The .45 is still very much alive.
“John Ringgold, one of the best known men in southeastern Arizona, was found dead in Morse’s canyon, in the Chiricahua mountains last Friday [July 14],” Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star reported on Tuesday, July 18, 1882. “He evidentally [sic] committed suicide. He was known in this section as ‘King of the Cowboys,’ and was fearless in the extreme. He had many staunch friends and bitter enemies. The pistol, with one chamber emptied, was found in his clenched fist. He shot himself in the head, the bullet entering on the right side, between the eye and ear, and coming out on top of the head. Some members of his family reside at San Jose, California.”
And thus began the story of one of the strangest and most notorious “whodunits” in the history of the Old West.
Did John Ringo (his actual name) really kill himself? If not, who did and why? As one of the alleged leaders of the outlaw element of southeastern Arizona Territory who had made the word “rustler” synonymous with “cowboy,” he had been the enemy of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. But while Ringo had been a real hell-raiser and killer in Texas, he had actually been in so few confirmed gunfights in Tombstone and the surrounding cattle country that biographer Jack Burrows titled his 1987 book about him John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was, and Tombstone historian Ben Traywick called his 1987 biography John Peters Ringo: Mythical Gunfighter. Suffice it to say that Ringo had been fearless enough to stand up to both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday without any resulting gunplay, and his legend is as real as it is elusive and mysterious.
Ringo’s body was found in a sitting position in the fork of an oak tree beside the road, with his Model 1876 Winchester rifle, serial no. 21896, carefully propped up against the tree. So Ringo could not have killed himself with the rifle. His .45-caliber Colt singleaction revolver (serial no. 222), “containing 5 cartridges,” according to a detailed coroner’s report, was still “grasped” in his right hand in an apparent death grip. But the report didn’t mention that the Colt had a 71⁄2-inch barrel. And for Ringo to have shot himself in the head with a pistol that long, he would have to have held it at such an odd angle that when its .45-caliber recoil kicked it backward, it almost certainly would have jumped out of his hand, not remained in his hand in a “death grip.”
Furthermore, the coroner’s report about the six-shot Colt did not clarify what “one chamber emptied” meant; was the chamber completely empty or was there an empty fired cartridge case still in it? Obviously, if there was no empty cartridge case in the gun, Ringo couldn’t possibly have shot himself.
However, in 1926 Robert Boller, who had been one of the 14 coroner’s witnesses on the day Ringo’s body was found, told the Arizona Pioneers Historical Society that Ringo’s “pistol with one empty shell was caught in his watch chain in front of him.” So, according to Boller, there was an empty cartridge case in the sixth chamber, and therefore Ringo could have shot himself. On the other hand, if Ringo had fired the pistol himself and if it had gotten “caught” in his watch chain, the chain would probably have pulled the six-shooter out of his hand when the gun recoiled. Therefore, Ringo didn’t kill himself, and the person who killed him put the gun in Ringo’s hand to make it look like a suicide. But Boller’s watch chain and discharged cartridge case story was subsequently picked up and repeated in the 1928 memoirs of the former Cochise County Deputy Sheriff Billy Breakenridge, titled Helldorado, and in Walter Noble Burns’ 1929 book Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest.
And in a 1934 letter to cattleman/journalist Frank M. King, Boller added to his story, saying: “[Ringo] wore a very heavy silver link watch chain attached to a very heavy silver watch [American Watch Co. No. 9339]. The hook on the chain was hooked onto his vest on his right side….In his right hand he held his .45 Colt’s. The sight on the barrel had caught on his watch chain and held his hand from dropping into his lap.” So it is even more probable that Ringo’s hand would have fallen away from the gun after the gun recoiled and the front sight got caught on the watch chain. Therefore Ringo could not have shot himself.
In a December 20, 1974, Tombstone Epitaph article edited by Earp historian Glenn Boyer, the memoirs of Wyatt Earp’s third wife, Josie, muddied the waters even further: “The watch chain was jammed under the uncocked hammer of [Ringo’s] pistol so that the weapon was firmly held by it.” In that scenario, the chain would have prevented the hammer of the gun from striking forward far enough to have fired a round from the gun at all. This is another scenario in which Ringo couldn’t possibly have shot himself.
And so the mystery of the watch chain story becomes one of the biggest of many controversies in the death of John Ringo.
Many historians believe that Ringo, for whatever reason, did commit suicide (see “Western Lore,” by Casey Tefertiller, in the February 2000 Wild West). But I am convinced that the weight and recoil of Ringo’s Colt would have caused it to fall loose from his hand if he had shot himself, especially considering the probability that if either end of the pistol did get caught in his watch chain, his hand would have fallen even farther away from the gun instead of continuing to hold it in a death grip. And if Ringo didn’t shoot himself, the long list of candidates who could have shot him starts with Wyatt Earp and Tombstone gunfighter “Buckskin Frank” Leslie, both of whom claimed that they killed Ringo.
As for Ringo’s Colt .45 itself, the reason we know it had a 71⁄2-inch barrel is because the revolver still exists. Its provenance is as good as if Ringo himself had personally handed the gun to its present owner, Old West historian and publisher Jim Earle.
After Ringo’s body was found in the oak tree and buried on the spot in 1882, Fred Ward, another member of the coroner’s jury, sent Colt serial no. 222 and some of Ringo’s other personal possessions to his oldest sister, Fanny Ringo Jackson, of San Jose, Calif. Fanny passed the gun on down to her son Frank Ringo Jackson, who, in turn, gave it to his daughter Betty Prigmore, of Lawton, Okla. Prigmore eventually sold the gun to collector Allen Erwin of Hollywood, Calif. And when Erwin died, the gun was auctioned off to Earle in 1980. So Ringo’s Colt No. 222 is one of the most historically valuable documented real guns of the Old West that are still known to exist today.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.