The cold-blooded murder of an unarmed man on Oct. 1, 1875, was Johnny Ringo’s contribution to a Texas feud and the only confirmed kill of his mostly make-believe career.
John Peters Ringo was 19 year old, when he left his home in California for Texas. During the “Hoodoo War” that turned Mason County into a battleground in 1875, he threw in with the faction led by Scott Cooley. To prove himself, he volunteered to avenge an ambush killing by gambler James Cheyney.
When Ringo and a Cooley crony showed up at his place, Cheyney invited the strangers to breakfast. They followed him onto the porch to wash up for the meal. Ringo waited until his host’s face was buried in a towel and blew him to kingdom come.
Two months later, Ringo and Cooley were arrested on unrelated charges in Burnet, where Ringo had been fined $75 for shooting up the town square the previous Christmas. Transferred for safekeeping to Lampasas, they were busted out of the supposedly more secure jail by a dozen supporters in the spring of 1876.
Cooley died of natural causes before he could be recaptured, but the law caught up with Ringo five months after the escape. He spent more than a year behind bars awaiting trial for the Cheyney murder only to be set free, when the case was dismissed in May 1878.
If Johnny Ringo had stayed in Texas or gone someplace other than Arizona, no one today would remember his name. Instead, he wound up in Tombstone and became a legend. Although he hung out with the Clanton crowd and hated Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Ringo was not in town on Oct. 26, 1881. But it took serious historians nearly a half century to figure out he had no part in the Gunfight at the OK Corral.
There was, however, more truth to his famous spat with a deadly dentist from Georgia. Long after the two men in her life were dead and gone, Katherine “Big Nose Kate” Elder still carried a torch for the suitor that made Doc Holliday see red.
“Ringo was a fine man any way you look(ed) at him,” Kate reminisced in her old age. “He was what might be called an attractive man. And he was noble, for he never fought anyone except face to face. Every time I think of him, my eyes fill with tears.”
So clearly Holliday had good reason to be jealous of Ringo. Their romantic rivalry combined with Doc’s odd devotion to the Earps must have lit his short fuse.
But the closest Holliday came to putting a bullet in Ringo was a Tombstone confrontation three months after the OK Corral. The chief of police intervened just in the nick of time and hauled them both off to jail for violating the ban on firearms.
Six months later in July 1882, Ringo was found dead under circumstances which are debated to this day. Holliday took pleasure in the accusing fingers pointed in his direction but had nothing to do with his archenemy’s demise because he was in Colorado at the time.
The cause of all the confusion and controversy were the conflicting accounts. Some insisted Ringo was shot between the eyes, while others swore they saw a bullet wound plain as day in the back of his head. A third version, accepted as the official cause of death, had Ringo taking his own life with a single shot to the right temple.
The fertile imagination of a western writer transformed a forgettable nobody into a legend with perpetual appeal. In “Tombstone, An Illiad of the Southwest,” Walter Noble Burns wrote: “John Ringo stalks through the stories of Tombstone like a Hamlet among outlaws, an introspective, tragic figure, darkly handsome, a man born for better things...an honorable outlaw (to whom) womanhood was an icon before which he bowed in reverence.”
Ringo would not have recognized himself in that fanciful prose nor would anyone who had known him. Later authors took similar liberties in a steady stream of magazine articles and books, painting their own pictures on Burns’ canvas.
Then along came movies, television and even a song. As “Jimmy” Ringo in “The Gunfighter” (1950), Gregory Peck was an intelligent loner looking for a way out of his dead-end life. John Ireland’s Ringo spent his time chasing “Big Nose Kate” and taunting Kirk Douglas’ Holliday in “Gunfight at the OK Corral” (1957). In “Tombstone” (1993) Doc (Val Kilmer) and a certifiable Ringo (Michael Beihn) traded insults in Latin.
While the big-screen Ringo was usually based in part on fact, television peddled pure fantasy. Here is the plot summary for the 1959 series “Johnny Ringo” starring Don Durant: “The ex-gunfighter is now the sheriff of a small western town and attempts to keep the peace with the aid of his deputy.”
Last and maybe least was the talking ballad by Lorne Greene of “Bonanza” fame. “Ringo” climbed to No. 1 on the pop-music chart in 1964.
Thirteen years after the 1987 publication of his book “The Gunfighter Who Never Was,” author Jack Burrows summed up Johnny Ringo as “a shadowy hanger-on with a gaggle of skulking Texas bushwhackers.” He may have hit the nail on the head, but the problem is the truth is often not nearly as interesting as fiction.