By Bill Lindstrom

Wildman of the Wynooche

Peninsula Magazine

Summer 1988

For 19 months they had hunted for John Tornow, and now finally Sheriff
Schelle Mathews, with rifle at the ready, stealthily approached the little lake at the Oxbow of the
Wynooche. Mathews peered through the trees, and it was several minutes
before he realized he was looking directly into the face of the man he sought. It was an eerie sight.

Chehalis County Sheriff’s Posse members, Con Elliot, left, and George Stormes pose with Tornow’s body.
The body of the man who come to be known as the Wildman of the Wynooche was right in front of Schelle Mathews, still upright behind a hemlock, his arm braced upon a branch. The scraggly figure, clad in several sets of clothing salvaged from his victims, was quite dead, shot twice, and finally more peaceful than wild.
John Tornow died in 1913, and 75 years later he had become a legend in the Upper Satsop Valley region of the (Olympic) Peninsula. Called Cougar Man, Mad Daniel Boone, Outlaw Hermit, Thoreau Without Brains by writers of purple prose of the day, Tornow’s fate lives on in stories about the Wildman of the Wynooche, a name that has lasted through time.

The legend seems to have been revived in the last two years during which time forums drawing hundreds of people have been held in Matlock. Last year, over 300 people helped dedicate a gravestone commemorating the legend in the Tornow family graveyard south of Matlock. And the Matlock Historical Museum has a good-sized collection of Tornow memorabilia.

A quiet loner

The story of John Tornow’s legend began when he was a small boy, the 10-year-old son of Fritz and Louisa Tornow. The family held out little hope for Johnny who suffered a relapse from the black measles, but he survived somewhat miraculously. However, the country doctor warned the family he would be “deficient in mind and body.”

Classmates of the boy found him quiet and odd, a loner who spent days and even weeks in solitude in the woods. As he grew, John Tornow’s brothers became envious of his uncanny ability as a woodsman and marksman, skills he developed alone in the wilderness. He was slow of mind and talked with a lisp, but physically he was a strapping lad, over 6 feet tall, 190 pounds by the time he was in his mid-teens.

Some accounts of Tornow’s life say he was sent to the sanitarium “for his own good.” It may have been when he returned from that experience, or just from working in the woods where he was most at home, that the legend began to unfold. John returned home to find his brother Ed had killed his favorite hunting dog, Cougar. He countered by killing Ed’s best bloodhound. And then he uttered a defiant threat to Ed and all the world: “I am going to the woods to live, and nobody better come after me.”
He meant it: Those who tried to remove him from his beloved woods encountered a fearless man who would stop at nothing to avoid confinement.

No questions asked

In September of 1911, Tornow’s two nephews went into the woods to hunt a bear that had killed one of their heifers. They never returned. After a lengthy search, a posse found the bodies (of John and William Bauer) in shallow graves. The boys’ watches had been taken. One boy was shot once in the heart; the other shot once in the abdomen, once in the shoulder. Suspicion was cast toward the uncle, “thought to be demented and living in the woods” near where the boys were found, according to an account in the Aberdeen Daily World.

It was because of this incident that Tornow was tagged “Wildman of the Wynooche,” and the search for him became a sensational Northwest story in the newspapers. Deputies theorized the boys had shot in the direction of Tornow’s lean-to, discovered near the graves. Tornow apparently didn’t ask questions, but just fired quickly and his .30-.30 found the mark.

Tornow knew every inch of the Upper Satsop and Wynooche Valleys and the adjacent foothills. A man could easily live in the area, and he had done it often, constructing little lean-tos open on each end for his shelters.

There was no sign of him until February of the following year when two trappers stumbled upon an elk carcass. The way the meat was stripped, they knew it must be Tornow, not the work of a hunter. It was reported to the sheriff who summoned a tracker and game warden to investigate. Once they went into the woods, nothing more was heard of them. After five days, a posse found their bodies, buried so that the corpses formed a “T.” Their shoes, guns and some clothes were taken. It was evident the killer was now well armed and well clothed. The tracking wasn’t going to get any easier.

With the death count now at four, the reward money was set at $5,000 (including $1,000 from the state of Washington). Tornow was “seen” everywhere. One day he was spotted at Pacific Beach, the next at Olympia; one day at Elma, the next day at Clallam Bay; the same day he was reported in the Port Angeles paper to be in the wilds of the Olympics, he was reported in jail at Chehalis. These wild goose chases had deputies at their wits’ end, chasing one tall tale after another. Throughout the spring, summer, fall and winter of 1912, the hunt for Tornow intensified.

The hunt ends

In Montesano, the new sheriff, Schelle Mathews, won his campaign because of his promise to rid the hills of Tornow. But it wasn’t until April of 1913 that a Hoquiam real estate developer told Mathews to check the rugged Oxbow country, so-called because it lay within the U-shaped bend in the Wynooche River. The tip was sound enough that Mathews dispatched Giles Quimby and two trappers, Louis Blair and Charles Lathrop, to investigate. They were to wait for the sheriff at the abandoned Pillowshack homestead. But they didn’t.


The trio packed their belongings to the Pillowshack, then made their advance to a small lake (today known at Tornow Lake).

About 10 that night, Mathews’ phone rang in his Montesano home. “We f-f-found him,” Quimby stammered, still in shock from his close call. The two trappers were dead, he told the sheriff, and he thought maybe he had shot the hunted man. Mathews collected 21 of his best men and headed north to meet Quimby. As they traveled to the lake, Quimby told the sheriff the two had approached a lean-to, crossed over a log and when they got to the other side, the shooting started. “Blair went down first. Quick. Then Lathrop. He was hit but kept shooting. I got to within about 65 yards and I started shooting. I saw this figure behind a hemlock and every time he peeked out to shoot, I’d fire. I had only shot left, my seventh. I fired and I saw his head fall.”

Quimby didn’t know at the time if the shaggy figure was dead or not, and he said it looked more like a beast than a man. “I got out of there.”

When the sheriff’s posse arrived at the lake, they found the still figure of Tornow, and the hunt for the man who wanted to be left alone was over.

As Mathews turned his head from the sight, he uttered words more prophetic than he knew: “John Tornow may be gone, but he will never be forgotten.”

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