Wild Man

When they brought John Tornow’s body to the undertaker’s on April 20, 1913 he had already been dead three days. The streets of the small Washington town of Montesano were filled with jostling crowds. They had come to see the dead man’s face, to touch his burlap clothing, to breathe the scent of decay. They had come to reassure themselves that John Tornow was truly dead and, through some inexplicable communion, to share in the dead man’s power.

The restive crowd surged forward when the Tornow family tried to keep the body from public display. R.F. Hunter, the coroner of Grays Harbor County, surrendered decorum to good sense. “Fully 650 people passed through the room where the gaunt figure lay within a space of 30 minutes,” reported Portland’s Morning Oregonian. “Thirty Deputy Sheriffs forced the crowd to move in single file and prevented, by force, [their] tearing off bits of the ragged clothing from the corpse, cutting off locks of hair or whiskers or cutting off pieces from the table where the cadaver lay." There were hundreds more who couldn’t get into the morgue.

The crowd filed past, some like mourners at the funeral of a saint, others like bumpkins at a county fair. The Wild Man lay stretched upon a wooden table, his hair and beard matted, his clothes patched with burlap sacks, insulated with pine nettles, and stained with blood, his hobnailed boots stolen and too small for his feet.

He was born to a respectable, pioneering family from the Wynooche Valley near Grays Harbor. Their child was restless around others and comfortable only in the wilderness. They suspected something was seriously wrong with their child at age 10 when he began to escape to the woods for weeks at a time. He was a deadly shot with a 30-06, having learned to shoot from the hip to keep his sight clear of the black powder cloud. His trademark was a single shot to the heart—precise and deadly.

At age 19 he was already a man—six foot two inches and 200 pounds—when his father committed him to a sanatorium in the Oregon woods. For 12 months Tornow was treated for insanity and then he escaped into the forest. Nothing was officially known of him for another year but loggers around Grays Harbor began sighting a wraith among the trees—a big man who moved as silently as a cougar. He was mute mostly, silently staring, but he did once warn that no one should follow him. “I’ll kill anyone who comes after me. These are my woods.”

A year after that warning, on September 3, 1911, the bodies of Tornow’s nephews, Will and John Bauer, were found under a pile of brush. Will Bauer had been shot neatly between the eyes, his brother beneath the left eye. Both bodies had been stripped of their weapons; Will was missing his shoes.

The killing may have been justified. Tornow and his nephews had jointly inherited property which couldn’t be sold without the signature of all three. The Bauer brothers had earlier been unsuccessful in persuading Tornow to return to civilization for the sale. His death may have been their alternative.

Posses immediately scoured the woods without finding Tornow but the loggers were spooked. Logging operations around Montesano virtually stopped and hunters shied from the woods.

Then in February 1912 a trapper named Louis Blair and his partner found the carcass of an elk in the Ox Bow country north of Montesano, a carcass left by Tornow, they believed. Deputy Colin McKenzie, a friend of Blair’s, and Game Warden Al V. Elmer began tracking Tornow with a bloodhound. On March 9 the bloodhound wandered  into Louis Blair’s Ox Bow camp alone.

Another posse was sent to find the missing deputy. McKenzie and Elmer were found in a shallow ditch beneath a fresh mound of earth. Both bodies had been stripped of their clothing and weapons.

Blair began tracking Tornow in earnest, driven by revenge for his friend’s death and the $3,000 reward on Tornow’s head. He partnered with Charles Lathrop, a childhood friend of Tornow. At first Tornow fled but eventually became angered at the persistent chase and turned to confront them.

The final scene came in April 1913 when Blair, Lathrop, Deputy Sheriff Giles Quimby, and a pair of bloodhounds tracked Tornow to a rough cabin built in a swamp beside a lake west of Matlock. The cabin was approachable only across a small foot log.

Tornow was waiting in ambush. He had been warned of their arrival by the sudden silence of the frogs he had tethered around his cabin—an old Indian trick. Blair was the first to die. Lathrop fell next. Deputy Sheriff Quimby, the furthest from Tornow’s position, rapidly fired seven times, emptying the magazine of his 30-30 and then dove for cover.

In the silence that followed Quimby couldn’t know if he had hit his mark or whether Tornow was playing possum. The frogs resumed their chorus. Night was approaching. Quimby knew he wouldn’t survive the night if Tornow was still alive. He made a precipitous dash through the woods to the nearest logging camp. The only sound he heard behind him was the baying of the dead trapper’s bloodhounds.

It was another day before the posse and pack horses could return to the cabin. They found Tornow’s body propped against a hemlock tree. He was wearing a black hat that had once belonged to Deputy Colin McKenzie. A search of his shack revealed that he had been surviving on a diet of elk meat and bull frogs.

They buried John Tornow early in the morning to avoid repeating the scene at the morgue, then mounted a guard around the grave all night to keep the tourists away.

The graveyard in Matlock is small and easily overlooked. A headstone now marks the grave. The legend reads “From loner – to outcast – to fugitive.” People leave flowers at the graveside and trinkets—a toy bear, small change, useless objects. It reminds me of the Makah tradition of breaking the possessions of the dead and leaving them beside the grave. Tornow was 33 years old when he was killed. The timing seems ironic.

Postcard of John Tornow's corpse In his brief life and violent death, John Tornow had become the unwitting symbol of our deepest desires and darkest fears. Every rumor and report was avidly followed by the press. Lurid reporting fired the archetypal imagination of millions across the country. He was labeled “the Wild Man of the Olympics,” “Cougar Man,” “a Mad Daniel Boone,” and “a Thoreau without Brains.”

At the height of his notoriety the forests of the southern Olympics were filled by thousands of well-armed men and baying bloodhounds. On February 20, 1912, 17-year-old Brian Hatcher was shot to death by a companion who mistook him for the devilish “apeman.”

Tornow became the man who defied convention, who abandoned civilization for the freedom of the wilderness and, for a time, successfully defended that choice. He seems to represent our ambivalence toward nature, our terror of the dark woods that endlessly competes with our desire for wildness. I suspect it’s that fear that drives us to treat nature so ruthlessly.

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14 thoughts on “Wild Man”

  1. WOW! i live in matlock! this is very intersesting! i went to see his grave yesterday after my parents told me about him! i am so eager to learn more! some of the things that only some people know!… if you know where i can learn more email me and get me some mope info!

  2. The only information I have is that it was a small lake on a branch of the Satsop River. See The Last Wilderness by Murray Morgan.

  3. Well from reading everything i seen a few things that were misleading first off he was insane not because he was a wild child or anything he had small pocks as a child and it fried his brain witch it had done to alot and the Bauer Twins were the ones that were going to get the land the stepdad of the twin was the one that wanted the land and without the twins he was the one who would get it and after Johns death Minie his sister was seen buying a shovel and a bag of lime and the “stepdad” for some reason was never seen again. I have been to the lake where the shoot out was i have been to the grave and i have looked up every thing i posibly can about this and there is more to the story that you are thinking.
    Johnathon Quimby

  4. John Tornow was my Great-Grandfather’s brother. My grandmother, Norma Tornow Matthiesen, was at the dedication of the monument at his gravesite. This story was never spoken about by my family until researchers interviewed my grandmother around 1988 for the dedication of the marker. I was at her house when she spoke with researchers and I recall her telling the interviewers that John had “hard measles” and wasn’t the same since. She said “he loved those boys” and would have never hurt them intentionally.

  5. Krista:
    Thank you for your comments about your great-grand uncle, I guess he would be. John Tornow’s brief life and violent death even now evoke some profound emotions in people. I think he came to represent American’s ambivalence toward nature. We admire his freedom from civilization; we fear his uncivilized brutality. I realize how ironic that sounds; civilization is responsible for endlessly refining forms of brutality but John Tornow lived outside the rule of law, outside the control of society. His wildness both fascinates and threatens us.
    I’d be very interested in anything else your Grandmother remembered about him.

  6. John was also my great-grandfathers brother. Ed (Edward Tornow) was my grandfather’s (August Edward Tornow) father. I didn’t go to the dedication but I remember my dad going and watching what he video taped of it. I was about 13 at the time. It is almost surreal that there is something of the nature in a persons family history. I am interested in finding out more about him. Any new books out there that are covering his legacy, or possibly more of a biograghy?

  7. Tammy Naylor said…..I just moved back to Oregon from Montesano Washington. I learned of John Tornow about four months ago. There are two books that are being sold at The Beehive diner in Montesano and The Dennis Company in Montesano. One is titled “Beast Man- Wild Man of the Wynochee”. The other is titled “Guilty By Circumstance”. I read both of these books and fell in love with the story of John. I have visited his grave and left flowers for him, his mother and father, and his twin nephews and sister. After reading these two books, I honestly believe that John just wanted to be left alone to live his life the way he wanted to and people just would not leave him alone. I do not believe he was a vicious man who was just out to murder people. He was protecting himself!!

  8. I grew you in matlock cutting fire wood all year round, in many places from the store to as far as mid-way on cougar smith road. I have both read and heard of stories of John and his treasure. I have never found any fin shaped rock, or detected any metal in the Oxbow area! I have sought out areas of past interest to animals in the winter time hoping for a remote cabin sight of John’s and had no luck.
    I wonder if John’s life is turned around by so many different perspectives by so many up-set and greedy family members of the time.
    Is there record of John ever going to a doctor confirming he had a cold or virus on any level?
    Is there proof of him breaking and entering into the alleged store?
    If so where is the report? who made it?
    These are things that should be answerd by his own family members to clear the man of some of the claims being made!
    Until then this is just another mass produced story for profit with little fact to show cause of said claims.

  9. Jeff,
    I grew up in Montesano and first learned of John Turnow almost 50 years ago when I was a young boy. He was the subject of many a nightmare among my friends. The lake is called Lake Turnow and is off the road on the way to Wynoochee Dam…….

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