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John Ringo: King of the Cowboys: His Life and Times from the Hoo Doo War to Tombstone, Second Edition

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Few names in the lore of western gunmen are as recognizable. Few lives of the most notorious are as little known. Romanticized and made legendary, John Ringo fought and killed for what he believed was right. As a teenager, Ringo was rushed into sudden adulthood when his father was killed tragically in the midst of the family's overland trek to California. As a young man he became embroiled in the blood feud turbulence of post-Reconstruction Texas. The Mason County “Hoo Doo” War in Texas began as a war over range rights, but it swiftly deteriorated into blood vengeance and spiraled out of control as the body count rose. In this charnel house Ringo gained a reputation as a dangerous gunfighter and man killer. He was proclaimed throughout the state as a daring leader, a desperate man, and a champion of the feud. Following incarceration for his role in the feud, Ringo was elected as a lawman in Mason County, the epicenter of the feud’s origin. The reputation he earned in Texas, further inflated by his willingness to shoot it out with Victorio’s raiders during a deadly confrontation in New Mexico, preceded him to Tombstone in territorial Arizona. Ringo became immersed in the area’s partisan politics and factionalized violence. A champion of the largely Democratic ranchers, Ringo would become known as a leader of one of these elements, the Cowboys. He ran at bloody, tragic odds with the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, finally being part of the posse that hounded these fugitives from Arizona. In the end, Ringo died mysteriously in the Arizona desert, his death welcomed by some, mourned by others, wrongly claimed by a few. Initially published in 1996, John Ringo has been updated to a second edition with much new information researched and uncovered by David Johnson and other Ringo researchers.

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Chapter 1. “A Hamlet among outlaws”

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CHAPTER

1

“A Hamlet among outlaws”

IN THE YEARS FOLLOWING HIS DEATH, John Ringo has fascinated readers. Ringo’s legend “began to slowly sprout and take root” only four days after his death.1 The seeds of that legend were sown in Texas’ bitter Hoo Doo War. At the time he was no different from dozens of other men engaged in the conflict, each with his own story. Yet unlike most of them, Ringo was destined to become a legend.

Walter Noble Burns can be credited with almost single-handedly popularizing John Ringo. From his pen emerged a tarnished knight errant who rode out of nowhere and died mysteriously. In 1927 Burns wrote, “John Ringo stalks through the stories of old Tombstone days like a Hamlet among outlaws, an introspective, tragic figure darkly handsome, splendidly brave, a man born for better things, who, having thrown his life recklessly away, drowned his memories in cards and drink and drifted without definite purpose or destination.”2 With that single, emotional sentence, Burns set the stage for the romantic myth of John Ringo.

 

Chapter 2. “passionate, domineering and dangerous”

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CHAPTER

2

“passionate, domineering and dangerous”

WAYNE COUNTY WAS IN A STATE OF FLUX during 1850. In addition to the anti-prejudice movements, there were temperance and women’s suffrage movements. The latter movement was first organized in Wayne County. Meeting at Dublin in 1851, a group of militant women formed the Women’s Rights Association, declaring “that unless women demand their rights politically, socially and financially, they will continue in the future as in the past, to be classed with negroes, criminals, insane persons, idiots and infants.”1

John Ringo was born in Clay Township in Wayne County, officially created in May 1831 on petition from Thomas Hatfield and others.2 The date of his birth and the precise name of Ringo’s birthplace proved troubling to his biographers, at least in part because both the place name and its spellings changed. One biographer refers to the town as Greenfork.3 Another states that Ringo was born in Green Fork on March 3, 1850, noting that the town had previously been known as Washington Village.4 Ringo researcher Allen Erwin also mistakenly gave the date of John’s birth as March 3, placing it at Greensfork.5 Still another Ringo biographer places Ringo’s birth at “Washington (Clay Township), Wayne County, Indiana.”6 Since it was first created in the early 1800s the town has had many names. Even today the name is routinely misspelled.

 

Chapter 3. “Ringo & Pryor”

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CHAPTER

3

“Ringo & Pryor”

THE RINGOS ARRIVED IN LIBERTY during September 1856. The Liberty Tribune reported, “THANKS—We are under obligations to Madison Miller, Chas. De Spada, Geo. W. Morris, and Martin Ringo, Esqrs, for late St. Louis and other eastern papers.”1 Here their daughter Fanny Fern was born on July 20, 1857.2

Given the numerous Ringo relations living in the region, the decision to relocate to Liberty was obvious. Among the first relatives they saw were Mary’s sister, Enfield, and her husband, Robert Miller. Miller founded the Liberty Tribune in 1846 and was a leading citizen in Liberty. They also saw Elizabeth Ringo, Samuel’s widow. Samuel had been part owner of the firm of Ringo, Wirt and Ringo, and Martin had worked for the firm during his previous stay in Missouri.

Ringo, Wirt and Ringo began as S. & A. H. Ringo and was founded by Samuel and Andrew Hodge Ringo, sons of Samuel H. Ringo and brothers of the Peter Ringo who was killed in Texas. Samuel, born April 22, 1798, near Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, came to Missouri in the early 1820s with his father. In 1824 he moved to Liberty where he married Elizabeth Ashby Wirt on April 6, 1826. He established a general store in Liberty and was on the first board of trustees along with John R. Peters when the town was incorporated in 1829.3 By 1850 he owned some $10,000 in property.4 Known for his “sterling integrity and consummate ability in business,” he had died July 1, 1854.5

 

Chapter 4. “I pray God we may get along safely”

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CHAPTER

4

“I pray God we may get along safely”

MOST WRITERS BEGIN JOHN RINGO’S LIFE during 1864 using Mary Ringo’s journal, kept during their trip to California. It was originally transcribed by Mattie Ringo in 1942. Only three months after she finished it, Mattie died, and another fourteen years passed before her children published a printed version of her transcript in limited edition.1 In 1989 the journal was first published commercially and made available for researchers.2

Unfortunately however, it has been used indiscriminately as “evidence” for predetermined agendas. Using the journal as his authority, one writer suggests the document indicates Mary was neither “given to thoughtful observations and effusions” nor prone to either introspection or analysis, adding that her “lack of grammatical skills leads to the conclusion that she lacked the skills necessary for clarification of her thoughts.”3 It is a harsh judgment, but is the journal alone, as printed by grandson Frank Cushing, adequate for this determination considering the circumstances under which it was written? Dr. William K. Hall had access to the diary in 1970. Hall insightfully writes, “I find the diary quite interesting although a bit laconic. But when you think back to the conditions under which it was written—the extreme hardships and the intense fatigue the poor woman must have suffered you are amazed she had the courage at the end of the day to write anything at all.”4

 

Chapter 5. “Mrs. Mary Ringo, Proprietress”

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CHAPTER

5

“Mrs. Mary Ringo, Proprietress”

THE FINAL ENTRY IN MARY’S JOURNAL ENTRY provides no hint of the tragedy that befell her, but Mattie added an explanation to the Journal : “In Austin she had a son born, fortunately it was still-born for he was horribly disfigured from seeing father after he was shot. Even my brother [John] who was fourteen years old noticed it and said he looked just like father did.”1 That loss and the subsequent weakness is undoubtedly why Mary abandoned her journal.

Mattie’s writing does not indicate a belief in “divine retribution or intervention” as one writer has advanced.2 When she transcribed Mary’s journal in 1942, Mattie relied on what others told her of the 1864 events when she was an infant. “I will have to finish as best I can from things she [Mary Ringo] told us at different times.”3 This reference indicates Mattie was rationalizing what she recalled. The statement indicates she used second-hand accounts, not that she interpreted them correctly. Quite likely the child did look like his father, a common comment even today. Mattie was two in 1864. In 1942 she was the last of the family. There was no one left to clarify her recollections nor any witnesses to the tragedy who could correct her notes. Further, she was writing for her immediate family, not public consumption.

 

Chapter 6. “The people he fell in with were fighters”

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CHAPTER

6

“The people he fell in with were fighters”

HOW LONG RINGO REMAINED in Missouri is unknown. One early myth, not confirmed by school records, has him attending William Jewell College.1 Yet primary sources indicate Ringo had a better than average education. Logically he must have found a means to study, albeit informally. One who may have assisted was Elizabeth Wirt Ringo. The inventory of her husband’s estate listed numerous books, including the Life of Henry Clay, Xenophon’s Anabasis, Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, Doniphan’s Expedition, three volumes of Oliver Cromwell’s letters and speeches, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress among others.2 It was a remarkable collection that could provide any intelligent and interested reader with the makings of a good education. People raised on the frontier, as most of John’s later associates were, likely assumed his education came from college.

 

Chapter 7. “back-shooting border scum and thieves”

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CHAPTER

7

“back-shooting border scum and thieves”

NEWSPAPERS HERALDED IT as the Mason County War or the Mason County Disturbances. Locally it was called the Hoo Doo War, and the troubles were never confined to Mason County. It was an ethnically divisive, brutal affair that began with two factions seeking range domination in Mason and Llano counties. Best known for the violence in Mason County during 1875 and 1876, it began earlier and lasted longer than the period of Ringo’s involvement, nearly thirty years.1 One historian concerned with Ringo’s role in the fighting correctly attributes that phase of the war to the murder of Tim Williamson.2 Williamson’s death and the subsequent killing of Moses Baird mark distinct turning points in the conflict. The first brought in Scott Cooley, the latter John Ringo.

Simplistic reasons have been given for the feud’s outbreak. One ascribes the feud’s origins to the Civil War and the animosities that grew out of it. Others blame ethnic animosities between the recent immigrants from Germany and those from other parts of the United States. Concerning John Ringo, a writer incorrectly states that Ringo joined the Scott Cooley “gang which operated with the Americans when it suited their purpose.”3 Another, referring to the Cooley faction, states organized outlaw gangs took “advantage of the German-American feud.”4 Elsewhere the author states that Ringo joined the Cooley gang, “a gaggle of back-shooting border scum and thieves,” and maintains that Cooley’s gang “intruded” into a range war that “became a complex and bloody three-way struggle” with the Cooley group preying on both sides.5

 

Chapter 8. “The mob has been operating some”

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CHAPTER

8

“The mob has been operating some”

THE YEAR 1875 began deceptively calm. Lieutenant Dan Roberts of Ranger Company D wrote his commander Major John B. Jones, “Nothing having transpired of much interest since my report of the 1st.”1 The year might have seemed equally uneventful for John Ringo despite the charges of disturbing the peace that he faced in Burnet. They were hardly serious, and Ringo was undoubtedly busy gathering cattle for the upcoming drives to Kansas.2

On February 12, 1875, once again Clark crossed a county line and arrested cattlemen where he had no authority. He arrested Elijah and Pete Baccus and eight others on Brady Creek in McCulloch County. Among those arrested were Abe Wiggins, Tom Turley, and Charley Johnson. All were charged with illegally driving a herd of cattle beyond the county line without having had them inspected, not with theft of cattle. Mindful of his blunder of the previous year when he drove the cattle across a county line without inspection, Clark committed a yet worse one, abandoning the herd without leaving anyone to preserve the integrity of the evidence. Clark lodged his prisoners in the Mason jail on February 13 to await a preliminary hearing.3 All of them made bond and were released. Four immediately left town. The rest remained and were promptly arrested a second time.

 

Chapter 9. “Hell has broke loose up here”

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CHAPTER

9

“Hell has broke loose up here”

IF EVER A MAN WAS BORN TO THE FEUD, it was Scott Cooley. Seemingly from nowhere Cooley looms so large on the Mason County scene that others shrink in comparison. His name became synonymous with terror.

William Scott Cooley was born in Izard County, Arkansas, to Matthias and Martha Whitney Cooley in 1855. By 1860 the family had settled in Jack County, Texas.1 The Cooley boys grew up tough, hard men. Indian raids were a way of life and newspapers regularly reported killings and thefts by the raiders. The Cooleys taught the raiders about fear. The February 10, 1872, Dallas Herald reports “On Saturday the 20th, three young men, Cooley by name, living on Picket’s ranche in White prairie, came upon four Indians, and killed two of the four, one of whom they scalped, while the other dead Indian was carried away by his companions.”2 Three months later the Cooleys again saw action. The Galveston Christian Advocate informed its readers, “We learn from the Texas exchanges that the Indians made a raid on Wise county, but the sheriff and the Cooly [sic] boys got after them and killed them all.”3

 

Chapter 10. “alias Long John”

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CHAPTER

10

“alias Long John”

ON SEPTEMBER 25, 1875, Ringo, Cooley, and six or eight others brazenly rode into Mason. Ringo and a man identified as Williams, probably Jim Williams, Bill Redding’s brother-in-law, split off from the main group.1 The pair rode to Jim Chaney’s home along Comanche Creek. Ringo and Williams hailed the house, and Chaney emerged, inviting them in for breakfast. “Chaney asked Ringoe and Williams down and they stepped upon the porch and washed their faces. Chaney washed and was drying his face and while he had his face covered with the towel, Ringoe and Williams shot him down and rode back to where their friends were awaiting them.”2

The men then rode to David Doole’s store and ordered him to come out. Doole refused and immediately grabbed his gun, shouting, “Either get down and come in or ride on.” The men went to Lace Bridges’ hotel where they met District Clerk Wilson Hey. Hey invited the men to have breakfast. Cooley answered, “You go inside and tell Mrs. Bridges there is some fresh meat up the creek.” The men ate breakfast at Bridges’ with their guns across their laps before leaving Mason.3

 

Chapter 11. “State of Texas vs. John Ringo”

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CHAPTER

11

“State of Texas vs. John Ringo”

WHILE RINGO DODGED TEXAS LAW, in California his family was living comfortably, at least financially. Mary was working as a dressmaker, and Fanny found employment as a milliner.1 Mary’s health was deteriorating, however, as tuberculosis racked her body. As the disease entered its final phases, Mary anticipated her death. On July 5, 1876, she finalized her will, bequeathing everything to her children. “I do hereby bequeath to my daughters Fanny F. Ringo, Mary E. Ringo & Mattie B. Ringo the homestead, together with the furniture to share & share alike, but with the understanding that the same shall not be sold, until Mattie B. Ringo my younger daughter shall have attained the age of twenty one years. My son John Ringo having been here to fore provided for I bequeath him the sum of one dollar.”2 That Mary could leave an estate does not indicate poverty as some authors suggest. Mary, supplemented by funds from John, was independent.

 

Chapter 12. “brave and fearless”

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CHAPTER

12

“brave and fearless”

“SO MUCH FOR HIS WORD being as good as his bond,” offers one writer concerning Ringo’s failure to appear for the disturbing the peace hearing in 1875.1 Perhaps. The reason Ringo missed the hearing on these minor charges is unknown. His actions following his release from jail on January 11, 1878, however, strongly support claims by his contemporaries that his word was good. He now faced murder charges, and Ringo had ample opportunity to flee Mason’s hostile environment before his next court date more than two weeks later. In late January George Gamel was arrested in connection with the Lampasas jail break.2 His father William could hardly be blamed had he surrendered Ringo’s bond. He did not.

As noted previously, at least one author claims that Ringo may have killed John R. Clark in 1878. The writer believed that if John R. Clark was sheriff in Mason it was “very likely that John Ringo killed him in January of 1878, just after Ringo’s release from jail, prior to his indictment being quashed.”3 John R. Clark died of food poisoning on January 10, 1878, however, the day before Ringo was released from jail.4

 

Chapter 13. “disrupting a young economy”

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CHAPTER

13

“disrupting a young economy”

IN CALIFORNIA, HIS SISTERS, unaware of John’s shooting of Louis Hancock, were involved in a different sort of activity. On December 11 Coleman Younger gave a dinner party for a number of his friends. “The Misses Ringo, nieces of the Colonel, and children of pioneers were there; also Miss Fox and Miss Mary White” among others. Mary Enna had reason to be merry, having graduated from the State Normal School of San Jose the previous May.1

Ringo arrived in Arizona in 1879 as Tombstone was being established. Destined to eclipse other mining camps, Tombstone was more like Virginia City than the cattle towns of Wichita or Dodge City. James C. Hancock recalled Tombstone as a “rich mining camp” with “first class restaurants.”

The Can-Can restaurant was named after a very popular dance performed at the Bird Cage by two or more couples in which the ladies were somewhat scantily clad. The Oriental saloon was not considered a very safe place if a man was known to have money on him. The Crystal Palace was the finest saloon in the camp, and the bar and fixtures were equal to any in San Francisco. . . . Nearly all traveling theatrical troops stopped over and put on their shows at the Bird Cage unless it was some high brow outfit and these generally showed at Scheifflein’s Hall. Tombstone had the air and personality of the old time mining camps of Nevada in the Comstock days where everybody had money and demanded the best.2

 

Chapter 14. “and a stray cat”

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CHAPTER

14

“and a stray cat”

RINGO WAS ALREADY FACING a charge of assault with intent to commit murder. The shooting in November was inexcusable. A March 11 entry in the docket books notes, “On motion of Hugh Farley, Esq., Dist. Atty. It was ordered that as Deft. Had failed to appear during this session of the Grand Jury that his Bond be, and this same is herby declared forfeited, and that a Bench Warrant be issued for the arrest of said Deft.”1

Ringo did have good cause for not appearing, however, and made a serious attempt to prevent the bond’s forfeiture. On March 3, 1880, he wrote to Sheriff Charles Shibbel from the San Simon Valley, New Mexico:

Dear Sir, being under Bond for my appearance before the Grand jury of Pima Co., I write to let you know why I can not appear—I got shot through the foot and it is impossible for me to travel for awhile[.] [I]f you get any papers for me, and will let me know, I will attend to them at once as I wish to live here. I do not wish to put you to any unnecessary trouble, nor do I wish to bring extra trouble on myself. Please let the Dist-Atty know why I do not appear, for I am very anxious that there is know [sic] forfeiture taken on the Bond.2

 

Chapter 15. “as well known as Satan himself”

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CHAPTER

15

“as well known as Satan himself”

THE YEAR 1880 CLOSED in a cloud of political scandal. Those who would influence John Ringo’s life had all arrived in what became Cochise County. Few would escape the heated controversy surrounding the history of the region. It is now that John Ringo emerges, at least in folklore, as a “crime lord.”1 This transformation is central to the controversy surrounding Wyatt Earp.

Writers dealing with this period (roughly from 1880 through 1882) generally oversimplify the situation, dividing the factions along party lines, Republicans versus Democrats. Despite the abundant contemporary accounts of Mexican bandits and Apache depredations, the so-called “Cowboy Curse” still dominates Tombstone and has all but obliterated those harsh realities from the historical record. Earp sympathizers cite the Republican Epitaph and a series of documents in the National Archives known as Record Group 60 as proof that the Cowboy Curse was real. More than one author has cited the journal of George W. Parsons, an early Tombstone diarist, John Clum, controversial editor of the Epitaph, Acting Governor John J. Gosper, and Clara Spalding Brown as unbiased witnesses while defaming, even criminalizing, those opposed to the Earps. Many contemporary writers suggest the existence of a gang of Cowboys (Anglo outlaws) ranging from 180 to 300 men.

 

Chapter 16. “John R. Godalmighty”

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CHAPTER

16

“John R. Godalmighty”

IF RINGO’S 1880 was largely unremarkable, others linked to him experienced an eventful year. Prior to arriving in Tombstone, Virgil Earp had obtained an appointment as a deputy US Marshal from Crawley P. Dake. Virgil was the only Earp with any official standing when the brothers reached Tombstone. That would change in time. In late July the Epitaph published a notice characterized as “a way to make some money.”1

Capt. J. H. Hurst, Twelfth Infantry, commanding Camp Rucker, is in town. Captain Hurst is following some horse thieves, and has given them a close hunt. He offers a good reward for the capture of the thieves. See his advertisement.2

The advertisement read:

REWARD!!

A reward of $25 will be paid for the arrest, trial and conviction of each of the thieves who stole six (6) Government mules from Camp John A. Rucker, A. T., on the night of July 21st, 1880.

 

Chapter 17. “a killer and professional cutthroat”

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CHAPTER

17

“a killer and professional cutthroat”

WITHIN DAYS OF LLOYD’S DEATH, a botched stage robbery proved pivotal in drawing John Ringo into what became the Earp-Clanton feud. On the evening of March 15, 1881, the Kinnear and Company stage left Drew’s Station for Contention. Driving the coach was Eli P. “Bud” Philpott (or Philpot), a native of Calistoga, California. Bob Paul, his contest for sheriff still unresolved, rode as shotgun guard. At a small incline two hundred yards from Drew’s, an armed man emerged on the east side of the road and shouted “Hold!” “At the same moment a number of men—believed to have been eight—made their appearance and a shot was fired from the same side of the road instantly followed by another. One of those shots struck ‘Budd’ [sic] Philpott, the driver, who fell heavily forward between the wheels carrying the reins with him. The horses immediately sprang into a dead run.”1 Paul opened up with his shotgun and the highwaymen returned fire. The horses ran nearly a mile before Bob Paul could bring them to a halt. Miner Peter Roerig, riding on top of the coach, was also killed.

 

Chapter 18. “armed with a Henry side”

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CHAPTER

18

“armed with a Henry side”

IN MANY RESPECTS TURNER’S MURDER in Sonora directly paralleled Tim Williamson’s death in Texas six years earlier. The similarities could not have escaped John Ringo. In the simplest sense, a “mob of foreigners” had killed ranchers over cattle, and if justice was to be done it would be up to the victims’ friends. That the “foreigners” were Mexican troops was irrelevant. During Ringo’s absence, events of import began unfolding in Arizona. On June 16, the Arizona Star heralded the beginning of the “policy of retaliation.”

PROBABLY A RAID.

From reliable sources we learned yesterday that a party of seventy cow-boys left Willcox for the purpose of making a raid on Fronteras, Sonora, near the border and about sixty miles from Willcox, their purpose being to avenge the death of the four parties who were killed three weeks ago in that neighborhood by the Mexicans. It has been known for some days that they were recruiting their force for the purpose of making this trip, and they openly avowed they would wipe out the town of Fronteras in revenge of the Americans killed. This intelligence was sent to the commanding general of the department, who at once notified Mr. Morales, the Mexican Consul at this place. He at once sent word to Fronteras, and to the troops’ station on the San Bernardino ranch, so that, ere the festive gang reaches the desired point, they will most probably have to measure bullet range with the Mexican Federal troops. Should they meet, there will be a warm fight. The cow-boys are reckless, daring fighters, good shots, ride good stock, and don’t place much value on life. The Mexicans will stand their ground, unless the quarters grow too close. We have no doubt, however, that ere this, the whole business has been determined, and should any damage be done to our Mexican neighbors, the United States cannot escape censure. This whole affair has been organized on American soil, and with an open and avowed purpose of murder, robbery and outlawry. We will await development of events.1

 

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