The Shootout and the OK Corral is one of the most famous events to come out of the Old West. Wyatt Earp and his brothers, tasked with bringing law and order to the town of Tombstone, clashed with a group called the Cowboys who were used to running things their way.
There were larger than life characters on both sides of the conflict. Alongside the Earp brothers was the legendary Doc Holliday, perhaps the finest gunman in Wild West history and a dissolute gambler and drunk to boot. But in the Cowboys some felt Holliday had met his equal, with a lightning fast gunman called Johnny Ringo.
When the smoke cleared from the gunfire at the OK Corral, three Cowboys would lie dead in the dust. Johnny Ringo however was not among them. He missed the fight and was instead found dead elsewhere with a single bullet wound to his head. His death, for want of conflicting evidence, was ruled a suicide.
Many people have linked his strange and unexpected absence to Wyatt Earp and his associates. What happened to one of the fastest gunslingers in the west?
Johnny Ringo, born John Peters Ringo, in May 1850, his parents’ first child. His father, Martin was believed to have been of Dutch descent and he took the maiden name of his mother, Peters, as well as that of his father.
Four years after his birth, he had a brother named Martin and at the age of six years, Johnny’s family moved together to Gallatin, Missouri. Over the course of the next few years, their family welcomed three more children, all girls.
At the age of 14 years, Johnny Ringo had to move again to California with his father. The troubles that followed the Civil War in Missouri had forced Martin to move westward in 1864. On the way to San Jose, California, the family met misfortune with an unexpected accident near the Platte River.
John’s father stepped down from their wagon and the shotgun in his possession went off. As the buckshot passed up through his right eye and brain, he died on the spot. The family buried Martin’s body alongside the trail, with a marker still present on the site today.
How the gruesome death of his father might have had an impact on young Johnny is not recorded. Upon reaching San Jose, John’s mother took the family to her sister and brother-in-law’s ranch. Interestingly, his aunt Augusta Peters was married to Coleman P. Younger, the uncle of Younger brothers, a group of outlaws.
John started living and working on the ranch of his uncle. The next phase in John’s life not only brought him the infamous reputation but also set him up for some rivalries, which might have been the cause of this death.
The Path to Infamous Outlaw
Ringo moved to Texas in 1869 at the age of 23 with the plan to become a rancher in Mason County. He made friends with ex-Texas Ranger Scott Cooley and Moses Baird and gained notoriety for his violent attitude.
However, Ringo came to the forefront in 1875 when a man named Tim Williamson was murdered by a German farmer. The murder of Tim Williamson stoked the fire of violence which had been smoldering after two American cattle thieves had been previously dragged out of the Mason jail and lynched. Considering the role of a German mob behind the lynching, the murder compelled Scott Cooley, adopted son of Williamson, and Ringo to start a terror campaign against these men.
The Mason County War raged through 1875 as Cooley and his posse of friends, including Ringo, started attacking German immigrants in the county. Ringo had his first known victim in the Mason County War by murdering James Cheyney.
Johnny Ringo and his friend Bill Williams went to Cheyney’s house in September 1875 and shot him as they believed Cheyney had led their friend, Moses Baird, into an ambush. After a few months, Ringo and Cooley killed the brother of the German farmer who had murdered Tim Williamson. Even if both Cooley and Ringo were arrested, they managed to break free from prison and parted ways for safety from the law.
A Strange End at Tombstone
By the end of the Mason County War, almost a dozen people had lost their lives. Cooley was presumed dead and Ringo had been imprisoned along with his friend George Gladden.
During his time in prison, Ringo also made acquaintance with notorious criminal John Wesley Hardin. When Ringo was unexpected (and slightly mysteriously) acquitted of his crimes while Gladden received prison sentence of 99 years he made his way to Tombstone, Arizona. It was here that he met Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, the two men who many suspect were responsible for Ringo’s death.
Johnny Ringo moved to Tombstone in 1880 and developed a reputation for his bad temper. He had traded abuses and threats with Doc Holliday in January 1882 and was one of the men hunted by Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday others in what came to be known as the Earp Vendetta Ride.
This posse, organized after the Cowboys had killed Wyatt’s brother Morgan Earp, set out to run the Cowboys to ground and end their lawless rule of the country around Tombstone. Johnny Ringo was one of the men they were hunting.
It would certainly make sense that Wyatt Earp of one of his associates was responsible for the death of Johnny Ringo. However a convenient story is not always the truth, and the fact remains that there is no evidence of what actually happened.
The most plausible explanation for the death of Johnny Ringo does suggest that he had committed suicide. When his body was found, he had a gun in his right hand and was not wearing any boots. Some stories say his legs were tied but his body had been decomposing in the heat for some time, rendering the scene difficult to interpret.
Then there is the fact of the similarities between the wound which killed Ringo and his father and the possibility than Ringo may have been traumatized mentally by that shocking, formative experience. Facing almost certain doom at the hand of the vengeful lawman Wyatt Earp, did he choose what his enemies would have considered the coward’s way out?
Towards the end of his life, Johnny Ringo gave in to drinking and bad temper, a spent force. How one of the fastest gunman in the west died will always, ultimately, remain a mystery.
Top Image: Did Johnny Ringo commit suicide, or did Wyatt Earp hunt him down and kill him? Source: Ysbrandcosijn / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri