John Peters “Johnny” Ringo (May 3, 1850 – July 13, 1882) was an outlaw Cowboy of the American Old West who was affiliated with Ike Clanton and Frank Stilwell in Cochise County, Arizona Territory during 1881-1882.

He was occasionally referred to as “Ringgold” by the newspapers of the day.

He is best remembered for his relations with legendary gunmen Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday – which were never good.

In the 1993 film “Tombstone”, Ringo was played with suitable menace by “Terminator” and “Aliens” star, Michael Biehn.

Video is courtesy of YouTube:

That’s the Hollywood.

Here’s the history:

Ringo’s Early Life

John Peters Ringo was born in Greensfork, Indiana, of partial Dutch ancestry. His family moved to Liberty, Missouri in 1856.

He was a contemporary of Frank and Jesse James (who lived nearby in Kearney, Missouri), and became a cousin of the Younger brothers through marriage when his aunt, Augusta Peters Inskip, married Coleman P. Younger, uncle of the outlaws.

In 1858 the Ringo family moved to Gallatin, Missouri where they rented property from the father of John W. Sheets (who became the first “official” victim of the James-Younger gang when they robbed the Daviess County Savings & Loan Association in 1869).

On July 30, 1864, while the Ringo family was traveling through Wyoming on their way to California, Johnny’s father Martin Ringo stepped out of his wagon holding a shotgun which accidentally discharged. The buckshot round entered the right side of Martin’s face, exiting the top of his head. The 14-year-old Johnny, and the rest of the family, buried Martin on a hillside along the trail.

The Mason County War

By the mid-1870s, Ringo had migrated from San Jose, California to Mason County, Texas. Here he befriended an ex-Texas Ranger named Scott Cooley, who was the adopted son of a local rancher named 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.

Full-blown war began on May 13, 1875, when Tim Williamson was arrested by a hostile posse and murdered by a German farmer named Peter Bader.

Cooley and his friends, including Johnny Ringo, conducted a terror campaign against their rivals. Officially called the “Mason County War”, locally it was called the “Hoodoo War”.

Cooley retaliated by killing the local German ex-deputy sheriff, John Worley, shooting him, scalping him, and tossing his body down a well on August 10, 1875.

After Cooley supporter Moses Baird was killed, Ringo committed his first murder on September 25, 1875.

He and a friend named Bill Williams rode up in front of the house of James Cheyney – the man who had led Baird into an ambush.

As Cheyney came out, unarmed, invited them in, and began washing his face on the porch, both Ringo and Williams shot and killed him. The two then rode to the house of Dave Doole, and called him outside, but when he came out with a gun, they fled back into town.

Some time later, Scott Cooley and Johnny Ringo mistook Charley Bader for his brother Pete, and killed him. Both men were jailed in Burnet, Texas by Sheriff A. J. Strickland. Ringo and Cooley were broken out of jail by their friends shortly afterwards, and parted company to evade the law.

By November 1876, the Mason County War had petered out, after costing a dozen or so lives.

Scott Cooley was believed dead, and Johnny Ringo and his friend George Gladden were locked up, once again. One of Ringo’s alleged cellmates was the notorious killer John Wesley Hardin.

Gladden was eventually sentenced to 99 years, but Ringo appears to have been acquitted.

Two years later, Ringo was noted as being a constable in Loyal Valley, Texas. Soon after this, he appeared in Arizona for the first time.

A Bad Reputation – and a Temper

According to Western author Louis L’Amour, Ringo was a surly, bad-tempered man who was worse when he was drinking.

His main claim to infamy was an incident in an Arizona territory saloon in 1879.

In December of that year, a drunk Ringo shot the unarmed Louis Hancock in a Safford, Arizona saloon, when Hancock refused a complimentary drink of whiskey (Ringo was buying), stating he preferred beer. Hancock survived his wound.


Ringo first turned up in Cochise County, Arizona Territory in 1879, together with Joseph Graves Olney (alias “Joe Hill”), a friend from the Mason County War.

Here, too, Ringo had a reputation for having a bad temper. He may have participated in robberies and killings with the Cowboys.

Ringo did not, however, take part in the shootout at the O.K Corral.

On January 17, 1882, Ringo and Doc Holliday traded threats, and seemed to be headed for a gunfight. Both men were arrested by Tombstone’s new chief of police, James Flynn (former chief Virgil Earp having been badly wounded in an ambush a few weeks before), and hauled before a judge for carrying weapons in town. Both were fined.

Judge William H. Stilwell followed up on charges outstanding against Ringo for a robbery in Galeyville, and Ringo was re-arrested and jailed on January 20 for the weekend.


Two months later, Ringo was suspected by the Earps of taking part in the murder of Morgan Earp on March 18, 1882.

After Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp and his posse killed Frank Stilwell in Tucson on March 20, 1882, warrants were issued for their arrest. Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan deputized Ringo and 19 other men – many of them Cowboys and friends of Stilwell. Ringo joined the county posse that pursued but never found Earp’s federal posse.

Pete Spence’s wife, Marietta Duarte, testified that her husband, Frank Stilwell, “Indian Charlie” Cruz, Frederick Bode, and a half-breed named Fries had killed Morgan Earp.

The Earp posse searched for Pete Spence at his wood camp in the South Pass in the Dragoon Mountains, and found Florentino “Indian Charlie” Cruz (whom they presumed to be “Fries”), and killed him.

One of Ringo’s closest friends, “Curly Bill” Brocius, was killed by Wyatt Earp in a gunfight at Iron Springs (later Mescal Springs) about 20 miles (32 km) from Tombstone, two days after the Cruz murder.

Earp told his biographer Stuart Lake that he got Cruz to confess to being the lookout at Morgan’s murder, and that Cruz identified Johnny Ringo, Frank Stilwell, Hank Swilling, and Curly Bill Brocius as Morgan’s killers.

Turkey Creek Canyon

On July 14, 1882, Johnny Ringo was found dead in the crotch of a large tree in West Turkey Creek Valley, near Chiricahua Peak, with a bullet hole in his right temple and an exit wound at the back of his head.

A single shot had been heard by a neighbor late in the evening, the day before. The property owner found Ringo sitting on the low-leaning trunk and fork of a large tree by the river.

Ringo’s revolver had one round expended, and was found hanging by one finger in his hand. His feet were wrapped in pieces of his undershirt. His horse was found two weeks later, Ringo’s boots tied to the saddle of his horse – a common method to keep scorpions out of boots.

After an inquest, the coroner found that death had been caused by a single shot through the head, and Ringo’s death was officially ruled a suicide.

Johnny Ringo is buried close to where his body was found in West Turkey Creek Canyon at the base of the tree in which he was found. The tree fell around 2010.

The grave is located on private land and is accessible through a gate with instructions on how to get to the grave site.

Suicide, or…?

Several people have been suggested as Ringo’s murderer, including Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Mike O’Rourke, and Buckskin Frank Leslie.

The book, “I Married Wyatt Earp”, supposedly written by Josephine Marcus Earp, reported that Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday returned to Arizona to find and kill Ringo. Edited by Glen Boyer, the book claims that Holliday killed Ringo with a rifle shot from distance, contradicting the coroner’s ruling that Ringo’s death was a suicide.

Holliday was fighting a court case in Colorado at the time of Ringo’s death. Official records of the District Court of Pueblo County, Colorado indicate that both Doc and his attorney appeared in court there on July 11, 14, and 18, 1882, which, if true, would make it impossible for Holliday to have killed Ringo.

Author Karen Holliday Tanner, in “Doc Holliday, A Family Portrait”, speculated that Doc may not have been in Pueblo at the time of the court date, citing a writ of habeas corpus issued for him in court on July 11. She believes that only his attorney may have appeared on his behalf that day, in spite of the wording of a court record that indicated he may have appeared in person.

One theory that supports the coroner’s finding that Ringo committed suicide is that a few weeks before Ringo’s death, a large fire in Tombstone had wiped out most of the downtown area. The silver mines were producing less, and demand for beef was down. Many of Ringo’s friends were gone, while his way of life was quickly becoming a thing of the past. Ringo was depressed after being rejected by his remaining family members in California and the recent deaths of his outlaw friends.

Stoked by a period of binge drinking, Ringo was preparing to camp in an isolated spot, far from the city. He tied his boots to his saddle (a common practice in Arizona to keep scorpions out of them), but the horse got loose from his picket and ran off. Ringo tied pieces of his undershirt to his feet to protect them, and crawled into the fork of a large tree to spend the night.

As evening came on, despondent over the miserable state of his life, Ringo shot himself.

Fred Dodge, a Wells, Fargo & Co. undercover agent, attributed Ringo’s killing to Mike O’Rourke.

A gambler, O’Rourke had been arrested for murdering Henry Schneider in January, 1881. Curly Bill Brocius and John Ringo encouraged talk of a lynching and led other men who pursued the wagon carrying O’Rourke.

O’Rourke got to the outskirts of Tombstone and the Last Chance Saloon just ahead of the mob. He was met there by Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp, and was escorted to jail in Tucson, where he soon escaped.

He held on to a burning rage toward Ringo and Curly Bill, and according to a conversation Dodge had with Frank Leslie, O’Rourke learned in July, 1882 that Ringo and Buckskin Frank Leslie were camping in the Turkey Creek Canyon area. O’Rourke knew that Ringo had been drinking heavily for the last week and made camp in the same area. On July 14, he allegedly found Ringo sleeping off his liquor and killed him, arranging the body to look like a suicide.

The story had enough credibility that many – including Ringo’s close friend, Pony Diehl – believed it to be true. O’Rourke was killed, shortly after being caught cheating at cards.

Another theory suggests that “Buckskin” Frank Leslie killed Ringo.

Leslie allegedly found Ringo drunk and asleep in a tree. Hoping to curry favor with Earp supporters in office, he shot Ringo through the head.

Suicide, or murder?

A sticky end, in either case.

It’s the end of this one, too.

See you next time.