A Complex kid (Part 1)

Posted by Ken Campbell May 21, 2009 0 Comment 738 views

It is a fine line between feral and domesticated, between wild and tame. The difference between tearing raw meat from the bone and quietly noshing on a cucumber sandwich is not as great as you might believe and, once that line has been crossed, it is difficult, maybe impossible, to return.

On September 4, 1880, a child was born on the Tornow homestead near the Satsop River on the south slope of the Olympics. His parents named him John. As long as his family could recall, he preferred to be out in the woods, among the wild animals, rather than in the company of people. He would spend days in the wilderness with his dog as his only companion, coming home only when he grew too hungry to stay. By the time he was ten years old, he was a dead-eye shot and an excellent woodsman, able to remain beyond human contact for weeks at a time.

It was at about this time that one of John’s brothers, for reasons that are unclear, shot his dog. In retaliation and without any hesitation, he found his brother’s dog lying near the creek and calmly returned the cruelty with a single bullet. From this point on, he was rarely at home, although he would bring game back to his parent’s homestead from time to time on his brief visits. By the time he had reached his teens, animals would approach him without fear and his skills in the woods had become legend. He was a gifted woodsman, an iconoclast, and nuttier than squirrel shit.

His brothers, like many peninsula lads, began their logging careers early, eventually starting their own business. John worked with them off and on, mostly off. He wore animal skins for clothing and his shoes were constructed of cedar bark. He was a large man, 6’4″ tall and tipping the scales at about 250 pounds, a substantial man, physically speaking, but something else on the inside.

By the early 1900’s, he was in the forest full-time, hardly ever leaving the protection that the tangled, green underbrush had to offer. Somehow his brothers, who were convinced that he was dangerously soft in the melon, captured John and had him committed to a hospital for the insane in Oregon. A year after his arrival, he escaped.

After more time passed, he began to turn up at his sister’s house occasionally, coming out of the forest to visit with her and her husband, as well as their twin sons, John and Will. Other than these scattered visits, he was spotted from time to time by other local settlers, and described as having “tangled hair, a long beard and ragged clothes… a giant gorilla-like man.” Loggers told stories of this hairy beast-like creature that would appear and disappear from nowhere, way back in the deep forest.

In September of 1911, Tornow shot and killed a cow. His sister’s cabin was nearby, and the slain bovine most likely belonged to her. As he dressed the kill in the dewy morning meadow, a bullet flew past his ear and irrevocably shattered the scene. He quickly dropped his gutting knife and crouched behind the carcass, rising to blindly fire three shots in quick succession from his rifle. When he was sure that the danger had passed, he approached the place where the shots had originated, and found his nephews dead on the ground, killed by his return fire.

No one will ever know for sure why the twins, John and Will Bauer, shot at Tornow. Kinder souls liked to think that they were shooting at what they thought was a bear or some other wild animal feeding on one of their cattle, but not many bought into it. Whether the boys were intentionally aiming at Big John or not, he obviously thought that someone was trying to get him. Once he saw what he had done, he hightailed it back into deep cover once again, way up the rills and vales of the Wynoochie Valley.

When the twins did not return, their family contacted Chehalis County Deputy Sheriff John McKenzie who put together a search party of more than 50 men, no small feat in an area so lightly populated. It wasn’t long before the bodies were located. Each of the boys had been shot through the head and their weapons had been taken. The bodies were taken back to the homestead and the Sheriff began his next task, organizing a posse to bring the killer to justice.

That the shooting had been done by John Tornow was never an item of any serious discussion. The efficiency of the kill, the accuracy of the shot, and the half-cleaned carcass of the nearby cow painted as accurate a picture as the Sheriff needed to see. His posse, a collection of loggers and settlers, nervously fanned out in the backcountry, wary of a wild man they knew to have the forest skills of an Indian and the black heart of a beast. Every crack of a branch, every flutter of shadow, was attributed to Tornow, although they never actually saw him in the course of their search. They did, however, manage to mistakenly kill an unfortunate cow at one point, in their trigger-happy excitement.

As the search went on and on, the tales about Tornow got more extravagant. Exaggerated stories about “the Wild Man of the Wynoochee,” featured a “cold-eyed giant constantly traversing the forest in search of prey.” With winter coming on, Tornow was able to avoid crossing paths with any of the searchers by staying to the high country, using the deep snows and dangerous slopes as cover.

Even here, at this late point in the game, after blood had already been spilled, Tornow might have been able to escape. Head north over the Skokomish, get to salt water somehow. An anonymous night passage on a coastal packet boat, it would have been easy to be in Victoria within the week. But there was no way that would ever happen. Big John was well past any chance of pulling that off. Besides, if ever there were a man so tied to his country, I have not heard of him. His fate, whatever it would be, would take place in his corner, and nowhere else.

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