By Steven Friederich

Montesano Vidette editor

Oct. 16, 2014

Villain or Victim? The Debate Rages a Century Later.

To many, John Tornow was an infamous outlaw. He’s accused of killing his nephews a century ago. He led pursuers on a 19-month manhunt and killed four deputies who chased him down through the dark and muddy woods of the Wynooche, with the tragic story ultimately ending in an ugly shootout in 1913 with Tornow now dead.

To author Bill Lindstrom, Tornow was a victim of circumstances, who barely recovered from measles as a small child. That disease left him with a lisp and an inferiority complex, and as a result, preferred to live in solitude for most of his adult life. Lindstrom thinks there’s a question whether Tornow actually killed his nephews or if they were killed by someone else. He also questions some of the findings that Tornow was a mad killer, except to acknowledge that Tornow killed deputies during the final shootout as an undisputed fact.

“He likely would have been fine, if left alone in the woods, but he wasn’t left alone,” says Lindstrom, a former city for The Daily World. “And therein lies the rub.”

Lindstrom’s new book, John Tornow: Villain or Victim? Attempts to explore Tornow, known to many as the Wildman of the Wynooche, and his relationship with family, friends and the community. It’s a historical drama as seen through the eyes of Dan Cloud, a reporter at the turn of the 20th Century for the Aberdeen Daily World. Cloud is a real person. The only main character in the story, who isn’t a real person is Lindy, Cloud’s girlfriend. Lindstrom uses his five decades of experience as a journalist and basically channels Cloud, utilizing the reporter’s real words found in old news articles and what he might have been thinking during pivotal events throughout the tragic story.

“I have used Cloud as the main thread through whom the Tornow story is told,” Lindstrom said. “Once he becomes involved in 1911, he conducts interviews, makes treks with the posse, writes his stories — not opinions — and even suffers travails along the way. He’s a young reporter, starting as an intern and he learns the craft as he goes.”

Lindstrom said some of the old articles are reprinted word for word.
“I took literary license at spots when it wasn’t clear exactly to me or to the reader what he was talking about,” Lindstrom said.

Lindstrom said he conducted 28 years of research, including a trip to San Diego, and interviewed many of Tornow’s relatives and perused dozens of articles about the encounters. Lindstrom said he found Tornow to be a “very compassionate and understanding forceful man. He was a conservationist. He was even a preservationist to make sure people didn’t damage his woods. By the time he was 12 years old, he was self-sufficient in the woods.

“I definitely feel he was a victim. It’s just the way he was treated by the friends and family who knew him. Some of his family hated him — even before the kids were killed. John took the boys and taught them everything he knew about life in the woods. He even gave them rifles — the same make and caliber — he allegedly shot them with. Did John kill the boys or did somebody else?”

[One chapter in the book, “Conspiracies and Theories,” describes about a dozen different scenarios that could have happened.]

Had he been arrested and taken into jail in Montesano, there’s no way he would have been convicted, said fire wardens in the area where Tornow roamed. They even says elk poachers might have done it. Frankly, “I’d much rather meet John Tornow than elk poachers,” said one of the wardens.

Cloud was present for most of the major happenings, toiling away and interviewing the major figures. Lindstrom captures those moments in the book. During the funeral for the nephews, for instance, there was a theory that Tornow was likely in the woods watching. Lindstrom expands on that episode, capturing the details of what it was like to be there, utilizing the scripture read at the event.

Cloud did miss some of the major points. For instance, after the great shootout where Tornow was killed, he gave out on the trail and couldn’t make it. Still, he was able to get a coveted interview and get the story before anyone else. Lindstrom is able to capture details of the shootout utilizing the writings of others who were there, including a reporter with The Washingtonian, based out of Hoquiam.

The only part where Lindstrom says he couldn’t find much on Cloud is after Tornow was killed in a shootout and his body is brought back and put on display for all to see.

“I’m not sure where Cloud was for that,” Lindstrom said, adding there was still plenty of documentation out there to capture what it was like. “One of the posse members said it was like Fourth of July when they found his body. It was a celebration of 19 months of absolute frustration and agony that this guy had been able to elude so many people for so long during two of the most severe winters, and then there was monetary value of it. They made postcards. They sold out. It was so fantastical that the public insisted The Daily World run the photo of his dead body. Thousands came by to look at his body on display. It was the biggest story to come out of what was then Chehalis County at the time.”

Despite being a century old, the legends of John Tornow persist today. Lindstrom helped get a tombstone erected for John Tornow in 1987. In 2011, he helped establish a Tornow Victims’ Memorial Committee, which achieved its goal of erecting a monument to honor the six victims.

“I want to introduce people to a different John Tornow,” Lindstrom said. “Yes, it becomes about the ‘wild man’ and the ‘beast man,’ but it’s also about the self-conscious individual, who developed a lisp after measles, an avid sharpshooter and survivalist, who just wanted to be alone. … It’s being talked about for a hundred years because nobody really knows what happened. My goal is to educate the reader with more than just the legend, but to educate the reader with information so they can form their own opinions on guilt or innocence.”

The book is edited by Bob Dick, a Montesano High School graduate and former county forester, who resides at Lake Nahwatzel. The illustrator and cover designer is Amy Ostwald of Ostward Graphic Design in Elma.

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