At about three o’clock PM on Thursday, 13 July, 1882 a single bullet shot was heard in the area of Sander’s Ranch along West Turkey Creek, Arizona Territory. Approximately twenty-four hours later, a wood hauler named John Yoast (or Yost) was driving his wagon team by what appeared to be a man sleeping in the crook of a large tree. He noticed his dog sniffing oddly about the face of the man. Sensing something was wrong, Mr. Yoast stopped his team and went to investigate. John Yoast found a lifeless body. He immediately recognized the dead man as John Ringo (a.k.a. John Ringgold).
Ringo was sitting on a large rock in the clump of tree trunk, wearing a blue shirt and vest, facing west with his head inclined to the right. The body had been expired for about twenty four hours in the July heat and was turning black. There was a gunshot entry wound between the right eye and ear with an exit wound on the top of the head. There was another wound to the forehead and scalp which looked as if someone cut it with a knife. His right hand clinched a revolver pistol containing five cartridges; a fully loaded Winchester rifle rested against the tree beside him. He wore around his waist a cartridge belt for pistol ammo and one for rifle. The pistol belt, oddly, was buckled on upside down. Ringo’s boots were missing; he had used strips of t-shirt to wrap his feet in a sort of makeshift moccasins. His boots were found later tied to his horse some distance from the body. The coroner’s report listed the death as suicide and John’s recent behavior supports this. But some of the odd circumstances of the scene, and the accounts of people who knew Ringo, point toward murder. No less than three famous outlaws have claimed responsibility for the killing, including Wyatt Earp himself.
The history of Johnny Ringo’s life has grown further from fact and closer to fiction as time goes by. He is depicted to be one of the West’s most ruthless and murderous gun slinging outlaws in pop culture, when in fact he is only credited with the killing of one man and the wounding of another. He acted as much on the side of law and order as outside of it; he was a constable in Texas and he was even deputized to help bring in Wyatt Earp and his gang during their vendetta killings ride.
Johnny Ringo initially gained notoriety as a chief antagonist in the West Texas feud called the Hoodoo War or Mason County War. The only recorded and official killing by John Ringo, throughout his career as a notorious gunman, was as a participant in the assassination of James Cheyney during this guerilla style conflict. He was jailed twice during this war but apparently was acquitted in 1876. About two years later he is recorded as being a constable in Loyal Valley, Texas. He is next recorded for shooting and wounding an unarmed man, Louis Hancock in a Safford, Arizona saloon, in December 1879. Soon after that he began showing up in and around the mining boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona. He became associated with the gang element called the “Cowboys” and somehow gained the moniker of “King of The Cowboys.” In reality, if there was any organization to this loose knit group, Curly Bill Brocius was the likely leader and there is no evidence that Ringo was amongst the participants.
There is historical support that he opposed the Earp faction. In January, 1882, less than three months after the gunfight at the OK Corral, Ringo and Doc Holliday had a public disagreement and began trading threats that were leading to a gunfight. The new chief of police (Virgil Earp’s replacement) intervened and both Doc and Ringo were taken before a judge for carrying guns and were fined. Two months later, Morgan Earp was murdered and the Earps suspected Ringo of being a participant. Ringo was deputized by Sheriff John Behan to apprehend the Earps at the beginning of the Earp Vendetta Ride. Within a few short months, Ringo's best friends, including Curly Bill Brocius, were either dead or chased out of the area; some of them killed in the vendetta. But, by mid-April the Earps and their allies had apparently fled the area.
A few weeks before Ringo's death, Tombstone's largest fire nearly crippled the town, silver production was down, and the demand for beef was low, which was not good for the cowboys. Many of Ringo's friends were gone, while his way of life was going too. Ringo was reported to be depressed after being rejected by his remaining family members in California and the recent deaths of his outlaw friends. Most of the recorded sightings of Ringo in the days before his death reported him as being on a binge drunk and many said he was despondent and down. He was last reported seen in Galleyville, in the Chiricahua Mountains not far from Turkey Creek, two days before his death.
There are several books and web sites which give some evidence to the assassination theories. Wyatt Earp could have been back in the area and his wife, later on in life, claimed that Wyatt did the killing. Doc Holiday is popularized for doing the deed in Hollywood film but he was undergoing trial proceedings in Colorado at the time. Johnny-Behind-The-Deuce (Mike O’Rourke), Lou Cooley, and Buckskin Frank Leslie are also at times credited for his death. If anyone did murder Johnny Ringo, Frank Leslie is the most likely culprit and historical accounts place him in the area at the time of the death.
In all likelihood, Johnny did take his own life. Ravaged by a period of binge drinking, Ringo was probably preparing to camp along the creek on his way back to Tombstone or to a friends ranch. He tied his boots to his saddle, a common practice to keep scorpions and other critters out of them at night. But the horse may have been spooked by something and ran off. Ringo tied pieces of his undershirt to his feet to protect them, and crawled into the fork of a large tree to spend the night off of the ground. As evening came on, despondent over his overall state, probably suffering delirium tremens (DTs; alcohol withdrawl), made worse by the extreme July heat, now in hostile Apache country without horse, fire, booze, or even boots, Johnny Ringo ended his own life. The single shot was heard by a resident down the valley. Ringo's revolver, one round spent, was found hanging from a finger of his hand, the next day.
Johnny Ringo is buried near the same spot where his body was found, in the West Turkey Creek Canyon, near the base of the tree in which he was found, ....that still grows today. The grave is located on private land, the Sanders Ranch. The small, private park is open to the public from 8AM to 6PM. Parking and the authorized entrance is located just south of the site along Turkey Creek Road (N31 51.905 W109 25.120). Please abide by the ‘Rules For Visiting’ sign posted at the parking area; a picture of it is included in the gallery of this waymark too.
The site is rumored to be haunted. Jerry Sanders, the current proprietor, admits that strange things happen there in an article in the August 2006 issue of Arizona Highways Magazine.
Summary by Darren Jessop, Tombstone, AZT.