Harry Tracy charms a captive audience near Renton on July 8, 1902.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 3/05/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5377

On July 8, 1902, escaped criminal Harry Tracy (1877-1902) encounters two women picking blackberries near Renton, and makes them come with him to the nearby Gerrells residence. Once inside, he charms the ladies with dashing wit and a devil-may-care attitude. Even though they know him to be a killer, the women enjoy his conversation over dinner. At eventide, he barely escapes through a phalanx of lawmen, just as he has done many times since his escape from the Oregon State Penitentiary a month earlier.

Making Tracks

Harry Tracy and John Anderson, a man Tracy had kidnapped from Bainbridge Island three days earlier, were walking along the railroad tracks one mile east of Renton when they spotted two women, May Baker and Mrs W. J. McKinney, picking blackberries. After watching them for some time, Tracy approached. Just then, 18-year-old Charles Gerrells came up the track. Tracy told him to stop.

"Well, I guess you've heard of me," said Tracy to them all. Mrs. McKinney joked that he must be Harry Tracy, and the killer confirmed her jest. "Don't be afraid, I won't hurt you."

The women recovered from the shock with aplomb. Mrs. McKinney told Tracy it was a pleasure to meet him, and young Miss Baker commented that she wouldn't have known him by the pictures she'd seen. Tracy was flattered.

Talking to them further, he learned that the Gerrells home was just up the track. He sent young Gerrells ahead, with a message for his mother that they'd soon be stopping by. He and the women walked on, with Anderson in tow.

Every Mother's Son

Entering the home, Tracy told Mrs. Gerrells that she had nothing to fear, and that he never harmed women or children. The house was filled with several children, and the youngest girl began crying when the stranger walked in. Tracy called her over, put his hand around her shoulder and patted her hair. "Don't cry," he soothed her. "I wouldn't let anyone harm an innocent thing like you."

Tracy pulled out some of the pocket watches he had stolen from the Johnson family on Bainbridge Island and handed them to Charles Gerrells. He told the boy to go into Seattle and sell the watches, then buy two revolvers with the money and return. After he left, Tracy commented that if the boy betrayed him, he'd shoot two of the other children.

Immediately Mrs. Gerrells broke into tears. Seeing her fright, Tracy immediately backpedaled on the threat. "That was only a bluff," he blustered. "Mother you have nothing to fear from me. I have a mother. She is reading the papers every day to see if I am caught." Tracy calmed Mrs. Gerrells with tales of his own mom, and Mrs. Gerrells later said she saw tears in his eyes.

Just Like Home

After a short awkward silence, Miss Baker changed the subject, and asked why Tracy wore a mustache. She told him that she didn't like a man with a mustache, and Tracy jokingly offered to shave it off for her. Tracy and the young woman traded repartee throughout the afternoon.

Wishing to entertain the ladies all by himself, Tracy led Anderson to the back porch and told him not to move. Mrs. Gerrells began preparing a meal. Tracy offered to help and went outside to cut kindling and draw water from the spring. In the midst of his chores, he looked up and saw a train carrying policemen and newspaper reporters. He ducked behind the bushes as they went past.

Tracy came in and told the women what he saw. He mentioned that a newspaper reporter was on board, and noted that they always seemed to act as advance men for posses. He said he could always spot one, "with a camera under one arm and a big bunch of note paper under the other."

He joked with Miss Baker some more, and asked for her address, so that he could rob a jewelry store and send her a nice ring. By this time, dinner was ready. While they were eating Tracy cheerfully pointed out, "This is just like home. You don't know how much I'm enjoying your society." Meanwhile, the house was slowly being surrounded.

The Posse Arrives

Against Tracy's orders, Charles Gerrells had contacted the authorities instead of buying revolvers. A small posse, led by Deputy Sheriff John McClellan, immediately left Seattle aboard a train that had been promised for use in the Tracy manhunt.

After Tracy saw the train pass, it went a half mile past the house and dropped off some of the men. It then reversed to drop off more men a few hundred yards on the other side of the building. The men hid in the bushes, waiting for Sheriff Edward Cudihee to arrive with even more men.

Inside the house, Tracy and the women continued on in conversation, although Tracy kept peering out the windows, calmly watching the men. He even joked about his escape options, asking if the women might form a cordon around him when he left. "Oh sure," smirked Miss Baker. "We would like to get killed for you -- I don't think."

They continued on. The women asked how Tracy could have killed the men that he did, and Tracy blamed all the killings on the victims. He chatted with Mrs. Gerrells about her cooking techniques. He asked if there was a piano in the house, so that he may dance with the women.

Then a knock came at the door.

A Pesky Interruption

Tracy picked up his rifle and took the women and children into the kitchen and told Mrs. Gerrells to answer the door. Opening it, she found one of the possemen, whom she recognized as a butcher from Renton. "Is Tracy in here?" he asked.

She told him no, but the man stepped into her house anyway. He looked around the front room, and asked again. "Is Tracy in here?" Mrs. Gerrells again said no. Tracy watched though the half-open kitchen door, most likely dumbfounded at this inept attempt to capture him. One of the small children, frightened by the disturbance, clung to Tracy's leg for protection. The frustrated posseman left the house.

Mrs. Gerrells, somewhat taken aback, mentioned that she smelled liquor on the man's breath. Tracy talked a bit about the dangers of booze, and why he never touched the stuff. "It dulls the brain," he stated. "It's almost a curse to humanity." Then the conversation went back to flirtatious trivialities and delightful bon mots.

Well, Goodbye

Tracy continued watching the men through the window, never losing his nerve. He chatted some more, and then said that it was dark enough for him to leave. He stepped out the back door and stole down to the Cedar River to find an escape route.

A few minutes later he returned. He knew that it would be useless to take Anderson with him, and told the women that he would bind him in the chicken house. As he took his helpless captive out into the back yard, he turned. "Well, goodbye," he said. "It was just like home."

After tying up Anderson he made his way to the river. Two newspapermen spotted his outline in the bushes, and one said, "There is a fool of a deputy exposing himself." And with that he was gone.

Hot on the Trail

After a short time, the posse closed in on the house, only to find that their prey had flown. Newspapermen rushed in to interview the women and children, but Mrs. Gerrells instead told them to rescue Mr. Anderson from the chicken coop.

Bloodhounds were brought into the house, and then loosed on Tracy's trail. They hadn't gotten that far, when the dogs suddenly started howling in agony. Wily Tracy had covered part of his tracks with cayenne pepper. By the time the dogs recovered, Tracy was far away.

Yet again, he had slipped through the long arms of the law.


Sources:

"Tracy Again Eludes King County Officers,"  Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 9, 1902, pp. 1, 7; "Anderson Tells His Story," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 9, 1902, p. 8; "Tracy's Visit at Gerrells'," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 9, 1902, pp. 8, 9; "Anderson's Story of His Experiences with the Marvelous Tracy," The Seattle Times, July 9, 1902, p. 8.


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