A Gunslinger’s Tale: Johnny Ringo

A historic photo of a man from the 1880s

And now Oh God comes the saddest record of my life for this day my husband accidentally shot himself and was buried by the wayside and oh, my heart is breaking…

The fatal accident of July 30, 1864, near present-day Glenrock, Wyoming, left William Ringo’s family fatherless on the California Trail, some thousand miles from their destination. His widow, Mary, who recorded her grief in her trail journal, would have to manage alone for her five children, ages 2 to 14. The oldest, Johnny, was traumatized from witnessing his father’s gruesome death.

Johnny, Johnny Ringo.That Johnny Ringo.

Already, at 14, young Johnny (it is told) was a crack shot with pistol and rifle. He would hone his skills with firearms, perhaps to ensure he would never make his father’s clumsy mistake, and become a lesser-known gunslinger of the Old West.

Not much is known of his life after the Ringo family reached California, until 1875. Then, at age 25, Johnny showed up in Texas and got himself charged for shooting a man in a range feud and threatening a pair of lawmen. By hook or by crook, he squirmed out of that trouble but soon found or caused more in Tombstone, Arizona, in New Mexico, and once again in Texas. People who knew him in those years described Johnny as a moody, hard-drinking loner and a reciter of Shakespeare, which fed the doubtful rumor that Ringo was college educated. More likely, he was just a desperado who liked to read.

1879 found Johnny back in Tombstone, where, his legend says, he shot down a man for refusing to drink with him. There he also tangled with the famous Earp brothers, Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan, and the sociopathic killer Doc Holliday. In an iconic scene from the 1993 movie Tombstone, Johnny Ringo (played by Michael Biehn) spins his flashing six-shooter while staring down an unimpressed Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer). Holliday, in mockery, spins and tosses his tin cup in a like manner. That confrontation was strictly Hollywood, but it’s a fact that the two actual gunfighters were willing and wanting to shoot each other. They might have gotten their chance at the 1881 showdown at O.K. Corral, but Johnny happened to be out of town that day.

In spring of 1882, Johnny Ringo was deep in his cups, drinking more than usual, and talking about a sense of impending death. On July 14, his body was found slumped against the base of an oak in Turkey Creek Canyon, outside of Tombstone, with a gunshot wound to the head. A man living nearby reported hearing a single gunshot from that area the previous day. The official verdict was suicide, although Wyatt Earp later claimed to have done the deed. Some think some other shady character may have put an end to Ringo—he had plenty of enemies—while others, including the scriptwriters for Tombstone, imagine Doc was the killer. “I’m your huckleberry,” Holliday tells a wild-eyed Johnny Ringo in another famous scene, just before the two men begin circling like curs, hands poised above their shooting irons.

Johnny Ringo, 1850-1882. Had a boy not witnessed the violent death of his father on the California Trail, how might his life have unfolded?

Image: Studio photo, ca. 1880, of John Peters Ringo.

California National Historic Trail

Last updated: April 20, 2021