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Welcome to Offbeat Oregon History, a public-history resource for the state we love. Here's what you'll find here:

  • A weekly newspaper column published in about a dozen Oregon community newspapers;
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Background photo of the beach at Whale Cove was made by Bryce Buchanan in 2004. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)

 

 

SALEM, MARION COUNTY; 1900s:

The bloody manhunt for ‘king of western outlaws’

By Finn J.D. John
October 1, 2022

THE “GOLDEN AGE of Outlaws” had a good run — almost 40 years. It kicked off just after the Civil War, when thousands of battle-hardened Confederate veterans with nothing to lose spread out across the Western frontier; and it ended in a field in eastern Washington on Aug. 5, 1902.

That was the date when the last Golden Age outlaw, Harry Tracy, went out in a blaze of gunfire following the bloodiest prison break in Oregon history, followed by a two-month-long, even bloodier manhunt.

Harry Tracy was the last of the breed of Wild West outlaws like Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, and Billy the Kid. He wasn’t technically an Oregonian. His real name was Harry Severns, and he was born in 1875 in Pittsville, Wisconsin, a child of a highly respected and successful family. He was bright, outgoing, and likable, and he gave no early signs to anyone that he might be headed for a life of crime and murder.

The Oregon State Prison yard as it appeared circa 1905 — just a few years after Tracy and Merrill made their bloody break for freedom. (Image: Postcard)

(There are some sources that claim otherwise, but they’re either spinning stories or quoting sources that are. During the two months’ time when Tracy’s name was in the national headlines, the public was hungry for stories about him and many idle rumors got quoted and embellished in newspapers, and quoted later in magazine stories. Some of these are still being represented as facts in pulpy retellings today – such as the false claim that a teen-age Tracy raped and murdered his Sunday School teacher. Didn't happen: Tracy had a very ordinary childhood.)

That changed, though, soon after he left the nest. He changed his name to Tracy and launched a career in robbery and theft that led him to a gunfight with a pursuing posse in Colorado, in which a member of the posse was shot and killed, quite possibly by Tracy himself — he was always a crack shot. He was arrested and imprisoned. Within a short time, he escaped, skipped town, and did it again.

By the time Tracy arrived in Portland, he was still only 23 years old, but he’d been in plenty of trouble, and in and out of plenty of jails and prisons. He had proved himself to be remarkably good at breaking out of them. Of course, in order to be good at breaking out of prison, a criminal has to be pretty bad at not getting caught and imprisoned ... and this was clearly the case with Tracy. Pop historian Stewart Holbrook famously called him a “garden-variety idiot,” and although that might be overstating things a bit, it’s quite clear that he was no master criminal. To be blunt, he was bad at it.

Perhaps that’s why, having escaped from his latest penal institution in Utah, he apparently decided to get a fresh start and go straight in a new place, far from the scenes of his many crimes. ...

This article is still under its initial two-month embargo, during which participating newspapers have exclusive rights to it. Then, on June 11, 2021, the rest of this article will appear here!

In the meantime, you can probably find it published on the Website of one of our member newspapers or community radio stations. Thanks for your patience, and thanks for supporting your community newspapers and radio stations!

(Jump to top of next column)

Harry Tracy as he appeared in 1901 when he was booked into Oregon State Penitentiary for his sentence. (Image: Oregon State Archives)

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