Almost everything we “know” about the outlaw gunman Johnny Ringo is either factually inaccurate, unsubstantiated hearsay, or intentional embellishment by authors to sell their books and magazine articles. Here is what we know with a reasonable degree of certitude.
We know he was born in Indiana in 1850 and died in Cochise County, AZ on July 13, 1882. We know that when he was 14, he, his siblings, and mother witnessed the accidental death of his father by gunshot. We know that some claim he received a college education and was well versed in the classics, as was Doc Holliday. But we also know that in reality he never finished grade school. By education alone, Ringo was much the inferior of Holliday.
Johnny Ringo Makes A Name For Himself In Arizona
We know that he was involved in a Texas range war and probably killed several men. We also know that he first turned up in Arizona at a bar in Safford in 1878, where he offered a whiskey to a man seated next to him. 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.”
Ringo was arrested for shooting Hancock. However, he posted bond and was released. He was now scheduled to appear before the Pima County grand jury in March 1880. (This was a year before Cochise County was carved out of the eastern portion of Pima County (Tucson).
Ringo didn’t show. Instead, wrote a letter addressed to Sheriff Charles Shibbel on March 3, 1880, explaining why he could not appear:
“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 a while. 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.”
From this Stafford episode alone, we can reasonably assume that Johnny Ringo had “anger management” issues.
Somehow the case was resolved because in 1880, Ringo became a delegate to the Pima County Democratic Convention and served as an election official in San Simon, located in southern Arizona near the New Mexico border. The election, a complete fraud, was soon investigated by U.S. Deputy Marshall Wyatt Earp, making him the enemy of what became known as the “the cowboy faction” .
In early 1881, Ringo was in Tombstone and associated with a group of hard riding, hard drinking “cowboys” such as Ike and Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury, Billy Clayborne, and their bought-and-paid-for sheriff-protector, Johnny Behan. Like the other “cowboys”, Ringo participated in cattle rustling for a tidy profit. However, he did not participate in the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” in October of that year because he was visiting his sisters in California. His sisters, and the rest of his family, staunch Methodists, resoundingly disowned him. Some say this added to his “depression” and drinking problem.
The Galeyville Incident
Ringo was in Galeyville, a small mining town on the eastern slope of the Chiricahuas. Here he got into a poker a game and began losing. When he asked the men at the table to loan him some money so that he could continue to play, they refused. He left the saloon angry, but soon returned with a man named Dave Estes. The two men held up the poker game and stole around $500 and a horse.
Ringo, on November 26, 1881 was indicted for this robbery. Deputy Sheriff Billy Breakenridge, no friend of the Earps, went to Galeyville to bring Ringo to court in Tombstone. He arrived in Tombstone on November 29, 1881. Ringo stayed at the Grand Hotel and the following morning he was officially arrested for the Galeyville robbery. On December 1, 1881, he was brought before Judge William Stillwell. He pleaded not guilty and was then released on bond. When no witnesses against him showed up the following day his case was postponed.
Virgil Earp Ambushed
On Dec. 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was severely wounded by unknown assailants. Nevertheless, Wyatt Earp claimed that Ringo was one of the men responsible. What proof did Wyatt have? None that we know of. Rumors also circulated that Ringo had been involved in a recent stage robbery.
On Jan. 17, 1882, Ringo got into a shouting match, related to the rumored stage robbery, with Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp on the streets in Tombstone. Constable James Flynn stopped the fight and brought the men to court.
“J.H. Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Ringo arrested for carrying deadly weapons. Earp discharged, Holliday and Ringo fined $30 each.”
After his argument with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, Ringo became even more aligned with the “cowboys”. On January 20, 1882, he was re-arrested when his bond was revoked for the Galeyville robbery. While in jail he found out that Wyatt Earp and a posse were planning to ride to Charleston to arrest the Clantons.
“James Earp being duly sworn says that upon the 23rd day of January, A. D., 1882. He saw John Ringo at the city of Tombstone said County, leaving said city, That upon the information and belief that said Ringo who is under indictment in said county for the crime of robbery is an escaped prisoner from the jurisdiction of the court of the First Judicial District said county wherefore whom an application for bail of said prisoner John Ringo was pending on said day, and said escape was made from the custody of the sheriff of said county without approval . . . by lawful authority. Setting to bail of said Ringo and definitely accuses that the purpose and intent of said Ringo is to intercept one Wyatt S. Earp a marshal entrusted with the execution of warrants for diverse persons charged with violations of the laws of this Territory and duly sworn for the arrest of said persons, and . . . believes that the purpose of said Ringo is to obstruct the execution of said warrants.”
When Jackson’s party got to Charleston they went to the Occidental Hotel for breakfast. However, they were stopped by Ike Clanton and several other armed men. Clanton detained Jackson and his posse even after Jackson told Ike that they had a warrant for John Ringo. According to newspaper accounts, Clanton told Jackson that “Johnny had always acted the gentleman towards him and he would see what could be done.”
Ringo learned about the warrant for his arrest when his attorney arrived in Charleston. His attorney told Ringo that Sheriff John Behan would be in trouble if Ringo did not appear in court. Soon Ringo left Charleston heading for Tombstone. On January 28, 1882, Ringo was arraigned for the second time on his Galeyville indictment. On January 31, he again pleaded not guilty and was released on a $3000 bond.
A hearing was scheduled for February 2, 1882. Deputy Breakenridge went to Galeyville with bench warrants for the witnesses against Ringo and brought them to Tombstone. However, the following day these witnesses again did not appear in court to testify against John Ringo.
The Assassination of Morgan Earp
In March 1882, Morgan Earp was shot and killed by unknown men. Some have speculated that Ringo had been involved. However, the contemporary records did not implicate him in Morgan Earp’s death. Moreover, there was testimony from Briggs Goodrich, another Ringo attorney, that Ringo wanted nothing more to do with the feud. The Tombstone Epitaph published Goodrich’s testimony at the coroner’s hearing:
“. . . By the way, [speaking to Earp] John Ringo wanted me to say to you, that if any fighting came up between you all, he wanted you to understand that he would have nothing to do with it; that he was going to look after himself, and anybody else could do the same. . . .”
Two days after Morgan’s death, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and others escorted Virgil Earp and his wife to the train depot in Tucson. According to Wyatt many years later, he and Doc saw Ike Clanton and Frank Stilwell lurking with rifles or shotguns near Virgil’s coach. They chased after them. Ike got away. Frank didn’t. Today the life-size statues of Wyatt & Doc stand near were Stilwell’s riddled body was discovered the next morning.
Wyatt Earp and his posse returned to Tombstone where Wyatt refused to be arrested by Sheriff Behan, who had a telegraphed message from Pima County Sheriff Bob Paul in Tucson asking Behan to jail the Earp party for the killing of Stilwell. Wyatt, Doc and others in the Earp posse left Tombstone. Those others were Warren Earp, Sherman McMasters, Dan Tipton, “Texas Jack” Vermillion, Charlie Smith and Turkey Creek” Jack Johnson. All were willing and extremely able to back Wyatt’s intention to kill the men who had ambushed Virgil and murdered Morgan.
The next morning Sheriff John Behan assembled a Cochise County posse to go after Earp and his federal posse. Ringo was one of the men in Behan’s posse. George Parsons, an enlightened Tombstone miner, recorded the excitement in his diary.
“Excitement again this morning-Sheriff went out with a posse supposedly to arrest the Earp party, but they will never do it. The cow-boy element is backing him strongly-John Ringo being one of the party-there is a prospect of bad times.”
Wyatt Earp and his party rode to Pete Spence’s wood camp where they killed Florentino Cruz whom they were certain had been involved with the attack on Virgil and the assassination of Morgan.
Following the killing of Cruz, Wyatt Earp and his posse caught up with “Curly Bill” Brocius and some of his “cowboy” friends at a spring in the Whetstone Mountains. A gunfight ensued and the most famous outlaw in the county at that time was no more. Almost certainly, Wyatt shot and killed him.
Wyatt Earp, Doc, and the rest of the federal posse fled to New Mexico in April 1882 and then to Colorado. Both the Cochise County and Pima County sheriffs formally demanded the governors of New Mexico and Colorado extradite Wyatt, Doc and the others who were now wanted for murder in Arizona. But Wyatt had friends in high places who protected him, including the U.S. Marshall’s office, Wells Fargo, Southern Pacific Railroad and wealthy individuals who had substantial investments in the Tombstone mines. Neither he, Doc, or others in the federal posse were ever extradited back to Arizona.
John Ringo resurfaced in Tombstone on May 7, 1882. The Epitaph noted: “Jack Ringold is in town.”
Ringo’s robbery hearing was scheduled to begin on May 12th. The trial was continued on the 12th and rescheduled to May 18th. Apparently, no witnesses showed up to testify against Ringo and the court dismissed the charges against him and returned his $3000 bond. In May 1882, Ringo left Tombstone free of all criminal charges against him.
After a day of heavy drinking with friends near Antelope Springs, Ringo headed toward Sulphur Springs for more whiskey. He was seen in Galeyville on July 9, 1882.
On July 14, 1882, Ringo’s lifeless body was discovered seated at the base of a large tree. There was a bullet hole in his right temple, his boots were missing, his coat had been torn and strips of his shirt had been used to wrap his feet. His rifle rested against the tree close to him. In his right hand was a Colt .45 with only one spent shell. Ringo’s horse was found two weeks later roaming the canyon area with his boots tied across the saddle.
Ringo is buried near West Turkey Creek only a few yards from where his body was found.
The Tombstone Epitaph wrote, “Many friends will mourn him. And many others will take secret delight in learning of his death.”
A coroner’s jury ruled Ringo’s death a suicide, but many believed Wyatt and Doc had returned to Arizona and killed Ringo. This story gained some credibility when, in 1977, a book was published by the respected University of Arizona Press entitled “I Married Wyatt Earp”. The publisher and author, amateur Earp historian Glenn Boyer, claimed it was based on the memoirs of Josephine “Sadie” Marcus Earp (1860-1944). The book sold extremely well until, years later, it was proven to be a fraud.
Once in Colorado, neither Wyatt nor Doc were about to take one step back into Arizona. After all, they were very well-known and wanted for murder. Moreover, neither would have had a motive to prop up poor Johnny Ringo’s body against a tree and stage a suicide. Most importantly, as opportunists, there was no money to be had in Arizona. Wyatt and Doc moved on with their lives.
The location is on private property off Highway 181 in southeastern Arizona. From Tucson, take I-10 east to Dragoon Road (Exit 310). Continue 13 miles to Hwy 191, then continue south past the ghost town of Pearce.
(Note: Along Dragoon Road are at least three worthwhile attractions: (a) Triangle T Guest Ranch; (b) The Amerind Museum; and (c) Golden Rule Vineyards. At Old Pearce, you will find a couple of quaint shops, most importantly, Marcia’s Garden where Marcia gets milk from her herd of Nubian Diary Goats to make wonderful soaps and lotions.
At the junction of US 191 and AZ Hwy 181 is Sunizona and Sandy’s Restaurant, (great pies) and RV Park. Turn left (east). Here, Hwy 181 is also named Turkey Creek Road. Where 181 takes a sharp left and heads north, go straight. The highway almost immediately turns into an unpaved road where it intersects with Kuykendall Road. If you turn south on Kuykendall, you will shortly come to Lawrence Dunham Vineyards where you can sample some very good Arizona wines. If you go, give them a call first.
Continue east on Turkey Creek Road. Watch for a street sign that indicates Sunglow Ranch Road. Go past Sunglow Ranch Road 200 yards and the gate to Mr. Ringo’s grave is on your left. There is a locked metal box at the gravesite into which you can slip a couple of bucks donation to help maintain this historical site. Please be respectful of the owners’ property. Follow the posted rules.