A Complex kid (part 2)

Posted by Ken Campbell May 22, 2009 0 Comment 992 views

Although avoiding the public was the secret to Big John’s success at eluding capture, there were times when he needed things that he couldn’t get anywhere else. He broke into Jackson’s Country Grocery Store that winter, something he was wont to do from time to time, as he needed supplies. On this particular raid, however, he took off with the store’s safe, along with the flour and the salt. Inside was $15,000 in cash, a hefty sum back then – as it is today. With a price on his head – a $1000 reward for the return of the money – the number of searchers increased dramatically. The end of the saga was now set in stone; it was now simply a question of when and how.

Sheriff McKenzie heard from a traveling prospector that Tornow had been seen in Oxbow, a camp farther up the Wynoochie. Those two recruited the Deputy Game Warden to come along and they went to the camp, but the wild man was gone. He had left some things behind him – a couple gold coins and various lesser items – but the strongbox was nowhere to be found. The Sheriff and Warden Elmer continued the search until, a few days later, they went missing as well.

The reward was increased to $2000, the hills and valleys flooded with searchers out looking for the loot, while the operation to catch Tornow was now the responsibility of the Deputy, A. L. Fitzgerald. Another posse was put together to track down the fugitive, and before much time had passed, they succeeded in locating what was left of the Sheriff and the Game Warden. Each of the men had been shot through the head with a single bullet, then gutted like an animal. Tornow was nowhere near the scene.

It was not until the middle of April before any headway would be made on bringing Tornow to justice. Three men who were out looking for him, Deputy Giles Quimby and two others, discovered a small shack constructed of wood scraps and bits of bark. It was fairly clear that this had to be the mountain man’s cabin. The men talked about returning to get the rest of the posse on the scene, but the idea of having to share the reward convinced them that they should attempt to take him in on their own. There were three of them, after all, and only one of John Tornow.

As they advanced on the shack, a shot from an unseen barrel hit one of the men, and sent him immediately to the ground. The other man next to him returned the fire but was quickly shot through the neck, and he died there next to his companion. The Deputy was the only one left, huddled behind a log, just out of sight. Seeing the treatment that the other men had received, Deputy Quimby figured his best chance for survival was to negotiate.

“All we want is the money,” Quimby shouted. “If you tell me what you’ve done with the strongbox, I won’t stand in your way.” This promise of freedom was a false one, of course, and Tornow instinctively distrusted him. It took a long time for Quimby to wear him down – the Deputy must have been quite a salesman – but eventually Big John relented, and told Quimby that he had buried the safe back in Oxbow, “by the boulder that look’s like a fish’s fin. Take it and leave me alone!”

Once that nugget of information had been prized out of the fugitive, Quimby immediately broke his promise and began a barrage of the underbrush where Tornow was hiding. When it was quiet once more and having received no return fire, the Deputy wasn’t sure that he’d hit his mark. He was concerned, however, that Big John might be playing possum, so rather than investigating the target area, he returned to Montesano to gather the rest of the posse together. When the group returned to the scene, they soon found Tornow’s body leaning against a tree, riddled with bullet holes. He had $6.65 on him, some of it in coins identified as taken from Jackson’s store, but no sign of the strongbox.

The body of John Tornow was put on display at the morgue and the place was overrun with gawkers come to see this wild man. Postcards featuring the corpse were sold, referring to the late killer as “The Great Outlaw of Western Washington .” Fred Tornow, John’s brother, told the press, “I am glad John is dead. It was the best way now that it is over, and I would rather see him killed outright than linger in a prison cell.”

After the events had passed and the area had begun to quiet down once more, Quimby went looking for the treasure. He quickly found the boulder that looked like a fish’s fin but despite extensive excavations, he never found the box with the money. After he gave up, others joined the search, but all had the same results. The cash was never found and it is still there today. Somewhere. The Wynoochie has been dammed since then and the river’s course has gone through some changes, so it’s hard to know where to start looking now.

John Tornow was buried in Matlock Cemetery in Grays Harbor, Washington, where his bones remain today.

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