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Wild Man of the Wynooche

Updated on August 8, 2015

From the time John Tornow was just a small child, he preferred the unexplored wilderness near his home as his playground. He was born near the Satsop River, a stream in the state of Washington on September 4, 1880.

As he grew, he preferred spending his time with wild animals rather than people. When Tornow reached the age of ten his brother Ed killed his beloved dog. Seeking revenge he killed his brothers’ dog.

About this time Tornow began avoiding people all together. He would disappear into the woods for weeks on end. He hunted for his food and developed his tracking and shooting skills. Occasionally, Turnow would return home for brief visits with his parents who by this time had begun to think he had some mental problems.

His brothers became loggers and eventually owned their own company. Sometimes he would work for them but more often spent his time in the solitude of the wilderness. He lived off the land, dressed in animal skins and wore shoes made of bark. John simply just wanted to be left alone with nature and be unobtrusive. However, this was nearly impossible standing some 6”4” and weighing about 250 pounds. Most people thought him a little strange, but harmless.

In the early 1900s, photos were taken of the dead. This one appeared on postcards the very day of his funeral.
In the early 1900s, photos were taken of the dead. This one appeared on postcards the very day of his funeral.

In the early 1900’s he rarely left the woods but would sometimes watch the loggers work. He supposedly said to a logger, "I’ll kill anyone who comes after me. These are my woods."

His brothers were now sure he was insane, so they captured him and committed him to a sanitarium in 1909. The facility, located deep in the heart of Oregon’s wilderness, apparently was not able to contain the large man. About a year after being committed, he escaped.

John remained in hiding for about a year. Then he would sometimes visit his sister, her husband, and their twin sons, John and Will Bauer. But he never forgave his brothers for having him committed.

The ‘Wild Man’ was sometimes seen with tangled hair, long beard and dressed in rags. He was described as “a giant gorilla-like man” seen running through the forest. Loggers reported him to be “… a large hairy beast that seemingly appeared out of nowhere before vanishing back into the forest.”

In September, 1911, Tornow shot and killed a cow grazing close to his sister’s small two-room cabin on the Olympic Peninsula. While he was dressing it out, someone fired a shot at him. Tornow fired three times in return. When he went to investigate, he found his two 19 year-old twin nephews lying dead.

No one is sure why John and Will Bauer shot at Tornow. Some believe the pair thought he was a bear feeding on one of their herd. However, some historians think the boys fired on purpose. In any case, Tornow undoubtedly figured someone was trying to capture or kill him when he returned fire. However, after seeing what he had done, he quickly disappeared back into the densely wooded Wynoochee forests.

When the twins failed to return home, the family contacted Chehalis County (Later to become Grays Harbor County in 1915.) Deputy Sheriff John McKenzie rounded up more than 50 men for a search party. They soon returned with the two bodies. Both had been shot in the head and stripped of their weapons.

McKenzie immediately announced that John Tornow had committed the crime and a posse formed to search for the wild man. Loggers and farmers roamed the Satsop area and lower regions of the Wynoochee Valley. The posse was naturally wary of the large man known to have animal instincts and the skills of an expert woodsman.

The posse was actually terrified of the wild man. When a sound was heard in the brush someone skittishly fired a shot…killing a cow. The elusive wild man was not found that day.

As winter came on the search remained fruitless. Eventually, needing provisions, the wild man broke into Jackson’s County Grocery Store. He was known to frequently burglarize cabins or stores. But this time he found something he hadn’t bargained on…a strongbox containing about $15,000. The store also happened to be the town bank.

Immediately a $1,000 reward was offered for the stolen loot. Despite being terrified of Tornow, the number of men increased significantly. As a result, on February 20, 1912, a 17 year old boy was shot and killed being mistaken for the fugitive.

A few weeks later, news reached Sheriff McKenzie that Turnow had been spotted at a camp in Oxbow. Together with the Deputy Game Warden, they set out to find their quarry. They found only a cold campfire where he had been spotted. The two were certain he must have buried the money nearby. A search produced two gold coins, but no strongbox.

Sometime later both Sheriff McKenzie and the Game Warden disappeared and the reward increased to $2,000. On March 16th, Deputy Sheriff A. L. Fitzgerald gathered up another posse to hunt for the "ape-man” in both Oxbow and Chehalis counties. What they found instead, were the bodies of Sheriff McKenzie and the Game Warden. Both had been shot between the eyes and gutted with a knife.

Though the searches continued the mountain man continued to elude capture. A month later Deputy Giles Quimby, along with two others, Louis Blair and Charlie Lathrop, came upon a small shack made of bark. They were sure it belonged to Tornow. Quimby wanted to go back for a posse, but the other two didn’t want to share the reward.

With guns at the ready they cautiously approached the shack. A shot rang out striking Blair who fell dead into nearby bushes. Lathrop returned fire, but was immediately hit in the neck killing him instantly. Quimby, now alone, desperately tried to negotiate with Tornow, claiming all he wanted was the strongbox.

Tornow, not believing Quimby would keep his word and let him go free momentarily hesitated, but finally shouted, "It’s buried in Oxbow, by the boulder that looks like a fish’s fin. Take it and leave me alone!”

But Quimby didn’t keep his word and opened fire at the spot where John was hiding. Though no return shots were fired, Quimby wasn’t sure if he had hit the man or if he was just "playing dead.” Quimby wasn’t taking any chances, so he fled.

When Quimby returned to Montesano, Sheriff Matthews gathered up another posse and returned to where Quimby had fired on Tornow. They found him dead leaning against a tree.

Even before the posse had returned to Montesano, word about the death of the Wild Man had already reached the town. Gawkers and curiosity seekers thronged the streets in order to get a glimpse of the legendary mountain man.

Deputy Sheriff Giles Quimby told reporters John Tornow had "the most horrible face I ever saw. The shaggy beard and long hair, out of which gleamed two shining, murderous eyes, haunts me now. I could only see his face as he uncovered himself to fire a shot, and all the hatred that could fire the soul of a human being was evident.”

This statement only whetted the crowds’ desire to see the Wild Mans’ face. In response, his brother Fred tried to prevent the body’s public display. However, some 250 curiosity seekers stormed the tiny morgue. The crowd required dozens of deputy sheriffs to prevent the nearly 700 citizens from ripping the dead mans' clothing to shreds and cutting off locks of his hair.

In order to maintain their privacy the family held funeral services at the family’s old homestead. Immediately, postcards were printed featuring a photo of Tornows’ corpse.

When all the excitement had settled down, Quimby began searching for the location Tornow had told him. He found the location, but no strongbox. Numerous others have also searched for the buried treasure but it has never been found. Many think the money is buried on the Wynooche River. However, a dam has since been constructed upstream, which may have effectively caused a change in the rivers’ flow. Whatever the case, the hiding place is within the Olympic National Forest which requires permission to hunt.

John Tornow was interred in Matlock Cemetery in Grays Harbor, Washington.


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      He never escaped the sanitarium, the doctors released him because he refused to everything and none of the medications they tried worked. He. Was. Released.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      I'm not worthy JY. After reading more non-fic than I care to remember its a delight to find some generally unknown stories like you write up. Thanks!

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Alastar, I live to write only for you. :-)

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      What an awesome story JY.Tornow if he wasn't already, was definately going rapidly feral with all the cunning that implies. Great hub.

      On reflection your right, Billy the kid was a full blown psycho.


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