John Ringo and Other Legends

On The Western Frontier, where men were men, men were legends, too--except of course for the hundreds of thousands of 19th-century Westerners whose names are not on the tips of our parched tongues as we make our long, hard, dusty ride into the 21st century. Naturally, Earp and Hickok, like burps and hiccups, seem to be riding with us to the end. Even a few Wild West women, mostly looking like either Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley and none sitting sidesaddle, are riding out the century in our collective memory. But most of the others have no names. At best, we have seen their weather-beaten faces in old photographs. More frequently they are faceless, too--specks on the distant horizon, lost in the sea of prairie grass, hidden by the crags of the Rockies, swallowed up by the vastness of our grandest canyons or the gun smoke of our favorite holes in the wall. It is a rare Western bird that achieves legendary status.

Among the most unsung of Westerners are the settlers, and the settlers with perhaps the slightest foothold in our national consciousness are the black men and women of the post-Reconstruction South who migrated west in search of greater opportunity. In the late 1870s, enough Southerners came to Kansas to start a dozen black colonies. The big migration in 1879 was called the "Colored Exodus." Things didn't always work out--it was after all Kansas, not Oz, they were going to--but it is a story worth remembering. Black soldiers, or buffalo soldiers, have gotten far more attention. Still, the fact that the black 9th Cavalry served with distinction at Fort Duchesne in Utah Territory might be as little known as the fact that a pistol-packing mine owner named "Captain Jack" was making her mark at about the same time in Colorado.

In this first issue of the year 2000 are articles about two nearly legendary individuals--Chief Colorow and lawman John Poe. Colorow, at close to 300 pounds in his later years, was big enough to be a living legend, but he led Utes, not Apaches or Sioux. Poe was an efficient sheriff and a solid citizen, but his name would be heard nevermore if not for the fact he was at Fort Sumner in July 1881 when Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid.

Even closer to legendary status is Ned Christie, often portrayed as one of the most vicious killers to ever stalk Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). That's a bum rap, says Speer, whose 1990 book The Killing of Ned Christie was recently republished. Accused of killing a U.S. deputy marshal in 1887, Christie maintained his innocence but did not believe he could get a fair trail in Isaac "Hanging Judge" Parker's court. The Cherokee outlaw eluded capture and resisted arrest for more than five years. George Armstrong Custer may have had the West's most legendary "Last Stand" up there at the Little Bighorn, but down in the Rabbit Trap community of the Going Snake District, Edward "Ned" Christie had one heck of a "Last Home Stand."

What's that you say? It's a genuine Western legend you want to read about? Allow me to present John Ringo, who ranks right up there with his Tombstone adversary Doc Holliday when it comes to legendary status, not to mention catchy name. In this issue, you'll find articles about Ringo's life and death by an author with the not-quite-so-catchy name of Casey Tefertiller, best known in Western circles for a Wyatt Earp biography. Ringo became a legend despite a shabby record as a gunfighter and despite not being anywhere near the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881. To understand how that was possible, see Jack Burrows' "The Ringo Myth" and his engaging book John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was (University of Arizona Press). "One suspects," Burrows once wrote, "that Ringo's immortality lies in the tonal quality of his name....Ringo is a name that lends itself well to book titles, articles, songs, theatre marquees." I'll buy that. Even though I was more interested in musicians John, Ringo, Paul and George than outlaw John Ringo back in the 1960s, I couldn't get enough of the near-hit record "Ringo," sung by the patriarch of the Ponderosa--Bonanaza's Lorne ("Ben Cartwright") Greene.

If the mystery of how John Ringo could become such a legend is solvable, the mystery of who put the fatal bullet in his head lingers on. The coroner's jury concluded on July 14, 1882, that Ringo shot himself, and while Burrows says that the report was hastily done, he concurs with that finding. Writer Glenn Boyer, whose controversial involvement with Tombstone matters has reached legendary status among Western historians, has long argued that Wyatt Earp came down from Colorado to kill Ringo. Doc Holliday has been virtually ruled out as a chief suspect, but Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce and "Buckskin Frank" Leslie are still candidates. The suicide prevention crowd argues that no powder burns were spotted on Ringo's corpse, so it could NOT have been suicide. Tefertiller points out, however, that Robert Boller, a member of the coroner's jury, wrote in a 1934 letter to one-time cowboy Frank M. King that "the body had turned black and was smelling." Tefertiller says: "This would be enough to camouflage the powder burns, if indeed there were such burns....Every theory has a flaw that presents problems. The explanation that best fits the evidence is suicide."

A couple of years ago, Glenn Boyer politely suggested in a letter to me that I take an editorial stand against "Jack Burrows' major theme that Ringo committed suicide" the next time the question came up. Well, the question has come up, but I will not be taking that stand. All I know is that the Ringo legend won't die and that Ben Cartwright did not kill John Ringo...with gun or song.

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