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John Ringo

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
It didn't play out quite like a scene from "Gunsmoke," but two of the Old West's more notorious characters faced each other in Austin's red light district in 1881.

What happened that May 3 netted only one long paragraph on an inside page of the Austin Daily Statesman. What could have happened would have been big news all over the Southwest.

Evidently not one to spend the Sabbath in spiritual reflection, a man the newspaper identified as "Mr. John Ringo" had been "passing his time down in a house in the jungles" that Sunday morning. The "jungles" was Victorian journalistic code for an area of brothels and saloons along Second Street in the Capital City, just above the then-wild bed of the Colorado River.

As the newspaper reported, "Along about 4 o'clock [presumably that morning, though Ringo could have been at it all day that Sunday] he missed his purse, and stepping out in the hall where some three or four of Austin's nice young men were seated, he came down upon them with his little pistol and commanded them to 'up hands'…"

Ringo, whose notable name had been bandied about as a material witness following a little dust up in Arizona on March 8 in which one Dick Lloyd had been shot to death, held the two Austin men at gunpoint while he searched them for his absent money.

"Not finding his purse he smiled beamingly upon the young men, and retired to his room while they quietly slid out and reported the facts to the police," the Statesman related.

Shootist-turned-lawman Ben Thompson answered the call. That city marshal Thompson would choose to handle the situation himself, rather than dispatching one of his officers, indicates that he knew the pistol packer was Ringo. And he definitely knew who Ringo was.

Born in Indiana in 1850, Ringo and his family moved first to Missouri and later to California. Orphaned when his father accidentally killed himself with a rifle in1864, Ringo headed for Texas five years later. In 1875, he became embroiled in the Mason County Hoo-Doo War, a violent feud that bled (literally) over into Burnet, Llano and Lampasas Counties. Ringo spent some time behind bars in Burnet, Lampasas and Austin, escaped a murder rap when the case was dismissed and after about a decade in the Lone Start decided to move west to Arizona.

Not long after arriving in the Territory, Ringo wounded a man in a saloon shooting. In the modern vernacular, he seemed to have had issues with alcohol and anger management.

Thompson, no goody two shoes himself, knew Ringo by reputation if not acquaintance.

When the mustachioed, British-born marshal knocked on Ringo's door in the red light dive, the Texas-raised gunman must have replied with an impolite 19th century version of "Go away…I didn't order a pizza." Sans warrant, Thompson "cheerfully kicked open the door, and to the infinite disgust of Mr. Ringo scooped him in." (As in arrested him.)

Whether Ringo made an effort to go for his gun went unreported, but the marshal disarmed him without busting any caps. Thompson may have responded to Ringo's reluctance to be taken into custody by gently tapping his head with the barrel of his six-shooter, but again, the newspaper was silent on the subject. Given the amply documented temperament of either man, had Ringo thrown down on Thompson, only one of them would not have been left standing when the smoke cleared.

By this time, one of Thompson's officers had arrived as a backup and "marched him [Ringo] to the station."

The newspaper story did not say if Ringo spent the night in the clink, but the next day he was fined $5 and costs for disturbing the peace and $25 and costs for carrying a pistol. (A pretty stout fine: Based on the Consumer Price Index, that $30 would be equivalent to $648 in today's dollars.)

Having lost his "purse," Ringo must either have had some cash hidden in one of his boots or managed to come up with a fast loan. He paid his money to the city court and, in the words of the Daily Statesman, "left a wiser if not sadder man."

Ringo split for Missouri but by the fall had returned to Arizona. Following the OK Corral gunfight in Tombstone that October, he became leader of the gang opposing Wyatt Earp. On Jan. 17, 1882 Ringo challenged Earp and John (Doc) Holiday to a fight, but a police officer intervened before anyone pulled a trigger.

History bears out that a shooting match between Thompson and Ringo would have been the frontier equivalent of King Kong versus Godzilla. Less than a year later, someone shot Thompson to death in a San Antonio vaudeville house in a case that officially remains unsolved. And on July 13, 1882, someone found Ringo dead in Arizona of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The coroner concluded his suicide climaxed a long alcoholic toot, but some maintained his death had been a murder, revenge for being a player in the anti-Earp crowd.
Copyright Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >
April 5, 2007 column

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