Johnny Ringo Was the Worst Wild West Outlaw You've Never Heard Of

By: Joanna Thompson  | 

Johnny Ringo
Johnny Ringo was involved with everybody from Jesse James to O.K. Corral veterans Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Arizona. What nobody is sure of is how he died. HowStuffWorks

The Wild West looms large in the imagination of many Americans. Thanks to the popularity of Hollywood westerns like "Shane" and "High Noon," the figure of the mysterious, lone cowboy taking a stand in a lawless world has become cemented in U.S. culture.

Of course, reality was far more complicated — and gruesome — than these glossy silver screen portraits suggest. Cowboy exploits were brutal, bloody and rarely solo affairs. For every Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid, dozens of other less-widely remembered figures played vital roles in shaping the American West, for better or worse.

Among them was Johnny Ringo, an infamous outlaw cattle rancher whose death remains shrouded in myth and mystery to this day.

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Making of a Legend

John Peters Ringo was born May 3, 1850, in what would eventually become Greens Fork, Indiana. From the outset, Ringo seemed destined for an outlaw life; in addition to growing up on the frontier, Ringo was reportedly related to the notorious Younger brothers, some of the best-known bank robbers in the country led by Jesse James and his brother Frank.

Ringo's teenage years were marked by tragedy. When he was 14, his father, Martin Ringo, accidentally fired his rifle during a pit stop while the family was moving from Missouri to California. The blast entered just below Martin's right eye and exited the top of his head, killing him. His wife and children were forced to bury him along the roadside and move on. Ringo was traumatized from witnessing his father's death.

By the age of 14, Ringo had honed his skills with both the pistol and rifle and was quick on the draw. He lived with his mother, brother and three sisters in San Jose, California, until 1870, when he left for Mason County, Texas. There, he fell in with a group of (alleged) cattle rustlers, including ex-Texas Ranger Scott Cooley, a friendship that would kick-start Ringo's reputation as a gunman and a black hat. By then he had become one of the most shadowy gunslingers of the West.

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Hoodoo and its Aftermath

Mason County and its surrounding areas were largely colonized by both German and British-descended cattlemen. Tensions between the two groups were high, with each frequently accusing the other of livestock theft. Things came to a head in 1875, when two Anglo ranchers, including Tim Williamson, were pulled from jail and killed by several Germans in retaliation for stealing their cattle.

Cooley, who had been friends with Williamson, was enraged. Cooley swore vengeance on the German ranchers and ignited a bloody conflict that would become known as the Mason County, or "Hoodoo" War.

Cooley's first victim was John Worley, who he was suspected of killing — and scalping — Aug. 10, 1875. Ringo's part in the Mason County War was largely revenge-driven. He supported Cooley; what's more, he had formed friendships with the other members of Cooley's faction. When Moses Baird, a fellow Cooley supporter, was attacked and killed in September 1875, Ringo lead the counterattack. He shot two of the men involved in the murder — gambler James Cheyney and Dave Doole — in their homes. Ringo was briefly jailed, but escaped not long after.

For the next few years, Ringo bopped around Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, spending time in and out of jail and generally stirring up trouble. In 1881, his path took another fateful turn as it crossed with O.K. Corral veterans Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Arizona. Ringo took an instant dislike to the men, and the three engaged in a showdown in the town streets that may have turned deadly had the local constable not intervened.

One year later, Ringo would be dead.

Tombstone, Arizona
Johnny Ringo's body was found dead next to a tree just outside of Tombstone, Arizona, July 14, 1882 (seen here in 1881). He had a single gunshot wound to the head.
Public Domain

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The Many Deaths of Johnny Ringo

Johnny Ringo's body was discovered July 14, 1882 just outside Tombstone, Arizona. His back was against a tree, a Colt.45 caliber revolver in his right hand. He had a single gunshot wound in his head.

How, exactly, Johnny Ringo died is a contentious matter. Ringo's death was officially ruled a suicide, though some believe that he was killed by either Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday or another rival bearing a grudge.

"The camps used to be more evenly divided," says Bob Boze Bell, an Arizona historian and artist. However, Bell sees a clear turning point where one theory gained traction above the rest: the release of 1993's hit western "Tombstone." In the film, Holliday (played by Val Kilmer) murders Ringo (played by Michael Biehn) in a poetic bit of revenge. "In the drama sense, you want Doc Holliday to kill Johnny Ringo," Bell says, "It's part of the mythology."

However, there are some problems with this theory. For one thing, according to historic records, Doc Holliday appeared in court in Pueblo County, Colorado, a few days before and the day after Ringo's death. It seems unlikely that Holliday would have been able to make the 1,500-mile (2,414-kilometer) round-trip in less than 72 hours.

The Wyatt Earp theory is fairly similar to the Doc Holliday story, though Earp did claim credit for Ringo's demise four months after the fact. However, this story, too, has some holes. For one, Earp's account of how the killing went down differed significantly from the condition in which Ringo's body was found. For another, Earp later recanted his story.

For his part, Bell thinks suicide is the most likely option. Ringo had reportedly sunk deep into depression and alcohol dependence in the months leading up to his death after a life spent running from the law and his own personal demons.

"He was despondent, he was drinking way too much," says Bell. "And he gave an interview to the Tombstone Epitaph before his death and said he was going to be rundown or killed at some point. He certainly sounded down."

Ultimately, he may have decided to end his own life in a manner similar to the way his father died. "The weird thing about history is that, well, it doesn't repeat itself. But it does rhyme, as Mark Twain famously said, right?" Bell says.

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