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I Touched Harry Tracy's Corpse by Charles May Anderson, M.D.
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Physician and historian Charles May Anderson of Sprague, Lincoln County, wrote this fascinating account of rural life in the early twentieth century and the pursuit and death of murderer and prison escapee Harry Tracy (1877-1902). Anderson describes his own childhood in Davenport and the panic that ensued when the dangerous Tracy was on the loose in the area. Using contemporary accounts, Anderson details the criminal path that led to Tracy's demise on August 6, 1902, in the nearby town of Creston. This essay was originally published in The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Fall 1973) and is reprinted with kind permission.
I Touched Harry Tracy's Corpse by Charles Anderson
Most indelible of my boyhood memories is the raw, month-long escape drama which ended with the violent death of Harry Tracy near Creston, Washington, August 6, 1902. He was the John Dillinger of his day, and had we had a Federal Bureau of Investigation then, he would have headed its Ten Most Wanted Men list.
I was 11 years old at the time, living only 30 miles away at Davenport, a prosperous farming center 32 miles west of Spokane. It is the county seat of Lincoln County, which, for many years, has ranked second nationally only to adjoining Whitman County in total wheat production.
Davenport was a quiet town of about 1,500 population, and we were quite proud of it. We had good wooden sidewalks, the streets were wide, and though dusty, were kept quite free of rocks, bottles and debris. Why, we even had a few brick buildings!
A man then could buy a good drink of whiskey in any of the town's saloons for 10 cents. The red light district was well controlled and was accepted with no opposition. Farmers in the surrounding area were prosperous, hard-working men who depended almost entirely on hired men's muscles, and those of their numerous horses and mules, for power. The more prosperous and progressive among them were using new-fangled combined harvesters that hot summer of 1902, pulled by as many as 36 horses or mules.
I had my first job in Davenport, working in a second-hand store for 25 cents a day. But that was real money in those days, when a quarter would buy six loaves of bread and 35 cents enough round steak for our family of eight.
My father, a Virginian who had been a captain in the Confederate Army, was county auditor. I well remember his coming home one day early in July, 1902, and telling us that news had just been received by telegraph that Harry Tracy, one of two murderous convicts who had escaped from the Oregon Penitentiary at Salem on June 29, had been seen in the Seattle area. Everyone downtown, he told us, was wondering if he might be headed toward our part of the state.
Father must have considered it a likely possibility because he warned all of us not to answer a knock at the door unless we knew who was on the other side. My mother, a soft spoken woman who was born in Missouri and crossed the plains in 1852 in a covered wagon, was terribly upset. She was worried about our family's safety, and laying aside her patching of my knee britches and long stockings, just sat there in a troubled daze.
From then on our quiet little town was constantly on nervous alert. Much to our dismay, we learned from the daily headlines in The Spokesman-Review, which we received by train from Spokane, that Tracy was headed toward eastern Washington, and more and more the news reports of his progress pictured him as a dangerous and murderous thug.
And sure enough, he arrived in our area on August 3, near Creston, 30 miles north of Davenport. He rode out of a patch of timber leading a pack horse and accosted George Goldfinch, a friend of mine, then working for Adam Blenz, a Creston-area farmer. George, 17, was out on a Sunday afternoon horseback ride.
He told me that Tracy asked to be taken to some nearby farm where he could rest up. George guided him to the Lou Eddy place, which was in rough and rocky terrain and devoted almost entirely to stock raising. Walls of lava rock surrounded the house and outbuildings in a wild and harsh manner.
Arriving at the ranch, Goldfinch and Tracy went directly to the barn, still under construction, and found Lou Eddy. Tracy explained to him that he had no money but would work for his keep and either have his horses reshod or trade them for two others fit to travel. Eddy examined their feet and said he could shoe them, Tracy to pay him by working on the barn.
Goldfinch then wanted to leave, but Tracy objected for fear he would give information about his whereabouts. He finally agreed to let him go, threatening to kill his mother if he revealed where he was. Tracy was armed with a 30-30 Winchester and a .45 Colt, so his threat was well backed.
Tracy turned out to be good help. His unwilling employer later reported that he was sociable, agreeable and an incessant talker. He spoke intelligently about the news of the day, but expressed a great dislike for bankers and money lenders. He slept outside, because the weather was hot, about six feet from Eddy's brother, Gene. But he kept his rifle within easy reach and always was on the lookout for trouble.
Goldfinch returned to the Eddy ranch Tuesday morning to learn what had transpired. Tracy again allowed him to leave, probably because he planned to take off the next day for Canada or his old haunts in Wyoming, where, for a short time, he had been a feared member of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch. Instead, he stayed with the Eddys a third day. The delay cost him his life.
Meanwhile, Goldfinch had come to an agonizing decision. Early Wednesday morning he went to Creston and notified Sheriff Gardner of Davenport that Tracy was at the Eddy ranch. A section foreman who was in the telegraph office overheard his exciting news. Eager to collect the large reward for Tracy's capture, dead or alive, he immediately contacted four crack-shot hunting friends to form a posse.
The quintet included Maurice Smith, an attorney who died in Spokane in 1956; C. A. Straub, identified in newspaper stories as a deputy sheriff and Creston constable; Dr. E. C. Lanter, a physician; Joseph J. Morrison, a section foreman, and Frank Lillengreen, a warehouseman.
These private-enterprise bounty hunters arrived at the Eddy ranch about 6:30 p.m., separated, and approached the farmstead from different directions. What happened next was reported thus in the August 7, 1902, issue of The Spokesman-Review:
"Sighting the men and securing his rifle, Tracy sought cover behind a haystack, escaping several bullets ... then broke for a large boulder lying on the edge of a wheat field. He had to pass in full view of the posse ... One shot must have taken effect then, for he leaped headlong into the wheat field that lay below the rock ... .
"Presently (the posse) saw him sitting up, and doing what appeared to be dressing a wounded leg. The men fired at his head and again they lost sight of him ... . He crawled about 75 yards (and there), weakened by loss of blood, tried to staunch the cruel wound, failed, and with his revolver sent a bullet through his brain. By this time dark had fallen, and the posse, unaware of the seriousness of his wound, and fearing his silence that would lure them into a deadly ambush, posted themselves to prevent his escape, and patiently awaited for the dawn (by which time 50 or more armed men had arrived eager to help them) ... . "
Hollis B. Fultz, in Famous Northwest Manhunts and Murder Mysteries, says that Smith recognized the last shot from the field as that of a pistol and not a rifle. He had wanted to go down immediately to investigate, but was dissuaded by his friends. Shortly after daylight the next morning, of the scores of armed men present, only Smith and Dr. Lanter had the guts to follow Tracy's crawl path to his body.
Fultz's account adds two significant bits of information to the bloody Tracy story: (1) That Smith believed it was his last several shots at Tracy crawling in the field that hit his left leg; after the others he had seen spurts of dust right behind him, but not the last; (2) curious to learn why Tracy, such a dead shot, had come no closer to any of the posse members than he did, he had examined his rifle, and found its front sight bent out of position. Smith believed it had struck the house-sized rock when Tracy dived into the grain at its base. Smith kept the rifle for years and later gave it to the Washington State Historical Society.
Tracy's body, wrapped in a tarpaulin, was brought to Davenport about noon the next, carried through crowded streets. I remember his stiff corpse was on the floor of a livery stable hack pulled by two horses driven by another of my friends, Archie Hopple. He was a little older than I. A hack was a light, high-wheeled vehicle, on the order of a buggy without a top, but with a longer body for a removable back seat. Tracy's corpse was pushed under the back seat, his feet protruding over the back end.
Archie was headed for Stone's Funeral Parlor, but the crowd was so large, and so insistent, that I clearly remember the corpse was quickly shunted instead to a back room of my brother's drug store. Some of the crowd broke in and started cutting Tracy's clothes, shoestrings, hair and even his gun belt for souvenirs, but they were quickly pushed out with only a few gruesome mementos. The crowd tried to break in again but the sheriff and his deputies prevented it. This was my first introduction to the macabre nature of men.
After things quieted down, the sheriff permitted my brother and me to view Tracy's body. There was a large wound in the right forehead and the left leg below the knee was shattered, with the tourniquet, his leather belt, still in place. He was a sandy haired man about five feet eight inches tall, well muscled, and weighing about 160 pounds. His blood-stained clothes were torn in places. I felt sorry for him, but was macabre enough myself to squeeze his shattered leg. It was mushy, as if there were sand in it.
Two days later, on August 9, Tracy's corpse, in a plain zinc-lined box, was put aboard a train for Salem, Ore., where it was buried in the penitentiary cemetery. Constable Straub sat on the box the entire trip, holding a loaded gun. If he hadn't, Joe Baily quoted him as saying in the July 27, 1952, issue of The Spokesman-Review, "souvenir hunters would have cut so many chunks off of it that there wouldn't have been much left." The reward offered by the state of Oregon was contingent on delivery of Tracy, dead or alive, to Salem.
“The Creston Party of five men claim [all of the reward]," The Spokesman-Review reported two days after Tracy's death.
"George Goldfinch claims a good share, and Sheriff Gardner, who says he was at the scene of the battle ... also claims a share ... . Maurice Smith, of the Creston party, said: 'Gardner is not entitled to one cent. He did not get to the scene of action until about two hours after Tracy had committed suicide. Young Goldfinch is not legally entitled to any of it. I do not say whether we, if we get it, will give him any of it ... '"
The matter ended up in a lawsuit, the outcome of which was reported by The Spokesman-Review in the following December 9, 1903, wire story from Olympia:
"After a lapse of 16 months, the reward of $2,500 for the apprehension of the outlaw, Harry Tracy, will be paid by the state of Washington. The payment of the reward has been delayed because of conflicting claims for shares of it. It will now be divided among Maurice Smith, Charles A. Straub, Joseph Morrison, Frank Lillengreen and E. C. Lanter. They are the men who cornered Tracy on a farm in Lincoln County a year ago, last August, took part in a running fight with him and finally wounded him so severly that he committed suicide rather than surrender.
The contending claimants were Richard Gemring, Sheriff Gardner and son and others who arrived after the smoke of battle had cleared away. A lawsuit involving the rights of different claimants was decided last June in favor of the men who took part in the actual battle, and Gemring et al, having taken no appeal, the reward will be paid . . ."
Seventy-one years and two months of hindsight have brought me to the conclusion that Tracy's demise was a brutal, tawdry affair, expressed quite well in this quote from The Spokesman-Review's front-paged August 7, 1902, story of his death:
"The five determined citizens of Creston, hearing of his presence there, took their rifles and revolvers and went after him. They knew their business, and did it without flinching. When Tracy ran, they hung upon his flank as the deerhound hangs to the hunted deer ... ."
The actions of the self-instituted posse were entirely legal, but to me, too much like shooting fish in a rain barrel. The posse members were on high ground surrounding the farmstead, with the added advantage of better cover, shooting down at Tracy. According to one Spokesman-Review account, they got an estimated 30 shots off at Tracy as against no more than five by him at them. There also were published speculations that after he was wounded, he was too weak from loss of blood to use his rifle. The bullet severed an artery. But no one can accuse the posse members of lack of courage.
It can't be denied that Tracy was a dangerous criminal, even if probably demented. He had killed many men and under the old Mosaic legal doctrine of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," deserved to be killed; but I don't look back with any pride to how our 1902 society handled that unpleasant chore.
The posse members did perform a public service, but I wish it weren't so apparent that the profit motive played such an important role in their actions. Fultz's account says the publicized high rewards dwindled to $4,100 -- $1,600 paid immediately by the state of Oregon, and $2,500 by the state of Washington 16 months later.
Fultz says the $4,100 was split evenly among the five posse members, but he makes no mention of legal and other expenses that had to be deducted. I have found no record that George Goldfinch was given any share of the spoils, but I suspect he was, possibly about $200 or $300. Dr. Lanter was quoted by The Spokesman-Review as saying "the boy should have some of the money." Even Smith qualified his quoted opinion that Goldfinch wasn't legally entitled to any of the reward. I remember how incensed the people of Davenport were at the prospect of Goldfinch being given nothing.
Tracy started his life of crime at the age of 16 when he became extremely agitated by his treatment at the hands of his father and neighbors and decided to go west, leaving his home in Pittsville, Wisconsin, where he had been born in 1871. He had a sweetheart, Eugenie Carter, and he promised he would send for her after he had become "somebody." But he needed money. He became a crack shot, which gave a man security in those days, after practicing for months. He subsequently held up the local post office and took $160. While saying goodby to Eugenie outside of the town, he spotted the sheriff, who was killed in the ensuing battle.
Now there was no turning back so Tracy fled from his home and his fanatically religious father to live alone in a lean-to in the Missouri Ozarks. Soon thereafter he forced two bums at gun point to help him hold up eight hunters on the Missouri River. He escaped with $750. From then on, during his late teens, he learned his trade well, perpetrating several more successful holdups and continuing his way west as a hardened criminal.
For awhile he was in Cincinnati, then Chicago. In Salt Lake City he was arrested for an attempted holdup and sentenced to a year in the Utah Penitentiary. He soon escaped by outwitting a guard and headed for Colorado. In 1894, at the age of 23, he tried to hold up a saloon in Colorado Springs where two law men were killed during his escape. He went on to Montana, where he joined John Shortell's gang of horse and cattle thieves. Shortell would get drunk and beat up his Indian wife. Tracy, with his curiously exalted notion about the sanctity of women, put a bullet through Shortell's head during one of these brutal attacks.
He disappeared for a time and in his wanderings, found his boyhood sweetheart, Eugenie, in Cripple Creek, Colorado, and they were married. They bought a small ranch along the Snake River below Lewiston, Idaho, where they were happy for a few months. Under an assumed name, Tracy seemed to be a reformed man and a good rancher.
When two of his pals were accused of horse stealing and when the vigilantes surrounded his cabin, a pitched battle ensued. Tracy and Eugenie, trying to keep out of the fray, made a break for it, but a chance bullet killed Eugenie. Tracy then went wild, killing one rancher and dropping two others. He held his wife in his arms for a long time, then gently placed her in the rough bed he had made; found his horse and rode off into the night, evading the vigilantes. He had tried to reform but things had gone against him and from then on he hated the lawmen more than ever.
After several years of terrorizing the Southwest he met David Merrill of Vancouver, Washington, in the fall of 1893. They committed several holdups but eventually landed in the Oregon Penitentiary. Intent on escaping, they arranged with Harry Wright, before his release, to send them two rifles hidden in packing cases to be delivered to the prison stove factory inside the walls.
On June 9, during a sudden milling around of the convicts, Tracy and Merrill bounded from the foundry with their short Winchesters. Frank Ferrell, a guard, started to raise his shotgun but Tracy beat him to it and shot him in the forehead. One of the convicts rushed Tracy but Merrill dropped him. A guard broke desperately for a door to escape. Tracy fired into the air saying to Merrill, "Don't shoot -- he's not doing us any harm."
The two men then dragged a ladder from the foundry, propped it against the prison wall with Tracy going up first. Halfway up he wounded a guard and at the top, shot and killed S. R. Jones, another guard. Still another, by the name of Tiffany, emptied his gun at the two convicts but Tracy wounded him and then used him as a shield in escaping to safety in the nearby woods. There, against Tracy's wishes to conform to his own peculiar code of ethics of killing only when necessary, Merrill shot and killed the guard.
The greatest manhunt the Northwest had ever known was launched at this time. On June 29, 1902, The Spokesman-Review under, large black headlines, stated that Tracy and Merrill were believed to be in Lewis County and that the law officers were confident they had them surrounded. On July 3 the headlines read that Tracy had held up six men near Olympia and at one of his stops he confessed he had killed Merrill in a fair duel resulting from a disagreement. The rules agreed upon were to stand back to back, take 10 steps, turn and fire. Tracy said at eight paces he looked over his shoulder, saw Merrill turning, so whirled around and shot him, leaving him under a tree where he was found later. It was reported on July 4 that Tracy had killed two officers and mortally wounded two others in the vicinity of Seattle.
Twice he escaped from what seemed inevitable capture. Governor McBride of Washington offered a reward of $2,500 which brought the total reward for Tracy's capture to $6,000, a large amount in those days. For a day or so there would be no news of his whereabouts, and then he would appear at someone's door, identifying himself as Harry Tracy, demanding food and lodging, and threatening to kill them or their relatives if they told of his presence.
He was pictured as a desperate man but some people said he was quite considerate, even to the point of being good company. The reports were good and bad, some reading like Alexander Dumas's romances such as "The Three Guardsmen." Tracy could have been one of them but more likely would have been a highwayman.
What really caused Tracy to start a life of crime at an early age is hard to say. He had a dual character; he sanctified women but had an almost opposite attitude toward men. At times he was cheerful and pleasantly entertaining, and again was withdrawn, lonesome and dangerous. He lived two lives and I feel that a psychiatrist would class him as psychopathic -- of the schizophrenic type. This condition frequently starts in childhood and has recessions when the individual acts quite normally. This opinion is strengthened by the concluding article regarding Tracy in the History of the Big Bend Country, which is in the Spokane Public Library. The article closes as follows:
“Undoubtedly Tracy was insane. His exploits throughout Lincoln County as well as in other parts of the State indicate a condition of violent dementia. His reckless dalliance at a ranch in a country alive with armed men looking for him, and permitting strange people to go and come was, certainly, taking desperate chances as no man in his right mind would have taken under the circumstances. By this utter neglect of ordinary precaution his pursuers were frequently thrown off the scent. From the time of his escape from the Oregon Penitentiary Tracy's actions were devoid of rationality. He failed to take advantage of the most favorable opportunities to get out of the country. He, at times, exhibited cunning and appeared resourceful, with wit enough to escape out of the state on a freight train. He might have continued among the mountains, gradually working his way to some place of comparative safety. But to undertake to ride through an open country, accompanied by a pack horse of strikingly peculiar markings, proclaiming his name at every house in a bombastic manner, was to court pursuit and certain capture or death."
Thinking this over, I can't help wondering how many desperate men in our prisons have distorted minds. One should know that the nervous system is an organ as are the liver and kidneys and can stand only so much stress or strain. Possibly if Tracy had had good home surroundings and loving and helpful friends, his nervous system would not have been subjected to repeated insult and he would have been a normal and good citizen, and not an infamous dead criminal at the age of 31.
It is not pleasant to know that the exploits of one man could be so deadly and costly to our country. We would like to think he had some redeeming attributes to balance this brief summary of his life of crime. He killed 18 to 25 men, most of whom were law men; committed at least 43 robberies; perpetrated 11 or more hold ups; and made at least six jail breaks.
I believe we will have to go along with the Bard of Avon who so wisely said, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”
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Mug shot of Harry Tracy (1877-1902), 1899
Mug shot of David Merrill, 1899
Oregon State Penitentiary, Salem, Oregon, 1880s
Courtesy Salem Public Library
Harry Tracy and David Merrill escape from the Oregon State Penitentiary, June 9, 1902
Composite photo of Harry Tracy, 1902
Oregon officials on the Trail of Harry Tracy and David Merrill, June, 1902
Harry Tracy lies dead on the Eddy farm near Creston, August 6, 1902
The body of Harry Tracy, August 6, 1902
Sign in Creston, Washington, marking the site of Harry Tracy's death, September 2002
Photo by Paula Becker