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John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was

Jack Burrows (1987; rpt. 1996)


John Ringo

RINGO! A name like a bell: one for the literary imagination to fix to, to conjure with—mysterious, without definition or limitation or origin, theatrical, somehow not a real name, but a good one for an outlaw (or a title), a tocsin, even, evocative of such colloquial expressions as "ring-tailed terror." Consider its tonal quality against the flat abruptness of such illustrious contemporary names as Earp and Hickok which, together, sound like a hangover. Ringo is the sole title of stories, articles (including one of my own), chapters, and books. One cannot imagine anything titled simply, Earp. (3)

Almost as self-consciously heroic then, with its batch of aggressive place names, as it is today, Tombstone labored mightily—and successfully—to keep its "shoot 'em up" reputation alive and profitably green. And it is true that its list of sometime residents reads like a who's who in the Wild West: Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Luke Short, Charlie Storms, John Ringo, Curly Bill, the Clantons, Buckskin Frank Leslie, John Slaughter and the McLaurys, along with a half-hundred lesser lights, all of whom were probably just as handy with the six-gun as their better known brethren. (14-15)

If one might seek analogy in nature, Tombstone was like a tankful of barracudas into which was dumped a bucketful of piranhas; around and about all these swam a jellyfish, charged with keeping the peace. (23) [The jellyfish, of course, being sheriff of Cochise County, John Behan]

"Hooker," Breakenridge wrote, "who had suffered severely from the rustlers taking his cattle, was friendly with the Earps, and when Behan came with a posse composed mostly of rustlers and cowboys, with John Ringo and Phin and Ike Clanton among them, he would give him no help or information."
Breakenridge, as usual, tells only part of the story. The Epitaph reported the event in detail: Behan accused Hooker of "upholding murderers and outlaws," whereupon Hooker exploded, "No sir, I am not. I know the Earps and I know you and I know they have always treated me like gentlemen; damn such laws and damn you, and damn your posse; they are a set of horse thieves and outlaws." Abruptly the situation was dangerous. "Damn the son of a bitch," an unidentified posseman said. "Let's make him tell." One of Hooker's men then pointed his Winchester at the posseman. "You can't come into a gentleman's yard and call him a son of a bitch! Now you skin it back! If you're looking for a fight . . . you can get it before you find the Earps; you can get it right here." The rustler must have complied, because there was no shooting. Hooker fed the posse (when Behan and Under-Sheriff Woods attempted verbally to disassociate themselves from the rest of the posse, Hooker pointedly seated them separately), but he told them nothing.
Behan and his posse rode on to Camp Grant, where the sheriff hoped to recruit Apache scouts and set them on Earp's trail. In the course of his negotiations for the scouts with the camp's Col. Bidwell (or Biddle), Behan rather bitterly complained that Henry Hooker had said that he did not know where the Earp party was and would not tell if he did. Bidwell, as the Epitaph reported it, stroked "his beard with his left hand, looked straight at the sheriff and said, 'Hooker said he didn't know and would not tell you if he did? Hooker said that, did he? Well if he did you can't get any scouts here'." (41)

In my search for the real John Ringo, no believable pattern emerged. Behind the protean masks of gunfighter, educator, rustler, student, psychopath, and the man "whose word was good as his bond" lurked, I suspected, something or someone of considerably less heroic proportions, perhaps even a tragic or pathetic figure, a vulnerable sufferer, or perhaps merely a homicidal drunk and thief. Intrigued, baffled in my researches and labors, I became the exegete, the seeker after isolated facts, the leisurely pursuer of stray and often absurd detail, the collector and recorder of unblushing superlatives and absurdities, the witness to astonishing liberties taken with people and with the history of the West. (46)

One wearies of quoting [Walter Noble] Burns. Yet next to Breakenridge, and certainly on a par with [Stuart] Lake, Burns has kept the Tombstone story alive. I remain convinced that he spawned the Ringo legend. I had never heard of John Ringo before reading Tombstone, and I doubt that I should have become enchanted with the rustler had I been obliged to take inspiration solely from Breakenridge's "blunt, unadorned" prose. I was, admittedly, seduced by such passages as the one that commences on page 261 of Burns's tale of Ringo's death, "John Ringo Cashes In": "John Ringo was drunk. For ten days he had been morosely, broodingly, tragically drunk. As straight as an Indian, he stalked about Tombstone streets, a tall, silent, sombre figure, looking a little more like Hamlet than ever, his hollow black eyes clouded and melancholy." Alongside John Ringo, Curly Bill seems merely another hoarsevoiced, border tough of Western stereotyping, while Wyatt Earp—even with his "lion's brool"—is just one of "three blond brothers." (48-9)

When John Ringo died, on July 14, 1882, the newspapers were unexpectedly kind, considering the fact that he was a well-known rustler and gunman. The report in the Tucson Star made it obvious that he had commanded respect, for all his quixotic, antisocial behavior:
"John Ringgold, one of the best known men in southeastern Arizona, was found dead in Morse's Canyon, in the Chiricahua Mountains, last Friday. He evidently committed suicide. He was known in this section as 'King of the Cowboys,' and was fearless in the extreme. He had many staunch friends and bitter enemies. The pistol, with one chamber emptied, was found in his clenched fist. [He] shot himself in the head, [the] bullet entering the right side, between eye and ear, and coming out on top of the head. Some members of his family reside at San Jose, California."
The Epitaph account treated Ringo's passing as though Tombstone and Cochise County had lost a model citizen:
". . . few men in Cochise County or southern Arizona were better known. He was recognized by friends and foes as a recklessly brave man, one who would go any distance, or undergo any hardship to serve a friend or punish an enemy. While undoubtedly reckless, he was far from being a desperado, and we know of no murder being laid to his charge. Friends and foes are unanimous in the opinion that he was a quietly honorable man in all his dealings, and that his word was as good as his bond. Many people who were intimately acquainted with him in life have serious doubts that he took his own life, while an equally large number say he frequently threatened to commit suicide, and the event was expected at any time. The circumstances of the case hardly leave any room for doubt as to his self-destruction.
He was subject to frequent fits of melancholy and had an abnormal fear of being killed. Two weeks ago last Sunday in conversing with the writer, he said he was as certain of being killed, as he was of living then. He said he might run along for a couple of years more, and may not last two days."
This brief article by an unknown reporter (the Epitaph, unfortunately, did not byline its reporters) is one of the most important pieces ever written about John Ringo. First, it embodies in him and emphasizes those virtues so traditionally valued in the Old West: trust, honor, loyalty, and courage. It is easy to see this bit of subjective reportage as father to unnumbered hero-worshiping articles, stories, and books about John Ringo. Second, it appears to reaffirm the acute melancholia of a man who presumably had irretrievably squandered the good life, the "scion," the gloomy and prescient academic. But one also detects a certain self-pity, and it is a bit difficult to reconcile "reckless courage" with an "abnormal fear of being killed." Third, it really offers nothing more than the assertion of "reckless courage" to those who believe—or want to believe—Ringo to be a deadly gunfighter. There are no examples of such courage. There is no murder (or presumably any killings) "laid to his charge"—not even Louis Hancock.
The most puzzling aspect of the article is the inexplicable declaration that Ringo was "far from being a desperado." Just what would one call a gunman, rustler chief, and probable killer of Mexicans who tried to provoke a gunfight in the streets of Tombstone with Doc Holliday or with Wyatt Earp, the deputy U.S. marshal, and who reputedly was so periodically vicious that even his own kind withdrew from him? (78-80)

The careful student of that era will note that Doc Holliday is far more often maligned and denounced as a psychopathic killer than is John Ringo. Yet Holliday is known to have fought in the open, known to have been loyal to friends, and known to have had some education; in addition, he was never a proven outlaw or even much of killer, as far as the record goes. Our preoccupation with this "tragic hero" aspect in the writings about Ringo tells us more about ourselves than the writings tell us about the outlaw and probable killer himself.
But one does not make a book of such stuff, or even a decent article. Nor can one fashion a book around anecdotes—most particularly when even those are in short supply and probably ninety percent spurious at that. Frustration, though, and all that time spent in research impelled me to a continued quest for a theme. Why, I kept asking myself, aside from his near fight with Doc Holliday (and perhaps with Wyatt Earp), have we even heard of John Ringo? We know he was involved in the Hoodoo War in Texas (see Chapter 8), during which he was probably involved in two treacherous, not to say cowardly, killings; but here one detects no vestige of Burns's Hamlet or of Breakenridge's honorable outlaw, gentleman, and college graduate, whose guns the deputy returned after the near shoot-out with Doc Holliday.
Sketchy as it is, I concluded that the Texas story is probably the correct one—i.e., John Ringo was a treacherous, back-shooting murderer and thief, whose perverted sense of honor doubtless was refracted through the minds first of men who both admired and feared him and then of later writers who, consciously or subconsciously, sought to create a near perfect hero-type, one flawed only by personal trauma. But John Ringo blazed no trails, raised no ranch from desert or plain, ramrodded no big outfit; the only cattle he drove were stolen. The question returned: why is John Ringo even considered among the great figures of the Old West? The West was full of men just like him. Eugene Cunningham, at a loss for a tangible record beyond Breakenridge, wrote me that the answer was probably the mystery of the man—not what he had done, but what he might have done. History, however, judges men and women by what they have done, and not all documented figures are famous. "Mysterious" Dave Mather, example, was mysterious—a dangerous gunman, sometime lawman, reputedly educated and descended from the Puritan theologians Increase and Cotten Mather—yet he is hardly a footnote to western history or legend.
I do not recall when it occurred to me that Ringo's immortality probably lies in the tonal quality of his name, but I was much excited by the idea. I decided to write an article in which I would concentrate on the tonality and the literary and cinematic adaptability of the name Ringo, and to see what, if anything, would happen.
In the article, published in The American West, I wrote: "One suspects that Ringo's immortality lies in the tonal quality of his name, [which] . . . is eloquent of outlawry, dark, mysterious. It has the ring of heroism, a name without origin or identification. . . . Ringo is a name that lends itself well to book titles, articles, songs, theatre marquees." I cited Dixon Wecter's pithy essay on Paul Revere in The Hero In America, in which he points out that Revere's "nationwide fame [is owed] solely to [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow. Prior to Longfellow's poem ["Paul Revere's Ride," published in Tales of a Wayside Inn, 1863], Revere's name was not included in a single dictionary of American biography." Longfellow was inspired to write "Paul Revere's Ride" after a visit to the old North Church, and he was obviously not one to let history interfere with his vital rhyme-scheme. The historical Revere was captured by the British and his "fellow courier," William Dawes, carried the news of the British approach to Concord. "Revere," Wecter wrote, "was a name which had the ring of heroism." Not unreasonably or unesthetically, if somewhat unethically, Longfellow must have concluded that not much could be done with
Listen my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Bill Dawes.

The unfortunate Dawes, as Wecter writes, galloped from Concord on "into oblivion." In her poem "What's in a Name?", Helen F. Moore imagines a posthumous discussion with the deserving Dawes, during which it seems to have been suggested that he ask why he was lost to history, and to which Dawes replies,
"Why should I ask? The reason is clear
My name was Dawes and his Revere."

Even the rather prosaic title of this book is enlivened by the magic of the name—Ringo.
When I wrote the article on Ringo, I was concerned with more than just the tonal quality of the name: I hoped to smoke out someone with more information. I had heard rumors and I nursed visions of someone sitting on a bundle of raw material, poised to ship it to just the right writer, who, naturally, would be myself. I even slipped a subtle hint into the article at the end of the discussion of Ringo's death. "It makes little difference who killed Ringo," I observed, "or if he killed himself. If new material turns up we shall be grateful for someone's scholarly serendipity." This time, my vision materialized. (91)

"If the character of the West was spectacular, romantic and lawless, its reputation for being so outran the facts." — Walter Prescott Webb (93)

Ironically, the Ringos and Cushing had helped to create those "fantastic tales" about John Ringo. Had they permitted the facts to come out, indeed, had they corrected the myths that appeared in print, it is likely we should never have heard very much of John Ringo. What they labored to conceal, the writers, intrigued, made up tenfold. (99)

June 29—Wednesday
"`I walked with Mr. Ringo down to the river [possibly the Platte?], the water does look so swift, they are crossing wagons quite fast. Several Indians came to camp this morning, one of them had a saber, we asked him where he got it, he said he killed a soldier and took it. I have cut myself a dress and am going to try and make it this week.' [Transition from killing to dress-making posed no problem for Mary Ringo!]" (110-11)

An eyewitness account of Martin Ringo's death carried in the Liberty [Missouri] Tribune reveals it to have been an especially horrible one for the family. The account, from "W---Davidson" addressed to "Mr. R. H. Will-----," reads as follows:
"Just after daylight on the morning of the 30th July Mr. Ringo stepped out . . . of the wagons as, I suppose, for the purpose of looking around to see if Indians were in sight and his shotgun went off accidentally in his own hands, the load entering at his right eye and coming out at the top of his head. At the report of his gun I saw his hat blown up 20 feet in the air and his brains were scattered in all directions. I never saw a more heartrending sight, and to see the distress and agony of his wife and children was painful in the extreme. Mr. Ringo's death cast a gloom over the whole company. . . ."
Martin Ringo's death was the more horrible because it was accidental, unexpected. Had he been killed in an Indian attack while defending the train and his family his death could at least have been put in perspective. He would have fulfilled the function of husband, father, and protector.
So profound was Mary's grief that one hesitates, even at the distance of more than a century, to intrude questions, but one wonders how John responded to the death of his father. Did he assume, or was he forced to assume, leadership as head of the family? Did Martin's death by his own gun reflect a clumsiness that fourteen-year-old John, in his anguish, resented, and which led to his own storied "dexterity" with pistol and rifle? (113-14)

There is no apparent record of the length of Ringo's sentence. Sonnichsen believes he beat the rap and hightailed it for Arizona. He was, however, in the Travis County, Texas, jail in 1877, along with the gunman John Wesley Hardin and a number of well-known outlaws, where he seems to have been considered as desperate and as dangerous as the famous Hardin himself, who reputedly and incongruously complained about being cast into the lock-up with the likes of anyone as mean and vicious as John Ringo. (135)

We shall probably never know for sure what, or who, or perhaps what combination of events drew John Ringo into the Hoodoo War. Certainly it was nothing so noble as the avenging of a slain younger brother, nor was it anything so respectable as a legitimate stake in a range war. He was not fighting against a fenced-off water hole or barbed wire strung across open range. He was simply one of those "human coyotes," a willing and ruthless follower of the psychotic Scott Cooley who, incidentally, carried Deputy Wohrle's scalp around in his pocket. (135-6)

Sometime during the 1930s Enna Ringo and Frank Cushing visited Tombstone and made discreet inquiries of the sheriff of Cochise County about John Ringo's time in Tombstone. The sheriff's knowledge, of course, like that of his contemporaries, was generally limited to Burns's Tombstone and Breakenridge's Helldorado, with an occasional old-timer tale probably tossed in. The writings of Burns and Breakenridge, as we have seen, were highly flattering to John Ringo. If sister and nephew took any sort of comfort from what the sheriff had to tell them, it was not manifested in their later behavior. They persisted with righteous fervor in their efforts to proscribe John, and continued to do so for more than half a century after his death. He might have been Hamlet to Burns; to Enna and her sisters he was a cow-country Caliban, a chimerical manifestation who threatened to girdle the family tree. The sisters' obsession with disgrace tells us more about them, perhaps, than it does about John Ringo. They appear humorless and lacking in the introspective powers that might have taken fourteen-year-old John's wagon train experiences and vulnerability into consideration; and for people with a strong religious background (Methodist), they were sternly unforgiving. Most families, after nearly three-quarters of a century, would be intrigued, even amused, by a family rogue, especially if he were a cowboy rogue, a genuine western outlaw, unless, of course, he chanced to be a mass murderer (such as Quantrill or Colonel John Chivington) or had committed some particularly hideous crime. John Ringo was merely a relatively unknown and shadowy western outlaw with an equally unknown record. The sisters had conjured an apparition, then worked ceaselessly to exorcise it. (138-9)

Walter Noble Burns: [Here Breakenridge rides towards Tombstone with Ringo. Ringo reads and re-reads a letter.] "He shook his head sadly as he held out the envelope to Breakenridge. 'Seems strange' he said, 'for a tough, no good fellow like me to get a letter like this.' 'Sweetheart?' queried Breakenridge, noting the superscription was in a woman's hand. 'My sister,' said Ringo solemnly. 'She writes to me regularly. Thinks I'm in the cattle business out here and doing fine. Doing fine. Humph! Dear little sister, I hope she never learns the truth.'''
One can imagine Enna Ringo, who doubtless read Burns's Tombstone, echoing at least one word of this little bit of contrived and mythic dialogue: "Humph!" And that persistent feminine theme, those famous "sprees" and days of despondency (which suggested at least a transcendent and mutual family love and which were triggered by letters from home in that "graceful, feminine hand") and often expressed further through an undocumented defense of womanhood in general, become, instead, palpable and brutal rejection at the hearth. One's vision of aristocratic, loving, and hoop-skirted sisters gliding about the old plantation or manor house, anxiously awaiting the prodigal's return, fades into an angry and sanctimonious spinster "school marm" and her sisters, who seem to have been driven by the very same furies for which their outlaw brother is celebrated. And with far less cause. (146-7)

Just back of the Sanders ranch house, in an umbrageous creek border of blackjack and live oak, stands a five-stemmed black jack oak whose massive, canescent trunks ratoon from a single root, forming a protected semicircle around a deep, flat, interior bole. John Ringo's body was found cradled in the bole, his head flung to the right, his .45 gripped in his right hand. He was shot through the right temple. To add to the mystery, he appeared to have been partially scalped. John Ringo was buried behind this tree. And his grave site, like his name, is eloquent of outlawry—a bouldered cairn in the heart of Apacheria, hard by the banks of historic Turkey Creek and beside the Barfoot Trail, the old outlaw trail, facing west to the Dragoons and shadowed under the loom of the Chiricahuas. (148-9)

If Josie [Earp]'s story has the ring of truth to it—and certainly it is at least as logical as John Gilchriese's version—possibly it is because that is the way Wyatt told it to her, at least in part. If she made the story up—and I believe her to have done just that—she was, indeed, an artful liar. (178) [Not Josie but, as Burrows would later find out, Glenn Boyer]

John Ringo's image was created for him by the inaccuracies of innumerable writers, and I believe that he remains a western figure largely because of the mellifluous tonal quality of his name. (202)

And as I looked from the boulder-heaped grave to the waiting, five-armed blackjack, out to the dust-deviled Sulphur Springs Valley, and back up to the darkly shadowed Chiricahuas, the dominant feeling was that all external things here, along with a pervasive spirit of place, were embodied and unified in the name:
A name of its place and time and calling.
A name that rings like a bell. (203)

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