Pale Horse Revelations #33 - Johnny Ringo
Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures.
If you're like me, there's a pretty good chance that you had never heard of Johnny Ringo until the motion picture Tombstone was released in 1993. In the film, the character of Johnny Ringo is portrayed by Michael Biehn. Due largely to a stellar performance by Biehn, I found Ringo to be one of the most interesting characters in the film, second only to Doc Holiday (spectacularly portrayed by Val Kilmer).
Like many historically inspired films, Tombstone was not all that historically accurate, despite being extremely entertaining (it's still one of my favorites). With that in mind, this week's edition of Pale Horse Revelations will reveal the historical Johnny Ringo.
Johnny Ringo was born John Peters Ringo on May 3, 1850, in Green Forks, Indiana. The family moved to Liberty, Missouri in 1856. Ringo was a distant relative, by marriage, to the infamous Younger brothers. His aunt, Augusta Peters Inskip, married the outlaws' uncle, Coleman P. Younger.
In 1858 the family moved again, this time to Gallatin. There they rented property from the father of John W. Sheets who would later become the first official victim of the James-Younger gang when they robbed the Daviess County Savings & Loan Association in 1869. Tragedy struck the family in 1864, when Johnny was fourteen. While in route to California, Johnny's father, Martin Ringo, suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. According to witness accounts the elder Ringo stepped off the family wagon with a shotgun in his hands and it accidently discharged. The buckshot entered the side of his face and blew out the top of his head.
While Johnny Ringo is best known for his association with the Cochise Cowboys and their conflict with the Earps in Tombstone, his career as a killer began several years earlier in Texas. As we learned in Pale Horse Revelations #27, Ringo was a participant in the Mason County War. On September 25, 1875, Ringo and his friend, Bill Williams murdered James Cheyney. The killing was retaliation for Cheney's role in the murder of Moses Baird. Ringo was also involved in the murder of Charles Bader sometime later. The conclusion of the Mason County war found Ringo behind bars, along with his friend George Gladden. Gladden was sentenced to 99 years in prison but Ringo appears to have been acquitted. Interestingly enough, Ringo turned up two years later as a constable in Loyal Valley, Texas. Shortly, thereafter he departed for Arizona.
In Tombstone, Ringo developed a reputation for having a bad temper. While there he fell in with a loosely affiliated group of outlaws known as the Cochise Cowboys. He was suspected of participating in numerous robberies and killings carried out by the gang. Ringo and gang leader Curly Bill Brocius were close friends.
It was at this time that Brocius and the Cowboys became embroiled in their famous feud with the Earp brothers and Doc Holiday. On January 17th, 1882, Ringo and Holiday engaged in a well-documented war of words that seemed destined to end in bloodshed. However, before violence could erupt both men were arrested by Tombstone's police chief, James Flynn, for carrying firearms in town and dragged before the local judge. Both men were fined and released.
The feud between the Earp brothers and the Cowboys famously erupted into violence at the O.K. Corral. But the violence did not end there. On December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was ambushed and crippled for life by a shotgun blast that robbed him of the use of one arm. On March 18, 1882, Morgan Earp was shot and killed while playing pool in a saloon. The Earps and Holiday suspected Ringo of being involved in both shootings.
The murder of Morgan Earp led to what would become known as Earp's Vendetta Ride during which Earp and a number of supporters hunted down and killed those that they held responsible. In the course of this action Ringo's close friend Brocius was killed by Wyatt Earp at Iron Springs. Shortly thereafter Cochise County Sherrif Johnny Behan was able to secure warrants for the arrest of Earp and Holiday. Ringo was one of twenty deputized men who set out in pursuit of the two. Contrary to what filmmakers would have us believe, the posse never caught up with Earp and his supporters.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Ringo's life is the way it ended. The circumstances were mysterious leading to several theories over the subsequent decades. On July 14th, 1882, a teamster named James Yoast discovered Ringo's corpse in West Turkey Creek Valley. The body, already turning black from the desert heat, was seated in the middle of five blackjack oak trees that formed a semicircle. There was a bullet hole in his right temple and an exit wound in the back of his head. In his right hand, Ringo still clutched his Single Action Colt Army revolver. The hammer was found resting on an empty chamber.
The last person believed to have seen Ringo alive was Tombstone deputy Billy Breckenridge, who claimed to have encountered a very drunk Ringo on July 8th in the South Pass of the Dragoon Mountains. Ranch hands working near the site Ringo's body was discovered reported hearing a single gunshot around 3 p.m. on July 13th, 1882. Given the lateness in the afternoon and the fact that desert temperatures drop significantly overnight, one can reasonably wonder about the level of decomposition present just a day later when the body was discovered.
Other factors tend to raise one's curiosity. The body was discovered barefoot with strips of cloth ripped from his undershirt wrapped around his feet. Yet, the coroner's report noted that there was little wear and tear on the cloth indicating that Ringo had not traveled far. Ringo's horse was found eleven days after his body was discovered about two miles away. Ringo's boots were still tied to the saddle. The most puzzling aspect was a secondary wound found on Ringo's forehead. The wound was in the form of a knife cut found at the base of his scalp. The coroner's report noted that it appeared as though it had been cut by a knife.
Despite these inconsistencies a coroner's inquest officially ruled Ringo's death a suicide. Over the years conspiracy theorists have offered alternative theories. Among the two most popular are that either Wyatt Earp or Doc Holiday killed Ringo. Earp claimed responsibility during two separate interviews (one in 1888 and one in 1932) but his claims included details that do not match what is known of Ringo's death. Most damning is the fact that he claimed to have killed Ringo as he left Arizona in March of 1882. Remember that deputy Billy Breckinridge reported seeing Ringo alive on July 8, 1882. This casts serious doubt on the veracity of Earp's claims. At best, Earp would have to have been confused about the date. While this seems plausible with relation to the interview given in 1932, it seems less believable when applied to the interview given in 1888, just six years after Ringo's death. Also worth noting is the fact that Earp gave an interview between these two (in 1896) during which he denied killing Ringo.
The likelihood that Holiday was responsible for Ringo's death is equally dubious. Just six days before Ringo's body was discovered the Pueblo Daily Chieftan reported that Holiday was in Salida, Colorado, some 670 miles away from where the body was found. Just four days after the discover Holiday was reported to be in Leadville, Colorado (over 700 miles away). Also worth considering is that at this time Holiday was still evading an arrest warrant for his role in the murder of Frank Stillwell. It seems unlikely that he would have reentered Arizona at this time, especially to commit another murder.
Despite the inconsistencies, suicide seems like the most likely explanation. When last seen alive Ringo was reported to be extremely drunk. According to Breckenridge's report Ringo could barely stay in the saddle. According to several newspaper articles from the time period, Ringo frequently threatened to commit suicide. Factor in the death of his friends and his own inability to catch their killers, and suicide does not seem unreasonable.
Whatever the true cause of death may have been, it is undeniably enjoyable to pour over the historical record and consider all the possible alternatives. With that in mind, I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own. Please feel free to comment with your own theories.
As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found near the bottom of my home page (www.bmiltonhyde.com) and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.
Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.