Media Frenzy for a Northwest Desperado: The Life and Legend of Harry Tracy

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Image: Postcard collection (Record Series 9901-01), Seattle Municipal Archives.

By 1900 Dame Fortune appeared to smile on Seattle with teeth capped in gold. The raw frontier outpost had more than 80,000 residents. Rails, telegraph and even telephone lines connected it nationally. As the springboard for the Klondike Gold Rush, the town hungered for importance and fame, and Frederick Grant, author of the city’s first comprehensive history, underscored its maturity: “We who reside in Seattle today do not in any way regard ourselves as pioneers.”

But then, suddenly, the city found itself a hapless pioneer in a very modern phenomenon: a nation-wide media frenzy.

It was July 1, 1902, when the notorious bandit Harry Tracy commandeered at gunpoint the gasoline launch N & S in Olympia, to transport him to Seattle and told the vessel’s owner, Captain A.G. Clark: “Goodbye Cap. You’ve been kind to me. I’ll have a stack soon after I get to Seattle, and then I’ll pay you for your trouble.”

By then the largest manhunt in U.S. history was gunning for Tracy after he and accomplice David Merrill shot their way out of the Oregon penitentiary three weeks earlier. Firing short Winchester repeating rifles, they killed guard Frank Ferrill, wounded two others and a prisoner. They shot guard R.T. James from the prison wall and, while other guards hid, scaled it with ladders, surprising a group sent outside to cut them off, and, in a hail of bullets, used guard B.F. Tiffany as a human shield until they reached the woods where they killed him.

Until Seattle’s Ted Bundy confessed to more than 30 killings or Green River killer Garry Ridgeway was convicted of 48, Tracy topped the list of American gunmen, shooting nine to death. In the Seattle area, he outwitted posses and state militia, leaving a deadly trail until his rampage ended in a wheat field in Creston, Lincoln County where, wounded and surrounded, he shot himself.

Out West violent death accompanied violent social change, and its depiction was carefully manipulated. A fascination with banditry and gunfighters diverted attention from greater crimes: massacres of Native Americans numbered in tens, hundreds, even thousands, and their lands were devastated economically and environmentally. Tracy’s final onslaught, sensationalized in the local and national press, amplified the manipulation to new heights, while also prefiguring media frenzies to come.

Outcast

Born October 23, 1875, in Pittsville, Wisconsin, Harry Stevens spun varied narratives that only an early and violent death were able to knot. A traumatized boy fleeing a wife-beating father, outcast from a religious family to avoid jail for petty crimes, young Harry shielded the family name by changing his to Tracy. Farming in Missouri, he lost a young wife to a sheriff’s bullet that sparked a lifelong hatred of lawmen.

As Harry Garr, he told Sheriff O.R. Rose of Bearhead County, Montana, that he came from Missouri to Montana to be a cowboy. “A reckless youth when I first knew him,” said Sheriff Rose, who jailed him in 1890 for 60 days after he stole a keg of beer in Dillon. Robbing a rancher got him a year at the Montana State Penitentiary. After release, he robbed a lumber camp and disappeared.

He reappears traveling between remote outlaw hideouts: Hole-in-the-Wall pass in Wyoming’s spectacular red rock country, Brown’s Hole near the Gates of Lodore in northwest Colorado, and Robbers Roost in the southern Utah’s high desert. Writers link him with the Wild Bunch organized by Butch Cassidy at Robbers Roost, but many gangs roamed the area, and there is no clear connection. By the 1890s most Indians had been driven out of Colorado, but poor settlers harassed by the private armies of rich cattle barons felt little loyalty to the law.

Convicted of breaking and entering in Provo, Utah, Tracy was sent to the State Penitentiary at Salt Lake City in July 1897. In October, he and inmate David Lant broke out, eluding a posse while heading for Brown’s Hole, then to the Hole-in-the-Wall. That winter they followed the outlaw trail to Powder Springs, a high-country horse pasture (large herds provided relays needed for bank heists). In the sere canyons of Robbers Roost, they met outlaw Dave Merrill. All returned to Brown’s Hole in February 1898, where they were joined by Pat Johnson, who was fleeing a Wyoming posse seeking his arrest for killing a teenage ranch hand at cattleman Valentine Hoy’s nearby spread.

Surprised on nearby Douglas Mountain by this posse and one from Utah, the group fled on foot for cover while trading shots with deputies. In the melee, Tracy shot and killed deputy Hoy, starting the train of events that would take him to national notoriety.

Pat Johnson was captured, and Tracy and Lant were apprehended days later six miles from Powder Springs. At capture, the two were starving, exhausted, their feet bleeding. Locked up in the Routt County jail, they broke out in June, fled south and were rearrested and sent to the more secure jail in Aspen. On the night of June 22, they escaped again.

Lant leaves the narrative at this point, but Tracy rejoined Dave Merrill, heading for Portland, where Merrill’s mother, brothers, and a sister, Mollie Robinson, lived. Eager to “prosper” in booming Portland, Tracy and Merrill donned masks and overcoats and, dubbed the “Macintosh gang,” robbed banks, saloons, drug stores, and the new electric streetcars. In off-hours Tracy courted and married Mollie.

By 1899, however, Tracy and Merrill were doing time at Oregon’s penitentiary in Salem: Merrill, 13 years for larceny and robbery; Tracy, 20 years.  Merrill was 28 years old, 5’11” tall and weighed 160 pounds; Tracy, 25, 5’ 10”, same weight, with gray eyes, light hair, and a mustache. A photo captures an intimidating visage. That prison, run by a private firm profiting from work gangs overseen by brutal guards, was surrounded by a 14-foot wall. Rifles and cartridges were smuggled in, and at dawn, June 9, Tracy and Merrill made their break.

Sunset of the Old West

By 1900 America’s cities were electrified; the first auto show was held in New York; the age of flight was at hand. Suddenly, desperados from the Old West shot their way into the headlines. It was front-page news coast to coast, and the duo’s ability to elude posses, state militias, and bloodhounds made them sensational.

The pair were desperate, starving, and cornered, but heavily armed posses kept returning flummoxed, exhausted, and despondent. Stories from those held up by the convicts testified to fear, but also the desperados’ politeness, even jocularity. Every county raised its posse, every sheriff boasted imminent capture, but by June 15 the pair had crossed the Columbia.

In Washington, posse members mistakenly fired on each other. Oregon and Washington governors vied in raising rewards, now in the thousands of dollars. The convicts would surely be stopped at the Lewis River but were not. Citizens taunted the empty-handed lawmen: “When are you going to catch them, Mr.?”  “Ever goin’ to do it?” Anonymous letters from Seattle claimed the pair were already in Canada and excoriated officials in “unspeakable terms.” A resident near Bellingham killed a “suspicious looking” stranger who resembled one of the convicts.

When news lapsed, the story left front pages, but maps, photos, cartoons, and synopses of events and non-events nourished reader interest. That changed on July 3 when Tracy rode through Olympia, surprised workers at the Capital City Oyster Company, got breakfast at gunpoint, and hijacked Captain Clark’s launch.

Where was Merrill? During the seven-hour voyage, “talking unstoppably,” Tracy told how he came to distrust his partner, prodded him into an argument, a duel, then shot him in the back before he could do the same. The crew dragooned for the trip talked him out of killing whatever federal prison guards he could find on the shore of McNeil Island. By 5 pm, they passed Elliott Bay where Tracy commented on the city’s growth, suggesting he had spent time here.

At dusk, they anchored at Meadow Point, today’s Golden Gardens Park, and Tracy had crewman Scott tie up Capt. Clark’s crew, but cautioned him not to hurt Clark’s son, Eddy, who had an injured wrist. With Scott, his rifle and 200 rounds of ammunition, Tracy walked the railroad tracks to Ballard, as usual “talking vivaciously.” Of Tracy’s persona, Scott later confided that he “made you feel at home.”

“What are you going to do?” he asked Tracy, who said he would rob a policeman to get a pistol, go down Lake Washington, into Seattle on Pike Street and “hold up Clancy’s Bar and Gambling house. I hear they have got some dough there, but in Seattle I am among friends.”

Once he was released, Scott returned to the launch whose crew had freed themselves, and, reentering Elliott Bay, reached Seattle at midnight to inform police. Meanwhile Tracy followed the tracks to Lake Washington’s shore and the community of Wayne near Bothell, where he slept in an isolated cabin.

Shoot-out

With sightings of Tracy multiplying, King County Sheriff Edward Cudihee notified the National Guard and sent deputies north. By 3 pm, July 3, in pouring rain, deputies Charles Raymond, Jack Williams, L.J. Nelson, and Frank Brewer with reporters Louis Sefrit and Karl Anderson tracked Tracy to the cabin. As they approached from two sides, Tracy leaped firing from behind a stump, killed deputy Raymond instantly, grazed reporter Anderson’s face, and wounded Williams and Sefrit before once again escaping unscathed.

The city was in uproar. Men in expensive hunting clothes and boys who had never fired a shot clamored for weapons to go after Tracy and claim the reward. As citizens, deputies, and militia crowded at Interbay station to entrain north, the sight of Williams’s wife and the arrival of Raymond’s corpse on the southbound cast a pall.

Appearing on a stolen horse, Tracy told north-end farmer Louis Johnson to harness it to his buggy and drive. Passing Green Lake, through Fremont and onto Phinney Ridge, a hungry Tracy had Johnson stop at a house. As news reached Sheriff Cudihee, he raced to intercept.

At 5011 Phinney Avenue West, Mrs. R.H. Van Horn and a friend were caring for an injured neighbor when Tracy entered her home demanding clothes and dinner. As she cooked, he searched for but found no male clothing, so took the friend’s, who wrapped in a shawl. Sitting to eat, he apologized to Mrs. Horn for the inconvenience, displaying the same courtesy and wit that Johnson had noted. A grocery boy rang the doorbell. Tracy warned Van Horn not to talk, but when she opened the door to receive her order, she signaled alarm with her eyes and mouthed “Tracy.”  The boy returned to Fremont and telephoned police.

Cudihee rushed patrolman E.E. Breece and hastily deputized Cornelius Rowley and J.I. Knight to the house. At dusk, Tracy walked out between Johnson and the be-shawled friend. Cudihee had him in his sights when Breece arose and ordered Tracy to drop the gun. The patrolman died instantly. Rowley fell, likely shot by Knight. Cudihee fired twice, but his target vanished in Woodland Park’s forest.

Once again, the gentleman bandit had outwitted scores of heavily armed men, leaving dead and wounded and escaping untouched. Back at Meadow Point, he forced a young Japanese fisherman to row him to Bainbridge Island where he entered the house of the John Johnson family and ordered breakfast. After gathering clothes, he had a hired man, Anderson, row him to West Seattle.

Gallant Gunslinger

A day later, after tying Anderson to a tree near Renton, Tracy introduced himself to young women picking blackberries and invited himself to their home, that of Charles Jerrolds. Eighteen-year-old May Baker recalled him as gallant, tender-hearted, loving little children, a brilliant conversationalist, and a man with iron nerve who flirted with her as a posse surrounded the house. Again, he slipped out and vanished. Freed from his tree, Anderson said Tracy had met with friends nearby and shared a bottle of whiskey.

Reporters described posses as demoralized. Although they raced to every sighting, Tracy always kept one step ahead. He traded shots with deputies at Covington, passed through Black Diamond and Enumclaw, then caught a freight laboring up a grade and crossed the Cascades. He was recognized by a worker who remembered him as a young brakeman on the Northern Pacific. He picnicked with Mollie and friends on Lake Wenatchee where he caught 18 trout and wistfully described a return to Hole-in-the-Wall or a visit with his mother. Reports placed him next at Coulee City, then Creston.

Weary newsmen found solace commenting on his penchant for Johnsons or printing fake sightings from Washington, D.C. “Tracy seen on Pennsylvania Avenue this afternoon. Send delegation at once.”   “Mary MacLane [a contemporary feminist] at Boston, is engaged to marry Tracy at Capitol tomorrow morning. Rush injunction.”

Actors at Seattle’s Third Avenue Theater lost no time staging a play on July 26. Frank Readick played Tracy: “fine-haired, chivalrous, deep-voiced and large-hearted.” Richard French portrayed the sheriff, Samuel Hairpin was one of Tracy’s pals, and M.J. Hooley acted “Anderson the Swede,” doubtless as a comic character. They even brought up Charles Jerrolds to play “Charles Girard” and one of the young women to play May Baker. Scores of stand-ins staged shoot-outs, and finally Tracy traded life for freedom in a “grand, heroic battle.”

On a Sunday ride near Creston, 17-year-old George Goldfinch saw a rider leading a pack horse from the pines. “I’m Tracy!” Aiming his rifle, he asked for shelter. Goldfinch led him to the Eddy brothers’ ranch east of Creston. Tracy told them he had no money but would work. Goldfinch asked him to leave; Tracy said he would kill his mother if he notified authorities. A good and amiable worker, he stayed three days, but Goldfinch at last telephoned Sheriff Gardner in Davenport, who telegraphed for help. A man overhearing the message collected five hunting buddies to bag the reward. On the hot, quiet evening of August 7, they approached the ranch from different directions.

Unmarked Pit

Did modernity, numbers, and firepower finally do in the outlaw? Newspapers asked, “Was he insane?”  Did the fulsome descriptions of his wit and charm prefigure the Stockholm syndrome? What do we do with someone who would rather steal than work and kills those ordered to stop him? His chivalry did not include their widows and orphans, but he had become a celebrity.

The five hunters, who cornered Tracy and shot and wounded him severely before he shot and killed himself, went unrewarded. Litigation distributed the around $4,500 prize money to individuals in the states and municipalities that participated in the official manhunt. The manhunt’s 58-day cost was not calculated. In a zinc-lined coffin, Tracy’s remains were doused with acid to stymie souvenir hunters. What remained was dumped into an unmarked lime pit outside the Salem penitentiary. His early death at 27 elicited no official sympathy.

But dime novels soon celebrated him. A 1950s television series, Story of the Century, devoted an episode to him. Bruce Dern portrayed him winningly in the 1982 film, Harry Tracy, Desperado. In 2009, Bainbridge [Island] Performing Arts presented Harry Tracy, Bainbridge Bandit, cloaking him in a beret and hammy French accent.

In her grisly writing, Mary MacLane — the feminist aptly if humorously paired with Tracy by frustrated reporters — may have best captured his fatal energy and anticipated our existential, modern fear: “It is not death and murders and plots and wars that make life tragedy. It is Nothing[ness] that makes life tragedy.”

Sources:

This article is based on numerous often conflicting sources, including newspapers that followed the story from June to August 1902: Portland Oregonian, Seattle Daily Times, Seattle Post Intelligencer, Billings Gazette, New York Herald, and New York Times. Supplemental information came from the obituaries of his victims, particularly that of Valentine Hoy. The Wikipedia entry for Harry Tracy and the sources cited therein were also valuable, as was the above-mentioned film.

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1 COMMENT

  1. I remember once, talking to a bureau correspondent for a national paper, that the New York desk kept demanding “larger-than-life” stories from the Northwest, what is called the Paul Bunyan Complex. In fact, the West was settled in an urban way, since there was relatively little farmland. And the Northwest, at least, was mostly peopled by northern Midwesterners with their stodgy family values. Figures like Tracy were mostly meant to appeal to Eastern readers. Edward Said labeled this trick of mind as “orientalism,” stressing the exotic. I suggest a counterpart word: frontierism.

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