Meet the Old West’s Last Gunfighter

From Oregon State Archives.

You know Jesse James and Billy the Kid. You’ve watched “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and heard tales of John Wesley Hardin and the Dalton Brothers. All legends in their time, all still outlaw icons today.

Every era eventually ends, and the Old West was no exception. The lawlessness that began with the Civil War’s conclusion stretched into the earliest days of the 20th Century. And when that era finally wrapped up, who was its final desperado?

Meet Harry Tracy, who went down with guns blazing in 1902. He was wildly famous in his day, much like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were later on. If the FBI had existed then, he would have been Public Enemy #1.

And you won’t believe his sad, chilling, heartbreaking, murderous story.

Face in Oval frameHarry was a walking bundle of contradictions. Strikingly handsome, with an Abercrombie & Fitch model’s disdainful smirk, he could be excessively polite and courteous. Women adored him, and he revered them as symbols of Victorian sanctity, especially his mother. He could be charming company, even funny when he so chose.

He could also be withdrawn, lonely and moody. He had deadly aim with a gun and was savagely dangerous. Harry had bad luck and made bad choices, and even when he tried to do the right thing, he got an especially bad break.

So, just how did this forgotten figure go bad?

He was born Harry Severns in Pittsville, Wisconsin in 1875. His father was described as “fanatically religious,” and there are dark hints the boy was physically abused. By the time he was 16, Harry couldn’t take it anymore. He was already a crack shot, bitter, and deeply in love.

Hostage Mary BakerHarry’s sweetheart was Eugenie Carter, and he desperately wanted to marry her and start a new life together. But that took money. So he robbed a post office of $160. He was kissing Eugenie goodbye as he prepared to hightail it out of town when the sheriff spotted him and opened fire – quickly becoming the first man Harry sent to his grave.

There was no turning back now. Harry was a wanted man, a criminal. An outlaw.

When he turned up later in Missouri, Harry had acquired the surname of Tracy. He hid in an Ozarks shack for a while, then forced two men identified as “bums” to help him rob eight hunters, making off with $750.

Harry was a murderer and a robber … and he hadn’t even turned 18 yet.

Sepia photo with nameHe bounced around from Cincinnati to Chicago and then went west, hoping to make something of himself and reunite with his beloved Eugenie. Harry recognized the importance of having money – he just wasn’t willing to work for it. A dangerous pattern developed. His version of going to an ATM was pulling an armed robbery and living off the loot until the cash ran out. Then he robbed again. And again. And again.

In Salt Lake City, a holdup went bad and he was invited to visit the inside of Utah’s Penitentiary.

But Harry wasn’t behind bars for long. He outfoxed his guard, slipped away and started over in Colorado.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 1894 (at age 19, mind you), a Colorado Springs saloon holdup was bungled, and two lawmen were killed as he fled. Next stop was Montana, where he joined a gang of horse and cattle thieves. The leader often got drunk and beat his Native-American wife. This offended Harry’s strangely exalted notion of womanhood, and he ended the beatings by putting a bullet through the abusive husband’s head.

Harry dropped out of sight for a while after that, roaming the West and brooding over Eugenie, his lost love.

Eddy Ranch cabinThen, a miracle happened: out of the blue, he ran into her in Cripple Creek, Colorado. Harry wasn’t going to let her get away again, and they were soon married. He seemed genuinely interested in turning over a new leaf. He bought a little ranch in Idaho, and for a few months the newlyweds were blissfully happy.

But Fate was determined to never let Harry be happy for long.

Two friends were accused of stealing horses, and they headed to Harry’s ranch to hide out. A posse tracked them down and surrounded the place.

For once, Harry had no part in this crime. So he and Eugenie decided to flee an increasingly ugly situation. They tried to run for it. The posse opened fire, and Eugenie was hit. Harry went berserk and started shooting like a madman, killing three posse members and sending the rest running for their lives.

Harry held Eugenie in his arms as she died, then gently placed her body on their bed. He mounted his horse and road off into the night. His one sincere attempt at “going straight” had ended in bloody failure.

If Harry was bad before, it was nothing compared to how he behaved now. He particularly blamed lawmen for his woes.

The Wild BunchAfter a few years of riding and robbing his way around the West (where he claimed to have briefly been part of Butch & Sundance’s Hole in the Wall Gang), Harry turned up in the Pacific Northwest as the 1800s drew to a close.

He met a fellow bad guy named David Merrill. They committed one holdup after another until they were caught and hustled off to Oregon’s Penitentiary, where the final chapter of Harry’s short, bloody saga unfolded.

Harry and Merrill had a buddy smuggle two rifles into the prison’s stove factory.

Escapees running (drawing)They made their break on June 9, 1902. As prisoners were milling around the yard, Tracy and Merrill ran out of the factory with their Winchesters. Harry shot a guard in the forehead, then used another as a human shield. Reaching the safety of nearby woods, Merrill killed the guard. In all, three guards and three civilians were shot dead in the escape.

With that, the greatest manhunt in Pacific Northwest history was underway. It was front page news nationwide. And the stories were luridly juicy.

June 29: Tracy and Merrill were reported in Lewis County, with lawmen confident the pair were surrounded.

July 3: The Seattle Daily Times wrote, “In all the criminal lore of the country there is no record equal to that of Harry Tracy. Jesse James, compared with Tracy, was a Sunday school teacher.”

July 4: It was said Harry killed two officers and mortally wounded two others near Seattle.

July 8: Harry reportedly held up six men near Olympia and confessed to killing Merrill in a bizarre duel after a disagreement.

And so it went. Harry would drop from sight and the trail would grow cold. Then he would show up hungry at some farmer’s door, demanding food and lodging and threatening to kill the family if they alerted law enforcement. Incredibly, some hostages later said Harry was pleasant, cheerful, even good company.

And yet, he also murdered at least five men while on the run. The public was nearing Panic Mode. The governors of Washington state and Idaho offered a combined total of $6,000 in rewards for Harry (you could buy a small mansion with that amount back then), dead or alive.

Tracy lying deadHis luck finally ran out on August 6, 1902. He was cornered in Creston, Washington and shot in the leg during an ambush by a posse. Totally surrounded, Harry committed suicide to avoid capture.

It was over. After murdering an estimated 25 men (mostly law officers), committing at least 43 robberies, 12 or more one-on-one hold ups and making at least six jail breaks Harry Tracy, the last gunfighter of the Old West, was dead at age 27.

Tracy in deathHis lifeless body was publically displayed (just like Jesse James, the Daltons and other gunmen of the era), there was a prolonged, nasty fight over the reward money (which dwindled from $6,000 to $2,500 by the time it was reluctantly paid), and Harry Tracy faded into the mist of time.

Movie posterA Canadian film called “Harry Tracy, The Last of the Wild Bunch” was released in 1982, starring Bruce Dern in the title role. (Gordon Lightfoot even sang on the soundtrack; you can’t get more Canadian than that.) But it didn’t excite movie-goers.

And so the last gunfighter of the Old West became lost in obscurity, known only to the most hardcore of history buffs, a psychopath who brought grief and misery everywhere he went while suffering his own inner torment every step of the way.

Did you find this enjoyable or helpful? Please continue to join me each week, and I invite you to read Tell it Like Tupper and share your review!

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