Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

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

Friday, January 20, 2017

Johnny Ringo & The Mason County War


A reader wrote to ask me if Johnny Ringo was a real person or just some mythical character out of some writer's imagination? 

Let me start this by saying that Johnny Ringo's grave is found with an Arizona State Historical Landmark marker along the West Turkey Creek right there in Arizona. And no, he's not buried in Boothill Cemetery in Tombstone as some think.  

On July 14th, 1882, the now famous Johnny Ringo was found dead at the base of a large tree along the West Turkey Creek Valley in Cochise County, Arizona. He had a bullet hole in his right temple.  

On May 3rd, 1850, in Greensfork, Indiana, he was born John Peters Ringo. Some writers say their family surname was "Ringgold" because it was a name he is believed to have used upon being arrested on more than one occasion. But frankly, I haven't been able to verify where "Ringgold" came from. 

He was believed to have died on July 13th, 1882, at the age of 32, the day before he was found dead. His years as a known outlaw were between 1875 and 1882. Yes, a mere 7 years or so. 

We know he was born in Indiana. We also know his family moved to Liberty, Missouri, in 1856. We also know that he became a cousin of the outlaw Younger brothers through marriage when his aunt Augusta Peters Inskip married Coleman P. Younger, who was the uncle of the outlaws.

We know that in 1858, his family moved to Gallatin, Missouri where they rented property from the father of John W. Sheets, who coincidentally became the first "official" victim of the James-Younger gang when they robbed the Daviess County Savings & Loan Association in 1869.

We also know that on July 30th, 1864, while his family was in Wyoming in route to California, his father Martin Ringo shot himself accidentally. The wound killed him instantly. The story on that is that his father was pulling the shotgun to him by the barrel when it accidentally discharged with a full charge to his face.

A letter sent back to Liberty, Missouri, described the terrible accident. The letter was later published in the Liberty Tribune

"Just after daylight on the morning of the 30th July Mr. Ringo stepped outside of the wagons, as I suppose for the purpose of looking around to see if Indians were in sight, and his shotgun went off accidently in his own hands, the load entering his right eye and coming out at the top of his head. At the report of his gun I saw his hat blow up twenty feet in the air, and his brains were scattered in all directions. I never saw a more heart-rendering sight; and to see the distress and agony of his wife and children was painful in the extreme. . . ."

It is said that his family buried Martin on a hillside alongside the trail before moving on to settle in San Jose, California. We know that the Ringo, or as some assert was actually "Ringgold", arrived in San Jose, California, and made a permanent home there.

As a teenager, Johnny was in trouble with the local law as a petty criminal. Some say he was an adolescent drunk and juvenile delinquent. But John Ringo was listed in the 1870 San Jose City Directory as living with his family and working as a farmer, and he was also listed in the Federal government California Census for 1870. So all in all, we know he did not leave San Jose before 1870.

His sisters later recalled that he left San Jose with a harvesting outfit in early 1871. Where Ringo went from there is anyone's guess, but he was in Burnet, Texas, by 1874.

We know this because that was the first mention of John Ringo in a shooting incident. On December 25th, 1874, yes, on Christmas Day, he was seen shooting his pistol in a public square and charges were filed against him.

In April of 1875, the first known criminal indictment against John Ringo was filed for the use of a firearm in the public square and disturbing the peace. On April 14th, an arrest warrant was issued for John Ringo. He was taken into custody and then released on bond. He was ordered to appear in court in July to answer the charge against him. He would be arrested on this by the end of the year.

Ringo then migrated to Mason County, Texas, where he befriended an ex-Texas Ranger named Scott Cooley. Cooley was said to be the adopted son of a local rancher by the name of 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. But according to records, what became known locally as the "Hoodoo War" was officially called the "Mason County War," and it began on May 13th, 1875, when Tim Williamson was arrested then murdered by a hostile mob headed by a German farmer named Peter Bader.

Tim Williamson was brutally murdered by a mob while he was being escorted to the town of Mason by Deputy Sheriff John Wohrle. When attacked, Williamson pleaded but deputy Wohrle refused to aid Williamson. Then when Williamson attempted to escape as the mob descended on him, believe it or not, deputy Wohrle shot his horse from under him. This left him at the mercy of the mob which killed him.

The San Antonio Herald reported the following:

"The Day the news of Williamson's murder came to the Ranger camp, to which force Cooley at one time belonged, he sat down and cried for grief for the loss of one he said was his best friend in the world and declared then that he would have revenge."

Scott Cooley rode into Mason and discretely learned the names of the men who were responsible for his adopted father's death. After that Cooley and a bunch of his friends, which of course included Johnny Ringo, conducted what was called a "terror campaign" against their rivals.

Cooley's first act of vengeance was to kill deputy Worhle because he was the man that had arrested Williamson and allowed him to be killed. It is said that Cooley retaliated by killing the local German ex-deputy sheriff John Worhle on August 10th.

Scott Cooley is said to have shot Worley, scalped him, and then threw his body down a well. So yes, when they say Cooley already had a reputation as a dangerous man, and was respected as a hard as nails Texas Ranger, they weren't just kidding.

After Cooley supporter Moses Baird was killed, that's when Johnny Ringo supposedly committed his first and only known murder. That was on September 25th, when he and another killed the man who led Baird into the ambush. His name was James Cheyney.

The story goes that Ringo and a cohort by the name of Bill Williams rode up in front of the house of James Cheyney, Cheyney came out unarmed and invited both of them to come inside. He then turned and began washing his face in a wash bowl on his porch. Ringo and Williams shot and killed him right there with Cheyney's face in his wash bowl. No, not exactly what you'd call a gunfight..

They then rode to the house of Dave Doole, another man believed responsible for the Moses Baird ambush, and called him outside to do the same to him. But when they saw Dave Doole come out with a gun, they fled back into town.

If folks today think that it's only today that a gun can be a deterrent to men wanting to do someone harm, take note of what took place that night in 1875. When the two killers wanted to carry out their heinous crime, they were deterred from following up on their plans when they saw their prospective victim was armed and ready.

On September 29th, just four days following the killing of Cheyney, Scott Cooley, John Baird, and several others, ambushed Dan Hoerster, Peter Jordan, and Henry Plueneke as they rode down the street in Mason. Hoerster was hit by four bullets and killed instantly. It is said that Scott Cooley mistook Charley Bader for his brother Pete and killed him.

And while Ringo bragged that he was in on those murders, there is no record of Ringo being involved in those killings. Fact is, the now famous Johnny Ringo was known to be involved in only one murder. That's it, just one and it was an ambush of James Cheyney who wasn't even looking at him when he and a cohort killed him. 

In December, John Ringo was arrested based on the disturbing the peace indictment, which was filed in April by the Burnet County Sheriff. 

On December 6th, 1875, after posting a $150 bond, Ringo was released from the jail. His sureties were backers of their side in the Mason County War, among them were J. R. Baird and George Gladden. Both of these men were active participants in the Hoodoo War. 

By the end of December, John Ringo and Scott Cooley were arrested for threatening the lives of the Burnet County Sheriff and his deputy. Both men were jailed in Burnet, Texas, by Sheriff Strickland. 

Having them in jail most have felt like sitting on a keg of dynamite with any minute it would explode. And yes, it is said that their arrest caused serious concern regarding their friends willingness to try to bust them out of the Burnet jail. 

To prevent any attempt to free the men, the lawmen there decided to take the men to Austin where the jail was said to be harder to break out of. And yes, it's said that while en route to Austin, all concerned received a great deal of attention in the newspapers. 

Some say that Johnny Ringo's name being publicly reported in newspapers in the area as "Ringgold" lent to the confusion over his true name. Others say he gave the Ringgold when he was arrested. 

The news that Ringo and Cooley had been arrested was reported throughout Texas. The two men were held in the Travis County jail until the end of January of 1876, when they were then brought by ten men to Burnet to appear before the grand jury there.

On February 1st, 1876, the two notorious Mason County gunman were indicted for threatening the County Sheriff and his Deputy. Two days later, on February 3, 1876, Ringo and Cooley made an application for a change in venue to have their court case transferred to another county. After pleading not guilty, their case was transferred to the new venue of Lampasas County. 

During the trial Ringo was publicly linked to the death of Deputy John Wohrle of Mason County, though it was widely known that he was not involved in that killing. And yes, for some reason, like say a desire to simply get rid of the hard case, that fact really didn't matter to the jury.

So by March of 1876, John Ringo was tried and convicted in Lampasas County for threatening the sheriff and his deputy. An appeal of the conviction was filed and the conviction was later reversed. The case was not scheduled to be heard again until 1877. In the meanwhile, Ringo was to remain in custody.

Since that didn't sit right with their friends, in May of 1876, several men freed Cooley and Ringo from the Lampasas jail. And yes, as usual, news of their escape spread quickly in the Texas newspapers. 

Though many considered the Mason County War over, antagonisms of one sort or another continued for several years in the area. By June of 1876, Scott Cooley was reported to have died. And over the next several months, newspapers published several reports about John Ringo. While most were yarns at best, they had established quite a notorious reputation for him.

On October 31th, 1876, the Texas Rangers and a party led by the Llano sheriff, captured John Ringo and George Gladdin. Both men were brought to Austin to be placed in the Travis County jail. Their being escorted into town caused a great deal of excitement. 

The Austin Statesman wrote the following:

"On Sunday, three desperadoes, men who have been a terror in the counties of Mason, Llano, Burnet, Lampasas, etc, were brought to Austin and lodged in the new jail . . . John Ringo is the party taken from the Lampasas jail last May by about forty men. He has been convicted of threatening the life of Sheriff J. J. Strickland, of Burnet, and was regarded as one of the most desperate men in the frontier counties. . . . "

Ringo remained at the Travis County jail in Austin. And of course this story would not be complete without the story that one of Ringo's cellmates was the known killer John Wesley Hardin, but I can't find anything to confirm that. 

While Ringo was in the Travis County jail, his conviction for threatening the Burnet Sheriff and his deputy in December 1875, was reversed by the appellate court. But also at that time while in the Travis County Jail, he was indicted by the Mason County Grand Jury in November of 1876 for killing James Cheyney. The original indictment was destroyed by a fire. But on May 18th, 1877, a substitute indictment against Ringo was filed. 

So on October 29th, 1877, an arrest warrant was issued against Ringo in Mason County and the sheriff took Ringo into custody on November 1st, 1877. He was then transported to Mason and held in the jail until his court date on November 12th. Ringo's case was continued and on November 19th, seven Texas Rangers transported him back to the Travis County jail. While en route to Austin, it appears that Ringo was taken to Llano county in November of 1877.

In December 1877, Ringo's attorney filed a writ of Habeas Corpus and demanded that a bond be set for his client. Ringo was then brought back to Mason, and on December 20th, 1877, Ringo was released on a $2500 bond with an order to appear before the court on May 10th, 1878.

Well, before May, while on bond, on February 4th, 1878, Ringo was arrested by five Texas Rangers in Junction City, Texas for disturbing the peace. He was released after giving a bond. 

On April 18, 1878, Ringo appeared in Mason and filed a sworn affidavit that several men were needed as witnesses in his case. On May 15th, 1878, the District Attorney for Mason County requested that the case against John Ringo for the murder of James Cheyney be dismissed because "testimony cannot be procured to make out the case." 

Out of fear, no witnesses were willing to come forward to testify against the now infamous Johnny Ringo. And yes, after the murder charge against him was dismissed, he settled at Loyal Valley, Mason County. 

And believe it or not, in November of 1878, infamous Johnny Ringo was elected Constable for Precinct#4 at Loyal Valley. And no, I cannot find whether he actually ever took the position or not because by December of 1878, he left Texas and headed to New Mexico. 

By December of 1879, the now infamous gunman Johnny Ringo was known to be in Arizona. 

So if you've ever wondered where Johnny Ringo's reputation came from, the Mason County War is where. Between of his actions and how the newspapers built him up to be really more than he was, he became quite the notorious gunman in the Southwest.

In my next article, I'll talk about his life in Arizona.

Tom Correa


1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed this! I grew up in the vicinity and was slightly familiar with the stories. Interesting to me are the Bairds mentioned. My grandfather's grandfather was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher named Isham Baird who attended San Saba, Mills, and Llano County congregations (this is from childhood memories of stories, not research I've done). There was quite a number of Baird relatives in the area (Mills County) when my grandfather (born 1900) was growing up, but at some point before I was born they most all moved out to Oregon. Pictures of them were scarce and stories were rare, but reading this makes me wonder what they were all up to! Thanks for fleshing out some of the names behind sone of the historical markers.

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