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.
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.