Tornow story sparks debate at Matlock

(This story on Jan. 28, 1987, was one of several forums held in Matlock and surrounding towns from that date until 2014).

By Bill Lindstrom

The Daily World

MATLOCK — An estimated 284 people jammed the Mary M. Knight school commons building for the Matlock Historical Forum here last night, sparking one of the livelier discussions this town probably ever had.

Tom Roberson sings and plays his ballad to John Tornow at the 1987 forum.

It wasn’t a debate over property taxes, a new highway or even a school levy.

John Tornow was the man of the night in a discussion that may have rivaled even the day the sheriff’s posse brought his body out of the woods west of the Satsop River, ending a near two-year manhunt that changed the lives of this area’s inhabitants 75 years ago.

Why would so many be involved in a piece of history that old?

“It’s interesting and every time I dig a little deeper into it, it gets more interesting,” explained Upper Satsop researcher Tom Roberson, who has spent more than a year studying the tragic event.

He led the discussion with an introduction to the Tornow story and climaxed the spirited exchange between those in attendance and his recently composed song, “The Ballad of John Tornow.”

Tornow, of course, is the man who allegedly killed his two nephews, William and John Bauer, on Sept. 3, 1911, then in March 1912, shot down warden A.V. Elmer and deputy Colin McKenzie.

The extensive manhunt ended on April 16, 1913, when Tornow gunned down deputized trappers Charles Lathrop and Louis Blair before he was killed by deputy Giles Quimby in a shootout at the area known as Tornow Lake off the old Camp Grisdale Road.

What makes the story so fascinating are the many ramifications and rumors that have surfaced through the years, pertaining to Tornow.

He has been described by fantasizing writers as a crazed madman, “the Wildman of the Oxbow” as one publication put it.

While others said he was a loner who took to the woods and would have been fine, if only left alone. What he did, he did in self defense is the claim by others.

So, it wasn’t surprising to see the large turnout, but this crowd shocked even forum director Rand Iversen.

“This is the third major forum we have had, and it is the biggest,” said Iversen. “I expected quite a few, but this turnout is surprising.”

(The event was originally scheduled for the library, which held about 25, but was quickly moved to the gym).

Roberson first became interested in Tornow about five years ago when he was driving past the old graveyard on the Brady-Matlock Road and a relative pointed out the site where Tornow was buried.

“Who’s John Tornow?” Roberson asked. “When he told me, I went to the library and looked up the story. I didn’t do anything about it until last year.”

Being unemployed, Roberson had a lot of time on his hands this year and that rekindled his interest with the Tornow story.

“I decided right away that I wanted to write a song about the old boy,” said Roberson in his down-home Oklahoma drawl.

John, John what have you got left?

Nothing but life on the run

If a hangman’s noose doesn’t end

your life, you’ll die

by a lawman’s gun.

Roberson said he had about 10 songs published, including a song about northwest sports enthusiast Rockin Rollen of Cle Elum. Rollen often appeared at major sports events with multi-colored hair, displaying religious placards.

Dora Hearing shares Tornow stories with forum crowd.

He is currently working on a song about Mary Bauer, a sister of the murdered twins in the Tornow incident. She tragically died after a criminal abortion in which an Aberdeen doctor, Robert Stapp was convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison, but later pardoned.

“I want to do an entire album around the Tornow story. There is certainly enough to write about,” Roberson said.

The most interesting aspects of the Tornow investigation, according to Roberson, involve “talking with relatives and friends whose parents knew him, digging up old records in the archives, reviewing old newspapers, going to places where it all happened and taking pictures.”

But others are researching the Tornow story, including attorney and municipal court judge Gordon Godfrey of Aberdeen, who has been delving into this story for the last 15 years. Some teachers also have instructed their pupils to turn in essays on Tornow.

Many also visited the Matlock Historical Museum about 100 yards from the school. It has an impressive collection of Matlock-area memorabilia, and recently claimed the original Tornow gravestone. Many other Tornow objects, documents and news articles are there.

Dora Hearing of Matlock told of watering John’s horses when she was about 9 years old. “John said he and his relatives were out on the burn picking blueberries,” the spry 86-year-old said. “He seemed fine to me.”

She also related another time when there was a ruckus in the middle of the night. She awakened her dad to check on the noise. A few minutes later, her father returned and “told me to go back to sleep. It was nothing, just John Tornow leaving us some elk, salmon and pelts.”

Hearing said her father often left items such as clothing, food supplies, matches and tools for Tornow. “When he picked up those things, he’d leave us something.”

Bob Wicker related about Tornow buying eggs from his dad and Garth Getty told how his uncle was on the posse.

Bill Hall talked about his grandfather making a gun sight for John out of nickel, and Rex Valentine told of his real estate agency purchasing the property near the Bauer homestead and renaming it Tornow Drive.

Then everyone in the gym became silent when Roberson picked up his Martin guitar and played:

The Ballad of John Tornow

John Tornow, John Tornow

Look what you have done.

You killed your two nephews

by using a gun.

You took away life

that their mother once gave.

Then buried their bodies

In a crude, shallow grave.


John, John, what have you got left?

Nothing but life on the run.

If a hangman’s noose

doesn’t end your life,

you’ll die by a lawman’s gun.


The sheriff, the sheriff

sent out two good men

to track down John Tornow

and return with him.

They had a warrant

with vigor and drive

but McKenzie and Elmer

didn’t come back alive.


John Tornow, John Tornow

He lived all alone

in the mighty green forest

that he called his home

It was early one evening

at four forty-five

when the law found John Tornow

and ended his life.


John, John, what have you got left?

Nothing but life on the run.

If a hangman’s noose doesn’t

end your life,

you’ll die a lawman’s gun


John died by lawman’s gun

John died by a lawman’s gun

Copyright 1986

Tom Roberson, Elma, WA.

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