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Wild Man of the Wynoochee
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A year and a half after killing two teenage boys on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and then disappearing into the deeply forested Wynoochee Valley (in southern Grays Harbor County), John Tornow -- a former mental patient who had become a legend among local loggers and a nightmare figure for children of the area -- was finally killed in a pitched gun battle in the spring of 1913. The incident was covered in almost gruesome detail by the press, which labeled the fugitive “the Cougar Man,” “a Mad Daniel Boone,” and “the Wild Man of the Wynoochee.” But not even Tornow’s family could tell precisely what had turned him from a Thoreauvian loner into a murderer wanted “Dead or Alive.”
A Haunting Visage
Long before the corpse reached Montesano, gawkers were crowding the streets of that town to see what was left of Tornow. They came to inspect the cut of this man who had evaded posses and bounty hunters for so long, to see what sort of person was able to kill six men or more and then hole up in a secluded forest cabin for months with little to eat but bullfrogs. Most of all, the curious wanted to view the Wild Man’s face.
Deputy Sheriff Giles Quimby, who’d finally brought the outlaw down three days before, on April 17, 1913, told newspaper reporters that his reclusive quarry had “the most horrible face I ever saw. The shaggy beard and long hair, out of which gleamed two shining, murderous eyes, haunts me now. I could only see his face as he uncovered himself to fire a shot, and all the hatred that could fire the soul of a human being was evident.”
It’s no wonder, then, that spectators rankled at 11th-hour efforts by Tornow’s two brothers to prevent the body’s public display. A mob of up to 250 people “stormed the doors” of the tiny Montesano morgue not long after the Wild Man’s remains arrived there, and coroner R. F. Hunter decided it would not be in anybody’s best interest to refuse them entry. “Fully 650 people passed through the room where the gaunt figure lay within a space of 30 minutes,” reported Portland’s Morning Oregonian. “Thirty Deputy Sheriffs forced the crowd to move in single file and prevented, by force, [their] tearing off bits of the ragged clothing from the corpse, cutting off locks of hair or whiskers or cutting off pieces from the table where the cadaver lay."
Fearing that the hundreds who couldn’t get into the morgue would show up at Tornow’s funeral, his brothers held a service very early the next morning at their family’s old Wynoochee Valley homestead and then posted sentries around the gravesite all night. Souvenir gatherers would have to be satisfied with postcard photos of Tornow (available on the same day his body was carried into Montesano) and with relics of “The Great Outlaw of Western Washington” that were displayed at least as far south as Portland over the next few months
Birth of a Woodsman
The Seattle Daily Times carried a story proclaiming that what finally convinced the Wild Man to shun human companionship was his brother Ed killing his prized hound when John Tornow was about 10 years old -- an incident that provoked John to retaliate against Ed’s own dog. Whether or not that tale is apocryphal, it was at 10 that Tornow began to vanish into the forest for weeks at a time. He would return only for brief visits with his parents, usually toting game; before Tornow reached puberty, it’s said, he could plug a snuffbox with a rifle at 100 yards and take down a deer with a single precise shot to the heart.
Another man might have been left alone to his country sojourns. But Tornow’s brothers thought him “touched.” They captured John and sent him to a private institution in Oregon, where he was treated for insanity for nearly 12 months until he could escape and head back to the Satsop Valley. No word came of him for another year. Then, finally, Tornow began showing up at a farm where his sister, her husband, Henry Bauer, and their two boys lived. He had no contact with his brothers, whom he blamed for his incarceration.
But he would be sighted occasionally in the woods, a bear of a man -- some 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds -- peering with the curiosity of an infant at loggers as they did their work, then vanishing when they tried to talk with him. Most people thought him harmless, if a bit spooky, but Murray Morgan, in his excellent book The Last Wilderness, quotes one timber-cruiser as saying that Tornow told him he would defend his solitude. “I’ll kill anyone who comes after me,” the Wild Man is supposed to have said. “These are my woods."
Harmless No More
Unfortunately, Tornow’s 19-year-old nephews, Will and John Bauer, didn’t heed such warnings. Not long after they tried to convince their Uncle John that he should return to civilization, on September 3, 1911, they were found lying dead amid some fallen trees. Each had been shot once in the heart.
Suggestions at the time were that Tornow killed the teenagers in a fit of confusion, that his nephews had surprised a bear feeding off one of the Bauer steers, and had begun firing at it. Tornow, who happened to be in the same area, may have thought they were hunters after him and murdered the boys in self-defense. But Gordon Godfrey, an Aberdeen attorney who has studied the Tornow case for decades, believes the boys had their Uncle John as their original target. “[Tornow] killed them,” Godfrey says, “because they were going to kill him.”
Posses were sent out almost immediately, but found little save for a few of Tornow’s abandoned hideouts. They did, however, manage to scare loggers enough that the wheels of the timber industry ground to a temporary halt in the woods about Montesano. The Simpson Logging Company found it impossible after a while to recruit surveyors who would venture out to do any work there. Hunters stayed away, too, leaving the area’s plentiful game to Tornow.
A Break in the Case
Then, in February 1912, trapper Louis Blair and his partner came across the carcass of an elk in the Ox Bow country north of Montesano -- a sign, they thought, that Tornow was about. Deputy Colin McKenzie (a friend of Blair’s) and Game Warden Al V. Elmer went to investigate. They worked over the territory for several days, with a bloodhound in tow.
On March 9, the dog walked into Blair’s camp. Alone. A posse found its missing masters only after a deputy sheriff stepped on a shallow mound of earth in the woods, dug down a bit and, as the Times told it, “saw Elmer’s upturned face.” The men had been shot several times and then stripped of their clothing, jewelry, and weapons.
From here, the manhunt turned dark, deadly, vengeful. Louis Blair wanted the head of his friend’s killer as well as a $3,000 reward offered for John Tornow. Over the next year, he and Charles Lathrop, a childhood friend of Tornow’s, stalked the Wild Man. At first the hermit avoided them, “but the persistency with which Blair hung to his trail angered him,” said the Times, “and finally being convinced that the latter was after him, the outlaw awaited the final moment to put his two most fearless enemies out of the way.
Fire Fight in the Forest
That time didn’t come until April 1913, when Blair and Lathrop, along with Deputy Sheriff Quimby and a pair of bloodhounds, tracked Tornow through the snow to a crude shanty built over a swamp near a tiny lake west of Matlock. The best access to the cabin was over a small foot log, giving Tornow the easy drop on even an invading army.
Quimby wanted to head back for a posse, but the trappers had no wish to share the bounty money. So all three started stealthily toward Tornow’s cabin, their rifles cocked, fingers poised on triggers as frogs in the lake accompanied their footfalls with a symphony of croaks.
Suddenly there sounded a roar, made almost deafening by the thick woods, and Louis Blair staggered and collapsed within six feet of a skinny hemlock from behind which Tornow had fired. Lathrop shot from his hip at the tree, but a bullet from Tornow’s revolver caught the trapper a fatal blow in the neck before Lathrop could do much damage. Quimby was farther away from the hemlock and had a better chance of surviving the ambuscade. He fired seven times at what he described later as a “large, bearded head … more gorilla than human,” his 30-30 rifle bullets clipping hemlock bark off in large chunks around the outlaw as Tornow fired back.
And then … silence. Had Quimby hit his mark, or was Tornow just playing dead, hoping to get a better shot at the deputy as he moved in to investigate? When Quimby finally dared to move, he hightailed it almost 18 miles through the woods to a lumber camp and help, hearing behind him nothing but the wanton baying of the trappers’ dogs as they discovered their owners’ fate.
Better Off Dead?
It took a day for a posse and packhorses to reach the scene of the crime, where they found Tornow dead, in a sitting position against his protective hemlock. He was dressed in clothing patched extensively with gunnysack material and stuffed with evergreen needles, as well as a new (if too small) pair of logger’s caulked boots and a black hat that had once belonged to Colin McKenzie. Inside Tornow’s cabin, lawmen found a good blanket and two quilts on the bed, as well as some cooking utensils, all evidence that he had either raided nearby homesteads or received assistance from sympathetic locals. He’d apparently survived in seclusion on a diet of elk meat and frogs.
After Tornow’s body had finally been packed in to Montesano, his brother Fred, up from Portland, told the press, “I am glad John is dead. It was the best way now that it is over, and I would rather see him killed outright than linger in a prison cell.” The Oregonian noted that at the time of his demise, John Tornow had $1,700 on deposit in a Montesano bank, owned real estate in Aberdeen and part of a timber claim in Chehalis, and “had no bad habits, having never used tobacco or liquor in any form.”
Giles Quimby, proclaimed a hero for bringing the Wild Man to justice, fielded offers to appear on the vaudeville stage and tell his gruesome tale of manhunting, but politely turned them down. Some stories, he may have realized, become legend without need of stage drama.
Murray Morgan, The Last Wilderness (University of Washington Press, 1976); J. Kingston Pierce, “The Hateful Hermit,” Washington Magazine, July/August 1988; "Turnow Kills Two Men Hunting Him," Morning Oregonian, April 17, 1913, p. 1; "Outlaw Turnow Adds Two More Names to His List of Victims," The Seattle Daily Times, April 17, 1913, p. 1; "Turnow, Mad Outlaw of Wynoochee, Dies at Victims' Side," The Seattle Daily Times, April 18, 1913, p. 1; "Tornow's Slayer Hero of Tragic Hunt in Wilds," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 19, 1913, p. 1; "Killing of Pet Dog Started Turnow on Career of Murder," The Seattle Daily Times, April 20, 1913, p. 1; "Brother Fred Says He Is Glad Outlaw Is Dead," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 20, 1913, p. 1; J. Kingston Pierce interview of Gordon Godfrey, 1988.
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Gravestone of John Tornow, the Wild Man of Wynoochee, Grays Harbor County, March 2010
Photo by Dick Rogers
Detail from the gravestone of John Tornow, the Wild Man of Wynoochee