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The Wild Man of the Wynoochee

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Politics & Government

Among the legends of the Northwest is John Tornow, a man who was both feared and probably misunderstood.  He was a loner that the world would not leave alone. He was a suspected killer who perhaps acted only in self-defense.  By the time the guns went silent on April 16, 1913, two things in this were clear: Tornow was dead and so were at least six of his pursuers.

It has been suggested that Tornow first turned away from an interest in human contact when he was ten years old and his brother killed the boy’s dog.  Tornow spent most of the rest of his life living off the land in the Chehalis County* woods north of Satsop and Montesano. His brothers thought he had gone insane.  They conspired to capture him and leave him at institutions in Vancouver, Washington and Salem, Oregon. He escaped from the latter and quickly made his way back to the woods along the Satsop and Wynoochee Rivers.  He wanted to be alone and was quoted as saying “I’ll kill anyone who comes after me. These are my woods.”  He lived as a hermit with minimal human contact — much of it limited to visits to his sister’s home on the edge of the forest.

By 1911, Tornow was a 30 year old giant of a man: 6′ 2″, 200 pounds, and wearing an unkempt beard and long hair. He was an expert marksman, a crafty woodsman, and was said to move through the woods with stealth. He was quiet and left virtually no tracks.  He may have learned the skill of traversing great distances from tree to tree, never touching the ground in between.

But as much as he retreated from civilization, people pursued him.  Over the course of about 18 months, he was suspected of killing at least six people who went looking for (or shooting at) him.  All killings could be considered self-defense, depending how the stories are told.  He never went looking for people, but he was hunted by others.  At the time, though, he was purported to be a dangerous killer.  He was the “Wild Man of the Wynoochee”, a beast man, a cougar man, an ape man, and the “Mad Daniel Boone”.  His eventual death was generally considered good news.  That didn’t stop upwards of a hundred people who had known and hunted with him in his youth from attending his funeral.  These conflicting interpretations of his motivations and state of mind leave his legacy debated to this day.  Was he an insane backwoods killer or a misunderstood hermit defending himself against violent-minded pursuers?

THE SIX PEOPLE JOHN TORNOW WAS SUSPECTED OF KILLING

  1. William Bauer, twin nephew, age 19
  2. John Bauer, twin nephew, age 19

Tornow was believed to be cleaning the carcass of a cow near his sister’s property when shots rang out near him. He returned fire, killing his 19-year-old nephews. It’s a matter of debate whether the young men knew it was Tornow and were intentionally shooting at him with the hope of bringing him in (as their uncles had done) or they suspected he was a bear investigating the dead cow. It’s also not known whether Tornow knew he was exchanging fire with his nephews or random hunters. The gunfire was heard by neighbors.  The twin boys were found with single gunshots to the heart on Sep 3, 1911. They were born together and died together. Tornow turned 31 years old the next day.

3. Colin McKenzie, deputy sheriff, age 25
4. Alvah V. Elmer, game warden, age 33

Hunted through the woods after the deaths of the boys, Tornow evaded detection for more than six months. Two men — part of a larger posse — spent months tracking the man with the help of a bloodhound.  They had the bad luck of finding him.  The dog returned to the posse’s camp alone.  The bodies of the two men were found naked in shallow graves Mar 9, 1912.

5. Louis Blair, trapper and personal friend of Deputy McKenzie, age 31
6. Charles Lathrop, childhood friend of Tornow, age 40

With news of the killing of McKenzie and Elmer, the hunt for Tornow kicked into high gear.  A $3,000 bounty was announced and 200 men cautiously scoured the woods all over the Olympic Peninsula.  The manhunt was on in earnest.  But Tornow knew the forest much better than any of his pursuers and he dodged them for more than a year.  A trio of men finally stumbled upon a primitive encampment at the curve of a river deep in the woods west of Matlock on Apr 16, 1913.  A cedar shack “pitched like a tent” and a small swamp that had been dammed with sticks which acted as a frog trap for the woodsman’s diet. The camp showed signs of recent habitation.  The men drew their rifles, placed their fingers on the triggers, and slowly approached the shack, snapping twigs as they walked.  A brief shootout erupted when Louis Blair stepped within six feet of a tree behind which Tornow had hidden himself.  Blair and Charles Lathrop were quickly cut down by Tornow.  A third man, Deputy Sheriff Giles Quimby, was separated from his partners and had a different angle on the gunfight.  He blindly shot in the direction of the gunfire but tried to stay hidden.  Silence.  Not knowing if he had hit his target or if Tornow had escaped again (and was possibly circling and closing in on him), Quimby briefly waited in terrified silence hoping for a clue. He didn’t dare approach. Drawing his courage, he made a hasty retreat and ran through the woods as fast as he could back to civilization.  Quimby returned later with a search party and found the bodies of Blair, Lathrop, and Tornow.  Quimby had fired the fatal shot. The gangly body of the “wild man” was photographed extensively at the site then carried back to Montesano and put on display for hundreds of citizens caught up in the news reports.


*Chehalis County was renamed Grays Harbor County in 1915.

PHOTO: © Steve Campion.  The gravestone of Tornow is the foreground. Those of the nephews he killed in 1911, are visible in the background.

SOURCES: We first read about Tornow in the early 1980s thanks to The Last Wilderness by Murray Morgan (University of Washington Press, 1976). For this article we relied primarily on the detailed story of Tornow in Michael Fredson’s Beast-Man: A Historical Account of John Tornow (Mason County Historical Society, 2002).  Bill Lindstrom’s John Tornow 100 Years Later (2013) was checked but provided significantly less relevant information. We also visited the small Grove Cemetery in rural Mason County.  The site of the final gunfight is now part of Olympic National Park.

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