Harry Tracy escapes from the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem on June 9, 1902.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 3/03/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5354
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On June 9, 1902, Harry Tracy (1877-1902) escapes from the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, assisted by fellow convict David Merrill. The two men escape north into Washington. Near Chehalis, Tracy shoots Merrill in the back, and continues on. After a week-long crime-spree in King County, Tracy escapes to Eastern Washington, where he dies by his own hand, following a gun battle in a Lincoln County wheat field.

Prior Arrests

Tracy and Merrill were serving time for various acts of burglary and highway robbery in Portland, Oregon. Both men were believed to be members of the "Hole-in-the Wall" gang, although not the one made famous by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The gang that Tracy and Merrill belonged to was based in Utah.

Tracy was no stranger to the penal system, having been thrown into the Utah State Penitentiary for burglary in 1897. Two months later he escaped, by pulling a smuggled revolver on a guard and stealing the guard's clothes. He made his way to Colorado, killed a rancher, was arrested, and again escaped.

After Tracy and Merrill reunited in Portland, they began robbing streetcars and stores throughout the city. Eventually Merrill got busted. Tracy was nabbed a few days afterward. Tried together in 1899, both were thrown in the pokey. It wasn't until later that Tracy found out why Merrill got the lighter sentence.

Break Out

Although inside prison, Tracy had accomplices on the outside. In 1902, one of them was somehow able to smuggle rifles and revolvers into the prison yard. On the morning of June 9, Tracy and Merrill entered the penitentiary's foundry building with a work detail and grabbed the guns. Tracy fired one shot into the back of Guard F. B. Ferrell, killing him instantly.

Another inmate, lifer Frank Ingraham, amazingly jumped up to protect Guard Frank Gerard. For this, Merrill blew his kneecap off. Ingraham's leg later had to be amputated, but his heroic efforts were rewarded with a pardon from the governor.

Tracy and Merrill made their way into the yard, guns blazing. Tracy shot Guard S. R. T. Jones dead at a distance of 150 yards. After grabbing a ladder and climbing a wall, Tracy and Merrill were able to grab two other guards and use them as human shields. When another guard tried to shoot the escapees, Tracy made an example of hostage B. F. Tiffany by shooting him straight through the heart. The other hostage fell to the ground and played dead, and Tracy and Merrill ran off, setting in motion a region-wide manhunt that would last for two months.

News to Tracy

For the next few weeks, the two men headed north, stealing clothing, food, money, and horses when necessary. They were able to outfox their pursuers every step of the way. The authorities assumed they were heading to back to Portland. Instead the men crossed the Columbia river into Washington.

Near Vancouver, they overtook a farmer and had a meal in his cabin. Afterwards they noticed a copy of the Oregonian and delighted in seeing their pictures in the newspaper, so much so that each cut their own photo out to carry with them.

Then, Tracy happened to spot something in the article, but he didn't show it to Merrill. As it turned out, Merrill's mother was the cause of Tracy's arrest in Portland and his subsequent incarceration in the state penitentiary. She had ratted on Tracy following Merrill's arrest in 1899, as a way of lessening her son's sentence. Tracy had not known that.

Merrill's Last Day

When they reached Chehalis, Tracy confronted Merrill with the information, and challenged him to a duel. Merrill fretted, but they agreed to count out 10 paces, then turn and shoot. Unfortunately for Merrill, there was no honor amongst thieves.

On the eighth step, Tracy turned early and shot Merrill in the back. As Merrill spun around, Tracy charged forwards, blasting another shot into his left side. Reaching the dying man, Tracy fired again directly into Merrill's skull. The body was discovered a month later by Mary Waggoner and her son George, while they were out picking blackberries.

Tracy continued on alone. By the first of July he had reached Olympia, where he hijacked a launch to Seattle, embarking on a week-long crime spree the likes of which King County had never before experienced.


"Convict Harry Tracy Lands Near Seattle," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 3, 1902, p. 1, 2; "Story of the Search for Tracy," The Seattle Times, July 4, 1902, p. 2,3; Bill Gulick, Manhunt, the Pursuit of Harry Tracy (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Press, 1999).

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