The fastest gun in the West
Then from dawn till setting sun
He practiced with that deadly gun
And hour on hour I watched in awe.
No human being could match the draw
He practiced with that deadly gun
And hour on hour I watched in awe.
No human being could match the draw
Lorne Greene knew in 1964, when he had that hit song (I am generous when I call it a song), that the name Ringo would resonate, and not only in the West. The very word is enough to quicken the blood of any true Westernista. Ringo! It immediately conjures up a gunfighter, probably dressed in black, lightning fast and deadly.
Ringo has appeared again and again in Western movies. John Wayne was of course Ringo in Stagecoach, with Alex Cord taking over in the 1966 remake and Kris Kristofferson in the 1986 one. Gregory Peck was Ringo (though Jimmy, not Johnny) in Fox’s The Gunfighter in 1950. John Ireland was Johnny Ringo in Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1957 (when he was killed by Doc Holliday at the OK gunfight). Michael Biehn took the role in the Kurt Russell Tombstone in 1993 and Norman Howell did the honors in Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp the following year. Even Hopalong Cassidy had to kill Ringo when Ringo up and shot Belle Starr, the cad. And spaghetti westerns liked the Ringo name almost as much as Django. Even Audie Murphy was Ringo in one Spanish oater, The Texican.
And Duke, of course
On TV, Ringo appeared several times on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, played, confusingly by different actors: Britt Lomond, Norman Alden, John Pickard and Peter M Thompson. Paul Richard was Ringo in a 1958 episode of Tales of Wells Fargo and Myron Healey was Johnny in Tombstone Territory. In the TV Hondo in 1967 Frank and Jesse James shot Ringo when they learned Ringo had killed Quantrill. Buck Cannon knew him and pointed him out to Blue Boy in a saloon in High Chaparral. There were other TV Ringos. And of course for the 1959 – 60 season Ringo got his own series on CBS, played by Don Durant. In that he tired of outlaw life and took a job as a lawman. I thought the show was rather cool because he had a LeMat seven-shooter. Ringo, Johnny Ringo/His fears were never shown/The fastest gun in all the West/The quickest ever known, the title song told us. You can hear it sung by Frank McCloud here. Great stuff.
I am also informed, by IMDb, that “Johnny Ringo is the protagonist of a fictionalized memoir by Geoff Aggeler, a professor of English literature at the University of Utah, entitled Confessions of Johnny Ringo. In the novel, Ringo is a bookish and introspective observer of his era who is driven to become an outlaw during the Civil War when his sweetheart is killed by Union troops in Missouri. His death at the hands of Wyatt Earp frees his spirit to reunite with that of his sweetheart.”
In fact traditionally Ringo was a learned man, sometimes Shakespeare-quoting. He was supposed to be a gentleman gone bad, the black sheep of a respectable family, a broody, Byronic figure. A sort of sagebrush Hamlet. Very often he was the deadly rival of the equally erudite Doc Holliday, and in some versions it is Doc who finally kills him.
A selection of screen Ringos
His real name was Ringgold, according to legend, but he changed it so as not to bring shame on his family. He fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, riding with Quantrill at the sack of Lawrence, Kansas, and was related to the Youngers and the Daltons.
This is the Johnny Ringo of popular culture. But is there any foundation in fact to this anti-hero of the Wild West?
The real Ringo
There was a John Ringo. And his life was an interesting one, even if it bore no resemblance to the lurid stuff of pulp fiction. He did not ride with Quantrill at Lawrence (he was 14 then and already in California) and he was no blood relation to the Youngers, and therefore not the Daltons either – though his Aunt Augusta married Coleman Younger, a (non-criminal) uncle of the outlaws. His name really was Ringo – his family never called themselves anything else.
Much of his life, though, is in deep shadow. Ringo left no autobiography, like John Wesley Hardin, or letters to the papers, like Jesse James. He had no wife or children to pass stories on to. There are no buildings like the Lincoln County Courthouse whose bullet-holes commemorate Billy the Kid. No one knows for sure how he died. Until recently there was not even any authenticated photograph of Ringo.
There is, however, a good book, John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was by Jack Burrows (The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1987). For twenty years Mr. Burrows examined family documents (this wasn’t easy because family shame at the criminal career of John persisted), read newspapers of the time, journals and many other primary sources, as well as all the secondary ones, many of them, like Walter Noble Burns’s Tombstone, Billy Breakenridge’s Helldorado, or Triggernometry by Breakenridge’s disciple Eugene Cunningham, very dubious indeed, and he came up with the most real John Ringo possible. And he secured from the late Charles Ringo, a distant relative, an authentic photograph.
He doesn't look much like a lightning-fast gunslinger
The book is not coherent from a narrative point of view, key events of Ringo’s life being often tangentially referred to but especially hard to pin down. Still, it does have the smack of conscientious research.
The authority. The cover photo is hilariously bad, though.
Burrows tells us that John Peters Ringo was born in Indiana on May 3, 1850, the eldest of five children (two boys and three girls). The family, of Dutch origin, very possibly moved to Missouri and when John was 14 they set out West in a wagon train. John’s mother kept a journal, though it is skimpy and only mentions him a handful of times, referring to him variously as John, Johnny and Johnnie. On the way they survived Indian attacks, there was a murder, his father accidentally blew his own head off with a shotgun and his mother gave birth to a disfigured stillborn child, as a result of the tragedy, it was said, and John saw the deformed infant’s body. In theory John would have become the head of the family, though at 14 that would have been a challenge. It must certainly have been a traumatic trip. You can dabble in psychology if you want as a way of explaining Ringo’s later career.
Far from being a highly educated college graduate reading the classics in the original Latin and Greek, John Ringo did not finish grammar school. We know he was literate (he had letters from his sisters and once wrote to excuse himself from appearing in court). But that hardly constitutes a scholar.
Johnny Ringo goes bad
He stayed in San Jose, California for five years and it was there that he seems to have ‘gone bad’. Burrows was told that “John became quite a drunkard and left home at nineteen in 1869 [leaving] his family in the lurch.” He went to Texas, where there were other Ringos and where he became involved in “the Hoodoo War”, which described the vigilantism and night-riding that went on during the Mason County range war.
It was essentially conflict between the German-American community, which had had the temerity largely to support the Union during the Civil War, and the so-called ‘Americans’, white Texas supporters of the Confederacy. The animosity was exacerbated by rustling and other theft. The Germans appointed the apparently honest John Clark as sheriff and he was very effective but his posse turned into a lynch mob when it caught up with some rustlers; Clark was at least passive, if not actively involved. And a leading ‘American’, Tim Williamson, was arrested by Deputy John Wohrle (or Worley), who apparently led the man into the path of bushwhackers, one of whom, Peter Bader, killed him.
Murder most foul
It was the Williamson killing that brought the Scott Cooley gang, and with it John Ringo, into the Hoodoo War - though we do not know how or why Ringo fell in with Cooley. It was said that Cooley had been an Indian captive whose family had been massacred and the scarred boy, once recovered, had been raised by Williamson. Cooley now killed and scalped Wohrle, carrying the scalp around in his pocket afterwards.
It might be Ringo
Sheriff Clark then used a local gambler, Cheyney, to trick Cooley, luring some of his gang into an ambush. One of Cooley’s men was killed and another wounded. Ringo and man named Williams then found Cheyney, got invited for breakfast and while Cheyney was washing and his face was covered with a towel, they shot him dead. Ringo was indicted for the murder (there was no mention of Williams) but shortly after, Ringo and Cooley murdered another of the German party, Charley Bader, mistaking him for his brother Peter. Ringo and Cooley were jailed but their compadres busted them out. On November 7, 1876, Ringo and another Cooley gang member, George Gladden, were arrested by Texas Rangers. Gladden got 99 years but Ringo seems to have beaten the rap and high-tailed it for Arizona.
Did Ringo know Wes Hardin?
A Galveston newspaper reported that Ringo, 29, was in jail with John Wesley Hardin at some time before August 1877. Hardin reputedly complained about being locked up with anyone as vicious as John Ringo. One writer claims that John Ringo served briefly as a constable in Loyal Valley, Texas, in 1878, which seems remarkable if true. Maybe there was some justification for the TV Johnny Ringo after all!
Tombstone – Doc Holliday and the Earps
Ringo first appeared in Arizona Territory in 1879 with a certain Joseph Olney, alias Joe Hill, a friend from the Mason County War. In December 1879, a drunk Ringo shot unarmed Louis Hancock in a saloon in Safford, AZ, apparently when Hancock refused an offered drink of whiskey, stating that he preferred beer. Hancock survived his wound. This event was sensationalized by many of the lurid writers, who often set the shooting in Tombstone, had Hancock armed but Ringo ‘faster’, Hancock being killed, and so on. In reality it seems to have been a drunken and clumsy encounter.
Ringo was not at the famous gunfight on the vacant lot near the OK Corral in October 1881 (pace John Sturges) but he was certainly aligned with the so-called Cowboys and probably participated in robberies and possibly killings with them.
Ireland was Ringo for Sturges
On January 17, 1882, on Allen Street, Tombstone, Ringo and Doc Holliday traded threats and seemed to be headed into a gunfight. Both men were arrested by a town cop, James Flynn, and brought before a judge for carrying weapons within city limits. Once again, this event has been grossly inflated by the popular writers, notably Burns, Lake, Breakenridge and Cunningham, and taken up by the movies, such that it was a major showdown between Ringo and Doc with the Earp brothers – who were almost certainly not present. The plain facts about Ringo are so few and far between that it became necessary to embroider.
We do know that Judge William H. Stilwell followed up on charges outstanding against Ringo for a card-game robbery in Galeyville and Ringo was re-arrested and jailed on January 20 for the weekend, but no conviction followed.
Certainly the Earps were convinced that Ringo had taken part in the December 28, 1881 night-time ambush from hiding of Virgil Earp that crippled him for life, and that Ringo then participated in the March 18, 1882, murder of Morgan Earp while he was shooting pool in a Tombstone saloon. Wyatt Earp, then temporarily a deputy US marshal, killed Frank Stilwell in Tucson on March 20, 1882 and, after the shooting, led a federal posse on a vendetta to find and kill the others they held responsible for ambushing Virgil and Morgan. Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, a Democrat very much of the faction opposed to the Earps’ Republican law-and-order group and equally certainly pro-Cowboys, obtained warrants from a Tucson judge for arrest of the Earps and Holliday and deputized Ringo and 19 other men, many of them friends of Stilwell and the Cowboys. These deputies pursued but never found the Earps' posse, either through incompetence or because they chose no confrontation.
During the Earp vendetta ride, Wyatt killed one of Ringo's friends, ‘Curly Bill’ Brocius, in a gunfight at Iron Springs about 20 miles (32 km) from Tombstone but they did not find Ringo. Wyatt and Doc, worried about the county sheriff's warrants, left for Colorado. This dramatical deficiency was ‘remedied’ by movies which had Wyatt or Doc find and slay Ringo in revenge.
The death of Ringo
It’s pretty conclusive: on July 14, 1882, Ringo's body was found lying against the trunk of a tree in West Turkey Creek Valley in Arizona Territory. A neighbor heard a single gunshot on the afternoon of July 13 and discovered Ringo's body the following day. His feet were wrapped in strips of cloth torn from his undershirt, probably because his horse had bolted with his boots tied to the saddle - a method commonly used at that time to keep scorpions out of them. There was a bullet hole in Ringo’s right temple and an exit wound at the back of his head. His revolver had one round expended and was found hanging by one finger in his hand. His horse was found two miles away with his boots still tied to the saddle. A coroner, who was told that Ringo had often threatened to kill himself, officially ruled his death a suicide.
But these facts won’t do for the pulp writers or movie makers, nor for the gleeful conspiracy theorists. All sorts of theories abound as to who killed Johnny Ringo. It would be much neater if Wyatt Earp had returned to Arizona to finish the vendetta. According to the book I Married Wyatt Earp, which author and collector Glen Boyer claimed to have assembled from manuscripts written by Earp's third wife, Josephine Marcus Earp, Earp and Doc Holliday returned to Arizona in early July and found Ringo camped in West Turkey Creek Valley. As Ringo attempted to flee up the canyon, Earp shot him with a rifle. But Boyer refused to reveal his sources and his book has been discredited as a hoax.
In the movie Tombstone Doc did it. But The Pueblo Daily Chieftain reported that Holliday was seen in Salida, Colorado on July 7, and then in Leadville on July 18, and there was an active warrant out on him in Arizona. It would seem extremely improbable that he was in Turkey Creek Valley on July 13.
Then some say that Michael O’Rourke, known as Johnny Behind the Deuce, did it in gratitude to Wyatt for saving him from a lynch mob and because he had a grudge against Ringo. But he too had a warrant out on him.
A theory popular in the years immediately following Ringo's death named ‘Buckskin’ Frank Leslie as his killer. Leslie apparently did tell a guard at the Yuma prison, where he was serving time for killing his wife, that he had shot Ringo. While many believed his story, others thought he was simply claiming credit for it to curry favor with Earp's inner circle, or for whatever notoriety it might bring him.
Wyatt? Doc? Buckskin? Johnny Behind the Deuce?
Really, you can make up any theory you want. The probability remains largely that John Ringo died by his own hand.
His name lives on
Well, such are the probable facts of the life of John Peters Ringo. It doesn’t seem much of a foundation for the construction of the fabulous Johnny Ringo of legend. For example, where did all that ‘fastest gun in the West’ nonsense come from? That we know of, Ringo never had a one-on-one showdown gunfight in his life. And if he was aiming to shoot a man to death he did a mighty bad job of it by failing to kill the unarmed Louis Hancock who was standing right next to him in a saloon.
Still, Western myth is Western myth and without it we’d never have had all those lightning-fast celluloid Ringos with endless notches on their guns. The fastest gun in all the West/The quickest ever known!