Recapturing the real story of Wynooche’s ‘Wild Man’

Memorial to

Historic manhunt

At Tornow camp

By Leif Nesheim

The Vidette
March 1, 2012

A soft rain fell from the leaden sky, dripping slowly from the surrounding forest. The trees aren’t the same that stood a century ago when outlaw John Tornow made his camp beside a secret swamp, but an echo of the past remains.

 The Tornow Memorial Committee is working to preserve that echo for the future.

“It was a horrible event a hundred years ago and we’re trying to figure out how to commemorate it,” said Bob Dick, chair of the Tornow Memorial Committee.

The group is working with Green Diamond, which owns the property on which the site is located, to create an historic memorial. 

About a dozen volunteers gathered at the site last month to perform some temporary trail maintenance to allow committee members safe access to the site.

The committee envisions some sort of trail with signage discussing the historic manhunt, said to be the largest in state history. The surrounding forest is slated for logging this year, but Green Diamond has agreed to keep the actual campsite intact.

The area — near Simpson’s old Camp No. 5 — was logged in the year soon after the final shootout, but stumps from the trees growing in Tornow’s day and a handful of artifacts remain.

“This is the site, committee member Dana Anderson said, indicating a small depression beside an overgrown cedar swamp. Early accounts describe a lean-to shack beside a small lake. The lake no longer exists, but the cedar log Tornow and his pursuers used to cross it, still lies just north” (of where the cabin was), Anderson explained.

“This probably was the entrance to the cabin,” Anderson said, explaining that a few years ago, he found rifle casings using a metal detector nearby. Because the posse’s accounts describe Tornow as firing from the door of the cabin, the presence of the shells indicates the door, he said.

Tornow used bullets too small for his rifle, resulting in a unique splitting of the casings, Anderson said. The bullet casings and other artifacts — including a 1904 dime, jar lid, half a spoon, half a file and brass buttons — are on display at the museum in Matlock.

There also are several fire-cracked stones likely used for Tornow’s small fire.

“He didn’t want to be found, so he had a small fire,” Anderson explained as he set the paltry collection of rocks into a ring near where the fire likely once burned.

Committee members said they’d likely put the stones on display at the museum too, since they’re small enough to be removed as souvenirs.

During the (nearly) two-year manhunt, Tornow’s notoriety spread far and wide with breathless accounts — of varying accuracy — printed in newspapers and magazines. After his death, his body was placed on display and many people snatched bits of clothing as memorabilia, and gruesome postcards of his body did a brisk business.

The February work party did some preliminary work to allow volunteers to access the site. Once the surrounding area is logged, they plan to revisit the area and work toward creating a permanent trail around the former lake with signs, Dick said.

The memorial committee is dedicated to commemorating a significant historic event in the area’s history.

“It was a tragic event for all involved and, to this day, creates intense interest and debate as to exactly why,” the committee’s general philosophy states. “Our goal is to ensure the Tornow saga, and its principals are remembered beyond the first centennial.”

Different accounts of the events surrounding Tornow draw different conclusions; some researchers have determined that he may not have even killed his twin nephews, the act that started the manhunt, or any of the deaths attributed to him during the hunt.

“It is a great story. You always hear lots of great stories about Tornow,” said Shelton author Michael Fredson, whose 2002 account Beast Man: A Historical Account of John Tornow, Accused Murderer of Six Men, is often cited by Tornow aficionados.

“It’s so funny to hear them talk about what I’ve written,” Fredson said as fellow volunteers discussed the likely directions the posse would have taken to access the site. Some of the facts from a century ago have been lost to the mists of time, but the committee is going to do its best to preserve the memory for future generations. 

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