A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

April 1998

The Dauntless Desperado:
Harry Tracy

By Stan Flewelling

"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

Harry Tracy
Mug shot of outlaw Harry Tracy in his prison garb.
  WRVM# 1696

Harry Tracy had been raised in a humble family in rural Wisconsin. Somehow he emerged a rebel, a petty criminal who seemed capable of little more than getting into more and more trouble. In his youth, he ventured west in an escapade of crimes, arrests, convictions, and jailbreaks. While staying in Seattle and Portland, he partnered with another larcenist, Vancouver (WA) native David Merrill. When the two were arrested in Portland and convicted on assault and robbery charges in 1899, they were sent away to the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

Three years later, early in the morning of June 9, 1902, they pulled off an unusually daring and vicious escape, killing three guards and a fellow inmate in the process. During the next 10 days or so, Tracy and Merrill zigzagged their way north past Portland, followed by over 250 militiamen and law officers-and a contingent of bloodhounds called in from the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla. (Tracy would later tell people that what he hated most about running from the law were the dogs.)

The fugitives started to set some patterns that were maintained for the duration of the manhunt. The patterns made them famous: appearing at rural camps and farmhouses at odd hours of the early morning or late evening, holding families hostage, demanding sumptuous meals and clothing changes, appropriating food supplies and horses, displaying cold tenacity about their plans, but also courtesy and gratitude when they received help. They also developed a penchant for being surrounded by a posse and escaping miraculously. This was the scenario on at least three different occasions before Tracy, without Merrill, landed on the shores of Ballard near the Seattle area late on July 2nd.

He arrived on a small launch that he had commandeered in Olympia. He told the crew he had killed his partner, Merrill, on a grudge several days earlier. Tracy had a way of embellishing stories, but this one, it turned out, was true. He said he "wanted a gun [a revolver] pretty bad and would hold up the first policeman that he met." [PI, July 3, 1902] He was carrying a stolen 30:30 Winchester rifle and 300 rounds of mismatched .45 caliber bullet cartridges. Tracy's gun dilemma later played a big role in the lives of his White River Valley hostages.

*         *         *

On the morning of Wednesday, July 9, 1902, almost exactly one month to the hour after his escape from the Oregon penitentiary, Harry Tracy appeared at the Johnson farm near Kent. Eric Magnus ("E.M.") and Mary K. Johnson lived there with her children from a previous marriage, Anna and Alfred Olson. Anna was nearly 17, and Alfred had just turned 15.

The Johnson farm, better known in earlier (and later) years as the Olson farm, nestled in a narrow canyon at the foot of East Hill on the east bank of the White River. The home as described by the Seattle Times was "three miles southeast of the town of Kent. It is a log home of one and a half stories, containing three rooms down stairs and one large room in the loft. It stands in the center of a large apple and cherry tree orchard, surrounded by a well-kept lawn. The trees are thick and almost shut out the house from view of the county road that passes by some 100 yards from the front of the unassuming home of the quiet, inoffensive Scandinavian rancher." [ST, July 11, 1902]

The family had risen around 5 a.m., as was their habit, and after breakfast Mr. Johnson went to the barn to harness the horses, readying them for the day's work. As he worked, a stranger carrying a rifle emerged from the brush and approached the barn.
"Hello," he said to Johnson, "hain't you a bachelor?"
"No," explained the forthright farmer. "I have a wife and two children."

The stranger introduced himself. "I'm Harry Tracy and I'm hungry and tired. You take me in that house and get me something to eat. I want to rest." Now intimidated, Johnson said he would do anything Tracy asked. He walked toward the house as the outlaw followed, brandishing his rifle with both hands. As they stepped into the kitchen, Tracy greeted Mrs. Johnson by name. This baffled them all, since no one had yet mentioned their names. Tracy seemed to have a predisposition for assailing Johnsons.

Tracy threw his hat on the floor and dropped to a seat near the kitchen stove. He was sopping wet from having crossed the White River three times earlier that morning. Again he ordered breakfast, watching every move Mary Johnson made as she got his grub together. "I fried some eggs, made some batter cakes and some oatmeal," she told the Times. The highlights of her narrative, as relayed by the Times reporter, follow:


When the breakfast was cooked he sat down at the table and ordered us to do the same. All the time he kept his rifle on his lap and laid a revolver on the corner of the table. He ate ravenously and scarcely said a word all the time. When he finished he said that he enjoyed the meal and felt better.

Tracy looked tired and worn out. He complained that his left leg hurt him; that he had rheumatism in it. Breakfast over, Tracy ordered us all into the front room adjoining the kitchen. Next to this room is a small bedroom without a door. Tracy told us all to sit down. We did so, close together. The bed is close to where the door should be. Tracy dropped onto the bed laying his head on two pillows, which he had placed in a position to prop him up. For nearly an hour he stayed there, scarcely speaking a word. Finally he arose from the bed and said to Johnson:

"Have you any money? You've got to get me two six-shooters."
My husband looked into his pocketbook and said he had $22. He offered it to Tracy. The latter replied that he did not want the money, but he did want pistols. He said they would cost about $15 each. I had $5, my son $1 and my daughter 50 cents. This we gave to Johnson, making $28.50 in all. Tracy said:
"Now, Johnson, I want you to go to Tacoma and buy me two six-shooters, 45 caliber. Take a horse and ride to Auburn; there take the train and go to Tacoma."

Tracy knew the time of the train and told my husband he could get back by 6 o'clock that evening. He took his rifle in his hand and, pointing it at me, said to Johnson that if he was longer than 6 o'clock in getting back he would find us all dead.

"I will shoot all your family," said Tracy. "Don't you tell anyone. Don't speak a word, but get the pistols and come back."

Captives! This is E. M. Johnson of Kent, his wife and their son and daughter, victims in one of the most spectacular chapters in the career of Harry Tracy, outlaw killer.
Photo by Asahel Curtis, Seattle PI, July, 1902.

This was about 8:30 o'clock. My husband immediately started for Auburn. He promised that he would do as Tracy had said.

After Johnson left, Tracy again sat down on the bed and I think he dozed, although I am not sure. I was afraid to move and my children almost feared to breathe. In about an hour, Tracy said that he was afraid the dogs and officers might be coming. He ordered us all to leave the house. We went out and closed the door. He told us to not open our mouths. Then he told us to start to the woods back of the house. He marched us through the barn lot and to the woods 300 yards away. He said he was thirsty. I told him where a spring was and led him to it. The spring is on the hillside in a clump of bushes, yet there is a good view of the house. There he commanded us to sit down. He said he would keep us there until Johnson returned. He told my son [Alfred] to watch the house closely and if he saw any strangers to tell him and he would shoot them down.

"If any of your neighbors come around here I will not bother them, but if the officers show up or anyone who has no business here, I will kill them. They are after me and I will take no chances."

For nearly three hours Tracy kept us at the spring. He talked but little and seemed greatly worried. He said he wished he was out of it. . . . [He] told of some of his escapades of the last few days. . . .

In the meantime, E. M. Johnson was getting frantic. He had sped to Kent (not Auburn), borrowed money from a friend, and arrived at Tacoma in good order, but could not find a revolver exactly like Harry Tracy had described. Tracy had ordered a Colt .45 with a 6-inch barrel. At E. A. Kimball's gun store, Johnson bought one with a 71/2-inch barrel, the only Colt available. It was a second-hand gun, which worried Johnson. He repeated over and over that it had to be as good as new, and insisted that the proprietor write a guarantee to that effect on the bill of sale.

Cartridges included, the sale amounted to $11. Asked if he was going to hunt Tracy, the jittery Johnson insisted that no, the gun was for somebody else. Johnson hustled wildly out of the store less than five minutes after he had entered. He proceeded to search unsuccessfully for a second gun, and at the last minute, caught a train toward home.

Mrs. Johnson described the rest of the family's ordeal:

Along about 1 o'clock that afternoon Tracy complained that he was getting hungry again. I told him that we would go to the house and get something to eat. We all started to the house. Tracy stopped at the barn and kept the children with him. I went to the house and got the lunch, some cold meat, bread, eggs, etc. We all went back to the spring and ate it. . . . Once or twice in the afternoon Tracy took [Alfred] from the spring to show him the roads nearby. Once they were gone a half-hour. [Anna] and I did not leave. We were afraid. For fully an hour Tracy sat at the spring without saying a word to us.

About 4:30 we went to the house. Tracy ordered us into the front room again. He laid down on the bed and told [Alfred] to go out and watch for anyone who might come. No one came to the house all day.

Tracy looked at the clock and saw it was 5:30. He remarked that it was time that Johnson was coming back. . . . Presently [Alfred] came running in the house and said his papa was coming. Tracy seemed pleased. He went to the door. Johnson came in the house on a run. He fell almost exhausted into a chair.

"Well," said Tracy, "did you get those guns and did you tell any one I was here?"

"Johnson replied that he had not mentioned a word to a soul. He then handed to Tracy a pistol and two boxes of cartridges. My husband said he had walked all over Tacoma to find another pistol like Tracy directed him to get, but he couldn't. He called Tracy "Mr. Tracy" all the time and said he would do all he could for him. He was sorry, he said, because he could find but one gun. Tracy replied:

"All right, Johnson, you did the best you could. You see I have not hurt your family, but if you had been gone thirty minutes longer I would have killed them all. . . .

Tracy laid down on the bed again and rested for half an hour. Then he ordered supper and I got it for him while my husband remained in the room with him. We all sat down at the table and ate. Tracy got up twice and went to the door and looked around. . . . 

About 8:45 he said he would have to be going. He said he wanted some food to take with him. I boiled him three dozen eggs, gave him five pounds of butter in a can, a large piece of bacon and ham, four loaves of bread, a can of baking powder and about two pounds of flour. I put it all in a large flour sack for him. . . . He got up, put the sack of food under his arm and went to the door. He said:

"Johnson, I am going. Don't you tell anyone I was here or my partner, who is near by, will come and kill you and burn your house. He is watching this place now. Good bye to all of you. Maybe I'll come back some time."

[By comparison, the PI report held that Tracy said, "Well, good bye, Mrs. Johnson, I never will bother you any more," to which she retorted, "I hope you won't." The PI also said he fashioned a holster for his new revolver out of some old boot tops as she readied his take-along meal.]

Tracy went direct to the barn, got our gray horse, climbed upon its back and started down the road southeast of the house. He was soon out of sight and that was the last we saw of him. In an hour the horse came back to the house. He had evidently turned the animal loose when he came to the hills two miles below our house where the road ends [i.e. near today's Lea Hill]. [ST, July 11, 1902]

The Johnsons spent a sleepless night. The next morning, they hitched up a wagon and drove to the home of their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. L. A. Dow. They were so afraid of Tracy that no one could induce them to call the sheriff. The Dows finally convinced them to come into Kent, where they relayed their story to Thomas McColough, a family friend. McColough immediately called Sheriff Cudihee's office.

The Johnson family stayed in town for several days, terrified of their presumed fate if they returned to the isolated farm. In Kent, they rehashed their story several times. Tracy, it seems, was more talkative than they first indicated-or perhaps the Johnsons were more talkative than they first allowed themselves to be. He had shed tears while telling the Johnsons about his mother. He assured them repeatedly that women and children were safe with him. "Have you ever heard of me doing anything bad to women and children," Tracy asked. Tracy's considerate ways impressed both Mary Johnson and her daughter, Anna. (Interviewed some 70 years later, Alfred Olson also agreed that Tracy was a "nice sort of a fellow . . . a gentleman.")

At suppertime Tracy had asked if there were any strawberries in the house. Mary Johnson had canned some, and said she would open a jar. He claimed he hadn't had any for five years, and "ate two large dishes with great relish." Tracy explained why he always tried to pick the homes of poor people to invade when he needed help. He felt that they cared more for their families than did rich people. He also preferred their company, and with them "was surer of forcing a compliance with his orders." [PI, July 11, 1902]

Tracy never was caught in King County. Spotted over the next few days in the upper Green River Valley, Covington, Ravensdale, Black Diamond, Lake Sawyer, Enumclaw, and Palmer, he eventually slipped over the Cascades into eastern Washington. He was injured in an ambush at Creston, Washington on August 5, and shot himself that same night. 

*         *         *

A mystery remains that directly involves the White River Valley Museum. The Colt .45 that E. M. Johnson bought in Tacoma on July 9 was supposedly returned to him by a member of the Creston posse. Simply getting the gun back was an amazing feat; Tracy souvenir hunters were said to have grabbed at anything they could get hold of, even the corpse's hair and strips of clothing. The gun remained a Johnson/Olson family treasure for years. In 1972, Alfred Olson decided to give the firearm to the White River Valley Museum. He was the only surviving family member; neither he nor his late sister, Anna, had ever married. Olson claimed that the gun was the same one Tracy used to commit suicide.

The same claim has been made by important gun collectors. A 1981 article in the Pacific Northwest Magazine stated that a Creston posse member named Frank Hodge bought the gun (plus a box of shells) at a police auction for $13. After his death in 1950, Hodge's widow sold the gun to an eastern collector named William Massey. In 1964, it was sold in turn to Delmore L. Huggins, a collector from Forks, Washington. The revolver was described as a "Colt single-action .32/.20 caliber known as the Frontier model."

Tracy clearly preferred Colt .45 caliber models. That's what Johnson bought for him. Tracy liked the 6-inch barrel variety, but Johnson could only find a 71/2-inch model. That describes the model Johnson's step-son, Alfred Olson, gave to the White River Valley Museum 26 years ago. Unless there is evidence that Tracy had turned some other revolver he on himself, more than likely the "real thing" belongs to us-a dubious honor, but one up for people of the White River Valley area who support public history!

Stan Flewelling

[This revolver will be featured, along with the Harry Tracy story, in the new exhibits.]