John Peters Ringo — famously known as Johnny Ringo and dubbed Tombstone’s deadliest gunfighter — first turned up in Arizona at a bar in Safford in 1878, where he offered a whiskey to a man seated next to him.
The unarmed man declined and said he preferred beer. Ringo then drew his pistol and fired, nicking the man’s ear. When the case came before a grand jury, Ringo did not appear.
He wrote Pima County Sheriff Charles Shibell a note to explain his
absence: “I write this letter to let you know why I can not appear — I got shot through the foot and it is impossible for me to travel for a while. If 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…”
Apparently, the case was resolved because in 1880, Ringo became a delegate to the Pima County Democratic Convention and served as an election official in San Simon, located in southern Arizona near the border with New Mexico.
In early 1881, he was in Tombstone, befriended by the Clantons. He probably avoided the gunfight at the OK Corral in October of that year only because he was visiting his sisters in California.
On Dec. 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was severely wounded by unknown assailants, and Wyatt Earp claimed that Ringo was one of the men responsible. Rumors also circulated that Ringo had been involved in a recent stage robbery.
On Jan. 17, 1882, Ringo got into a shouting match with Doc Holliday and Wyatt on the street in Tombstone. Constable James Flynn stopped the fight and brought the men to police court. Holliday and Ringo each were fined $30. Wyatt was discharged.
A month later, Morgan Earp was killed while playing pool in Campbell and Hatch’s billiard hall.
The Earps began a vendetta against anyone they suspected of being involved in Morgan’s assassination. Ringo was deputized by Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, perhaps in an effort to protect Ringo from the Earps by making him a peace officer.
Within weeks, most of Ringo’s friends were either dead or had been chased out of the area, and although he continued to deny any involvement in the death of Morgan, Ringo felt it expedient to go to California until things cooled down.
In mid-April, the Earps left for Colorado, and by July Ringo was back in Tombstone. After a day of heavy drinking with friends near Antelope Springs, Ringo headed toward Sulphur Springs for more whiskey. He was seen in Galeyville on July 9.
On July 14, 1882, Ringo’s lifeless body was found seated at the base of a large tree. There was a bullet hole in the left side of his head, his boots were missing, his coat had been torn and strips of his shirt had been used to bind his feet. His rifle rested against the tree close to him. In his right hand was a Colt .45 with only one spent shell. Ringo’s horse was later found roaming the canyon area with his boots tied across the saddle.
The Tombstone Epitaph wrote, “Many friends will mourn him. And many others will take secret delight in learning of his death.”
A coroner’s jury ruled Ringo’s death a suicide, but many believed Wyatt had returned to Arizona and killed Ringo, a theory corroborated many years later by Wyatt’s wife Josephine. She wrote in her memoirs that her husband and Holliday were responsible for Ringo’s death.
Ringo is buried near West Turkey Creek, near where his body was found.
The location is on private property off Highway 181 in southeastern Arizona. His grave can be visited, but only with permission from the landowner.
— Jane Eppinga.