Monday, December 27, 2010

1877: Famous Cellmates In The Travis County Jail

Today, across the street from the Texas State Capitol Building in Austin, Texas, on the corner of 11th and Brazos, stands the Dwight C. Greer Building. The limestone building, erected in 1933, is the home of the Texas Department of Transportation. From this building, the activities of over 12,000 of the department’s employees are directed, many of whom are located in the Greer Building itself.

But in 1877, there was another building which stood on the corner of 11th and Brazos. And, unlike the 1930’s Art Deco style building which houses state transportation employees today, the building in 1877 was built of stone and looked like a castle. But this “castle” was not built to house kings, queens, or other members of a royal family; it was built to hold murderers, robbers, petty thieves, vagrants and others who broke the law around Austin. It was also a place of execution for those who had been sentenced to hang. The building was the Travis County Jail. And, in 1877, the jail was holding two men in the same cell that would become legends of what we now call the “Old West.” These two men were John Wesley Hardin and John Ringo.

The most infamous killer in the history of Texas, and arguably in the history of the Old West, was Texas-born John Wesley Hardin. Born in 1853 to a preacher, and entering his teens in the years immediately following the Civil War, he loathed what had happened to the South in the aftermath of the war. An angry youth, he was responsible for the deaths of several men by the time he was 15 years old, and, by the time he found himself locked up in the Travis County Jail in 1877, he had killed over 40 men, with several deaths taking place during the famous Taylor-Sutton feud in DeWitt County. But Hardin’s violence was not always triggered by a cause, and sometimes it was trivial. Hardin once shot a man to death in an adjoining hotel room for snoring. Obviously not a man to be trifled with, Hardin’s reputation as one very bad and dangerous man was well known during his lifetime and his nefarious reputation has only grown in the many decades since.

John Ringo was born in Indiana in 1850, and lived in Missouri before his family headed off as part of a wagon train to find a new life in California. Along the way, his father accidentally shot himself in the head with a shotgun while young John watched helplessly. The trauma of seeing his father’s violent death never left Ringo, and he became a troubled, brooding loner who increasingly found strength and solace in a liquor bottle. By the 1870’s, Ringo found himself in the Texas Hill Country. His first arrest was for discharging a firearm on the public square in Burnet on Christmas Day 1874. Later, he became embroiled in a famous feud called the “Mason County War” or, as it was better known in the hill country, the “Hoodoo War,” and was accused of murder. As a result, it was in 1877, that Ringo found himself locked up in the Travis County Jail alongside John Wesley Hardin.

Aside from his brief notoriety in the hill country feud, Ringo was not well known, and certainly did not have anything like the fearsome reputation of John Wesley Hardin. John Ringo’s criminal career had barely begun, while Hardin’s was in its prime. That is why it surprises some historians that Hardin reportedly complained to Travis County jailers that he should not be kept locked up with someone with the disagreeable disposition of John Ringo. As a result of this contrast of their reputations at the time, many contemporary historians have questioned whether Hardin really made such a complaint at all. And, while none of us were present back then to know for sure, I have a different take. In my opinion, it is quite plausible that Hardin made such a complaint. Many of the famous outlaws of that time period were very protective of their reputation, and whether the reputation was based on truth or fiction was meaningless, because either way it maintained their pride and helped keep them alive. Hardin is a good case in point, as he later wrote a book about his life in which he detailed his many killings. While I agree Hardin was probably not physically afraid of Ringo in the Travis County Jail, he might have been afraid of an “upstart” gunfighter upstaging his reputation. The complaint to the jailers, such as it was, might have been a way for Hardin to publicly dismiss the troublesome Ringo, in effect, saying, “Why do you have this nobody locked up in a cell with me?” In any event, both men soon left the jail and went their separate ways.

After being released from jail when all charges against him were dropped, Ringo hung around Texas for awhile, and, for a short period of time became a constable. He eventually moved to Arizona where he befriended the so-called “Cowboys,” a gang operating in and around Tombstone, Arizona, which included the Clanton and McLaury families as well as “Curly” Bill Brocius. Ringo’s legend as a gunfighter has been overplayed over the years, thanks in part to books and Hollywood movies. Ringo, for example, did not participate in the famous gunfight just outside of Tombstone’s O.K. Corral when the Clantons and McLaurys squared off with the Earp brothers and “Doc” Holliday. He was, however, well known to the Earps and Holliday, and had several heated arguments with them. This familiarity with the “Cowboys” and the Earps, some cattle rustling, and the killing of a few men from time to time earned him a place in the history of the Old West. When Wyatt Earp went on his famous “Vendetta Ride,” in which many of the “Cowboys” and Ringo’s friends were killed, Ringo became extremely depressed, and his drinking, which had always been a problem, got worse.

After weeks of drinking heavily, Ringo rode out into the mountains east of Tombstone, and in July 1882, he was found with a gunshot wound to his head, leaning against a tree along West Turkey Creek. Although there has been much speculation that he was killed by Wyatt Earp, “Doc” Holliday, or others, it is more likely that with many of his friends dead, and alienated from and ostracized by his remaining family in California, John Ringo saw nothing more to live for and took his own life.

Hardin spent 15 years in a prison in Huntsville, Texas before being pardoned by the governor in 1894. During the time he was behind bars, he studied legal matters, and upon his release moved to El Paso to practice law. El Paso at the time was still a violent place. It was one of the last cities in Texas that still maintained a wide open frontier atmosphere that had been so commonplace a few years earlier. As such, it remained a destination for gamblers, wanted men, drifters, and questionable women. One of Hardin’s first legal clients was a relative who had been charged with murder.

James Miller, who was better known as “Killing Jim” and “Deacon Jim,” was Hardin's cousin by marriage. Miller, like Hardin, began his murderous ways early, by killing his grandparents when he was not even 10 years old. As an adult, Miller preached every Sunday, and seemed to lead a good, clean life, refraining from the use of tobacco and alcohol. But behind this exterior, Miller was really a psychopathic hit man who enjoyed killing men with his "scattergun," which today we call a side-by-side double barrel shotgun. Miller was soon acquitted, but Hardin was not so lucky.

In 1895, after threatening the son of El Paso’s Constable, John Selman, Hardin was shooting dice in a saloon. With his back to the door, he never saw Selman walk up behind him and fire the bullet into his head that ended his violent life at the age of 42.


  1. I don't think notoriety or reputation had anything to do with the request, if it was made. Hardin was good with a gun, but in prison or jail, he was just another slightly built unarmed male. Gosh knows what happened to him in Huntsville. Ringo, however, was known for his temper and probably was a handful to share a cell with. We may never know. Good research, by the way.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You may very well be right.