Nature of nurture – that’s a question asked these days by those trying to understand the motivation of criminals. Can a person be born bad? Or is the seed of their destruction sown in their formative years? Johnny Ringo, famed after his confrontations with the Earps certainly had a rough time of it as a youngster.
John was born on May 3rd 1850 in Wayne County, Indiana. In 1864 the young boy was excited at the first real adventure of his life when his parents Martin and Mary Ringo decided that the family’s future lay in California. They packed up their five children John, Martin, Fanny,Mary and Mattie and set off on the trip West.
They set out on the Fort Leavenworth Military Road with 68 other wagons and headed for Fort Kearny.
The trip was to be full of hardships. On June 7th the fourteen year old John was involved in an accident when a wagon rolled over his foot, severely injuring it. And then that same day he witnessed another young boy fall under a wagon which killed him. They say troubles come in threes and they certainly did that day, for later a wagon master accidentally shot one of his teamsters through the head, killing him outright.
John witnessed both accidents and his mother Mary (pictured) recorded it in her journal. The following day John, still hobbling due to his broken foot, went along with several men on a buffalo hunt and participated in killing several of the creatures.
On June 13th, the Ringos picked up the Great Platte River Road. The next day Mary wrote that John had a chill and was severely ill throughout the night and for the next few days. But he recovered by the time they reached The Cottonwood Springs military post. Here soldiers stopped the wagon train and searched for horses containing the US brand but none were found and so the wagons continued on their journey.
June 25th saw the wagons halt on The South Platte Crossing where they were forced to stay for two weeks while hard rains and strong winds struck them. Mary wrote that during the stay several Indians came into camp and that one carried a sabre that he said he’s taken from a soldier he’d killed. Independence Day passed without celebration and it was July 9th before it was deemed safe to cross the river which led them onwards to the North Platte.
On July 16th several of the cattle in the wagon train became sick from the alkali in the water they had been drinking and died. And later two of the oxen also died from the sickness. By now there was a very real threat of hostile Indians and soon the wagon train came across the scalped corpse of a white man who had been half eaten by vultures.
On July 30th John’s father, Martin was standing on one of the wagons, looking for Indians when he accidentally set off his shotgun, sending the load into his own head. John and fellow traveller William Davenport witnessed the grisly event.
“At the report of the gun, I saw his hat blown up 20 feet in the air and his brains were scattered every which way.” Davenport wrote.
John helped dig a grave and his father was buried and left at the wayside. Mary’s journal contain details of this fateful day and she recorded that her own heart was bleeding as the wagon train rolled on, leaving the grave behind them.
On August 1st the wagon train arrived in Platte Bridge Station but further misfortune was to strike the Ringo clan when the eldest girl Fanny suffered an attack of what Mary called, “cholremorbus.” The term cholera morbus was used in the 19th and early 20th centuries to describe both non-epidemic cholera and other gastrointestinal diseases.
On October 7th the Ringo clan were in Austin, Nevada and Mary gave birth to a stillborn son with a deformed face. It was said that the shock of her husband’s death had traumatised her and caused both the deformity and the still birth. John looked onto the dead baby’s hideous face and turned away in disgust.
On the last day of October the family reached the Sacramento Valley just ahead of the first snows and stayed with relatives for some time. A year later Mary moved her family into a house on Second Street in San Jose. The youngest Ringo – Martin died in 1873 of tuberculosis, he was only 19. Fanny and Mattie grew up and were married. Mary the younger became a schoolteacher and mother Mary died in 1876.
It was been said that John Ringo was forever affected by seeing his father blow his own brains out and that the sight of his deformed stillborn brother pushed him over the edge. He began drinking heavily when he was 15 and ran off to Texas and eventually ended up in Arizona Territory where he fell in with the Clanton faction and became the infamous Johnny Ringo.
He was murdered, as we all know, in July 1882.