Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The unforgettable shootist: Johnny Ringo

Johnny Ringo

Say the word gunfighter and chances are the name that immediately comes to mind is Johnny Ringo. It’s the name with the built-in gunslinger sound to it. Almost everyone, even other than dyed-in-wool Western fans, know the name of Johnny Ringo. But that’s about all.

Here it is, Wicked Wednesday, and time for information about the outlaws and bad men of the wild west. Like Johnny Ringo. But besides his outlawyerish name, what’s he done that’s outlawlike? In fact, it’s actually hard to see why he’s such a well-known man, judging from the record.

Even his name may not be right. Western writers use Ringo, but his obituary in the Arizona Daily Star of July 18, 1882, uses the surname Ringgold throughout. Researcher Jack DeMattos, writing in the quarterly of the National Association and Center for Outlaw and Lawman History (Autumn 1977) says he fund several families surnamed Ringo that lived in or near Clay County, Missouri, but was unable to connect them with Tombstone or Arizona’s Johnny Ringo.

The Tombstone Epitaph says that Ringo was born in Texas and that he moved to San Jose, California, when he was about 16 years of age. And that’s about all we know of his early years.

So when do we get a documented glimpse of the great gunman?

In the late 1870s, there was a little fray called the Voodoo War down in Mason County, Texas. It seems a ranch foreman named Tim Williamson was arrested by Deputy Sheriff John Worhle (or Worley) and charged with cattle rustling. But while the deputy was bringing the rustler in, an armed band of “Hoodoos” accosted them. Williamson feared for his life, rightfully as it turned out, and begged Deputy Worhle for protection. The lawman answered his plea by shooting his horse dead. The mob of Hoodoos murdered Williamson.

Scott Cooley
Williamson’s friends, one of whom was an ex-Ranger named Scott Cooley, decided to avenge him. Cooley caught Deputy Worhle at home, shot him six times, and scalped him. Other Williamson friends included a man named George Gladden, brothers Mose and John Beard, and John Ringo (then recorded as Ringgold).

Ringo and an accomplished killed James Chaney soon after Worhle was shot and scalped. A posse pursued them, but they escaped. Then Gladden killed a stock inspector and Hoodoo partisan named Dan Hoerster.

Mason County people started getting upset. They formed a vigilance committee and some sixty men caught up with Gladden and Mose Beard at Beaver Creek. Beard was shot dead and Gladden wounded nine times.

The Texas Rangers became interested in all the shooting and dying in Mason County, and Major John B. Jones wrote a letter to the State’s attorney general wanting to know why Ringo and his compadres could not be brought to justice. To quote the letter in part:

. . . about a week before Hoester was killed, John Ringgold and another man of the Gladden-Cooley party killed Cheney in the presence of his family while he was arranging breakfast for them. Gladden, Cooley, Ringgold, and the others of the party rode into town and ate their breakfast at the hotel and boasted publically at the table of what they had done, telling those present that they had made beef of Cheney and if somebody did not bury him, he would stink. . . . the fact of their having done the killing is of pubic notoriety, and yet no warrant has yet been issued for their arrest.

Shortly thereafter, Ringo, Scott Cooley, and others rode into Llano County after Pete Bader, but they killed his brother Charles, who had nothing to do with the Hoodoo mob.

Later, in Burnett County, Ringo and Cooley threatened Sheriff A. J. Strickland, and were jailed first in Austin, and then in Lampasas, Texas. A mob of sympathizers broke them out of jail on November 7, 1876, but the Rangers soon arrested them again, and this time formally charged them with the murder of Chaney. They were incarcerated in the Travis County jail, which was also being occupied by Mannen Clements and his deadly cousin, John Wesley Hardin. Charges against Ringo were eventually dropped.

Ringo lit a shuck for Arizona, where he engaged in a “gunfight” within days of arrival. Here’s what the Tucson Daily Star of December 14, 1879, had to say about the affair.

Last Tuesday night a shooting affair took place at Safford in which Louis Hancock was shot by John Ringo. It appears Ringo wanted Hancock to take a drink, and he refused, saying he would prefer beer. Ringo struck him over the head with his pistol and then fire, the ball taking effect in the lower end of the left ear, and passed through the fleshy part of the neck. Half an inch more in the neck would have killed him. Ringo is under arrest.

Then, in early 1880, Ringo shot himself. Not a suicide, mind you, but a shot in the foot while practicing his fast draw with live ammo. Or was it so he could delay appearance before the Pima County grand jury to answer for the Hanson shooting?

Ringo was soon a member in good standing of the outlaw bunch run by Old Man Newman Clanton and his right hand man, Curly Bill Graham. Nor was it long before he became the mortal foe of the faction headed by the Earp brothers and included Doc Holiday.

After Old Man Clanton and some of his men were ambushed and killed in Guadalupe Canyon, probably by Mexican soldiers, some of Clanton’s men, including Ringo, ambushed and killed fourteen Mexican soldiers at San Luis Pass.

As is quite well known, the Clanton faction enjoyed support and protection from County Sheriff John Behan. The harmony between the outlaws and the lawman was seen and reported in the Tombstone Epitaph. For example, after losing at poker, Johnny Ringo left the game, came back with a Henry and a sixgun, and removed $500 from the players. After he sobered up, Ringo returned the money, trying to brush it off as a prank. Billy Breakenridge arrested him, but Sheriff Behan promptly released Ringo.

You may also notice that Johnny Ringo missed the gunfight at OK Corral.

Most of you will know of the feud between Doc Holiday and Johnny Ringo. And, after Morgan Earp was assassinated on March 18, 1882, Wyatt avenged his murder by killing Frank Stilwell, Indian Charlie, and Curly Bill Graham. John Behan then led a posse composed of “honest ranchmen” after Wyatt. Among those honest ranchers were Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo.

Not much later, Ringo was found dead, apparently by his own hand, sitting in a clump of oak near the mouth of Morse’s Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains.

So far, no evidence says anyone else shot Johnny Ringo, regardless of what novelists and movie scriptwriters may say. Some of the popular suspects include Johnny-behind-the-deuce, Buckskin Frank Leslie, Doc Holiday, and of course, Wyatt Earp, who—if it was not a suicide—was most likely.

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  1. I can't seem to get enough of tales about the bad boys of the West, and this is a great one. The Mason County War was a grim episode in Texas history. As for Johnny Ringo.... Has there ever been a better outlaw name? Thanks for shedding more light on Mr. Ringo! :-)

  2. Thank you, Kathleen. I'm looking through all my old issues of the Quarterly of the National Association and Center for Outlaw and Lawman History. This information looked good. So here it is. Lots of outlaw information in these old quarterlies. I'll try to find more interesting stuff as we go along.

  3. Charlie, this was a great post. I love all this info on Johnny Ringo. I never knew he was a real person! So this is double fascinating for me...I wonder if it really was a suicide...somehow, I doubt it.

  4. Interesting post, Chuck! I didn't know Johnny Ringo was a real person either, Cheryl. I can remember hearing his name in a movie too but not which one. It's like he's coming to town and someone says, "Johnny Ringo," and the name is passed down the line. I can hear it but can't see it. Odd. My son said he was in Tombstone. Guess I better start paying better attention.

  5. Charlie, I always enjoy your posts. Yep, Johnny Ringo is a perfect outlaw name and until I started writing (and researching), I thought it was a Hollywood-made-up name, too.

  6. I LOVE this post. And I can totally see names being learned or recorded by the way they sound: Worhle/Worley
    and Ringold/Ringo make perfect sense to me.

    I assume the movie Tombstone is fairly accurate...but even if not, the character Johnny Ringo sure got my dander up LOL.

  7. Shooting a man at breakfast. That's cold.
    Interesting post Charlie. I enjoyed it.

  8. Terrific info, Chuck! When I was a kid watching TV westerns with my dad, there was one show (I can't remember which one) that portrayed Johnny Ringo as sort of a bad boy hero. Cool back then, but obviously a pack of lies.

    Ringo was portrayed as a stone-cold killer in the movie "Tombstone" and from your account, that seems more accurate. I love the scene in that film where Doc Holiday, played by Val Kilmer, shoots it out with Ringo. Also a lie, no doubt, but very fitting.

  9. What a great post. The history you included made Ringo come to life. As a history lover, this was the best. Thank you. Doris

  10. My information leans toward Ringo suicide. Just from his positioning, the wound, the death grip on the gun, etc. He was sitting on an oak boll, a tree someone had chopped down and suckers had grown up all around it so he was kind of held upright. The man who found him thought he was asleep at first. So . . . if not suicide, then Wyatt, says the source.

    Wasn't there a TV show with Johnny Ringo as a lawman?

  11. Try this:

  12. I wonder if the death of Johnny Ringo was declared suicide as a cover-up to protect Wyatt and Doc. Back in the old west it was hard to tell the heroes from the villians. So often an outlaw would end up becoming a sheriff. Crazy stuff.
    I enjoyed your blog, Chuck, as always.

  13. John Blevins, who was wounded by Commodore Perry Owens in the Holbrook shootout, later became a deputy sheriff.