A convict's-eye view of Oregon's most notorious prison break:
On July 2, 1902, two desperados gunned down several guards and ran from the Oregon State Penitentiary. This is the story of their escape and the subsequent manhunt, as recounted by 'Prisoner No. 6435.'
Harry Tracy's prison booking shot. (Image: Oregon State Archives)
By Prisoner No. 6435— Unknown date, 1922
Editor's note: This is the story of Oregon's bloodiest and most notorious prison break, as recounted by one of the two perpetrators' fellow inmates. Prisoner No. 6435 produced a slim volume titled "Sensational Prison Escapes from the Oregon State Penitentiary in late 1922 or perhaps early 1923. This is the first story he tells in this book. Here is a link to the entire book on archive.org, from which it's available in a variety of e-book formats..
6435's account is particularly interesting because of how close he was to the story, and because of the clear pains he takes to avoid the kind of sensationalism that characterized much of the press coverage at the time and recountings of the story since.
This volume was never placed under copyright. Scanning text and cleaning it up is not sufficiently transformative for me to assert a fresh copyright on it, so this account remains in the public domain. The rest of the Offbeat Oregon History content is, of course, still covered under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-Share Alike license unless otherwise noted.
ON THE 22nd day of March, 1899, Harry Tracy, prison number 4088, and David Merrill, prison number 4089, were received at the Oregon State Penitentiary from Multnomah County, where they were sentenced for assault and robbery.
Tracy was born in Wisconsin; was twenty-four years of age, 5 feet 8 inches in height, and had previously served a term in the Utah State Penitentiary.
Merrill was a native of Washington, age 28, height 5 feet 8 inches, with a previous record in the Oregon State Penitentiary as number 2314.
Tracy was under sentence of twenty years and Merrill thirteen years. Their escape was made on the 9th day of June, 1902, just three years and 77 days after their arrival. So much for prison statistics.
Their conduct as prisoners was bad and only a short time after their receipt they began to cause the prison officials constant trouble, and are said to have been ironed with "Oregon boots" and closely watched. The escape which took place on the morning of the date named followed an excursion to Salem on the day before, during which the party or parties who placed the guns and ammunition in the moulding room are supposed to have reached Salem, and under cover of darkness scaled the prison walls and placed them where they were found by Tracy. Only someone who was familiar with the prison and knew its inside workings and Tracy's place in the moulding room could have succeeded in escaping the guard patrol and have carried out the plans so well.
That the escape was well planned is evident. Tracy for some time prior to the escape had been studying a map of Oregon and thoroughly familiarized himself with roads, trails, towns, etc., on the route over which he afterward passed. That he had been expecting outside help for some time is shown by the fact that for several weeks prior to that memorable morning he would, upon entering the moulding room to begin work, hasten at once to his floor and search among the boxes and under the dust paper with which it was supplied. Although no particular attention was paid to his actions at the time, after his escape they were recalled and spoken of by prisoners who worked on adjoining floors. Tracy and his associate in the escape, Merrill, were cellmates and were also employed on the same floor. It is supposed they induced some ex-convict with whom they had been familiar, to return and bring the firearms with which they made their escape.
A year or two later it developed that a former convict, Charles Monte by name, who served time with Tracy and Merrill, and was quite intimate with them, had made the boast that he was the party who had scaled the walls and placed guns and ammunition in a place previously designated where they would eventually be found by the right parties. Monte was arrested, tried and convicted, and on July 15, 1905, was sentenced to life imprisonment. His boasting nature and desire to show off" as a "bad man from Bitter Creek," fell to zero when a life jolt was handed him, and at the time much doubt was expressed as to his ability and nerve to pull off such a stunt. To know the man, nothing but a boastful, whining mongrel, was to immediately become convinced that he was utterly incapable of such a deed of daring. However he was kept in confinement over nine years before he was released, a sadder but not much wiser man.
To describe the escape by all the reports which have been given by "eye witnesses" would be a big task. What follows is about as near the truth as is possible to get it from the maze of conflicting stories told: Prisoners were counted as they lined up to march to the shops. The count had just been made. Tracy and Merrill were at or near the head of the line which contained something like 150 prisoners. As they entered the moulding room Tracy went at once to his floor, as was his custom, and searching there found the guns. Taking up a Winchester he threw the lever and raising it to his shoulder fired at and killed the moulding room guard, Mr. Ferrell, who was standing with his back towards him just a short distance away.
Mr. Ferrell, who was pacing, as was his custom, on the walk leading to the other departments, lived only an instant after being shot. Tracy, reloading his rifle, is said to have went toward the murdered guard far enough to note the effect of his shot, and then, with Merrill, who had secured the other rifle to assist him, he ordered the other prisoners into an opposite part of the moulding room.
He then went to a window facing on the front yard and began firing at the guards in post number one. After firing several shots he and Merrill made their way through into the front shops. After passing through an alleyway leading into the adjoining department they were encountered by a prisoner who was shot, it is said, in trying to wrest the gun from Tracy's hands. After this shooting they made their way through the front shop and securing a ladder in the carpenter shop, came out on the opposite side of the shops and facing the west wall. As they emerged from the building, screened by piles of old boxes then standing there, and which served as a shield, they began firing at the guards occupying towers commanding a view of that portion of the yard. Mr. Tiffany, who had been occupying the northeast corner tower, had been transferred to a position as turnkey in the warden's office, was present on the wall explaining guard duties to his successor, Mr. Ross, when the shooting began. As the outlaws emerged from the shop and commenced to fire from their hidden position behind the boxes, Mr. Ross, to whom he had handed his rifle, was struck by one of the shots and knocked from the wall path on which the guards patrol. Mr. Tiffany, to secure the gun which had fallen to the ground, jumped from the wall, intending to secure it and return to guard that portion of the wall. In the meantime Tracy and Merrill, supposing most likely that they had killed or badly wounded the guards in the vacant tower, but unable to silence the rifle fire from the tower on their right, turned to the left, and still keeping behind the boxes which screened them made their way towards the north wall. Occasionally the guard would see them as they passed through an opening, but although he fired several shots and stood bravely on the wall, exposed to a dangerous rifle fire, could not get a successful shot.
After reaching the end of the shop buildings the outlaws turned, and still protected by a corner of the building around which they passed, crossed to the wall. As they reached it, placing the ladder, one of them stood guard while the other passed to the top of the wall. In nearing the wall they had come out in plain sight of the guard occupying the northwest corner tower.
This guard, Mr, Jones, who was killed, looking for the escapees elsewhere and guarding the front portion of the prison yard, was watching in a partly exposed position, and is said to have been shot from the wall.
Reaching the ground on the outside of the enclosure, Tracy and Merrill then turned and following along the wall in an easterly direction turned the corner and came upon two guards who were then making their way back to remount the wall. Before they were seen they had them covered and ordered them to throw up their hands and march. Using them as a shield to protect them from the rifle fire of the guard in the tower they had been unable to silence, and within range of which they had again come, they passed to a position of safety and then ordered the guards to return. As they started to do so Mr. Tiffany was shot in the back and killed in the same cold-blooded manner as was Mr. Ferrell. The entire break, from the time the first shot was fired, to Mr. Tiffany's death did not consume more than five minutes.
The warden and his assistant, who often stood discussing the day's procedure and details of prison management for some time after the line had passed, were yet standing where they had stood to count when the first firing began.
Hastening at once to the house, the warden gave the alarm. Guards were armed and sent out and our then deputy warden, Mr. Ad Dilly, armed with a Winchester rifle, ran the full length of that portion of the prison wall leading from the prison buildings to the tower in which guard Jones, whom he had seen fall, lay dying. The escape by this time had been effected and the outlaws were gone.
When particulars of the state of affairs in the moulding room had been obtained (it is said by telephone from the office) a prisoner carrying a flag of truce was sent from the house to the shops to give medical attention, and to also lead the prisoners back to the house, where they were counted and locked in their cells.
The wounded prisoner, almost dead from the loss of blood, was carried hastily to tbe hospital, where measures were taken to arrest the flow. Afterwards one of his legs, badly shattered by the discharging rifle in his encounter with Tracy, was amputated above the knee, and still later he was pardoned.
Tracy, who was a dead shot in the exact meaning of the word, set the whole country by the ears, until it was "Tracy mad." With the coolest kind of dime-novel daring he escaped time and again from apparently absolute traps, only to show up a few days later after some new adventure and repeat the performance.
His trail led through Salem, Portland and Seattle, finally running eastward toward the Hole-in-the-Wall country, which he never reached.
All along the way he spread terror among the country-folk, often walking into a farmhouse behind a gun and demanding food, and in one instance kidnapping a swede farmhand whom he held for several days as a personal servant.
His duel with Merrill and the slaughter of three men in battle with peace officers and newspaper men near Seattle were the great outstanding features of the chase. About the latter end of June he and Merrill, then together in the State of Washington, had a quarrel of some kind and agreed to fight out their differences with rifies.
They -were to walk a certain distance apart and then turn and fire. Tracy did not keep faith with Merrill, and turning, shot and killed him as he was walking away. However, when the body supposed to be Merrill's, whom, report said, Tracy had slain, was brought back to prison, many of the men seeing it, were quite positive that the remains were those of someone else than Merrill. Joseph "Bunko" Kelly, who had charge of the bath room for many years, and who had seen Merrill stripped many times, tried to point out the error, but the body was in such decomposition that it was extremely difficult to make positive identification. The question as to the actual killing of Merrill by Tracy will, in all probabilities, remain forever unanswered. However, this is getting ahead of the story.
A posse of forty officers was formed and almost immediately the word was sent out that the escaped convicts were trapped in a wooded place halfway between Salem and the reform school.
But not so. That night, while officers watched the woods, the convicts appeared in Salem, stopped J. W. Roberts on the street, took his clothing- and sent him on in his underwear, stole a team and drove away. Bloodhounds were rushed from the penitentiary at Walla Walla, Washington.
They came and hounded, but did no greater service than to encourage the morale of the posses with strenuous baying.
The following day this word came from Gervais, Ore.: “Tracy and Merrill were observed in a wheat field of Ellis Young near the Samuel Brown place at 2:45 this afternoon. Company D of Woodburn has arrived. The guards are closing in. The crisis is at hand.” But not so. The next day in the early morning the convicts appeared at the cabin of August King, a woodcutter, living near Gervais. They walked in and took some bread. Tracy didn't eat much. He rolled a cigarette then threw it away in disgust.
This, of course, gave a new clew, and a posse of 200 started on the trail. Meantime the convicts had doubled back, and robbed Dr. C. S. White of a coat and a horse and buggy and disappeared again.
The next seen of them was near Gervais when Charles Tuh, a guard, saw them climb over a fence. He shot and missed. The men then turned up for breakfast at the home of A. Akers, near Monitor, and again dropped from sight.
June 13 -The chase was simply a blind search.
June 14 -The posses were called off.
June 16 -Tracy and Merrill passed through Portland, probably on a trolley, held up three men on the south bank of the Columbia, made them furnish dinner and ferry them across the river to the Washington side. There they held up another farmer, took the clothes off the back of a second rancher whom they bound and gagged and fled into the timber back of Vancouver.
June 17 -In a midnight fight with Bert Biesecker and Lon Davis, deputy sheriffs, Biesecker took a bullet through the coat sleeve. It was almost the only time Tracy ever fired and missed.
June 18 -They appeared at LaCenter.
June 19 -They appeared at a farm house three miles from La Center, demanded food and disappeared again. About this time the convicts were forced to give way in public interest to King Edward VII of England, whose illness, it was feared, might prevent his coronation. The king got well.
July 3 -Tracy appeared alone near Lake Washington. He told persons whom he forced to serve him with food that he had killed Merrill near Chehalis. "I was tired of him, anyhow," he said.
The same day Tracy ran into a posse that included Deputy Sheriffs Raymond, Bower and Williams, Karl Anderson, then a reporter for the Seattle Times, now assistant managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, and Louis B. Sefrit, another newspaperman. The clash occurred two miles from Bothel.
Tracy killed Raymond, Bower and Williams.
Anderson fired three shots at Tracy and himself escaped death by a miracle. The governor of Washington called out the national guard. Two days later Tracy forced a Japanese to ferry him across from Port Madison and disappeared on a nautical junket on the sound. On Bainbridge Island he kidnapped John Anderson, a Swede farm hand and took him along as his personal flunkey.
July 9 -Tracy and Merrill were both reported surrounded at Orollia, although Merrill was dead at the time. Again capture seemed certain.
But not so. The next day Tracy made a farmer named Johnson go to Tacoma and buy a revolver and some ammunition for him on threat of murdering Johnson's whole family.
July 11 -Tracy broke through another cordon after a hot but bloodless fight near Covington.
Hounds found a new trail. It was reported that Merrill had shown up at Ravensdale and that Tracy was organizing a gang which he intended to head as a second Jesse James.
July 14 -Tracy had outwitted his pursuers again and lost himself. A reward of $6,000 was offered.
July 15 -Merrill's body was found near Chehalis by a woman and her son picking blackberries.
July 17 -Tracy was again reported in a trap — and out again.
Then for a time Tracy dropped out of the public eye until the matter of the Fitzsimmons-Jeffries fight had been settled.
July 23 -Tracy, looking fresh and rested, ate breakfast in the vicinity of Palmer. It was the first seen of him in days. Apparently he had been resting: and taking in the news of the fight.
August 1 -Tracy crossed the Columbia into Eastern Washington carrying four guns and 200 rounds of ammunition. He was headed for the Hole-in-the-Wall.
August 5 -C. V. Drazon, a farmer living near Odessa, Wash., found this note pinned on his door: "To whom it may concern Tell Mr. Cudihee (the sheriff of King County, Washington), to take a tumble and let me alone or I will fix him plenty. I will be on my way to Wyoming. If your horses are good would swap with you. Thanks for a cool drink."
The next day was the last for Tracy. But they did not take him alive. The first brief flash from Spokane read: "Tracy's race is run. The notorious outlaw killed himself last night by shooting with a revolver." He had been wounded in the right leg between the knee and thigh in a battle with a posse under Sheriff Gardner. He committed suicide twenty minutes after being wounded. His body was found at daybreak that morning in a wheatfield, the revolver tightly grasped in his right hand."