If you’ve read about the untamed American frontier and have never heard of Tombstone, Arizona, for shame! This little town is a great place to learn about frontier life in a mining boom town. Tombstone is rife with legends and stories that would keep anyone interested for weeks on end. It was a silver mining town known for its rough-around-the-edges citizens. Names like Wyatt Earp, Curly Bill Brocius, Big Nose Kate, Doc Holliday– are a dime a dozen in the annals of Tombstone history. Tombstone is noted for the longest poker game in history (8 years, 5 months, and 3 days) and the infamous gunfight at the O.K. corral which was primarily between the Earps and the Clantons and McLowerys.
Part of the culture of the “Wild West” was to bury a body along the trail where the person passed away. There was no transporting the body anywhere unless the deceased was close to the rail lines at their time of death. Decomposition was rapid because food didn’t have preservatives and embalming was still in its infancy. Bodies still relatively intact that were found on the trail were buried deep enough to keep the coyotes, vultures or other desert scavengers at bay. Most makeshift graves were covered with rocks and marked with a simple wooden cross near the place the body was found and buried. The practice of leaving a cross or headstone is still observed in parts of the American southwest– though, the bodies are typically transported and interred in an actual cemetery instead of beside the road.
One such body that was found and buried on the trail is the source of much historical intrigue as there is some disagreement over the death of this man whose personal legend is linked to the infamous “Town Too Tough to Die”– Tombstone, Arizona. The body of John Peters Ringo is interred near the oak tree where he was found. A coroner’s inquest was held to determine his cause of death, but not everyone agrees with the verdict.
Although John Ringo’s story has origins tied to Tombstone legends, Ringo did not meet his end in the rough and tumble mining town of Tombstone. The final resting place of John Ringo is approximately 50 miles north and east of Tombstone in lower Turkey Creek Canyon, which is part of the Chiricahua (pronounced Cheer-ah-cow-ah) Mountain Range. Like most early American history, the story of John Ringo has many time gaps and missing details that leave the door of speculation wide open to historical interpretation on the man, his legacy, and his untimely demise.
John Peters Ringo was born in Green’s Fork (formerly the town of Washington) in Wayne County, Indiana on May 3, 1850. His family relocated to Gallatin, Missouri around 1857, and in May 1864, they set out for San Jose, California. Tragedy struck on July 30, 1848, when Ringo’s father left the wagon train to check for Native American Indians and his shotgun accidentally fired. The charge entered through his right eye and exited the top of his head. The whole family was much aggrieved, but pushed on towards San Jose, California.
By early 1871, Ringo left California with a harvesting outfit. He was in Burnet, Texas in 1874. While in Texas, he was involved in the Mason County War (also called the Hoodoo War). Ringo had several run-ins with the law in Texas before he finally left the state, traveling west towards Arizona, in 1878. He is associated with the alias Ringgold in court documents, which list both Ringgold and Ringo, so there is speculation as to his actual name.
A lot of the things that are said about John Ringo have been grossly exaggerated by the romanticism of the old west. Writers have portrayed Ringo as a legend by depicting him as an educated gentleman and crack-shot gunslinger. The reality is he was a grade school drop-out who was shunned by his family, and there is some doubt about the truth of his devious nature as his name can only be directly tied to the deaths of two men. Though he also kept company with cattle rustlers and cowboys, and drank heavily. If he was a mystery in life, an even bigger mystery lies in his death.
Though it’s difficult to directly track the movements of John Ringo, there is some evidence to suggest that on July 11, 1882, a drunk John Ringo made his way on horseback towards the Chiricahua Mountains, stopping in Antelope Springs, Soldiers Holes, and finally at Cienega Flats in the Sulphur Springs Valley where he stayed at the Widow Patterson’s place with “Buckskin” Frank Leslie and William “Billy” Claiborne (AKA “Billy the Kid”– NOT the same as the New Mexico legend). Testimony from Widow Patterson suggests an altercation between Leslie and Ringo, leaving the men at odds with each other on the evening of July 12, 1882.
The morning of July 13, 1882, Ringo left the widow’s drinking establishment, and headed out on horseback. The Widow Patterson said that Leslie and Claiborne left around the same time, but after Ringo had left her establishment. Claiborne and Leslie are rumored to have gone their separate ways, with Leslie headed off in the direction John Ringo had taken earlier.
Teamster Bill Sanders, who was hauling timber to Tombstone from the Chiricahua Mountains, passed both John Ringo and Frank Leslie on the road. In his account, Bill Sanders claims to have first seen John Ringo. Ringo carried a half-full bottle of whiskey in one hand and was so drunk he could barely stay in the saddle. Although Bill Sanders hailed the drunken cowboy, Ringo made no response and Sanders figured he was too inebriated to respond. Three or four miles down the road, Sanders encountered Frank Leslie, who asked Sanders directly if he’d seen Ringo. Bill told Leslie that he had seen John Ringo, indicated a direction, and Leslie hurriedly spurred his horse to overtake the drunken cowboy.
A single gunshot was heard by Mrs. Smith, who was out on her property about a quarter-mile from where Ringo’s body was discovered the following day. Because her brother-in-law was out hunting deer, she paid little attention to the shot. Though, it was an event distinct enough to remember.
Teamster John Yoast found Ringo’s body propped in the fork of an oak tree. The cause of death was clear from the bullet hole from his right temple through the top of his head. After the body was found, a coroner’s inquest was held to evaluate the unusual location and condition of the body. The local coroner’s jury issued the following report:
Turkey or Morse’s Mill Creek
July 14, 1882
STATEMENT FOR THE INFORMATION OF THE CORONER AND SHERIFF OF COCHISE COUNTY, ARIZONA TERRITORY.
There was found by the undersigned John Yoast the body of a man in a clump of oak trees about 20 yards north from the road leading to Morse’s mill and about a quarter mile west of the house of B.F. Smith. The undersigned reviewed the body and found it in a sitting position facing west, the head inclined to the right. There was a bullet hole in the right temple the bullet coming out on top of the head on 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 out by a knife. These are the only marks of violence on 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 evidently traveled but a short distance in this foot gear. His revolver, he grasped in his right hand, his rifle rested against the tree close to him. He had two cartridge belts, the belt for the revolver cartridges being buckled on upside down.
The undernoted property were found with him and on his person: 1 Colt revolver Ca. 45, Model 1876, No. 21896, containing a cartridge in the breech and 10 in the magazine; 1 cartridge belt containing 2 revolver cartridges; 1 silver watch of American water company, No. 9339 with silver chain attached; 2 dollars and 60 cents ($2.60) in money; 6 pistol cartridges in his pockets; 5 shirt studs; 1 small pocket knife; 1 tobacco pipe; 1 comb; 1 box matches; 1 small piece of tobacco.
There is also a portion of a letter from Messrs. Hereford & Zabriskie, Attorneys at Law, Tucson (to the deceased John Ringo).
The above property is left in the possession of Frederick Ward, teamster between Morse Mill and Tombstone. The body of the deceased was buried close to where it was found. When found deceased had been dead about 24 hours.
John W. Bradfield
B.F. [“Coyote”] Smith [Property owner of land near Ringo’s grave]
John Yoast [The Teamster who found Ringo’s Body]
Although the inquest seems to definitively call Ringo’s death a suicide, coroner’s juries in those days would often render a verdict of suicide rather than get drawn into a long investigation with seemingly endless litigation. Suicide was a way to quickly end the investigation so people could get on with their lives. Once the inquest concluded, the body was buried a few paces east from where it was found. On July 15, 1882, the County Clerk, George H. Daily, certified the verdict and ended the investigation of John Ringo’s death.
Although he signed the inquest statement, B.F. “Coyote” Smith, the husband of Mrs. Smith who heard the single gunshot, never agreed with the suicide verdict. The Smiths maintained that there were no powder burns on Ringo’s body, which should have been present had Ringo pulled the trigger himself. The Smiths were not alone in their suspicion that Ringo was murdered. Several others who were able to view Ringo’s body before its burial have argued against the suicide verdict. Several of John Ringo’s friends also agreed that, even piss drunk, the cowboy wouldn’t have taken his own life.
About a week after the inquest was held, John Ringo’s horse was found approximately 6 miles from where Ringo’s body had been found. One of his boots was found about five miles down the valley. The second boot was never found. No one knows why Ringo had removed his boots, or why the unconventional foot wrappings found on his body were so clean, indicating that he’d traveled a short distance in the makeshift footwear. Perhaps his killer had wanted to slight Ringo in death by making him die with his boots off?
Four months after Ringo’s body was found, William Claiborne, one of the last men to have seen John Ringo alive, arrived in Tombstone, Arizona. Claiborne was looking to take retribution for the death of his friend John Ringo– he was looking to kill Frank Leslie. At 7:00 am, on November 14, 1882, Billy Claiborne interrupted a conversation between Leslie, who was tending the bar in the Oriental Saloon, and some friends. He tried to calm Claiborne, getting his old friend to leave the saloon. Claiborne soon returned with a rifle. Leslie met him on the street, and with one shot, Leslie felled Claiborne. As he lay in the dust on Allen Street, Claiborne used his dying breath to make one final accusation, “Frank Leslie murdered John Ringo. I helped him carry Ringo in there and seen him do it.”
Although those were the dying words of Billy Claiborne, nothing ever came of it. Frank Leslie denied the accusations. Since he had acted in self defense, he was never prosecuted for killing Billy Claiborne. Claiborne’s lifeless corpse was interred in Tombstone’s infamous Boothill Cemetery where his bones rest to this day.
As the years have passed, Joe Hill, Doc Holliday, John O’ Rourke (AKA- Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce), and Wyatt Earp have all been mentioned in the legend of John Ringo’s death; though, none of these men were even in the vicinity at the time John Ringo met his end.
It is unlikely that anyone in this life will ever learn exactly what transpired in those final moments of John Ringo’s life. Was it a suicide? Did Frank Leslie shoot the drunken John Ringo? You decide.
If you’re up for adventure, you can still visit the grave of this infamous cowboy. Ringo’s grave is off Turkey Creek– a road off 90-degree a bend in the south side of Arizona Highway 181. It’s located on private property about 4-5 miles from Arizona Highway 181 (about an hour drive from Tombstone). It is not difficult to find. As you pass a bend in Turkey Creek Road, there is a gate on the north side of the road with a sign clear as day pointing out “Ringo’s Grave Site”. There is just enough room to park on the shoulder of the road and adventure by foot about 100-yards down a well trodden pathway to the grave.
There are rules for visiting this property, so if you’re out this-a-way, make sure you take heed and obey these rules so people can continue to venture to the John Ringo Gravesite. The rules are clearly labeled on a sign about 100 feet within the property fence.
As you walk down the path through the trees, the grave site slowly comes into view at the base of a treeline. The tree where the corpse was found propped up is still there, along with a Arizona Historical Site Marker, the Ringo’s headstone, and the pile of rocks that cover the decedent’s grave. To the right of the grave is a donation box, where you can contribute towards the preservation of this relic of the old west.
In any case, the story of John Ringo’s grave site is a fun piece of western history. If you’re ever adventuring out in southeast Arizona, consider making a little excursion to pay your respects to poor John Ringo. Who knows, maybe you’ll even see his ghost and learn the true end of his story.
* Arizona Memory Project: Ringo – Contains official court transcripts – http://azmemory.azlibrary.gov/cdm/search/searchterm/Ringo/mode/all/order/subjec
* Bond, Ervin. Johnny Ringo’s Death – Murder or Suicide?. The Cochise Quarterly Volume 3, Issue 1 (1973): 17-22.
Available: Link to Document
* Christiansen, Larry. Who Shot Johnny Ringo. The Cochise Quarterly Volume 3, Issue 1 (1973): 9-17.
* Eppinga, Jane. Images of America: Southern Arizona Cemeteries. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2014. P 34.
* Gatto, Steve. Johnny Ringo – The Death of Johnny Ringo. Online. Internet. 13 July 2015.
* Google Map – John Ringo Gravesite