The Death of John Ringo
John Ringo (left) was in Tombstone on July 2, 1882. He appeared depressed and was drinking heavily. On July 8, he left Tombstone for the last time. Ringo was seen in Galeyville late in the night on July 9. He continued to drink heavily. By July 11, he had left the town. On July 14, 1882 ,the notorious John Ringo was found dead at a tree by teamster John Yoast. Yoast, who had known Ringo from Texas, immediately called for help. Soon several men arrived at the location. Ringo was found with his back leaning against a tree. In his right hand was clenched a .45 caliber Colt was clenched and he had a gunshot wound in his right temple. The bullet had exited out of the top of his head. 1 He was buried at the spot where he was found dead. The coroner's report commented that his death was "supposed" to have been by suicide.2 Others that had not seen the body thought he must have been murdered. There were some strange details concerning his death. He was found with his boots off, and strips of an undershirt were wrapped around his feet. The men that viewed the body concluded that he must have traveled a short distance in this footwear. They also noted that one of his cartridge belts was on upside down. There appeared to be a cut on his scalp with a small part of his hair gone. His horse was not at the scene, but it was found a couple weeks later, still saddled. The men who found his body wrote out the following details concerning his death:"There was found by the undersigned John Yoast the body of a man in a clump of Oak trees 20 yards north from the road leading to Morse's mill and about a quarter of a mile west of the house of B. F. Smith. The undersigned viewed the body and found it in a sitting posture, facing west, the head inclined to the right. There was a bullet hole in the right temple, the bullet coming out the top of the left side. There is apparently a part of the scalp gone including a small portion of the forehead and part of the hair, this looks as if cut by a knife. These are the only marks of violence visible to the body. Several of the undersigned identify the body as that of John Ringo, well known in Tombstone. He was dressed in light hat, blue shirt, vest, pants and drawers, on his feet were a pair of hose and undershirt torn up so as to protect his feet. He had evidentially traveled but a short distance in this footgear. His revolver he grasps in his right hand, his rifle rested against the tree close to him. He had on two cartridge belts. The belt for the revolver cartridges being buckled upside on down."3
The Main Points Of ControversyThe main points of controversy concerning Ringo's death have focused on the description of the items listed and not listed by the coroner's jury. The coroner's jury noted that Ringo's pistol contained 5 cartridges. Many people have speculated that this suggests that his pistol had not been fired. This theory is based on the fact that the men who wrote out the statement did not specifically state that one round had been fired. It was customary for only 5 cartridges to be loaded in a pistol during this period. This was done for safety because a pistol whose firing pin rested on a live round, could accidentally discharge if suddenly jarred. However, people were known to carry 6 cartridges in their pistols at times. Wyatt Earp in Wichita once had his pistol discharge when it fell from his belt and hit the floor. Also, Curly Bill Brocius' pistol contained 5 cartridges following his accidental shooting of Tombstone's first Town Marshal, Fred White. While perhaps it was customary to load only 5 cartridges in a pistol, men at times did load 6 rounds. Thus, the statement by the coroner's jury is consistent with the conclusion that Ringo's pistol had a spent round in it. In actuality, these men would have realized that Ringo could not have killed himself if no discharged rounds were in his pistol.
(1) The Cartridge Theory
Many people have speculated that because there was no mention of powder burns on Ringo's face and head that he could not have committed suicide. Henry Smith, the young son of one of the men who had seen the body, years later it is alleged claimed that he had not seen any powder burns on the body. However, Robert Boller - one of the men who found Ringo's body later wrote that "the body had turned black" by the time it was found.4 Boller's account was written decades later so caution must be used when using his comments, like any old-timer's account, but at least he was provably at the scene at the time. Thus, if Boller's comments are accurate it would probably have been impossible to see the powder burns on Ringo's face or to easily distinguish them because of the poor condition of the body. Ringo's body has been laying in the hot July sun for almost a day. Robert Boller years later wrote a letter to Frank King describing the scene of Ringo's death:
(2) The Powder Burn Theory"I showed him [Yoast] where the bullet had entered the tree on the left side. Blood and brains oozing from the wound and matted his hair. There was an empty shell in the six-shooter and the hammer was on that. I called it suicide fifty-two years ago, I am still calling it suicide. I guess I'm the last of the coroner's jury."5Boller's comments appear to refute both the cartridge and powder burn theories. Not only did Boller claim that there was an empty cartridge in the pistol, but he also claimed to have seen where the bullet had hit the tree after exiting Ringo's head.
At the time of his death, opinions were divided amongst people that had not seen the body on whether the notorious cowboy committed suicide or ,in reality, was murdered. Over the years several theories have evolved that claim that John Ringo was killed by one person or another. Most accounts are simply rumors based on hearsay, with someone reporting that they were told by someone "who knew."
Suicide or Murder?
At some point, people did believe that Frank Leslie may have killed John Ringo. Initially this may have been based on the rumor that he had been seen in the area looking for Ringo. For almost four decades Ringo's death was considered either a suicide or from being murdered by Frank Leslie while he was asleep at the tree. It appears that Leslie, indeed, was the first man to claim that he killed Ringo. While Leslie was in the Yuma prison for killing his wife, Frank King, then a guard at the prison, claimed that Leslie had told him that he had killed Ringo. At the time, Leslie's claim was not seriously believed by anyone. Some thought that Leslie had simply tried to take credit for the killing for whatever notoriety it might bring him. Another popular rumor with no basis in fact is the claim that Billy Claiborne came to Tombstone to revenge Ringo's death and was killed by Leslie in a gunfight. While Leslie did kill Claiborne in a gunfight in November 1882, newspaper accounts of the testimony following the killing show that the shooting was the result of a political argument.
Today, the most popular claim asserted by writers is that Wyatt Earp (left) killed John Ringo. However, unpublished accounts of Wyatt's claim did not surface until after the 1920s. According to Frank Lockwood's book "Pioneer Days in Arizona" (1932), Wyatt told him "in circumstantial detail how he killed John Ringo." Lockwood wrote that Earp told him that he had killed Ringo and Curly Bill when he left Arizona. However, Curly Bill, if he was killed by Earp, supposedly died on March 24, 1882, and John Ringo was found dead on July 14, 1882 - over three months apart. Some Wyatt Earp writers and historians dispute whether Lockwood had been told this by Wyatt Earp. Instead, insisting that Wyatt never made the Ringo kill claim. Wyatt Earp had denied that he had killed Ringo when he was interviewed by a reported in Denver in 1896. In the 1960s Earp researcher John Gilchriese, who at the time insisted that he was preparing a book on Wyatt Earp (the book was never released), told a reporter that he thought it was possible for Earp to have traveled from Colorado to Arizona, killing Ringo in about a six day time span. In other words, he thought it was "possible"- not that it did happen.6 More recently, Glenn Boyer introduced an account of Wyatt Earp killing Ringo that he claimed came from Josie Earp - Wyatt's wife - which more or less picks up where Gilchriese "possible" theory left off. Boyer's account is factually incorrect because it includes Doc Holliday and Fred Dodge as part of a group that killed Ringo. Dodge's own comments contradict the claim.
Another flaw in Boyer's account is that Doc Holliday was provably in a Colorado court on July 11, 1882.7 This was three days before Ringo's body was discovered. Clearly, since Holliday was in Colorado on July 11, he could not have been involved in Ringo's death. Some people in an effort to rehabilitate Boyer's claim have speculated that the charge against Holliday was either forged to provide him with an alibi, or that an attorney had appeared in the Dentist's behalf. Doc Holliday (below) had been arrested in May 1882 on the charge of Larceny. He was brought to Pueblo, Colorado. He posted a bond and was released. The newspapers at the time commented that Holliday was released on bail, pending the results of the Grand Jury. Thus, Holliday's bond was given to secure his release and probably to ensure his appearance before the Grand Jury. (If this was the case then Holliday would have fulfilled his commitment for the bond once he appeared before the Grand Jury). The Grand Jury met on July 10, 1882. On July 11, the Grand Jury found an indictment against Doc Holliday. The court issued a capias warrant for Holliday to be arrested and brought before the court to answer the indictment, and that a bond could be granted the defendant once he was arraigned. That same day court documents indicate that Holliday appeared in court "in his own proper person as well as by his attorney."9 He pled not guilty. Some people have claimed that the term "in his own proper person" could be interpreted that his attorney appeared for him on July 11, 1882. However, this is not a reasonable claim based on the known set of events.
Doc Holliday's Involvement
Holliday was indicted on July 11, 1882, and an arrest warrant was issued for him. A new theory has been made that the issuance of a capias warrant on July 11, shows that Holliday was not in Pueblo at the time. However, this was normal court procedure. Before the county sheriff could arrest Holliday on the indictment, an arrest warrant had to be issued telling him to take Holliday into custody to answer the charge against him.
The Arrest Warrant
Claims have been made that Holliday did not appear and that the term "in his own proper person, as well as by his attorney," simply means that his attorney appeared for him. However, this is also not a reasonable claim. First, a defendant generally is not arraigned until he is arrested and brought before the court. Following Holliday's indictment on July 11, 1882, no court date was scheduled because Holliday was no yet in custody. Therefore, there was no reason for Doc Holliday's attorney to appear in court on July 11, because Holliday was not scheduled to be there. He would only have to appear if he had been arrested by the county sheriff following a returned indictment and the issuance of an arrest warrant. Thus, there was absolutely no reason for Holliday's attorney to appear in court without him.
Could John Ringo simply have committed suicide? The scene of his death seemed to support this theory. Also, newspaper articles after his death indicated that he had been drinking heavily for two weeks and was depressed. At the time, many people had doubts that he was a man that would kill himself, while "an equally large number say that he frequently threatened to commit suicide, and that the event was expected at any time."10 We will never truly know how Ringo died. However, all the evidence points to suicide.
1. Tombstone Epitaph, July 18, 1882.
2. Coroner's Report for John Ringo, Cochise County Clerk's Office, Bisbee, Arizona.
3. Statement for Coroner, July 14, 1882, Cochise County Clerk's Office, Bisbee, Arizona. See also Tombstone Epitaph, July 18, 1882.
4. Letter for Robert Boller to Frank King, 1934. (King, 1935, pp. 179-181).
6. Arizona Daily Star, January 26, 1964. Reporter Bob Thomas got the information from Gilchriese.
In 1995, Gilchriese in a telephone conversation with this author, indicated that he only implied to Thomas that there was a block of time in which Earp could have returned to Arizona to kill Ringo - not that he did do it. Gilchriese insisted that he did not believe that Ringo died at Wyatt's hand.
7. Pueblo County Clerk's Office, Case against John Holliday #1850. Facsimile of indictment is reproduced in Ben Traywick's Doc Holliday, p. 188.
10. Tombstone Epitaph, July 18, 1882.
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Copyright 2001, Steve Gatto