The Strange Death of Johnny Ringo

The Strange Death of Johnny Ringo

Mystery on the Western Frontier

Image for postJohnny Ringo, Wikimedia Commons

Johnny Ringo was a legendary gunslinger and favorite outlaw of Tombstone, Arizona. Of course, he didn?t begin life as a western frontier villain. He was born May 3, 1850, to Martin Ringo and Mary Peters in Green Fork, Indiana. Johnny was the eldest of five children. As a child, Johnny was repeatedly uprooted to begin life in a new town with better prospects. The family lived in Green Fork for a short time before moving to Gallatin, Missouri. Johnny likely learned to use a pistol in Gallatin; Jesse James and Johnny?s 1st cousin Cole Younger also lived in the town during the time. As an adult, Johnny could recite Shakespeare and speak Latin as well as any educated man. However, it is unlikely that Johnny received more than an 8th-grade education since there is no recorded evidence that Johnny went to college or earned a degree.

Martin Ringo was diagnosed with tuberculosis and required a drier climate than Missouri had to offer. The Ringos joined a wagon train and headed to Wyoming. Tragedy struck the Ringo family in Wyoming, when his father Martin inadvertently discharged his weapon, landed a bullet in his head, and died. The family buried Martin Ringo at a trailside grave near Converse, Wyoming on July 30, 1864

Image for postLiberty Tribune 1864?09?09 Death of Martin Ringo, Esq

Johnny?s mother brought her children to stay with her sister at the Younger Ranch in San Jose, California. At age 23, Johnny ventured out on his own to try his hand at cattle ranching. He landed in Llano, Texas, where he met Scott Cooley. In 1875, tensions between German immigrants and local ranchers reached a fever pitch, sparking the Hoodoo wars. Johnny interjected himself into the conflict on the urging of his friend Scott and ended up killing a man named James Cheyney. Cheyney had cheated at a game of poker and subsequently killed two men that Johnny considered friends.

Image for postAustin Weekly Statesman ? Thursday, November 9, 1876 ? Page 3

Ringo and a group of friends including Scott Cooley and George Gladden set out intent on killing a man named Peter Bader. When they ambushed the Bader residence, they found Charley Bader, Peter?s brother, and shot him dead, thinking it was Peter. Johnny and George were arrested for the murder but escaped their jail cells. In 1876, the law caught up with him, and he found himself jailed yet again. This time there was a trial. George was convicted and sentenced to 99 years. As luck would have it, Johnny was acquitted. The people of Loyal County, Texas elected Johnny as constable. He served in that capacity for a year or so.

Having worn out his welcome in Texas, and making no headway as a rancher, Johnny Ringo made his way to the US Frontier of Arizona. This decision would forever cast him into the role of deranged desperado and legend. Ringo bellied up to a bar On December 9, 1879, in the town of Safford with a man called Joe Hill. The men made the acquaintance of Mr. Louis Hancock, and Johnny asked him to have whiskey with them. Louis declined; he preferred beer to whiskey. Johnny, in a drunken rage, shot Louis through the ear. He was arrested and released on bond but absconded.

Image for postTombstone, AZ 1881, Wikimedia Commons

Tombstone, Arizona

Image for postThe weekly Arizona Miner, December 19, 1879, Image 3

By the time Johnny stumbled into Tombstone, Arizona, he already earned a reputation as a pistoleer with a hot temper who was quick to the draw. Before his arrival, Johnny made money rustling cattle with the infamous Cochise County Cowboys, a rebellious gang of horsethieves and bandits. The Cowboys participated in the famous shoot out at the O.K. Corral. Despite popular belief, Johnny was not present at that shooting. He did make a fast enemy of the legendary dentist turned outlaw, Doc Holliday. On January 17, 1882, Johnny challenged Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp to a gunfight. Doc and Johnny both stepped back, fingering their holstered weapons. Calling out an equally armed and skilled man was unusual for Johnny; none of the men Johnny shot in the past were carrying firearms at the time. On this day, Cheif of Police Flynn stepped in and stopped the fight. The men were arrested and fined $32, and the seeds of mutual hatred were planted. Sheriff John Behan, who tended to side with The Cowboys, released Johnny. Then, the unthinkable happened.

Image for postImage for postImage for postWyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Morgan Earp-Public Domain

March 18, 1882, the youngest of the Earp brothers, Morgan, was shot through a window while playing billiards at Campbell and Hatch?s Saloon and killed. Johnny Ringo, along with other members of The Cowboys gang were named as suspects despite a lack of witnesses. Virgil Earp was previously shot and injured by an unknown party as he walked from The Oriental Saloon to his hotel. Wyatt swore vengeance upon any member of The Cowboy gang.

Image for postNewspaper clipping ca. 1881 Gunfight at OK Corral, Wikimedia, Public Domain

Wyatt formed a posse who set out to protect Virgil and Mrs. Earp as they accompanied the corpse of his young brother to Colton, CA for burial. On the way, the Earp Posse met up with Cowboy Frank Stillwell. The next day, Stillwell was found deceased and full of bullets along the railroad tracks.

During March and April of 1882, Wyatt?s posse, including Doc Holliday, continued to ride throughout southern Arizona. The Earp Posse would shoot to kill any Cowboy they could find.

Johnny Ringo headed a posse of his own to counter Wyatt?s. Bodies littered the desert chaparral when both factions met up near Iron Springs, Arizona. Wyatt reported the tails of his black duster were full of bullet holes, but he was otherwise unharmed. Sherrif Behan promptly issued a warrant for Wyatt?s arrest. Wyatt didn?t think he could get a fair shake in Arizona Territory. Even so, he was denied a change of venue and left for Colorado mid-April.

The dust seemed settled in southern Arizona once the Earps left. Tombstone, a town that boasted a murder every day, went relatively quiet. Then Mr. John Yoast discovered Johnny Ringo?s dead body on July 18, 1882.

A Strange Death

Before his death, friends described Johnny Ringo?s mood as ?morose.? He began to drink heavier than usual and often talked of ending his life. Johnny told his friend Deputy Billy Breakenridge that he would be traveling to Galeyville, Arizona. It was noon, and Johnny was already halfway into a bottle of whiskey with a full bottle at his side. Billy tried to stop him from going because it was hot, and he was too drunk to make the day-long horseback ride safely. But Johnny insisted.

When John Yost heard a single gunshot coming from the neighboring property near West Turkey Creek, he dashed to investigate the source. He found Johnny?s dead body leaning against an old Blackjack Oaktree. Johnny received a bullet to the right temple. Before dying, Johnny removed his shirt, cut it into strips, and tied the pieces around his feet. It appeared that he hung his boots from his horse?s saddle. But the horse ran away. A coroner?s inquest found that Johnny committed suicide.


Johnny Ended It

Image for postTombstone Weekly Epitaph, July 22, 1882, Image 3

Suicide, on the surface, seems entirely plausible considering Johnny?s drunken condition. He had been on quite the bender and ranting about killing himself. But, Johnny?s cartridge belt for his revolver was buckled on his body, upside down. While he could have done this in his alcohol addled state, it seems oddly out of character. He was proud of his reputation as a competent pistoleer.

The coroner assumed that when the horse ran away, Johnny found himself in a life or death situation. Johnny realized he was stuck in the thick of an Arizona summer, far from civilization, with nothing but whiskey to drink. In the coroner?s estimation, he must have killed himself out of desperation, favoring a quick death over death by dehydration or heat stroke. But, Johnny was just 200 yards from a source of water. He was on the Smith family property, and their home was only 700 feet away. In light of these facts, it doesn?t seem likely that Johnny killed himself. The fact of the matter is, Johnny was not a good guy. A few people would have been glad to see him go. Those people are the likely suspects.

Wyatt Earp, and Maybe Doc Holliday

Wyatt Earp told conflicting stories about the extent of his involvement in Johnny Ringo?s death. He has flat out denied it when a reporter asked him directly in 1896. In the 1920s, the aging gunman bragged about the killing to other reporters. Wyatt claimed to the latter that he ambushed him during his vendetta ride. Yet, everyone within an range only heard one gunshot. Surely, there would have been more if there were an exchange of gunfire between the men. Wyatt could not have killed him as he described since Johnny died in July, long after Wyatt made his departure from Arizona.

Doc Holliday and Johnny were perfect enemies, and it would be easy to believe Doc killed him. Since the movie Tombstone came out, this is the theory we all want to accept. But it doesn?t hold water. Doc had a court appearance in Pueblo, Colorado that day and newspapers reported his presence over 550 miles away.

Frank ?Buckskin? Leslie

Image for postFrank ?Buckskin? Leslie, Wikimedia Commons

Frank ?Buckskin? Leslie was considered a suspect at the time. Frank was a slight man at 5?7? tall and 135lbs soaking wet. He arrived in Tombstone in 1880 but his reputation as a rowdy, though formidable, gunslinger preceded him. Like Johnny, Frank loved drinking and gambling. Shortly after his arrival in Tombstone, he began seeing a married woman named Mae Killeen. Mae?s husband, Mike Killeen, confronted Frank about the affair. Frank killed the man on the spot and married his widow in the same week.

Frank had an amicable relationship with the Earps. His allegiance swayed in their favor after the shooting at the OK Corral. In a fit of rage, Buckskin pistol-whipped a man outside of The Oriental Saloon and nearly killed him. The townspeople thought he was dangerous, even for Tombstone.

When Johnny died, the town whispered that Frank was responsible. Tombstone resident Billy Claiborne and Frank were drinking at The Oriental Saloon when Billy bragged on about killing three men. He insisted everyone call him Billy The Kid. Frank refused, and Billy threatened to shoot him dead over it. In response, Frank dragged him to the dusty street and shot him dead. No one in town was surprised when Frank killed him. What shocked them were his final words, ??Frank Leslie killed Johnny Ringo. I saw him do it!?

There was no real evidence that Frank killed Johnny, aside from the ramblings of a dying, inebriated, man. However, when Frank went to prison for murdering his 2nd wife, he confessed to a prison guard that he killed Johnny Ringo.


Today, Johnny Ringo is known for the wild way he lived more than the questionable way he died. We remember him best as the ?Huckleberry? of Doc Holiday in the 1993 film. The debate still rages in Tombstone, Arizona. If you?re ever there, maybe you could win such an argument. And, you?re a daisy if you do.

Further Reading:

John Ringo: King of the Cowboys: His Life and Times from the Hoo Doo War to Tombstone by David D Johnson

John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was by Jack Burrows

The Death of Johnny Ringo: June 13, 2018, The State Library of Arizona


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