Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

"Let us speak courteously, deal fairly, and keep ourselves armed and ready." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

Friday, January 27, 2017

Johnny Ringo -- Life and Death In Arizona

Dear Friends,

In my article Johnny Ringo & The Mason County War, we talked about how John Peters Ringo, better known as Johnny Ringo, arrived in San Jose, California, at age 14, and there became a petty criminal before leaving and heading to Texas at 20 years of age.

We talked about who he fell in with and how he became involved with the Mason County War. And yes, we talked about how this Old West legend, became a gunman when he and another man ambushed a friend who had his face in a wash bowl.
We also talked about how multiple arrests, newspapers, and word of mouth, built him a reputation as a bad hombre that may have really been undeserved. 

When we left off, he became a legend simply because of newspapers in Texas. And now, he arrives in Cochise County, Arizona Territory in 1878 with Joseph Graves Olney, alias "Joe Hill", a friend from Texas who he met during the Mason County War. A friend that he was drifting with for some time.

Folks in Arizona first take note of Ringo on December 9th, 1879. Yes, that was when a 28 year old drunk Ringo actually shot unarmed Louis Hancock in a Safford, Arizona, saloon. The story goes that Hancock refused a drink of whiskey from Ringo by stating that he really preferred beer instead.

On December 14, 1879, The Arizona Daily Star commented:

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

Yes, according to reports, Ringo hit Hancock with his pistol and then fired a shot at him with obvious intent to kill. But as with a lot of gunfights in the Old West, being drunk doesn't help one when trying to shoot someone, and no being real close to your target didn't always help either.

This is proven true again here, because even though he was very close to Hancock, he missed Hancock almost completely with the exception of nicking the man's ear. And though Ringo was arrested, he was released on bail. And yes, he also failed to appear when he was supposed to go in front of the Pima County Grand Jury in March of 1880.

Believe it or not, on March 3, 1880, Ringo wrote Pima County Sheriff Charles Shibell a note to explain why he missed his court date:

"Dear Sir, being under Bond for my appearance before the Grand jury of Pima Co., I write to let you know why I can not appear--I got shot through the foot and it is impossible for me to travel for awhile. If you get any papers for me, and will let me know, I will attend to them at once. As I wish to live here I do not wish to put you to any unnecessary trouble, nor do I wish to bring extra trouble on myself. Please let the Dist.-atty know why i do not appear, for I am anxious that there is no forfeiture taken on the Bond."

It's said that Pima County District Attorney Hugh Farley was not understanding and asked the court to revoke his bond, and to issue a warrant for Ringo's arrest.

As for his whereabouts? Well, Ringo resurfaced on April 2nd, 1880, in Shakespeare, New Mexico, where he and M.C. Blakely sold a mining claim to John E. Price for $1000. Then just a few days later on April 7th, 1880, Ringo executed a power of attorney to James B. Price of Missouri. 

This power of attorney granted Price six months to sell a different mining claim for $2000, that claim was supposedly owned by Ringo. The claim was said to be located in the San Simon Mining District, called the "Sydury Johnson Mine."

So when does he get involved with the "cow boys" of Tombstone fame? In Tombstone, it's said that Ringo had a reputation as having a bad temper. And while I can't find anything proving it, no records of him killing anyone else than what took place in the Mason County War, it is believed that he had participated in robberies and killings with the "cow boys." And yes, the "cow boys" were a group of rustlers and outlaws made up of the Clantons, the McLaurys, and others. 

It had to be in 1880 that he met and befriended Ike Clanton. The reason that I say it had to be 1880, even though some say early in 1881, is because in July of 1880, John Ringo, Ike Clanton, Joe Hill and George Turner drove a fairly large herd of cattle to the San Carlos Indian Reservation. After selling the beef worth around $2000, the men were seen in the town of Maxey and then in Safford. 

By October of 1880, Ringo was listed as an election judge in San Simon. Yes, believe it or not, John Ringo became a delegate to the Pima County Democrat Convention. Yes, he was a Democrat. He served as an election official in San Simon which is located near the border with New Mexico in southern Arizona.

On October 19th, 1880, The Tombstone Nugget wrote: 

"San Simon. J. C. Clanton, inspector; John Ringo and A. H. Thompson, judges; polling place Joseph Hill's house."


By November 1st, 1880, an official land purchase notice was filed by John Ringo and Ike Clanton in Silver City, New Mexico. They apparently partnered up by then. As for the notice, they purchased 320 acres of grazing and farming land in the Animas Valley which is located approximately 30 miles north of Guadalupe canyon. Their 320 acres of land would be known as the "Alfalfa or Cienega Ranch."

About now is when he meets a real gunslinger, a true man-killer, the then famous Ben Thompson.

The story goes that sometime in April of 1881, Ringo left Arizona and went to Texas. He gets to Austin. Then on May 2nd, 1881, after spending some time in a brothel, at his hotel he discovers that his money is gone. Ringo gets flustered and thinks the three young men who were seated in the hotel hallway have his money.

Ringo pulls a gun and commanded them to hold their hands up, and he searches them. Since he did not finding his money, the story goes that he smiled at them and simply went to his room. The three men are angry and run to the City Marshal's office to report what just took place. The Austin City Marshal is Ben Thompson.

Austin City Marshal Ben Thompson was a very notorious Texas gunman. No wanting someone else to find out what took place, he personally goes to Ringo's room. When he got there, Ringo made the mistake of refusing to open the door. 

The story goes that Ben Thompson kicked in the door with a gun in his hand ready to end young Ringo's life. When a shocked Ringo realizes who he's messing with, he submits without incident to being arrested for disturbing the peace and carrying a pistol in a town that doesn't allow them. 

After spending the night in jail, John Ringo paid a $25 fine plus costs and was released. Ringo left Austin. And yes, some say he left with the thought of never going back.  

In early August of 1881, Ringo is said to have rode into Galeyville. There on August 5th, 1881, Ringo got into a poker a game and began to lose all his money. 

While there are a lot of stories about shootouts across poker tables, with shooters missing each other more than hitting each other, this is where the story gets a little strange. You see, supposedly Ringo was out of money and instead of simply bowing out and leaving, he asked for the men at the table to loan him some money so that he could continue playing. Now they probably don't know him. And like today, weren't about to lend money to a stranger. So while I'm sure they laughed a lot, they refused. 

Angry at their refusal to loan him money, he leaves the saloon only to show back up with a man named Dave Estes. Then the two promptly hold up the poker game. Yes, they show up and rob the poker players and make off with about $500 and steal a horse. 

Have you notices that the I haven't mentioned Johnny Ringo at the shootout at the lot near the OK Corral on October 26th, 1881, when Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded, Holliday grazed, and Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton were killed?

Well, he wasn't at the OK Corral in October because he was visiting his sisters in San Jose, California. By the time he returned in November, the OK Corral had been over for a month.

And yes, on November 26th, 1881, after returning from California, John Ringo and Estes were indicted for the robbery. No telling what happen to Estes or the horse. But soon, Deputy Sheriff William Breakenridge went to Galeyville to bring Ringo back to Tombstone to answer the indictment. 

Folks can say what they want about "Billy" Breakenridge, but that guy had guts and was certainly seasoned. What do I mean by seasoned? Friends, after leaving Wisconsin at the age of 16, Breakenridge joined the United States Army and served under Colonel John Chivington with the Colorado Territorial Militia during the Sand Creek Massacre. 

Yes, he was there at Sand Creek when a 700-man force of Colorado Territory Militia attacked and destroyed a village of friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho encamped in southeastern Colorado Territory. They killed and mutilated an estimated 70–163 Indians. And yes, about two-thirds of whom were women and children.

Following his stint with the U.S. Army, he moved on to Arizona and took up a job as a lawman. So basically all of this stuff about Billy Breakenridge being someone without guts and not having real sand is all non-sense. I believe, in reality, he was a tough hombre.

Breakenridge finds Ringo and returns to Tombstone with Ringo in tow on November 29th. Then on December 1st, 1881, he was brought before Judge William Stillwell's court. He pleads not guilty and was released on bail. But of course, when no witnesses against him showed up the following day, the charges were dismissed.

To give you a timeline of what is taking place in Tombstone at that time, on December 28th, 1881, Virgil Earp is ambushed while walking down Fifth Street that night. It's generally accepted the Ike Clanton was in on the ambush because his hat was discovered near the scene.  

Assassins are believed to have been on the second story of an unfinished building across Allen street. They shot Virgil in the back and left arm. He was hit by three loads of double-barreled buckshot from about 60 feet Dr. George E. Goodfellow removed 4 inches of shattered humerus bone and was able to save Virgil's arm. Yes, Virgil survived the attack. But his arm is nearly ripped off by the shotgun blasts, which left it useless for the rest of his life.

After the attempted murder of Virgil, his brother Wyatt wrote Crawley Dake on December 29th to request an appointed as Deputy U.S. Marshal for eastern Pima County. 

After Virgil Earp was nearly killed by unknown assailants, Wyatt Earp claimed that Ringo was one of the men responsible. Rumors also circulated that Ringo had been involved in various crimes. In January of 1882, rumors began to spread that Ringo was involved in a recent stage robbery. When Ringo appeared in Tombstone, he heard the talk and is said to have become furious. So angry in fact, that he actually walked out into the streets to confront Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday who happen to be there at the time. 

Since he believed that they were responsible for the accusations, he decided to take it up with them then and there. During the argument, which some believe nearly resulted in a gunfight, Town Constable James Flynn stopped things from escalating when he stepped in and grabbed Ringo from behind. Flynn then took Ringo, Holliday, and Earp before Police Court Judge A. O. Wallace.

On January 18th, 1882, The Tombstone Epitaph reported:

"J.H. Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Ringo arrested for carrying deadly weapons. Earp discharged, Holliday and Ringo fined $30 each."

Remember that Tombstone had a gun ban, yet everyone still carried. The public simply did what people did back East and carried concealed. When Virgil was City Marshal, he gave a wink and a nod to friends who wanted to carry a gun. For others though, he enforced the town ordinance with fines. 

On that day Wyatt Earp's charge of carrying a gun was dismissed because he was still a Deputy U. S. Marshal at the time, and as such he was entitled to carry a weapon. 

A month later, on March 18th, 1882, Morgan Earp was killed while playing pool in Campbell and Hatch’s billiard hall. Yes, he was shot and killed by an assassin who fires a rifle shot through the pool hall window. In the next week, believing that the courts which were on his side are no longer, using his authority as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, Wyatt Earp and his brother Warren, and a few others, go on a killing spree that some justified as a vendetta against those suspected in the attacks on his brothers. 

Those suspected of being involved in Morgan’s assassination were hunted and killed. Among the victims were Frank Stilwell who was shot in Tucson, Florentino Cruz who was shot to death in a wood camp, and Curly Bill Brocius who was supposedly shot in Iron Springs. The only reason I say supposedly is because no one has ever produced either Brocius' body or grave to prove he was in fact killed. And the only supposed witnessed to Wyatt Earp killing Brocius is the outlaws and Wyatt.
  
Because of the murder of Frank Stillwell who was in Tucson to testify in from of the Grand Jury there, the Grand Jury issues arrest warrants to bring in Wyatt and Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, "Turkey Creek" Jack Johnson, and Sherman McMaster for the murder of Frank Stillwell.

During this time, Johnny Ringo was deputized by Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan. While some say it was an effort by Behan to protect Ringo from the Earps by making him a peace officer, within weeks most of Ringo’s friends were either dead or had been chased out of the area.

And even though Ringo continued to deny any involvement in the attack on Virgil or the death of Morgan, he left and is said to have gone to California until things cooled down.

In April of 1882, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday travel to Colorado, where the state's governor, Frederick Pitkin, denies Arizona's request that the two men be extradited back to Arizona to face murder charges resulting from the killing of Frank Stillwell.

Johnny Ringo had ridden with Sheriff Behan's posse and then left town, most believe for California. He resurfaced in Tombstone on May 7th, 1882. 

The Tombstone Epitaph reported his return: "Jack Ringold is in town." 

Fact is he returned because his robbery hearing was scheduled to begin on May 12th, but it was rescheduled to May 18th. As with the way things are even today, no witnesses were available to testify against Ringo and the court dismissed the compliant against him. They also returned his $3000 bond. He then left town again. 

By July 2nd, Johnny Ringo was reportedly back in Tombstone. Reports say he appeared depressed and was drinking heavily. After a day of heavy drinking, Ringo supposedly headed toward Sulphur Springs for more whiskey. On July 8th, he left Tombstone for the last time.

The next day, July 9th, he was seen in Galeyville. It's said that he continued to drink heavily. Then on July 11th, he had left town. And yes, that was the last time he was seen alive.

On July 14th, 1882, Johnny Ringo was found dead. Yes, James Yoast was hauling wood when he noticed, in his words, "a man in the midst of a clump of trees, apparently asleep."

When he sees his dog "smelling at the man’s face and snorting," Yoast decides to investigate what's going on. That was when he found Ringo’s dead body which had already turning black because it was lying there for hours. Yes, in the middle of a few trees was Ringo's lifeless body seated at the base of a large tree.

He had a bullet hole in the left temple. It looked like suicide. A coroner’s jury did in fact rule that Johnny Ringo's death a suicide. 

Many believe someone killed Ringo. Their reasons for thinking so is that his boots were missing. His coat had been torn and strips of his shirt had been used to bind his feet. His rifle was leaning against a tree close to him. In his right hand was his Colt .45 Peacemaker with only one spent shell. Ringo’s horse was later found roaming the canyon area with his boots tied across the saddle.

The Tombstone Epitaph wrote: 

"Many friends will mourn him. And many others will take secret delight in learning of his death."

Ringo is buried near West Turkey Creek, near where his body was found. The location of his grave is on private property right off of Highway 181 in southeastern Arizona. His grave can be visited with permission from the property owner. 

It is interesting to note that when looking at Ringo's life, one can't help but wonder what made him a legend? It's said that Louis L'Amour wrote that he had found nothing in Old West history to commend John Ringo as a "bad" man. Friends, there is no record that he ever actually had a single gunfight. While Louis L'Amour wrote that he did not understand how Ringo got to be such a "bad man" in legend. I don't either.

From everything that I can find about Ringo, he was a hot head, he had bad tempered and it certainly got worse when he was drinking.  Imagine that. Really, how many of us have known men just like that? And no, that doesn't make someone a legend.

In the next installment on the Johnny Ringo story, I'll take a look at conspiracy theories pertaining to his death. I take a look to see if it was indeed murder or really suicide. I'll look at who took credit for killing him and why they couldn't have done it, who maybe could have really done it, and more.

Tom Correa

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