Mossback's Northwest: The Washington outlaw who couldn't be caught

Harry Tracy terrorized the state from one end to the other, even as newspaper readers couldn't get enough of his criminal adventures.

Tabloids and books raised Harry Tracy's profile as "King of the Bandits" and the last of a dying breed of rugged individuals of the Old West. In reality, Tracy was a murderer, thief and criminal hunted across the state.

Harry Tracy was a bad man. He was a Northwest outlaw, and a manhunt for him spawned sensational national headlines and thrilling dime novels.

To some, he was “King of the Bandits”; to others, he was “the spawn of Satan.” Still others concluded he was simply a murderous “moron.”

So, which was he?

The Old West was dying in the early 20th century, but it wasn’t dead in the Pacific Northwest, where train robbers, highwaymen and rustlers were still abroad. People seemed to be of two minds about it. Most wanted law and order, yet others seemed to thrill at those who defied the new norms of civilization. The romance of outlaws like Jesse James was alive and well in the titillation Harry Tracy provided.

Perhaps the wildest of the closing chapters of the Old West happened in the summer of 1902, when two robbers, Tracy and his partner in crime, David Merrill, shot their way out of prison in Salem, Oregon, killing three guards and a fellow prisoner in the process, and disappeared into the Northwest wilds.

Tracy became the more famous of the two, in part because not long after their escape, he shot his partner, Merrill, in the back near Napavine in southwest Washington and traveled on alone.

Tracy’s pedigree was this: He was a troubled lad from Wisconsin who went west, rustled some cattle and is said to have briefly run with Wyoming’s infamous Hole-in-the-Wall gang of Butch Cassidy fame. He was said to have been a minor flunky, but later accounts inflated his role.

Tracy’s only real criminal superpower was his knack for breaking out of jails. He did so in Colorado and Utah before fleeing to Seattle and then Portland. He and Merrill committed a number of robberies up and down the Pacific coast. The two highwaymen were finally caught and jailed for an attempted robbery in Portland, where they broke out of jail, were captured and sentenced to long terms in the formidable Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. After a couple of years there, they broke out again with guns that someone — no one knows who — had smuggled to them.

For the next two months, from June to early August,  Tracy traveled by boat, foot, horse and who knows what other means as he was chased by sheriffs, police officers, posses, militias — even the National Guard and U.S. Navy — in a 60-day romp across Washington. He took hostages along the way and demanded food, ammunition and shelter in exchange for not killing folk. He was on Bainbridge Island, in Ballard, in Auburn, in Renton, in Seattle; he kept on the move and evaded capture despite running around the more populated parts of Puget Sound.

There were a number of shootouts when the law got close. He killed three lawmen near Bothell who were on his trail. He killed two others, including a Seattle policeman, in another getaway. He carried a pistol and his favorite rifle, a Winchester 30-30. Tracy may not have been a particularly successful bandit, but he was brutally dedicated to maintaining his own freedom.

The manhunt was front page news across the country. Tracy “sightings” cropped up across the land — he was “seen” in Idaho, Colorado, Texas, North Dakota and Nebraska. Some of these appeared to be bandits who were Tracy imitators. The real Tracy was still in Washington, working his way across the Cascades. He then vanished in the range, canyon and farm country of Eastern Washington’s Big Bend country of the Columbia River.

Then, one day in early August, a young man named George Goldfinch encountered Tracy on the range and was forced to guide him to the nearest remote ranch. Goldfinch led him to the spread of the two bachelor Eddy brothers  west of Davenport in Lincoln County. Tracy let Goldfinch go on the promise he wouldn’t tell on him. Goldfinch did, however, when he went to the small town of Creston. He telegraphed the local sheriff. A small posse of five men was raised in Creston to check out Goldfinch’s story. Could this just be another false alarm of the public’s overactive imagination?

It was not.

When the posse arrived and Tracy was spotted, he bolted from a barn and ran behind a large chunk of basalt — now called Tracy Rock — while bullets flew in both directions. He ran toward a barley field and was winged in the leg. He crawled to cover in the field. It turned out he was bleeding to death, an artery severed. Despite Tracy’s efforts to stanch the flow, he was near his end. He took his own life with a pistol shot in the head rather than being taken alive. When the posse members crept cautiously into the field the next morning they found Tracy, dead.

That wasn’t the end of the story. His body was an object of public fascination. Photos were taken, a plaster death mask was made, and members of the public broke into the Davenport undertaker’s parlor, where Tracy’s body was being prepared. They tore off his bloody clothes and ripped clumps of hair from his head for souvenirs, leaving bald patches.

Tracy was put into a pine box and shipped back to Oregon for burial. A mob there attacked his coffin to get a look at the notorious outlaw and to take pieces of his pine box as morbid mementos. He was unceremoniously buried in the Oregon penitentiary’s cemetery. The only words spoken over his resting place was an order from a prison guard to the gravediggers: “All right boys, start shoveling.”

Tracy’s run wasn’t quite at its end. The last chapter was the further romanticizing of his story. Written popular accounts inflated and described him as a man of “reckless bravery and tactful genius as KING of all the renowned outlaws in the history of the world,” or so wrote the dime novelist Harry Hawkeye. “The Greatest Outlaw of the Century” ran one post-mortem newspaper banner headline.

Stage plays and a Hollywood movie based on him have been made. A wax museum in Buffalo, New York, put his figure on display, where “the lines of his face show that wonderful courage and cleverness which he has so amply verified during his desperate fight for liberty.” They made Tracy sound like a freedom fighter.

The unromantic record, however, reveals a troubled man, a cold-blooded killer — he was involved in the deaths of at least 10 men during his two months of freedom. He was a petty thief, too. Tracy is not known for robbing banks or trains, but rather he scavenged for small potatoes: knocking over a drugstore, a butcher shop, saloons, robbing the passengers of one of those new-fangled horseless carriage automobiles. He even stuck up a Portland trolley, where his only booty was the conductor’s watch.

Stewart Holbrook, the great Northwest historian and newspaperman, grew up reading thrilling Harry Tracy dime novels, but in the cold eye of adulthood he concluded — when he read the actual record — that Tracy was nothing more than a “moronic yet crafty killer.”

Tracy did not gain the legendary status of the James Brothers or the Daltons or Billy the Kid or Butch and Sundance. He’s mostly forgotten today. But he was probably as close as the Northwest got to having a wild West outlaw, and just in time too. Sticking up horseless carriages and trolleys is not exactly how we picture the old West now, is it?

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.

Stephen Hegg

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is formerly a senior video producer at Crosscut and KCTS 9. He specialized in arts and culture.