death to Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Frank Leslie, and Michael O'Rourke.

Johnny Ringo
Johnny Ringo.jpeg
Ringo c. 1880
John Peters Ringo

(1850-05-03)May 3, 1850
DiedJuly 13, 1882(1882-07-13) (aged 32)
Cause of deathGunshot wound to the head
Body discoveredTurkey Creek Canyon, Arizona Territory
Resting placeEast Turkey Creek Road, Pearce, Arizona (private property)
31°51′57″N 109°25′08″W / 31.865868°N 109.418852°W / 31.865868; -109.418852
Other namesJohnny Ringo, Johnny Ringgold
Years active1875–1882

Early lifeEdit

Johnny Ringo, son of Martin and Mary Peters Ringo, had distant Dutch ancestry,[2] and was born in what later became the small town of Greens Fork, Clay Township, Wayne County, Indiana. His family moved to Liberty, Missouri in 1856. He was a tangentially related cousin to the Younger brothers through his aunt Augusta Peters Inskip, who married Coleman P. Younger, uncle of the outlaws.[3]

In 1858, his family moved from Liberty to Gallatin, where they rented property from the father of John W. Sheets, who became the first "official" victim of the James–Younger Gang when they robbed the Daviess County Savings & Loan Association in 1869.[3]

On July 30, 1864, when Johnny was 14, his family was in Wyoming en route to California. His father, Martin Ringo, was killed when he stepped off their wagon holding a shotgun, which accidentally discharged. The buckshot entered the right side of his face and exited the top of his head. The family buried Martin on a hillside alongside the trail.[4]

Mason County WarEdit

Ringo left his mother, brother, and sisters in San Jose, California, in 1869 and moved to Mason County, Texas.[5] He befriended an ex-Texas Ranger Scott Cooley who was the adopted son of rancher Tim Williamson.

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 "Bad Man" Bader. Cooley and his friends, including Johnny Ringo, conducted a terror campaign against their rivals. Officials called it the "Mason County War"; locally it was called the "Hoodoo War".[6] Cooley retaliated by killing local German ex-deputy sheriff John Worley, then taking his scalp and tossing his body down a well on August 10, 1875.

Cooley already had a reputation as a dangerous man and was respected as a Texas Ranger. He killed several others during the "war". After Cooley supporter Moses Baird was killed, Ringo murdered James Cheyney on September 25, 1875, with a friend named Bill Williams. They rode up to Cheyney's house. Cheyney (who had led Baird into the ambush) greeted them 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 he came out with a gun and they fled back into town.

Some time later, Scott Cooley and Johnny Ringo mistook Charley Bader for his brother Pete and killed him. Both men were jailed in Burnet, Texas by Sheriff A. J. Strickland, but Ringo and Cooley soon broke out of jail with help of their friends and they parted company to evade the law.

The Mason County War ended in about November 1876 after about a dozen individuals had been killed. Scott Cooley was thought to be dead and Johnny Ringo and his friend George Gladden were in jail. One of Ringo's alleged cellmates was the notorious killer John Wesley Hardin.[5] While Gladden was sentenced to 99 years, Ringo appears to have been acquitted. Two years later, Ringo was a constable in Loyal Valley, Texas. Soon after this, he traveled to Arizona.

Life in TombstoneEdit

Ringo first appeared in Cochise County, Arizona Territory in 1879 with Joseph Graves Olney (alias "Joe Hill"), a friend from the Mason County War. In December 1879, a drunk Ringo shot unarmed Louis Hancock in a Safford, Arizona saloon when Hancock refused a complimentary drink of whiskey, stating that he preferred beer. Hancock survived his wound. Soon after arriving in Tombstone, Arizona, he met editor Sam Purdy of The Tombstone Epitaph, who later writes of their talk: "He said that he was as certain of being killed as he was of living then. He said that he might run along for a couple years more, and may not last two days."[7] In Tombstone, Ringo developed a reputation as having a bad temper. He may have participated in robberies and killings with the Cochise County Cowboys, a loosely associated group of outlaws. He was occasionally erroneously referred to as "Ringgold" by local newspapers.[8]: 238  He described himself as a "speculator" in the 1882 Cochise County Great Register.

Confrontation with Doc HollidayEdit

On January 17, 1882, Ringo and Doc Holliday traded threats and seemed headed for a gunfight. Both men were arrested by Tombstone's chief of police, James Flynn, and hauled before a judge for carrying weapons in town. Both were fined. Judge William H. Stilwell followed up on charges outstanding against Ringo for a robbery in Galeyville and Ringo was re-arrested and jailed on January 20 for the weekend.[9] Ringo was suspected by the Earps of taking part in the December 28, 1881, ambush of Virgil Earp, that crippled him for life, and the March 18, 1882, murder of Morgan Earp while he was shooting pool in a Tombstone saloon.[10]

Joins posse pursuing EarpsEdit

Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp and his posse killed Frank Stilwell in Tucson on March 20, 1882. After the shooting, the Earps and a federal posse set out on a vendetta to find and kill the others they held responsible for ambushing Virgil and Morgan. Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan received warrants from a Tucson judge for arrest of the Earps and Holliday. He deputized Ringo and 19 other men, many of them friends of Stilwell and the Cochise County Cowboys.[11]

During the Earp Vendetta Ride, Wyatt Earp killed one of Ringo's closest friends, "Curly Bill" Brocius, in a gunfight at Iron Springs (later Mescal Springs) about 20 miles (32 km) from Tombstone. Earp told his biographer, Stuart Lake, that a man named Florentino Cruz confessed to being the lookout at Morgan's murder and identified Ringo, Stilwell, Swilling, and Brocius as Morgan's killers,[12] though modern researchers doubt Earp's story.[11]

The local posse pursued and came close to the federal posse at Henry C. Hooker's ranch, but never faced the Earp lawmen.[11][13][14] Former Pima County Sheriff Bob Paul, who had been in Tombstone at the time and volunteered to ride with the Behan posse, wrote a letter to the Tucson Citizen on March 3, 1898 in response to an earlier story he said was full of errors. He said the Earp posse had told Hooker to tell Behan and his posse where they were camped. Hooker told Behan where the Earps were camped but the posse left in the opposite direction.[11]


Memorial Plaque and Grave of Johnny Ringo on private property

During Tombstone's Fourth of July festivities, Ringo drank heavily. He left town two days later, taking several bottles of liquor for the ride. Deputy Billy Breakenridge saw him two days later near Dial's Ranch in the South Pass of the Dragoon Mountains. He later wrote that "Ringo was very drunk, reeling in the saddle." He encouraged Ringo to follow him back to the Goodrich Ranch, but "he was drunk and stubborn and went on his way. I think this was the last time he was seen alive."[7] At about 3pm on July 13, ranch hands at a nearby ranch heard a shot.[7]


Teamster James Yoast was hauling wood when he found Ringo's body on July 14 seated in "a bunch of five large black jack oaks growing up in a semicircle from one root, and in the center of them was a large flat rock which made a comfortable seat." He was "not more than 700 feet from Smith’s house" in West Turkey Creek Valley, near Chiricahua Peak in Arizona Territory. His body had already turned black from the desert heat.[15]

His feet were wrapped in strips of cloth torn from his undershirt. Ringo had lost his horse with his boots tied to the saddle. The coroner's report noted that "He had evidently traveled but a short distance in this foot gear." There was a bullet hole in his right temple and an exit wound at the back of his head. The fatal wound was upward at a 45-degree angle between the right eye and ear. His revolver was still in his right hand.[7]

According to the coroner's report, Ringo's Colt Single Action Army .45 revolver held five cartridges; the hammer rested on the empty chamber. A knife cut was found at the base of his scalp, as if "someone had cut it with a knife." His horse was found eleven days later about 2 miles (3.2 km) away with Ringo's boots still tied to the saddle. A coroner's inquest officially ruled his death a suicide.[7][16]

Ringo's body is buried near the base of the tree where it was discovered. The grave is located on private land. A gate on a nearby road permits visitors to view the site.[17][16] Despite the coroner's ruling and contemporaneous newspaper reports that Ringo had "frequently threatened to commit suicide, and that the event was expected at any time",[18] alternative theories of doubtful plausibility about Ringo's death have been proposed over the years. Some assert that the lack of a powder burns on his head suggest he was shot from a distance. The coroner’s jury report does not mention the presence or absence of powder burns. Furthermore, Ringo's body was already turning black due to decomposition.[7]

Robert Boller, a member of the coroner's jury, wrote in 1934, "I showed [James Yoast] where the bullet had entered the tree on the left side. Blood and brains [were] oozing from the wound and matted his hair. There was an empty shell in the six-shooter and the hammer was on that. I called it a suicide fifty-two years ago, I am still calling it suicide. I guess I’m the last of the coroner’s jury."[7]

Wyatt Earp claimsEdit

According to the book I Married Wyatt Earp, which author and collector Glen Boyer claimed to have assembled from manuscripts written by Earp's third wife, Josephine Marcus Earp, Earp and Doc Holliday returned to Arizona with some friends in early July and found Ringo camped in West Turkey Creek Valley. As Ringo attempted to flee up the canyon, Earp shot him with a rifle.[19] Boyer refused to produce his source manuscripts, and reporters wrote that his explanations were conflicting and not credible. New York Times contributor Allen Barra wrote that I Married Wyatt Earp "... is now recognized by Earp researchers as a hoax."[20]: 154 [19]

Tombstone historian Ben T. Traywick thought the story about Earp's involvement was credible, reasoning that only Earp had sufficient motive, he was probably in the area at the time, and near the end of his life he told one historian "in circumstantial detail how he killed John Ringo".[21] Earp was interviewed in 1888 by an agent of California historian Hubert H. Bancroft, and in 1932, Frank Lockwood, who authored Pioneer Days in Arizona, wrote that Earp told both of them that he killed Ringo as he left Arizona in March 1882 – almost four months before Ringo died. He included other details that do not match what is known about Ringo's death. Earp repeated his story to at least three other people.[22][23] In an interview with a reporter in Denver in 1896, Earp denied that he had killed Ringo; but later, privately, claimed once again that he had.[22]

Doc Holliday storyEdit

The Holliday theory is similar to the Earp theory, except that Holliday is alleged to have killed Ringo.[24] A variant, popularized in the movie Tombstone, asserts that Holliday stepped in for Earp in response to a gunfight challenge from Ringo and shot him.[19] Records of the Pueblo County, Colorado District Court indicate that Holliday and his attorney appeared in court on July 11, 14, and 18, 1882 to answer charges of "larceny". However, a writ of capias was issued for him on the 11th, suggesting that he did not in fact appear in court on that date. Ringo's body was found on the 14th. Six days before Ringo's death, the Pueblo Daily Chieftain reported that Holliday was in Salida, Colorado, about 670 miles (1,080 km) from Turkey Creek, Arizona; and then in Leadville, about 700 miles (1,100 km) distant, on July 18.[25] There was still an arrest warrant outstanding on Holliday in Arizona for his part in Frank Stilwell's murder, making it unlikely that he would have entered Arizona at that time.[24]: 295 

Michael O'Rourke theoryEdit

Some accounts attribute Ringo's death to Michael O'Rourke, an itinerant gambler who was arrested in Tucson in January 1881 on suspicion of murdering a mining engineer named Henry Schneider. Wyatt Earp is said to have protected him from being lynched by a mob organized and led by Ringo. O'Rourke escaped from jail in April 1881 and never stood trial on the murder charges.[26]

The last documented sighting of O'Rourke was in the Dragoon Mountains near Tombstone during May 1881, "well-mounted and equipped", and presumably on his way out of the territory.[27] From then on he is referred to only in unsubstantiated rumors and legends; according to one, a combination of the debt he owed Earp and the grudge he held against Ringo prompted him to return to Arizona in 1882, track Ringo down, and kill him. While some sources consider the story plausible,[28] others point out that O'Rourke, like Holliday, would have been reluctant to re-enter Arizona with a murder warrant hanging over his head, particularly to commit another murder.[29][30]

Frank Leslie claimEdit

While in the Yuma Territorial Prison for killing his wife, Buckskin Frank Leslie reputedly confessed to a guard that he had killed Ringo.[7][31] Few believed his story, and some thought he was simply claiming credit for it to curry favor with Earp's inner circle, or for whatever notoriety it might bring him.[31][32]

In popular cultureEdit

Film and televisionEdit

The character of Johnny Ringo has been depicted in the following film and television shows:

In musicEdit

In literatureEdit

Confessions of Johnny Ringo, a fictionalized memoir. Ringo is depicted as a bookish and introspective observer of his era whose sweetheart is killed by Union troops during the Civil War. He is driven to become an outlaw until he is killed by Wyatt Earp.[44]


  1. ^ Burrows, Jack (1996). John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was. University of Arizona Press. ISBN 978-0816516483. Archived from the original on 2022-01-24. Retrieved 2020-11-28.
  2. ^ "The High Chaparral Johnny Ringo". Archived from the original on 28 March 2012. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  3. ^ a b Wilkinson, Darryl (1992-07-22). "Johnny Ringo Called Gallatin Home as a Boy". Gallatin North Missourian. Archived from the original on 2007-09-29. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  4. ^ Clanton, Terry (1997). "John Ringo Family History". Tombstone History. Archived from the original on 14 April 2012. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  5. ^ a b Johnson, Dave. "TSHA | Ringo, John Peters".
  6. ^ Hadeler, Glenn. "The Mason County Texas Hoo Doo Wars". Texas History. Archived from the original on 2010-05-12. Retrieved 2008-05-10.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Bell, Bob Boze; Roberts, Gary; Morey, Jeff; Tefertiller, Casey; Boessenecker, John (March 2022). "Did Doc Kill Ringo?". True West Magazine. Archived from the original on 2022-01-24. Retrieved 2022-01-24.
  8. ^ Roberts, Gary L. (2007). Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend. New York: Wiley, J. p. 544. ISBN 978-0-470-12822-0.
  9. ^ Roberts (2007), p. 548
  10. ^ Roberts (2007), pp. 551–552
  11. ^ a b c d "Wyatt Earp's Vendetta Posse". January 29, 2007. Archived from the original on 5 April 2011. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  12. ^ Lake, S. Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. Houghton Mifflin (1931), p. 277. ASIN B00085IQ0I
  13. ^ "Earp Vendetta Ride". Legends of America. Archived from the original on 26 April 2011. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  14. ^ Roberts, Gary Boyd (2007). Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend. Wiley. ISBN 978-0-470-12822-0
  15. ^ "Johnny Ringo: The Wild West Outlaw Too Fearsome To Ever End Up In Prison". All That's Interesting. 2019-01-25. Archived from the original on 2019-10-08. Retrieved 2019-10-08.
  16. ^ a b "Wild West Outlaws and Lawmen John Ringo". Wild West. Archived from the original on January 30, 2015. Retrieved January 24, 2022.
  17. ^ "John Ringo Historical Marker". Archived from the original on 2022-01-24. Retrieved 2022-01-24.
  18. ^ The Tombstone Epitaph, July 18, 1882
  19. ^ a b c d e Ortega, Tony (March 4, 1999). "I Married Wyatt Earp". Phoenix New Times. Archived from the original on 2012-10-20. Retrieved 29 May 2011.
  20. ^ Lubet, Steven (2006). Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-11527-7.
  21. ^ Lockwood, F. Pioneer Days in Arizona. MacMillan (1932), p. 224. ASIN B00085XW16
  22. ^ a b Gatto, Steve. "Johnny Ringo – The Death of Johnny Ringo". Archived from the original on April 6, 2011. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
  23. ^ "An Arizona Vendetta" (manuscript). c. 1918. Archived from the original on August 31, 2011. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
  24. ^ a b Holliday Tanner, Karen; Dearment, Robert K. (2001). Doc Holliday: a Family Portrait. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-3320-1.
  25. ^ Pueblo Daily Chieftain, July 19, 1882.
  26. ^ Bell, Bob Boze (March 1, 2005). "Gunfight at the Stilwell Corral". Archived from the original on 9 October 2016. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  27. ^ The Johnny Behind the Deuce Affair Archived 2016-10-09 at the Wayback Machine tombstone, retrieved October 7, 2016.
  28. ^ "The Johnny Behind The Deuce Affair Archived 2016-04-28 at the Wayback Machine at, retrieved October 6, 2016.
  29. ^ Davis, GM. Keeping the Peace: Tales from the Old West. Booklocker (2012), p. 123. ISBN 1614349029
  30. ^ The Arizona Daily Star, January 26, 1964.
  31. ^ a b The Death of Johnny Ringo Archived 2011-04-06 at the Wayback Machine at, retrieved October 6, 2016.
  32. ^ Bell, Bob Boze (March 1, 2005). "Wyatt Earp vs. the Tombstone Mob". Archived from the original on May 31, 2016. Retrieved October 6, 2016.
  33. ^ Tefertiller, C. Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. Wiley (1997), pp. 86–90. ISBN 0471189677
  34. ^ Gatto, S. John Ringo: The Reputation of a Deadly Gunman. San Simon (1997), pp. 201–216. ASIN B0006QCC9U
  35. ^ Tefertiller, Casey (1997). Wyatt Earp – Life Behind The Legend. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0471189677.
  36. ^ Lovell, G. Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges. University of Wisconsin Press (2008), pp. 151–153 ISBN 0299228347
  37. ^ "Tombstone Territory" Archived 2016-10-01 at the Wayback Machine at western, retrieved October 4, 2016.
  38. ^ McNeil, Alex (1996). Total Television (revised ed.). Penguin Books. ISBN 0140249168.
  39. ^ "The Melancholy Gun on Death Valley Days". Internet Movie Data Base. Archived from the original on February 8, 2017. Retrieved September 8, 2018.
  40. ^ "The High Chaparral full credits". Archived from the original on February 13, 2017. Retrieved October 4, 2016.
  41. ^ "Doc". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved December 29, 2018.
  42. ^ Beck, Henry Cabot. "The "Western" Godfather Archived 2008-07-05 at the Wayback Machine" True West Magazine. October 2006.
  43. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2002). Top Adult Contemporary: 1961–2001. Record Research. p. 108.
  44. ^ Aggeler, G. Confessions of Johnny Ringo. E.P. Dutton (1987). ISBN 0451159888

Further readingEdit

  • Burrows, Jack (1987). John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-0975-1.
  • Gatto, Steve (2002). Johnny Ringo. Lansing: Protar House. ISBN 0-9720910-1-7.

External linksEdit