"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Crazy Horse


A great American


Crazy Horse, Tȟašúŋke Witkó in Standard Lakota Orthography, was one of the most legendary of American Indians. His very name is redolent of Western myth and he ranks with Sitting Bull, Cochise and Geronimo (essay coming soon) as one of the best known of his people. He has been referred to as a genius of war, a lover of peace, a statesman, a mystic, even as a Sioux Christ (and this idea was heightened by his being betrayed at the end by his own disciple).

There is no authenticated photograph of Crazy Horse. This is a sketch made by a Mormon missionary in 1934 after a discussion with his sister.

Crazy Horse on the screen

Of course the movies and TV have made much of him. Think of Victor Mature as Crazy Horse in the George Sherman-directed 1955 Universal picture Chief Crazy Horse. Poor Victor: he was actually surprisingly good in Westerns but he really wasn’t very convincing as the Oglala mystery man.
 
Victor Mature as Crazy Horse. Oh dear. Here he is with Black Shawl (Suzan Ball, Lucille's cousin); the movie makes no mention of his true love, Black Buffalo Woman, another man's wife.
 
There was Fox’s Crazy Horse and Custer: The Untold Story in 1990, with Michael Dante as Crazy Horse. There was a TV movie in 1996, with Michael Greyeyes in the role. Of course Matt Clark had to meet him on Stories of the Century (I don’t think there was a famous figure of the Old West that Matt didn’t meet – or capture) in 1954. George Keymas was Crazy Horse then. And so on.

Reading

There is a perhaps surprising amount you can read to find out about the life of Crazy Horse, considering how few hard facts there really are known about him. His own people thought him a mystery while he was alive (one of his many names might be translated as Our Strange Man) and he was known for his modesty, shyness and preference for being alone. He certainly avoided whites as much as possible, had no photograph of himself taken and we don’t even know for sure when he was born.

That hasn’t stopped writers discoursing at length on his life. In 1906 and ’07 Judge Eli Ricker interviewed people who knew Crazy Horse. Journalist Elinor Hinman and Nebraska writer Mari Sandoz did something similar in 1930 – 31, when of course those who knew him were very old. Sandoz wrote a 428-page-long rather novelistic biography, Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, in 1942. Professional historian Stephen Ambrose went one better in 1975, at 528 pages. Since then there have been many more biographies, often of great length.
 
 
Mari Sandoz and her book
 
All of them seem to have no problem putting words into the mouth of Crazy Horse, clearly a man of very few words, or even telling us what he was thinking. I waded through the Sandoz because, well, you gotta, but I must say I found it hard going. I know she’s a great American writer and all but these ‘poetic re-imaginings’ aren’t really my thing, however beautifully they are written. And it just seemed interminable.

For me, by far the best read is Larry McMurtry’s Crazy Horse: A Life in the Penguin Lives series. Yes, Mr. McMurtry is a novelist too, and a very fine one, but he is also an excellent writer of non-fiction. He manages to stay factual yet bring a good novelist’s readability to a book. And most blessed of all, it’s short.
 
The best book
 
Why do most books have to be so long these days? The thing is this: I reckon to read about fifty books a year. It may be fewer if I’m into Victorian novels or Russians, it may be more if I’m rattling through some Elmore Leonards or Luke Shorts. But it’s roughly one a week, on average. Now, let us imagine our reading life as a reasonably sentient being at, say, sixty years, even seventy. That’s still well less than 4000 books in total, leaving aside all those earnest volumes you rushed through at college to complete the next essay. 4000! That’s a minuscule fraction of what’s been written. So I am just plain resentful of a writer who wants me to plow through a weighty 600-page tome on a subject that interests me. It’s selfishly taking too great a share of my exceedingly limited reading time.

And, as we all know, less is more. You don’t need 600 pages. The best life of Custer is Robert M Utley’s Cavalier in Buckskin, which is complete, fascinating, elegantly written and weighs in at a slender couple of hundred pages. And McMurtry’s Crazy Horse, cheaply available on Kindle, is a 142-page masterpiece, illuminating, thoughtful and well, authoritative. The writer says:

I am not writing this book because I think I know what Crazy Horse did – much less what he thought – on more than a few occasions in his life; I’m writing it because I have some notions about what he meant to his people in his lifetime, and also what he has come to mean to generations of Sioux in our century and even in our time.

The few hard facts of his life

Brief the book may be but the author still has time to recount the facts of Crazy Horse’s life - for of course we do know something about him, and he was a man, not a myth, even if McMurtry makes the point that we know more about the life of Alexander the Great over two thousand years ago than we do about Crazy Horse. The Sioux only came into serious contact with the record-keeping, letter-writing whites in the four months between the moment he led his people in to Fort Robinson in May 1877 and his death, and even then he camped six miles away instead of the prescribed three and saw whites only when he absolutely could not avoid them.

However, we learn that Crazy Horse was born sometime around 1840 by the Belle Fourche River in what we now call South Dakota. His father, a shaman and healer, and not of a great family, was also called Crazy Horse but he transferred his name when his son proved himself a warrior, and took the name Worm instead. The boy, known then as Curly, who, all accounts say, was noticeably pale-skinned, led the traditional life of the Plains Indian, raiding and hunting. The buffalo were still there in their millions.

McMurtry makes the point that to many writers Crazy Horse was a sort of Zelig, turning up wherever key historical events occurred, and this gives the writers license to write about the Fort Laramie Councils, General Harney’s attack on the Bluewater village, the great parley at Bear Butte or whatever else, because Crazy Horse “may have been there”. But then he may well not have been, and given his propensity for avoiding whites and being alone, his non-presence would be more likely.

Most of the accounts do however place him on a raid against the Arapahos in the summer of 1858 when he behaved with such courage that he earned his father’s name. The early 1860s were a time of relative prosperity for the Sioux because the whites were down in the south and east fighting each other, leaving the Plains Indians mostly to their own devices and own way of life. McMurtry writes perceptively and interestingly about the Plains, that great American steppe which whites called a desert but which was far from a desert, and upon which migrating animals and nomadic people wandered and lived – the latter with a sacramental view of the land that contrasted with the commercial attitude of the encroaching whites. This must have been the golden time of Crazy Horse’s life, when he was probably in his early twenties and earning honor and respect as a horseman, warrior and hunter.

In love

Many of those who knew Crazy Horse who were interviewed talked of his love for a certain Black Buffalo Woman, the niece of Red Cloud, who married another, No Water. Crazy Horse took the news hard and remained near her, though No Water was a jealous husband.

About 1865, when Crazy Horse was probably in his mid-twenties, the Sioux revived the custom of the Shirt-wearers. The duty of the men chosen was to put selfish interest aside and concern themselves exclusively with the welfare of the tribe. It was a high honor. Notable young Sioux were chosen, men of good family, Young Man Afraid, Sword and American Horse, but Crazy Horse was too. He had lived an ascetic life ever since receiving a vision in his youth, kept no possessions and did all he could to look after those in need among his people. In addition he was a fine warrior and hunter. He was an excellent choice to be the sort of role model the Shirt-wearers were supposed to be.

Crazy Horse could have made an offer of horses to No Water for Black Buffalo Woman. No Water would probably not have accepted but at least the norms would have been respected. Instead, Crazy Horse and Black Buffalo Woman now eloped. After only a day No Water found them and he shot Crazy Horse in the face with a pistol. The bullet broke his jaw but he lived. Black Buffalo Woman was persuaded by the elders to return to her husband. Crazy Horse could not remain a Shirt-wearer. No one replaced him; the institution fell into disuse again. It is interesting that Black Buffalo Woman’s last child, a daughter, was very light-skinned, like Crazy Horse. She lived into the 1940s.

Crazy Horse did marry, a woman named Black Shawl, and they had children – one daughter died aged two. It seems to have been a loving relationship. He also later took another wife, a mixed-race person named Nellie Larrabee, also known as Chi-Chi and Brown Eyes Woman, described by interpreter/scout Billy Garnett as "a half-blood, not of the best frontier variety, an invidious and evil woman" but that was just his view. Black Shawl survived Crazy Horse and died of influenza in 1927.

Fighting the whites

Crazy Horse may have been involved in several previous fights against whites but the first one we know about for sure is the Fetterman rout of December 1866. You know the story. Fetterman was an arrogant, Indian-hating and frustrated captain who was highly dissatisfied at the policy of containment and negotiation with the Sioux, which he regarded as weakness and cowardice. Crazy Horse was one of six who had the honor of enticing Fetterman to disobey orders and pursue the Sioux over a ridge, where he had been expressly forbidden to go. It is said that Crazy Horse often dismounted to encourage his pursuers and once even built a small fire. At any rate, once Fetterman and his troop of eighty (he had boasted that with eighty men he could “march through the whole Sioux nation”) breasted the rise in question, he found the massed Indian resistance and he and his whole force were annihilated. You can’t help feeling that it served them right, though one is sorry for the troopers led by idiots to the slaughter.

Crazy Horse was with Sitting Bull in August 1872 when they fought an action against four hundred well-armed soldiers who had learned the Fetterman lesson and would not be tempted out. It was nearly a disaster. Sitting Bull made himself famous by sitting down within rifle range, filling a pipe and smoking it. Crazy Horse had a more actionful way of showing his courage: he galloped right across in front of the Army line and had his horse shot out from under him. Then the Sioux called off the fight.

It was in 1873 that Crazy Horse encountered Custer for the first time, in an inconclusive skirmish with few casualties on the Yellowstone. Custer thought Sitting Bull was the leader of his foe; he didn’t know Crazy Horse, who had never been to a meeting with the whites, and had received no mention in the popular press (the financial panic had anyway driven most other things out of the newspaper columns).

It might have stayed that way if they hadn’t found gold in the Black Hills. Although the US government was used to breaking treaties it had made with the Indians (McMurtry quotes the writer Alex Shoumatoff who has reckoned the total at 378) it had to squirm especially awkwardly to break the 1868 pact which had guaranteed the Black Hills in perpetuity as a reserve which whites may not enter. Still, the financial situation back East cried out for more gold and Sherman began to mutter (very unconvincingly) about treaty violations by the Sioux. Many of the Indians knew anyway that the whites would never let a mere solemn promise stand in their way: they would not stop till they had everything. In no time at all there were more whites in the Black Hills than their owners.

When Grant’s order came that the Sioux must come in to designated reservations by January (a particularly stupid order because he should certainly have known that they did not move camps in wintertime) Crazy Horse, who was enjoying what would be his last winter as a truly free Indian (whether he realized that is another matter), sent word that he would consider it in the spring but not before. By March of 1876 a large campaign was forming, with Crook, Gibbon, Terry and Custer taking the field. Everyone knew a major conflict was coming.
 
General George Crook (1828 - 90)
 
Crook struck first. He located what he was assured was Crazy Horse’s village, made a dawn attack and although he killed few Indians he captured all their food and most of the horses. It was not, however, Crazy Horse’s village and that night the Sioux recovered most of their horses.

The Rosebud

Crook certainly did clash with Crazy Horse and other warriors in June, though, on the Rosebud, and it was a major battle, if overshadowed by the more famous Little Bighorn eight days later. Crook’s force of a thousand was strung out and met fierce resistance from Sioux and Cheyennes in similar numbers who assailed them mercilessly, preventing them from forming a proper battle line. At dusk the Indians had enjoyed a great day’s fighting and stopped the advance of Three Stars, as they called Crook, and they went home. Because they left the field, Crook claimed victory. It was an empty boast which he probably didn’t even believe himself. How many died depends on which account you read, somewhere between nine (Robert Utley) and fifty-seven (George Hyde) on the white side and perhaps thirty of the Indians. Of course the Civil War had hardened the US Army to losses but when Indian fought Indian a death toll of three or four was usually the maximum, so thirty-odd would have been a great loss.

Little Bighorn

So much has been written and read and watched and listened to about Custer’s last stand, and this is not the place to rehearse all that. What part did Crazy Horse play in the conflict? That is the question here. One story has it that while many of the Sioux and Cheyennes never dreamed that Custer would be foolish enough to attack, and were going about their business in the normal way, Crazy Horse was readying himself, marking a red bloody hand on his horse’s hips and a red arrow on its neck. He must have known or sensed that the big day had come.

Both Stephen Ambrose and Mari Sandoz wrote much about Crazy Horse’s brilliant strategy in flanking Custer and seizing the high ground. Others say that Sitting Bull or Gall or another had more influence on the outcome of the battle. We shall never know the details. We shall never know for sure, for example, who killed Custer. We don’t even know how many Indians there were – McMurtry says that two thousand is a fair estimate, but it’s an estimate. Some say that Crazy Horse was involved in the attack on Reno’s force, others that he did indeed flank Custer and prevent him from taking an effective defensive position on high ground. It is conjecture. What we can say for sure is that malgré Hollywood, Crazy Horse was no commander-in-chief in the white way, disposing ‘his’ troops hither and yon.

After Custer’s defeat the Sioux and Cheyennes went back to their life. Crazy Horse was apparently occasionally harrying the miners in the Black Hills. The government now simply took the Sioux lands for themselves. There was a disgraceful ‘treaty’ of sorts but it signified nothing – the whites wouldn’t keep to it anyway. In November Crook finally had a victory, of sorts, when he attacked the Cheyennes under Dull Knife. Those who got away from that struggled north in the cold and joined with Crazy Horse.

The end of freedom

But Crazy Horse must have known that his people were now in a pretty desperate situation. It was freezing, they had little food and less ammunition and there were large numbers of soldiers on the field. Colonel Nelson A Miles wanted Crazy Horse to surrender and sent runners to him promising fair treatment. Crazy Horse sent emissaries to discuss the idea but Miles’s Crow scouts saw them coming and attacked them, killing several. Miles was furious but the damage had been done. At this time Sitting Bull took his people to Canada but Crazy Horse seems not to have considered this.

Finally, in May of the following year, after a brutal winter, Crazy Horse decided to bring his people into Fort Robinson in Nebraska – about nine hundred of them, with two thousand horses. Crook called it a surrender and of course the press took this up but it was only a surrender in a way. Crazy Horse was not ‘tamable’, he was no negotiator, he wasn’t even a chief in the traditional sense – just that these people depended on him.

More broken promises

Crook had offered Crazy Horse his own agency and that the Indians would be allowed to leave for a forty-day buffalo hunt. The promises may have been made sincerely, but as often happened they were not maintained. Normally leading hostiles like Crazy Horse would have been invited to Washington and lionized and fêted there, but Crazy Horse never went. He needed his own agency because at the Red Cloud agency where he was he was treated with suspicion, even hatred, by the leading ‘settled’ Indians, especially Red Cloud himself. Many whites respected him and wrote admiringly of him but fellow Sioux did not.

Rumor, envy, jealously, and hatred

McMurtry writes:

From the day that Crazy Horse came in he was the focus of rumor, envy, jealously, and hatred, and it was among his own people that hatred became a dripping, ultimately fatal poison – a paradoxical thing since, except for this short terrible period, no Indian was more respected by the Indian people than he was.

Rumor could be particularly insidious. The famous mistranslation, deliberate or not, by scout Frank Grouard to white authorities of Crazy Horse’s words, making the whites believe, wrongly, that Crazy Horse had said he would if necessary fight to the death of the last white man, poisoned many whites’ view of Crazy Horse. When General Crook returned for another parley an Indian named Woman’s Dress told Crook that Crazy Horse meant to shake his hand then stab him to death. Crook ordered Crazy Horse’s arrest, which he must have known would set the cat among the pigeons. There was talk of sending Crazy Horse to Florida.

But when the soldiers and Indian police (including No Water) sent by Crook to effect the arrest arrived, they discovered Crazy Horse had left for the Spotted Tail agency, forty miles away. Spotted Tail, though, was no happier than Red Cloud to see him. The next day, Crazy Horse went back to Fort Robinson, to explain to its commander, General Bradley, that the rulors were falsehoods and he was behaving well. He must have found it hard to understand why so many Indians were massed against him.

But, behaving well or not, Crazy Horse had become a symbol of resistance, a source of shame for the agency Indians and worry for the whites.

The death of Crazy Horse

Bradley had no intention of seeing Crazy Horse or listening to his version of the facts. The Sioux was marched to the cells by the officer of the day, a Lt. Kennington, and by Little Big Man (no relation to the character in the Thomas Berger novels or Dustin Hoffmann movie), a former friend who had become a policeman. Crazy Horse saw his destination and broke free but Little Big Man grabbed his arms. Crazy Horse went for a knife and a private, William Gentles (who would die of asthma six months later) bayoneted him in the back, piercing his kidneys, and Crazy Horse sank to the ground mortally wounded. That seems to be the accepted version anyway.

Curiously, though, because it was such a public event, different accounts of the assassination became common. For example, Little Big Man always claimed that Crazy Horse had whirled in a frenzy, accidentally and fatally stabbing himself, but if you want to believe that Crazy Horse stabbed himself in the back, go ahead.

At any rate, Crazy Horse died, aged somewhere in his thirties, at Fort Robinson on the night of September 6, 1877.

Many in the fort expected to be killed that night but the Sioux did not rise. They were probably too cowed and in the thrall of their chiefs, who had become used to accommodating the white man. Many of them anyway did not regret Crazy Horse’s death. His presence had been an embarrassment to them.

Little Big Man received a medal (currently at the Nebraska State Historical Association) for his “bravery”.

In 1948 the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski started creating a giant monument, hacking an image of Crazy Horse out of a 600-foot rock face in the Black Hills. Though Ziolkowski died in 1982 his wife continued the work and when she died their ten children did so too. When finished, it is supposed to be the biggest sculpture in the world. McMurtry starts and finishes his short book with this monument.
 
The giant monument slowly takes shape
 
Crazy Horse has benefited from never dealing with the whites, attending no peace councils and refusing to travel to Washington. He was entirely true to his culture. This may be one of the reasons he has become such a symbol to Native American peoples today, and indeed to many Americans of all creed, color and origin.

Sorry if the post is too long...



Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Great Silence/Il Grande Silenzio (very many companies, 1968)


Said to be Corbucci's best work




 
 
There’s no such thing as a good spaghetti western. The nearest the genre came to anything close to quality was A Bullet for the General, which managed to scrape up a three-revolver Jeff Arnold rating, and The Great Silence is not as good as that. Still, some spaghettis are less dire than others, and there are certain movies you have to see at least once, even if they are bad: the Dollars trilogy, for example, and a fistful of others. So I did my duty and sat through it.

Sergio Corbucci (1926 – 90), pictured left, seems to have had a very bleak view of the world, and, indeed, of the Western movie. In his picture (he both directed and co-wrote it) the few good people are all brutally slain and the bad guys (the vast majority of the characters) get away with murder with nary a qualm. It’s pretty grim, frankly.

It was made in ’68 so maybe it was a Vietnam allegory. Many movies of that period were, or were said to be. The mass-murder in the final scenes is perhaps a My Lai reference (the movie was released in Italy in December 1968; the massacre was carried out in March that year). Who knows? There are also fashionable late-60s themes of class struggle, armed revolution and a corrupt legal and political system. Some of these Italian westerns had quite a left-wing agenda (A Bullet for the General, for one).

It’s supposed to be 1898 in Utah (it was shot in snowy Lazio and the Pyrenees) and bounty hunters, or bounny hunners as they are always referred to on the poorly dubbed soundtrack, are tracking down and murdering outlaws – and anyone who gets in their way – for the reward. The hero has a machine pistol but in every other respect it’s a classic post-Civil War Western in terms of sets, costumes and so on.
 
He has a Mauser. He's a crack shot with it, obviously.
 
There is a ‘hero’ (let’s call him that for simplicity’s sake) who is mute and known as Silence. He is played, in a minimalist way, by Frenchman Jean-Louis Trintignant, in his only Western. M Trintignant must have been pleased that he had no lines to learn. He was rendered dumb as a boy by a bounny hunner who treacherously killed his daddy after promising to spare his life. This killer also shot the man’s wife and mutilated the boy with a knife. So when the child grew up he dedicated his life to silently finding these hunners and shooting off their thumbs with his machine pistol, as one does.
 
 
The protagonists, Trintignant and Kinski
 
The chief villain is Loco, head of the bounny hunners. He is played by Klaus Kinski, from Danzig, who was much more of a Western specialist. In fact he did 24, including A Bullet for the General, though most were crap of the Coffin Full of Dollars type. His blond hair and blue eyes are rather startling.

There’s a sinister storekeeper/JP who hires the killers, or at least supports them, played by another spaghetti regular, Luigi Pistilli (he was in both The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and For a Few Dollars More). Pauline, the nearest we get to a heroine, has had her husband shot down by Loco, will watch her new man suffer the same fate and then will herself be shot to death in the street. It’s not a cheerful tale. Pauline is played by Vonetta McGee, proudly billed as ‘and introducing Vonetta MC Gee’ which makes her sound a bit like a DJ). I’m not sure if it was the bad dubbing or MC Gee's thespian skills that were at fault but…
 
 
Pistilli and McGee
 
There’s a Sheriff Burnett (Frank Wolff, a minor actor from California who became quite a success in Europe and who was McBain in Once Upon a Time in the West) who tries to stop the killers but he is murdered like all the other good guys.

On the plus side, some of the Silvano Ippolito cinematography is rather fine, and Ennio Morricone’s music, which I usually find trite, is quite haunting in a modern-classical way. This picture wasn’t the usual spaghetti Westploitation dross; it does have some qualities.

Just not very many.

The final showdown has some interest because we are so used to the wounded hero being warned not to go down to the saloon where the bad guys are waiting to kill him because he can’t possibly win, and then he does, that it comes almost as a refreshing change, or at least a rather bleak surprise, when Silence is casually gunned down by a henchman before he even gets inside and Klaus callously finishes him off so that his quest ends in dismal failure and death. Of course, it’s a spaghetti so we only get to this dénouement after interminable stares and ultra-close-ups of eyes. The whole film is too long at 1 hour 45 minutes and could usefully have been cut by at least half an hour.

The silence of the title is the Trintignant figure, of course, but also the silence of the winter wasteland (which perhaps Tarantino was referencing in The Hateful Eight), and of death.
 
 
 
Il Grande Silenzio is a sort of nihilist anti-Western, and if that’s your scene, go for it.

 

 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Johnny Ringo


 The fastest gun in the West
 
Then from dawn till setting sun
He practiced with that deadly gun
And hour on hour I watched in awe.
No human being could match the draw
Of Ringo.

Lorne Greene knew in 1964, when he had that hit song (I am generous when I call it a song), that the name Ringo would resonate, and not only in the West. The very word is enough to quicken the blood of any true Westernista. Ringo! It immediately conjures up a gunfighter, probably dressed in black, lightning fast and deadly.
 

Peck was Ringo
 
Ringo has appeared again and again in Western movies. John Wayne was of course Ringo in Stagecoach, with Alex Cord taking over in the 1966 remake and Kris Kristofferson in the 1986 one. Gregory Peck was Ringo (though Jimmy, not Johnny) in Fox’s The Gunfighter in 1950. John Ireland was Johnny Ringo in Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1957 (when he was killed by Doc Holliday at the OK gunfight). Michael Biehn took the role in the Kurt Russell Tombstone in 1993 and Norman Howell did the honors in Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp the following year. Even Hopalong Cassidy had to kill Ringo when Ringo up and shot Belle Starr, the cad. And spaghetti westerns liked the Ringo name almost as much as Django.
 
And Duke, of course
 
On TV, Ringo appeared several times on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, played, confusingly by different actors:  Britt Lomond, Norman Alden, John Pickard and Peter M Thompson. Paul Richard was Ringo in a 1958 episode of Tales of Wells Fargo and Myron Healey was Johnny in Tombstone Territory. In the TV Hondo in 1967 Frank and Jesse James shot Ringo when they learned Ringo had killed Quantrill. Buck Cannon knew him and pointed him out to Blue Boy in a saloon in High Chaparral. There were other TV Ringos. And of course for the 1959 – 60 season Ringo got his own series on CBS, played by Don Durant. In that he tired of outlaw life and took a job as a lawman. I thought the show was rather cool because he had a LeMat seven-shooter. Ringo, Johnny Ringo/His fears were never shown/The fastest gun in all the West/The quickest ever known, the title song told us. You can hear it sung by Frank McCloud here. Great stuff.
 
 
 
 
I am also informed, by IMDb, that “Johnny Ringo is the protagonist of a fictionalized memoir by Geoff Aggeler, a professor of English literature at the University of Utah, entitled Confessions of Johnny Ringo. In the novel, Ringo is a bookish and introspective observer of his era who is driven to become an outlaw during the Civil War when his sweetheart is killed by Union troops in Missouri. His death at the hands of Wyatt Earp frees his spirit to reunite with that of his sweetheart.”

In fact traditionally Ringo was a learned man, sometimes Shakespeare-quoting. He was supposed to be a gentleman gone bad, the black sheep of a respectable family, a broody, Byronic figure. A sort of sagebrush Hamlet. Very often he was the deadly rival of the equally erudite Doc Holliday, and in some versions it is Doc who finally kills him.
 
 
A selection of screen Ringos
 
His real name was Ringgold, according to legend, but he changed it so as not to bring shame on his family. He fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, riding with Quantrill at the sack of Lawrence, Kansas, and was related to the Youngers and the Daltons.

This is the Johnny Ringo of popular culture. But is there any foundation in fact to this anti-hero of the Wild West?

Nope.

The real Ringo

There was a John Ringo. And his life was an interesting one, even if it bore no resemblance to the lurid stuff of pulp fiction. He did not ride with Quantrill at Lawrence (he was 14 then and already in California) and he was no blood relation to the Youngers, and therefore not the Daltons either – though his Aunt Augusta married Coleman Younger, a (non-criminal) uncle of the outlaws. His name really was Ringo – his family never called themselves anything else.

Much of his life, though, is in deep shadow. Ringo left no autobiography, like John Wesley Hardin, or letters to the papers, like Jesse James. He had no wife or children to pass stories on to. There are no buildings like the Lincoln County Courthouse whose bullet-holes commemorate Billy the Kid. No one knows for sure how he died. Until recently there was not even any authenticated photograph of Ringo.

There is, however, a good book, John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was by Jack Burrows (The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1987). For twenty years Mr. Burrows examined family documents (this wasn’t easy because family shame at the criminal career of John persisted), read newspapers of the time, journals and many other primary sources, as well as all the secondary ones, many of them, like Walter Noble Burns’s Tombstone, Billy Breakenridge’s Helldorado, or Triggernometry by Breakenridge’s disciple Eugene Cunningham, very dubious indeed, and he came up with the most real John Ringo possible. And he secured from the late Charles Ringo, a distant relative, an authentic photograph.
 
He doesn't look much like a lightning-fast gunslinger
 
The book is not coherent from a narrative point of view, key events of Ringo’s life being often tangentially referred to but especially hard to pin down. Still, it does have the smack of conscientious research.
 
The authority. The cover photo is hilariously bad, though.
 
Burrows tells us that John Peters Ringo was born in Indiana on May 3, 1850, the eldest of five children (two boys and three girls). The family, of Dutch origin, very possibly moved to Missouri and when John was 14 they set out West in a wagon train. John’s mother kept a journal, though it is skimpy and only mentions him a handful of times, referring to him variously as John, Johnny and Johnnie. On the way they survived Indian attacks, there was a murder, his father accidentally blew his own head off with a shotgun and his mother gave birth to a disfigured stillborn child, as a result of the tragedy, it was said, and John saw the deformed infant’s body. In theory John would have become the head of the family, though at 14 that would have been a challenge. It must certainly have been a traumatic trip. You can dabble in psychology if you want as a way of explaining Ringo’s later career.

Far from being a highly educated college graduate reading the classics in the original Latin and Greek, John Ringo did not finish grammar school. We know he was literate (he had letters from his sisters and once wrote to excuse himself from appearing in court). But that hardly constitutes a scholar.

Johnny Ringo goes bad

He stayed in San Jose, California for five years and it was there that he seems to have ‘gone bad’. Burrows was told that “John became quite a drunkard and left home at nineteen in 1869 [leaving] his family in the lurch.” He went to Texas, where there were other Ringos and where he became involved in “the Hoodoo War”, which described the vigilantism and night-riding that went on during the Mason County range war.

It was essentially conflict between the German-American community, which had had the temerity largely to support the Union during the Civil War, and the so-called ‘Americans’, white Texas supporters of the Confederacy. The animosity was exacerbated by rustling and other theft. The Germans appointed the apparently honest John Clark as sheriff and he was very effective but his posse turned into a lynch mob when it caught up with some rustlers; Clark was at least passive, if not actively involved. And a leading ‘American’, Tim Williamson, was arrested by Deputy John Wohrle (or Worley), who apparently led the man into the path of bushwhackers, one of whom, Peter Bader, killed him.

Murder most foul

It was the Williamson killing that brought the Scott Cooley gang, and with it John Ringo, into the Hoodoo War - though we do not know how or why Ringo fell in with Cooley. It was said that Cooley had been an Indian captive whose family had been massacred and the scarred boy, once recovered, had been raised by Williamson. Cooley now killed and scalped Wohrle, carrying the scalp around in his pocket afterwards.
 
It might be Ringo
 
Sheriff Clark then used a local gambler, Cheyney, to trick Cooley, luring some of his gang into an ambush. One of Cooley’s men was killed and another wounded. Ringo and man named Williams then found Cheyney, got invited for breakfast and while Cheyney was washing and his face was covered with a towel, they shot him dead. Ringo was indicted for the murder (there was no mention of Williams) but shortly after, Ringo and Cooley murdered another of the German party, Charley Bader, mistaking him for his brother Peter. Ringo and Cooley were jailed but their compadres busted them out. On November 7, 1876, Ringo and another Cooley gang member, George Gladden, were arrested by Texas Rangers. Gladden got 99 years but Ringo seems to have beaten the rap and high-tailed it for Arizona.
 
Did Ringo know Wes Hardin?
 
A Galveston newspaper reported that Ringo, 29, was in jail with John Wesley Hardin at some time before August 1877. Hardin reputedly complained about being locked up with anyone as vicious as John Ringo. One writer claims that John Ringo served briefly as a constable in Loyal Valley, Texas, in 1878, which seems remarkable if true. Maybe there was some justification for the TV Johnny Ringo after all!

Tombstone – Doc Holliday and the Earps

Ringo first appeared in Arizona Territory in 1879 with a certain Joseph Olney, alias Joe Hill, a friend from the Mason County War. In December 1879, a drunk Ringo shot unarmed Louis Hancock in a saloon in Safford, AZ, apparently when Hancock refused an offered drink of whiskey, stating that he preferred beer. Hancock survived his wound. This event was sensationalized by many of the lurid writers, who often set the shooting in Tombstone, had Hancock armed but Ringo ‘faster’, Hancock being killed, and so on. In reality it seems to have been a drunken and clumsy encounter.

Ringo was not at the famous gunfight on the vacant lot near the OK Corral in October 1881 (pace John Sturges) but he was certainly aligned with the so-called Cowboys and probably participated in robberies and possibly killings with them.
 
Ireland was Ringo for Sturges
 
On January 17, 1882, on Allen Street, Tombstone, Ringo and Doc Holliday traded threats and seemed to be headed into a gunfight. Both men were arrested by a town cop, James Flynn, and brought before a judge for carrying weapons within city limits. Once again, this event has been grossly inflated by the popular writers, notably Burns, Lake, Breakenridge and Cunningham, and taken up by the movies, such that it was a major showdown between Ringo and Doc with the Earp brothers – who were almost certainly not present. The plain facts about Ringo are so few and far between that it became necessary to embroider.

We do know that Judge William H. Stilwell followed up on charges outstanding against Ringo for a card-game robbery in Galeyville and Ringo was re-arrested and jailed on January 20 for the weekend, but no conviction followed.

Certainly the Earps were convinced that Ringo had taken part in the December 28, 1881 night-time ambush from hiding of Virgil Earp that crippled him for life, and that Ringo then participated in the March 18, 1882, murder of Morgan Earp while he was shooting pool in a Tombstone saloon. Wyatt Earp, then temporarily a deputy US marshal, killed Frank Stilwell in Tucson on March 20, 1882 and, after the shooting, led a federal posse on a vendetta to find and kill the others they held responsible for ambushing Virgil and Morgan. Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, a Democrat very much of the faction opposed to the Earps’ Republican law-and-order group and equally certainly pro-Cowboys, obtained warrants from a Tucson judge for arrest of the Earps and Holliday and deputized Ringo and 19 other men, many of them friends of Stilwell and the Cowboys. These deputies pursued but never found the Earps' posse, either through incompetence or because they chose no confrontation.

During the Earp vendetta ride, Wyatt killed one of Ringo's friends, ‘Curly Bill’ Brocius, in a gunfight at Iron Springs about 20 miles (32 km) from Tombstone but they did not find Ringo. Wyatt and Doc, worried about the county sheriff's warrants, left for Colorado. This dramatical deficiency was ‘remedied’ by movies which had Wyatt or Doc find and slay Ringo in revenge.

The death of Ringo

It’s pretty conclusive: on July 14, 1882, Ringo's body was found lying against the trunk of a tree in West Turkey Creek Valley in Arizona Territory. A neighbor heard a single gunshot on the afternoon of July 13 and discovered Ringo's body the following day. His feet were wrapped in strips of cloth torn from his undershirt, probably because his horse had bolted with his boots tied to the saddle - a method commonly used at that time to keep scorpions out of them. There was a bullet hole in Ringo’s right temple and an exit wound at the back of his head. His revolver had one round expended and was found hanging by one finger in his hand. His horse was found two miles away with his boots still tied to the saddle. A coroner, who was told that Ringo had often threatened to kill himself, officially ruled his death a suicide.

But these facts won’t do for the pulp writers or movie makers, nor for the gleeful conspiracy theorists. All sorts of theories abound as to who killed Johnny Ringo. It would be much neater if Wyatt Earp had returned to Arizona to finish the vendetta. According to the book I Married Wyatt Earp, which author and collector Glen Boyer claimed to have assembled from manuscripts written by Earp's third wife, Josephine Marcus Earp, Earp and Doc Holliday returned to Arizona in early July and found Ringo camped in West Turkey Creek Valley. As Ringo attempted to flee up the canyon, Earp shot him with a rifle. But Boyer refused to reveal his sources and his book has been discredited as a hoax.

In the movie Tombstone Doc did it. But The Pueblo Daily Chieftain reported that Holliday was seen in Salida, Colorado on July 7, and then in Leadville on July 18, and there was an active warrant out on him in Arizona. It would seem extremely improbable that he was in Turkey Creek Valley on July 13.

Then some say that Michael O’Rourke, known as Johnny Behind the Deuce, did it in gratitude to Wyatt for saving him from a lynch mob and because he had a grudge against Ringo. But he too had a warrant out on him.

A theory popular in the years immediately following Ringo's death named ‘Buckskin’ Frank Leslie as his killer. Leslie apparently did tell a guard at the Yuma prison, where he was serving time for killing his wife, that he had shot Ringo. While many believed his story, others thought he was simply claiming credit for it to curry favor with Earp's inner circle, or for whatever notoriety it might bring him.
 
Wyatt? Doc? Buckskin? Johnny Behind the Deuce?
 
Really, you can make up any theory you want. The probability remains largely that John Ringo died by his own hand.

His name lives on

Well, such are the probable facts of the life of John Peters Ringo. It doesn’t seem much of a foundation for the construction of the fabulous Johnny Ringo of legend. For example, where did all that ‘fastest gun in the West’ nonsense come from? That we know of, Ringo never had a one-on-one showdown gunfight in his life. And if he was aiming to shoot a man to death he did a mighty bad job of it by failing to kill the unarmed Louis Hancock who was standing right next to him in a saloon.

Still, Western myth is Western myth and without it we’d never have had all those lightning-fast celluloid Ringos with endless notches on their guns. The fastest gun in all the West/The quickest ever known!