Heart of Darkness

There is little that can be said about the short, brutal life of John Tornow with certainty, whether he suffered brain damage from measles as a child, whether he escaped from an insane asylum, or even his actual body count. The firefight in the woods that ended his life precluded a trial. It is certain that his life, and death, captured the imagination of the nation.

Tornow_Cabin The basic story is this. John Tornow grew up near Grays Harbor, Washington, at the end of the 19th century. He preferred living deep in the forests of the Olympic Mountains. The man hunts began when his two nephews were murdered in the woods, each killed with a single shot. There was no evidence that John Tornow was the murderer, no motive, but the men sent to arrest him suffered the same fate and Tornow sealed his own.

The prolonged man hunt for Tornow, the circumstances of his life living rough in the woods, and his uncanny success avoiding capture became the subject of newspaper headlines nationwide. His story has been retold in several books and articles. The post I wrote about him several years ago has generated more comments than any other. (See Wild Man.)

Tornow_Corpse_Tree When they brought his body to the small town of Montesano three days after the gun battle that killed him, a restive crown formed. His family wanted privacy but the crowd would have nothing of it. In 30 minutes 650 people filed past the body; hundreds more were unable to get inside. They would have stripped the corpse of clothing, cut its hair and splintered the plank beneath it for mementos if 30 sheriff’s deputies hadn’t prevented stood guard.

I’ve thought about John Tornow often enough to wonder why. Why is the story of this feral human so compelling? Why did hundreds of people push and shove to be near the body of a man dressed in ragged clothes and burlap who had been dead as long as Lazarus and probably smelled no better? Why has the story been retold so often and still told today?

I think the story is inseparable from the setting. The Olympic Mountains are a place of magnificent wildness within sight of the city streets of Seattle. They are impossibly rugged, mountains thrown into the sky from the collision of tectonic plates when the sea literally crashed into the shore. As the plate bearing the Pacific Ocean subducted beneath the North American plate, the Olympics were scraped from the sea floor and piled into pressure ridges sharp as shards of broken glass. They’re young mountains, the youngest in the continental United States, and still bear the rough edges of youth. On a clear day they can easily be seen from Seattle, their peaks white with glaciers, clouds spilling down the mountains like a stream.

Despite their proximity to civilization, the Olympics remained terra incognita, unmapped until the first expedition successfully crossed their short axis east to west in 1890. The Press Expedition had to hoist their mules up the mountains with block and tackle. Even the aboriginal tribes that inhabited Puget Sound never penetrated further than the foothills. The Olympics remained inaccessible yet within sight.

John Tornow became as wild as the mountains. Loggers going about their uneasy business of cutting down the ancient trees would sometimes turn and see him watching, silent, like a wraith. Hunters following an elk’s trail would discover they were being stalked like prey. His presence was unnerving.

Tornow was a man who had surrendered his civilization. The rewards and restraints that governed the behavior of civilized men no longer applied to him. He couldn’t be cajoled or threatened. He had gone native.

There is a deep, abiding ambivalence in American culture regarding our relationship with wilderness. I suspect we realize that our veneer of civilized behavior is perilously thin. Wilderness reminds us of what we were and what we may become again. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. It’s the promise of freedom from constraint and the threat of brutish violence.

The English in their far flung empire were known for dressing for dinner even in the jungle. It was important for them to polish the veneer of civilization especially when surrounded by so much wilderness. Their greatest fear was “going native.” That fear was captured in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.

John Tornow might parallel Conrad’s character Kurtz but without the moral dilemma. Tornow wasn’t a man tortured by ambivalence. By all accounts he killed without compunction when threatened. But his circumstance, his story, becomes a mythic vehicle for our own uneasy relationship with wilderness—the wilderness that encompasses us without and within.


Beast-man: A historical of John Tornow: hermit, outlaw & murderer on the Olympic Peninsula (1911-1933)
Michael Fredson
Mason Country Historical Society

On the Harbor, From Black Friday to Nirvana
John C. Hughes & Ryan Teague Beckwith
Stephens Pres, LLC 2005

Guilty By Circumstance, The Troubled Life of Northwest Outlaw John Tornow
Ron Fowler

Born Under A Stump, The Life and Legend of Big Bill Hulet
Ron Hulet

Outlaw Tales of Washington
Elizabeth Gibson
Globe Pequot, 2001

Famous Northwest Manhunts and Murder Mysteries
Hollis B. Fultz

Stalking the Oxbow Forest Killer
Earle C. Jameson

The River Pioneers
Ed Van Syckle

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