Last “Wild West outlaw” gunned down after bloody jailbreak
Harry Tracy, a gunfighter from Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch (the Hole in the Wall Gang) was trying to shoot his way back to Idaho and rejoin the gang after breaking out of the state pen in Salem; he killed 11 men before being shot down.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A revised, updated and expanded version of this story was published in 2022 and is recommended in preference to this older one. To read it, click here.
The outlaw Harry Tracy in his prison uniform.
This portrait comes from the National Park Service,
which credits it to the Utah State Historical Society.
By Finn J.D. John — July 11, 2010
The “golden age of outlaws” lasted from just after the Civil War until the turn of the century, when they ran out of places to hide from the law. But did you know that the last of those outlaws, an associate of Butch Cassidy, lived – and worked – in Oregon?
A professional outlaw
Dapper, charming and deadly, 27-year-old Harry Tracy was Oregon’s strongest connection to the world of professional Western outlaws such as Jesse James and the Dalton brothers. By the standards of his peers, he wasn’t a particularly successful robber. But he was remarkably adept at breaking out of jail, and it’s for this – in particular, for a bloody breakout from the Oregon state pen in 1902, followed by an even bloodier two-month manhunt – that he’s remembered today.
Outlaws in love
Tracy was on the run after breaking out of prisons in Utah and Colorado when he came to Portland back in 1898. He soon met up with a local rowdy by the name of David Merrill. He and Merrill became friends, and Tracy became more than friends with Merrill’s sister Rose – the two were married shortly after they met.
Everything was great until the money gave out, and Tracy and Merrill had to go out and get more. This they did with a particular style and panache that quickly got them into the headlines as “the Mackintosh bandits” and “the false face bandits.”
The Oregon State Penitentiary's report on the Tracy-Merrill prison break,
with Tracy's mugshot attached. Click the image for a larger and more
readable version. (Image: Oregon State Archives)
But although Tracy was a stranger to them, police already knew Merrill very well. He was on their list of “usual suspects,” so of course they sent a detective out to check him out. Police found him hiding upstairs, no doubt surrounded with stolen goods. Under questioning, he told them about Tracy.
Robbery victim takes his revenge
When Tracy came back to the house, he figured out something was up, and ran for it. After trading pistol shots with a detective, jumped a train to flee. By an odd stroke of luck, the conductor disabled the train right next to a butcher shop Tracy had robbed earlier, and the butcher’s son was ready with a shotgun full of bird shot, which he let Tracy have at relatively close range. The badly wounded robber ran a short distance, but finally gave up and was sent off to serve a 20-year sentence in the Oregon state penitentiary in Salem.
Plans for a jailbreak
Once in the pen, Tracy got started doing what he did best: Planning an escape. Having somehow arranged for some money to be sneaked in for him, he bribed someone – no one knows who – to hide a pair of Winchester carbines in a pattern box in the prison foundry; he bribed a soon-to-be-released inmate named Harry Wright to get a rope ladder and toss it over the prison wall.
Shooting their way out
On the morning of June 9, 1902, everything was ready to go. Tracy and Merrill opened the box, gunned down two guards immediately and started the breakout.
By the time they got out of the prison yard they’d killed four guards and wounded a fellow inmate. A fifth guard, shot and dying, was used as a human shield until they got outside, at which point Tracy put a final bullet through his head and the two men ran for it.
On the lam
The Oregon State Prison yard as it appeared circa 1905 -- just a few years
after Tracy and Merrill made their bloody break for freedom.
Thus was begun a two-month manhunt covering most of northwest Oregon and much of western Washington, as Tracy and Merrill tried to get back to Hole in the Wall, Idaho, headquarters of the Wild Bunch gang – not knowing Cassidy & Co. had fled to Argentina the previous year. They were headed for Washington, stopping when they had to to get a meal or even a bed at farmhouses along the way – after all, who would deny hospitality to two armed, desperate men?
Boozed-up citizens in hot pursuit
Bloodhounds were called down from Walla Walla; Tracy sneaked around and mixed his scent with that of the pursuing posses, confusing the dogs.
Then the governor announced an $8,000 reward for the two men’s capture alive or dead. This inspired dozens of ad-hoc citizen posses to pour out of saloons from Salem to Seattle, most of them thoroughly braced with spirits. The result was a chaotic landscape of heavily-armed drunks looking hopefully over every backyard fence for Tracy and Merrill.
"The whole damned country was full of militia, and many of the boys were potted,” Detective Joe Day of the Portland Police Department told writer Stewart Holbrook many years later. “They shot at everything and Clark and Cowlitz counties sounded like the Spanish American War all over again. It was the most dangerous place I was ever in."
These boozy posses may have made the countryside dangerous for everyone, but they were no match for a professional killer like Tracy. On the few occasions when they found their quarry, they quickly found themselves wishing they had not.
The bloody end
After crossing the Columbia, Tracy shot his brother-in-law dead – that is, according to the officially accepted story, he did. Some sources say he read in a newspaper that Merrill had cut a deal to deliver Tracy in exchange for a reduced sentence, and, after challenging Merrill to a duel, Tracy shot him in the back.
However, in his book, Thirteen Years in the Oregon Penitentiary, legendary Portland waterfront shanghaiier Joseph "Bunco" Kelley writes that the body brought back to the state prison and identified as Merrill's was not him — that Merrill's ankle was scarred from the "Oregon Boot" shackle that he once wore, and the corpse's ankle was undamaged. Writing in 1907, five years after the escape, Kelley also tantalizingly writes that "Merrill is still alive, or he was last year." Of course, Kelley always was a smooth and easy liar, so his word isn't to be taken as gospel ... but it's not outside the realm of possibility that Tracy might have done his wife's brother a final favor by letting him go home and framing up some poor bystander to stand in for his corpse.
Either way, he was now on his own, he continued making for Hole in the Wall. He made it as far as Creston, beyond the Snoqualmie Pass, before he was pinned down by police in a wheat field. After taking a bullet that cut a leg artery and another that broke his other leg, the dying bandit put himself out of his misery with his Colt .45.
Tracy had been on the lam for 58 days and had killed 11 people along the way. During that time, he’d furnished eager newspaper readers with a gripping story, and by the end he was the most famous person in the country. When he was finally dead, souvenir hunters stripped his corpse bare of clothes and hair, and authorities felt it was necessary to melt his face off with vitriol (sulphuric acid) so that his corpse could not be dug up and put on display by some enterprising body-snatcher later on.
(By the way, the melting of the face might lead some to wonder if the body brought back was really that of Harry Tracy. If we can believe "Bunco" Kelley, though, the body that was brought back to the state penitentiary and displayed to all the inmates was definitely that of Tracy. It's Merrill that Kelley thinks got away.)
No country for outlaws
Tracy was the last of a dying breed, the breed of the hard-living, deadly American outlaw. A few years later, the rest of the Hole in the Wall Gang, having been tracked down and identified by Pinkerton detectives, would be wiped out by a detachment of Bolivian soldiers. America was changing, and with it Oregon — and there was no room for men like Harry Tracy in the new America. Not even in the wild, rough frontier state of Oregon.
Editor's Note: A fellow inmate of Tracy and Merrill, who identifies himself only as "Prisoner No. 6435," wrote a very illuminating account of the breakout in the early 1920s. You'll find his story here.
(Sources: Horan, James D. & al. Desperate Men : The James Gang and the Wild Bunch. New York: Doubleday, 1962; Krajicek, David J. “The Last American Desperado,” New York Daily News, 6/17/07; The Slabtown Chronicle (blog of JD Chandler), 5/1/06; www.franksrealm.com; www.historynet.com)
After this article was published in the Creswell Chronicle, a gentleman from Wisconsin named Jim Gardner got in touch with me. Jim, as it turns out, is related to Harry Tracy, whose real name was Severn -- Tracy Severn. Tracy's family was not proud of him, and when he died the Severns did not exactly rush to publicize the connection; in an age that had great faith in the power of genetics, having a vicious killer in the family made the neighbors wonder about the rest of one's clan. Enough time has gone by, though, for Jim to be comfortable telling the full story, which he did in the journal of the Outlaw-Lawman History Association in three articles in the early 1990s. Tracy grew up in Pittsville, Wis., a child of a highly respected and successful family, and as a youngster gave no sign of any predeliction to a life of crime and murder.
One critical item to keep in mind, if you are going to do any further research on the Harry Tracy story, is the remarkably low quality of some of the historical sources on this event. There is something about an outlaw story that seems to bring out the liar in writers. Of particular note, Jim tells us, is an article by Ray Hastings in "True West" magazine, published in 1972, which claims, among other things, that the young Tracy raped and killed his Sunday School teacher. As I learned when doing the research for this story, it's hardly the only historical account of Tracy's life whose author "enhanced" it a bit. You will need to crank up the sensitivity level of your B.S. detector to the max for this one.