During the late 50's and early 60's, TV Westerns were all the rage. Every network had at least four Westerns a week. Some such as "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza," and the "Big Valley" (gosh that Linda Evans was cute) became prime time icons. Any network that put a show in "Bonanza's" time slot faced a brutal demise. I've always wondered why a Western about three single half-brothers of varying physique, a three times widowed patriarch, and an overly polite Chinese cook named Hop Sing merited such a following. I guess people just couldn't get enough of that hunky "Hoss" Cartwright. Other shows portrayed famous Old West personalities such as Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Not surprisingly, Native Americans hated "Custer" so much they protested it right off the air.
One character that found its way into numerous TV Westerns, and movies as well, was a little known gunfighter from Texas history, Johnny Ringo. Historians agree that there are no redeeming qualities to Ringo. He didn't own a massive cattle ranch, didn't kill anybody of note nor did he serve in the law enforcement community. The only two reasons are he indirectly confronted the legendary Wyatt Earp and he had a really cool name. Mostly the latter it seems.
In 1850, John Peters Ringo was born in Indiana and grew up in Liberty, Missouri; an area tainted by the Kansas-Missouri border violence during the Civil War. Looking for greener pastures, the Ringo family loaded up a covered wagon for a move to California. During the move, Ringo's father accidently blew his head off with a shotgun. The tragedy had a traumatic effect on Ringo; his life took a downward spiral ever since.
During the mid 1870's, he migrated to Mason County, Texas; a region rocked with ethnic strife between Texas ranchers and German settlers. A full scale range war broke out in 1875 when ranchers began rustling the Germans' cattle. Texas law at that time allowed ranchers to round up cattle, regardless of their ownership, as long as they reimbursed the owners after the cattle was sold. How hard do you think those ranchers tried to find and pay those owners? Needless to say, the Germans were really pissed.
Because they were in the majority, the German settlers were able to elect law enforcement officials sympathetic to their grievances. Within a day, Sheriff John Clark arrested nine suspect ranchers and let it slip that he had no problem with them being lynched. After being dragged from their cells, two of the ranchers were hanged while a third was shot. Only the intervention of the Texas Rangers prevented further bloodshed. The Mason County War or "Hoodoo War" took an ominous turn with the murder of popular ranch foreman, Tim Williamson. Williamson's close friend, a hot-tempered former Texas Ranger named Scott Cooley, vowed vengence for his friend's murder. Within a few months, he would gun down a dozen men.
Into the fray stepped Johnny Ringo, also a close friend of Cooley's. Ringo assisted in the shootings of at least two settlers. By the end of the year, both Cooley and Ringo were on the dodge from sheriff posses. Ringo spent almost two years in a Llano County jail for the murder of Jim Cheney, one of the settlers killed during the Mason County War. He was later released and ironically served as a constable in Loyal Valley, a German community in the same Mason County he once terrorized. Afterwards, he headed out west to Arizona, a favorite destination for former Texas outlaws.
With an uncanny knack for finding trouble, Ringo rode into Tombstone, Arizona. Somewhat like the Mason County War, the conflict in Tombstone was between local outlaw ranchers known collectively as the "Cowboys" and Tombstone's established business community. The word "cowboy" was actually a derogatory term back then. A cowboy was thought of as a lowlife, an unruly character more worthy of a jail sentence than respect. It was more proper to be referred to as a cattleman or a rancher, never a cowboy.
The "Cowboys" made their fortunes by rustling cattle across the border in Mexico and robbing stagecoaches. Ringo befriended local rancher Ike Clanton and an odious outlaw named "Curly Bill" Brocious, both members of the "Cowboy" clan. After a hard day of rustling, the "Cowboys" reveled in the town's saloons and brothels. Firing his pistols in the air after a heavy round of drinking, "Curly Bill" accidently killed Tom White, the town's marshal.
"Curly Bill" Brocious
Ringo also became noted for his own whiskey induced tantrums. He shot one man in Safford, Arizona after offering to buy the man a whiskey and the man ordered a beer instead. In another incident, he almost got into a gunfight with the famed tubercular gambler, "Doc" Holliday.
After White's death, local law enforcement fell into the firm hands of the Earp brothers: Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt. The "Cowboys," lead by Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, "Curly Bill" and Johnny Ringo, had an ongoing dispute with the Earps over gambling operations in Tombstone. The confrontation turned deadly when Wyatt pistol whipped "Curly Bill" after Marshall White's shooting. In 1881, a series of stage coach robberies committed by the "Cowboys" brought things to a head. The Earps and their friend "Doc" Holliday killed three of the "Cowboys" during the Old West's most famous gunfight, the "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." Shortly after, the "Cowboys" got their revenge; Virgil lost the use of an arm after being shot and Morgan was killed by a shotgun blast to the back.
Enraged, Wyatt Earp went on a vendetta. Ringo was now a target of Earp's wrath. His friend "Curly Bill' was killed by Earp at Iron Springs. He managed to avoid the vendetta, but not his own inner demons. He was found under a tree at West Turkey Creek Valley with a bullet hole in his temple. Had he had committed suicide, or did an Earp supporter finally catch up with him? Some have speculated that "Doc" Holliday killed Ringo. A theory proved impossible because of records showing Holliday in a Colorado courtroom at the time. More probable was severe depression brought on by heavy drinking. Ringo was buried at the spot he was found.
Johnny Ringo probably gained more fame through film and TV than anything he did in real life. In 1959, "Johnny Ringo" appeared for one season on CBS. For some strange reason, he plays a gunfighter turned sheriff and curiously packs a Confederate LeMat revolver. Any TV Western with a setting in Arizona was most certainly going to have an episode featuring Johnny Ringo. One of my favorites, NBC's "The High Chaparral," had him on twice.
Noted actors such as Gregory Peck, John Ireland, Kris Kristofferson and Michael Biehn (he played Reese in "The Terminator" ) played Johnny Ringo or a variation of him in the movies. Here is a scene from the 1993 movie "Tombstone" where Johnny Ringo, played by Michael Biehn, confronts "Doc" Holliday played by Val Kilmer. Wyatt Earp was played by Kurt Russell and Powers Boothe made a convincing "Curly Bill." Check it out.
And lastly, we have the Johnny Ringo song performed by actor Lorne Greene, the father of the Cartwright boys on "Bonanza." More of a narration than a song actually. Good thing Lorne didn't give up the day job.