Nature of parenting: 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, famous after his run-ins with the Earps, certainly had a hard time when he was young.
John was born on May 3, 1850, in Wayne County, Indiana. In 1864, the young man was excited for the first real adventure of his life when his parents Martin and Mary Ringo decided that the future of the family was in California. They packed up their five children, John, Martin, Fanny, Mary, and Mattie, and set out on the journey west.
They departed at Fort Leavenworth Military Road with 68 other carriages and headed for Fort Kearny.
The journey was going to be full of difficulties. On June 7, fourteen-year-old John was involved in an accident when a car overturned his foot and seriously injured him. And then later that day, he saw another boy fall under a car that killed him. They say trouble comes in threes and they certainly did that day, as later a wagon master accidentally shot one of his carriers in the head, killing him immediately.
John witnessed both accidents and his mother Mary (pictured) recorded it in her diary. The next day, John, still limping from his broken foot, accompanied several men hunting buffalo and participated in the slaughter of several of the creatures.
On June 13, the Ringos took the Great Platte River Road. The next day, Mary wrote that John had a chill and was seriously ill throughout the night and for the following days. But he recovered when they reached the Cottonwood Springs military post. Here the soldiers stopped the wagon train and looked for horses bearing the American mark, but found none, so the wagons continued their journey.
On June 25, the wagons stopped at the South Platte junction, where they were forced to stay for two weeks as heavy rain and high winds hit them. Mary wrote that during the stay several Indians came to the camp and that one was carrying a saber that he said he had taken from a soldier he had killed. Independence Day passed without celebration and it was July 9 before it was considered safe to cross the river that led them to North Platte.
On July 16, several of the animals in the caravan became ill from the alkali in the water they had been drinking and died. And then two of the oxen also died from the disease. By now there was a very real threat from hostile Indians and soon the caravan came across the scalped corpse of a white man who had been half eaten by vultures.
On July 30, John’s father, Martin, was standing in one of the carts, searching for Indians when he accidentally fired his shotgun, sending the load at his own head. John and his traveling companion William Davenport witnessed the gruesome event.
“Hearing the shot, I saw their hat fly 20 feet in the air and their brains were scattered everywhere.” Davenport wrote.
John helped dig a grave and they buried his father and left him by the roadside. Mary’s journal contains details of this fateful day and she recorded that her own heart was bleeding as the wagon moved forward, leaving the grave behind them.
On August 1, the caravan reached Platte Bridge station, but the further misfortune was hitting the Ringo clan when the older girl, Fanny, suffered a seizure 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 7, the Ringo clan was in Austin, Nevada and Mary gave birth to a dead son with a deformed face. The shock over her husband’s death was said to have traumatized her and led to both the deformity and the stillbirth. John looked at the horrible face of the dead baby and turned in disgust.
On the last day of October, the family arrived in the Sacramento Valley just before the first snowfall and stayed with relatives for some time. A year later, Mary moved her family to a house on Second Street in San Jose. The youngest of Ringo – Martin died in 1873 of tuberculosis, he was only 19 years old. Fanny and Mattie grew up and married. Maria the youngest became a school teacher and her mother Maria died in 1876.
It has been said that John Ringo was forever affected by seeing his father blow his brains out and that the sight of his stillborn deformed brother pushed him over the edge. He started drinking heavily when he was 15 years old and escaped to Texas and eventually ended up in the Arizona Territory, where he joined the Clanton faction and became the infamous Johnny Ringo.
He was assassinated, as we all know, in July 1882.