Sunday, November 19, 2017

Johnny Ringo -- Was His Death Suicide Or Murder?

Dear Friends,

On July 14th, 1882, James Yoast noticed something strange while making his route hauling wood. As he put it, he saw "a man in the midst of a clump of trees, apparently asleep."

Yoast watched his "dog smelling at the man’s face and snorting." That was when he stepped in to take a look at what he dog was sniffing. That was when Yoast found the now famous Johnny Ringo's dead body. 

Yes, right there in the middle of a few trees was Ringo's lifeless body seated at the base of a large tree. A single entry wound was found to his right temple. The exit wound was the upper-left-back side of his head. Because his body was already discolored, it's believed that Ringo may have been lying there for at least a full day before being discovered. 

So how did Johnny Ringo die? Well, since he had a bullet hole in the right temple and it looked like suicide, a coroner's jury did in fact rule that Johnny Ringo's death was a suicide. Of course while people may or may not have accepted the ruling back then, does not mean people accept that finding today.

And though in his right hand was his Colt .45 Peacemaker with only one spent shell, there are people today who believe someone killed Ringo. Their reasons for thinking that Ringo could not have killed himself and must have been murdered has to do with a few strange things connected to his death.

Those are such things as his boots being missing, such as his coat had been torn, and how his shirt was torn into strips and those strips of his shirt had been used to wrap his feet. Some also find it strange that his rifle was found leaning against a tree close to him and that his horse was later found roaming with his boots tied across the saddle.

As for as the reason he may have killed himself? There are those who swear that Ringo killed himself because he was depressed by the deaths of his outlaw associates. Similarly there are those who say he was depressed over supposedly being rejected by the Clanton and McLaury families. Of course there are those who say that his being depressed is a lot of nonsense.

Reports range from Ringo boozing a great deal more than usual before he was found dead, to his deciding to go camping before he killed himself. It's true, there are sources which say he was preparing to camp outside of town on the day before he was found dead.

Those reports speculate that he "must" have been camping since he tied his boots to his saddle. These same people assert that was a common practice in Arizona meant to keep the scorpions out of one's boots. So "obviously" to that's why he had his boots tied to his horse.

So let's take a look at this idea that a man was depressed enough to commit suicide yet worry about scorpions crawling into his boots? That he would first tie them to his saddle before shooting himself? OK, that sounds perfectly illogical.

As for those who say his horse "managed to get loose from his picket and run off"? Well, there's nothing to support that speculation. There's not supporting evidence, no reports to my knowledge, of anybody finding that supposed picket line or that camping spot where Ringo supposedly camped and tied up his horse.

As for the pieces of his shirt tied to his feet? There are those who actually theorize that he did that after his horse wandered off. Yes, there are people who think Ringo tied those strips to his feet to protect them while looking for his horse. There are even some who say that he became despondent over the loss of his horse and made his way to the fork of that large tree where he was found.

Once there, they speculate, "despondent over his overall state, in Apache country without horse, or fire, or drink, or his boots, that Ringo shot himself. These same people support their assumption by saying that a single shot was heard by a nearby resident. Yes, as if a single shot heard in the distance verified that Ringo made camp, that he tied his boots to his saddle, that he became despondent over his horse wondering off, that he had no booze, and then he shot himself.

Friends, if one shot heard in the distance can tell us all of that, well there was no need for a coroner's jury to be convened. All they had to do is jump to conclusion based on no supporting evidence other than the fact that some resident said that he heard a shot being fired. Of course, that same resident didn't report that shot until days after hearing that Ringo's body was discovered.

As for Ringo's revolver having had one round fired and it was found hanging from a finger of his hand, that makes sense if he shot himself. The muscles in one's body relaxes upon death.

Of course there are other signs to determine whether one was murdered or one committed suicide. For example, evidence of a note that the victim left behind, or if the victim was known to have a number of personal problems, or if the victim was a drug user, or if there was evidence that drugs were taken, or that the victim was drunk, all point to a suicide.

As for evidence of a struggle, such as cuts, scratches, bruises, especially on the hands, that all points to homicide. It should also be noted that a suicide victim will rarely shoot himself through his clothing. If he actually does the very unusual act of shooting himself in the chest, he will first open his shirt to make contact. People shot through their clothing points to homicide.

This goes along with the number of shots being fired. A person who just shot himself in an attempted suicide is more than likely be either unconscious or physically unable to shoot himself again with a second shot. Because of this, more than one gunshot wound on a victim usually indicates a homicide.

As for the location of the wound. Most investigators agree that a shot fired to the side of the head, or in the mouth, or even to the front of the chest, are signs of suicide. Most agree that wounds found anywhere else are more than likely signs of a homicide.

Also, distance of the shot being fired is a huge factor. Most suicides from firearms are shots fired at contact or near contact range. At contact range, a star-like wound is produced. Also, there are burn marks at the wound area. There is usually gunpowder residue at the wound as well. Wounds produced further away, whether it's inches or feet, do not produce the same patterns and as a result are indicative of a homicide. 

It's the same with the presence of gunpowder residue on the victim's hand. Fact is, if a man shots himself, there should be powder residue on the hand that fired the shot.

It is important for any coroner to figure out the angle of the bullet path. The angle of the shot fired can tell an investigator if it's suicide or a homicide. Most investigators know that gunshots fired during a suicide are usually angled slightly upward. So if, for example, someone did try to create the look of a suicide by say walking up to a sleeping person and shooting them, the angle of the bullet path will show that that shot was fired in a homicide. 

So now that you know what investigators look for, what coroners look for, ask yourself if they saw any of the signs of a suicide when examining Johnny Ringo? For me, knowing that a coroner does more than just take what is noted at the scene of a suicide as gospel of what took place, I believe they must have had more indications than what we know of in the standard report. 

What I mean by that is this, forget about irrelevant evidence unrelated to his actual death; forget about his horse, his boots, and the strips of cloth. Fact is, that's all extraneous information that means nothing when determining how he died. Let's look at the fact that he was shot in the head at contact. 

I can only suspect that there were powder burns at the wound and gun residue on the hand that he used to shoot himself, but I don't know that for certain. And while someone's going to read this and write to tell me that forensic science wasn't around in the 1880s, I have to remind folks that it was. 

Granted it sure wasn't what it is today, but the science of forensics was actually established within the sphere of criminal investigation as far back as the 13th century. It's true, the first written account of using medicine and entomology to solve criminal cases was a book written in China in the year 1248. 

By the 1500s, European doctors began gathering information on the cause and manner of death. During the 1700s, there are a number of cases that were solved in Europe and in the American colonies using forensic science. We forget that fingerprinting was started in 1858, and by the 1870s forensic science was experiencing a boom in the United States. 

Of course the big boom in scientific and surgical investigation can be attributed to a single crime that was never solved. Forensic science was widely used by the London Metropolitan Police during their investigation of Jack the Ripper who had killed a number of prostitutes in the 1880s.

So while I don't know if the coroner examined the bullet path to help determine whether or not it was a suicide or a murder, I do know that by the early 1880s coroners were doing such things. In fact, in Great Britain the Coroners Act of 1887 ensured that "an integral part of the coroners' role was to determine the circumstances and the medical causes of sudden, violent and unnatural deaths." This basically gave the green light to coroners to do what they were already doing.

So while I believe that he committed suicide as the coroner's jury ruled, there are some who have made claims that he was murdered. Some claims actually saying that his supposed killer walked right up to him and shot him in the head.   

One such claim came from Buckskin Frank Leslie who said that he killed Ringo. He said he found Ringo drunk and asleep. so he simply shot Ringo through the head. Supposedly, the story goes that he hoped that his killing Ringo would make him friends of the Earp supporters who were in office in Tombstone.

It's said that Billy Claiborne believed Leslie killed Ringo so much that he ended up getting into a gunfight with Leslie over it. In that gunfight, Claiborne was shot and dying when his supposed uttered his last words "Frank Leslie killed John Ringo. I saw him do it."

Just a point of interest, imagine trying to implicate someone in a murder that has already been ruled a suicide for your last words? As expected, no one cared.

Michael "Johnny-Behind-The-Deuce" O'Rourke reported told people that he killed Johnny Ringo on behalf of Wyatt Earp. Supposedly O'Rourke felt that he was in debt to Wyatt Earp for saving him from the lynch mob, and O'Rourke felt that that was a way of paying him back. Of course, Wyatt Earp did no such thing. This is the sort of story that just keeps on going even though it's not true.

As for O'Rourke killing Ringo, he said that he crept up and shot Ringo through the head. This is highly unlikely since O'Rourke was never seen again after he broke out of jail on April 18th, 1881. Someone said they saw him last in the Dragoon Mountains heading for Texas where he vanished.

There are those who insist that Doc Holliday killed Ringo. There are a number of versions to that story. One goes that Ringo and Wyatt Earp were in a duel and Doc supposed got between them and shot Ringo in the head. Another is the one made popular by the movie "Tombstone" where Doc met with Ringo and killed him for his friend Wyatt Earp.

The problems with the whole Doc did it scenario is that he was in Colorado on the day Ringo was found dead. And though Ringo was said to be dead for at least 24 hours, his story still doesn't match up with the forensic evidence on hand which is what the coroner used to determine that Ringo committed suicide.

This same evidence disproves Wyatt Earp's claim that he killed Johnny Ringo. One claim is that Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday returned to Arizona. Supposedly they found Ringo camped about 3 miles from where he was found dead. The story goes that Ringo ran up the canyon with his feet bound by strips of cloth from his undershirt. Ringo supposed shot at Earp and Holliday just before Earp  shot him in the head with his Winchester rifle.

Another story comes from a letter written by Frederick Bechdolt to William Breckenridge who was a deputy sheriff at Tombstone during 1882. In the letter, 
Bechdolt wrote: 

"He [Wyatt] says he stayed in the country after the Tucson killing when he was taking Morgan's body on the train; and that his reason for staying in Arizona was to kill the murderers of Morgan. This, he says, he did. He says he got John Ringo, where Ringo's body was found; that he (Earp) and several others, including Texas Jack and Doc Holliday, were riding out on one of a number of expeditions from the Hooker ranch looking for Ringo and Curly Bill; when they encountered Ringo. While the others stayed in a dry wash to attract Ringo's attention, Earp says he sneaked up behind; called out to Ringo, who tried to throw down on Earp as he turned; and then Earp shot him."

Of course since Wyatt Earp made other claims that have been proven to be false, I don't put any credence in what he said. Besides, in the 1920s, Wyatt Earp is reported to have told writer Frank Lockwood that he had killed Ringo and Curly Bill just before leaving Arizona. That's interesting since Curly Bill was supposedly killed on March 24th, and Ringo was found dead on July 14th over three months apart from each other.

Also, Wyatt Earp was no where near Ringo when he died. After Earp left Arizona in March of 1882, Wyatt never returned to Tombstone. He and his posse arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then went to Trinidad, Colorado, where Bat Masterson had a saloon. Masterson would also become city marshal of Trinidad later on.

While there Wyatt Earp worked for Masterson as a faro dealer. He did that for several weeks before leaving in May of 1882  for Gunnison, Colorado. Gunnison is where Wyatt Earp reportedly pulled his "gold brick scam" on a German visitor by the name of Ritchie. The scam was Earp trying to sell Ritchie gold-painted rocks for $2,000. 

It was also at that time that he and Doc Holliday had a falling out over Doc calling Wyatt Earp "a damn Jew-boy." After that, it wouldn't be until 1886 when Wyatt and Josie see Doc for the last time. That was when they bumped into each other in the lobby of the Windsor Hotel. 

In the beginning of July of 1882, Wyatt Earp had actually traveled from Colorado to San Francisco to meet Josie who was living with her half-sister there. Since Wyatt Earp was in San Francisco when Johnny Ringo was found dead, it's evident that Ringo was not shot by Wyatt Earp. In fact, it is said that the Earps did not leave San Francisco at all until early 1883. 

As for the cause of Johnny Ringo's death, we know for certain that on July 14th, 1882, Ringo's body was found lying against a large tree in West Turkey Creek Valley near Chiricahua Peak. There was a bullet hole in his right temple. An exit wound was at the upper-left-back part of his head. His Colt revolver was hanging by one finger in his hand. Only one round had been fired. His horse was found days later about two miles away. Ringo's boots were still tied to the saddle.

As the picture above shows, Ringo is buried near the base of the tree where his body was found. And though his grave is on private property, there is a plaque there noting who's buried there.

A coroner's inquest officially ruled his death a suicide. For me, I believe in what the coroner ruled at the inquest because all of the evidence points to suicide. And frankly, there are all sorts of speculations as to why he killed himself. It's the same for those saying that he was murdered, it's all speculation.

No matter how much some so-and-so expert claims he or she knows what happened, they don't. In fact just about everything about Ringo's death is nothing but speculation. That's simply because no one knows the truth about his last moments of life. It is just a mystery that no one will ever truly solve.

 Tom Correa


  1. Fascinating story. I didn’t know Ringo died by a self inflicted gunshot wound. I also didn’t realize there was accurate forensic science being employed in the Wild West at this time in history. It makes sense, but I never even thought about it, just accepted the version of the story portrayed in “TOMBSTONE “ šŸ˜Š

  2. The forensic science that changed my thoughts was when the handkerchief that Black Bart left at the scene of one of his stage coach robberies.

  3. Dead men tell no tales.


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