The Last Wild West Outlaw
"In all the criminal lore of the country there is no record equal to that of Harry Tracy for cold-blooded nerve, desperation and thirst for crime. Jesse James, compared with Tracy, is a Sunday school teacher." Seattle Daily Times July 3, 1902
As far as it can be discerned his real name was Harry (Henry) Severns born in Pittsville, Wisconsin in 1874. Not much is really known about his early years. He was described as a medium-height, blue-gray eyed man with a vicious streak. It was said he was sharp, charming, well- mannered, spoke kindly about his mother and was respected by men. Not a description one would expect to describe a member of the infamous “Wild Bunch.”
Yet, others felt he also had an air of arrogance about him. He never hid his identity and always introduced himself. It’s not known how long Tracy ran with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's Wyoming Hole-in-the-Wall gang, but he managed to acquire a long list of crimes including robbery as well as murder.
In fact, one of his first crimes was the murder of a cattle ranch owner. After being jailed, he managed to get loose, beat the sheriff and escape. While maybe his forte’ may not have been in robbery or killing, he was best known for his ability to escape. He proved many times no jail could hold him.
Most accounts of Tracy’s life seem to begin around 1898 in Portland, Oregon when Tracy met David Merrill, a petty thief who hailed from Vancouver, Washington. The meeting was to be a turning point in Tracy’s life. Not only did they team up as partners but, Tracy also married his sister, Rose. Not much is known about her or if there were any children from the union.
From 1898-1899, the Tracy and Merrill team pulled off countless robberies in Portland. They robbed saloons, banks, trolley cars and businesses. Frequently they bound and gagged their victims.
It so happened, Merrill's mother lived in Portland so authorities decided to visit her and found her son hiding upstairs. There are several versions of how Tracy was caught. The most likely account has Tracy fleeing the scene and finding sanctuary in a local butcher shop. A gunfight ensued in which he sustained a minor head wound.
Harry was sentenced to twenty years in the Oregon State Penitentiary while Merrill received twelve to thirteen years. However, it didn’t matter as the two broke out early the next morning, killing two guards. What followed became the most extensive manhunt in the Pacific Northwest’s history.
Tracy and Merrill headed north toward Vancouver, Washington. The two stole horses, food and clothes along the way.What they didn’t know was Vancouver Sheriff John Marsh had already been notified they were headed in his direction and had a posse of over sixty men awaiting their arrival.
On June 16, the two escapees were spotted at Salmon Creek, about seven miles from the Washington state line about sundown. After a brief standoff and gun battle, the slippery Tracy once again escaped.
Somewhere around Olympia or Castle Rock, the two fugitives got into a heated argument and Tracy shot and killed his brother-in-law.Some say he read in a newspaper Merrill had cut a deal to deliver Tracy in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Tracy continued to elude the lawmen nipping at his heels. By July, he had reached Seattle,and then began heading east. During this time newspaper headlines had focused national attention on Tracy and everybody knew his name.
On August 3, Tracy reached a ranch located in Creston where he stopped to rest.
The following day, a posse surrounded Tracy in the wheat field and he was subsequently shot twice in the legs. One bullet cut an artery and another broke his other leg. Possibly sensing the jig was upTracy shot and killed himself with his 30-30 rifle. During the 58-day manhunt, Tracy had killed 11 people. He was about 28-years old.
After Tracy’s death his body was stripped clean by souvenir hunters, including his hair. Authorities then felt it necessary to melt his face off with sulfuric acid to discourage grave robbers from putting his body on display. Tracy's body was returned to Salem where it was buried outside the prison walls. The grave has long since disappeared and nobody knows for sure where his remains are.
Years later, Detective Joe Day of the Portland Police Department, remembered the times. "The whole damned country was full of militia, and many of the boys were potted.” he said in an interview. “They shot at everything and Clark and Cowlitz counties sounded like the Spanish American War all over again. It was the most dangerous place I was ever in."
Many consider Harry Tracy to be the last of the Old West outlaws and today he remains one of Washington and Oregon's most notorious criminals.