Notorious Northwest killer’s death had local connection

I was quite surprised to learn recently that we once had a real-life western gunfighter in our area, with a connection to some pretty notorious outlaws.

The general consensus seems to be that, with a revolver (since he killed between 18 and 44 people), John Wesley Hardin was, hands down (or is that up?), the deadliest of the Old West killers.

But with a rifle? Harry Tracy would be the pick.

Harry Tracy

Tracy’s real name was Harry Severns (or Severs or Severn), and he was known to run with Butch Cassidy and the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang, along with other sundry gangsters, committing robbery, murder, cattle rustling, horse stealing – etc.

No less than Bruce Dern (the guy that killed John Wayne in “The Cowboys”) played him in 1982s “Harry Tracy, Desperado.”

Apparently Harry never became too friendly with any of his colleagues, as he once stated that his rifle was the best friend he ever had. That might explain his life of crime and violence on other human beings.

An apparent absence of fear was most likely quite helpful in a gun fight, robbery, etc.

As a gun nut, I’m particularly interested in Harry’s choice of firearms.

Early on, while riding with the famous gang members, he used an 1873 Trapdoor Springfield in 45/70 Government chambering.

Apparently, as soon as the Winchester Model of 1894 became available, he switched. He must have liked the power of true rifle rounds. The 30-30 Winchester version he chose was surely very appealing with its huge increase in velocity and range.

On March 1, 1898 Harry done got hisself into a gun fight in Brown’s Park, Colo. A posse member was killed. That got Harry and one of his buddies thrown in the pokey at Aspen, Colo. About three months later, in June, he broke out and headed for Portland, right here in Orygun.

One source says he broke out in 1896, but that doesn’t seem to fit the timeline. While in our great state he teamed up with Dave Merril (another former Hole-In-The-Wall member, sometimes spelled Merrill), and created a new gang: The False Face Bandits.

They wore gruesome Halloween masks while robbing people and places.

Harry done got hitched to Dave’s sister, Rose. It would seem she may have been a fallen “Rose,” as she sang lewd ballads in saloons for a living.

They Tracys were quite the couple. Dave Merril didn’t prove to be too good of a partner or brother-in-law since the Portland constabulary captured him, but not Harry. They knocked a confession out of him and he gave up his brother-in-law right quick.

A running gunfight ensued between the coppers and Tracy and, alas, he was caught.

After a trial the brothers-in-law were both sent up the river to the Oregon State Penitentiary towards the end of 1901, to enjoy themselves for 12 years. Dave and Harry were obviously not content in their new surroundings and abruptly left on June 9, 1902.

It seems a former roommate of theirs in the Pen, Harry Wright, smuggled them in two Winchester 1894 30-30s and quite a fair amount of cartridges through the stove works inside of the pen. The two grabbed a buddy and shot their way out of the prison, killing three guards and three civilians in the melee.

Leaving the third wheel to fend for himself, the pair headed back for Portland. It musta been a nice place for crooks back then? They used the old fugitive’s trick of sleeping by day and traveling at night.

The plan worked, as there were literally hundreds of guards, police and militia men looking for them, to no avail.

Just like a scene in an old movie they stopped by farms for needed supplies and to keep track of their pursuers’ progress. The heat was on, so they passed by Portland and continued up to our northern neighbor. Some (including this author) believe they were making it back to Hole In The Wall, Idaho, to meet up with the gang.

Too bad. Those boys were long gone to South America by then.

One of the scared farmers – or the newspapers – let on that Dave had spilled the beans and got Harry captured back in PDX, where he was kilt dead.

On June 28, 1902 Harry challenged Dave to a duel. It appears someone cheated. Further proof of Tracy’s prowess with a rifle came when (now on his own), he set up an ambush at Bothell, Wash. and killed a detective and a deputy in a shootout. He then gathered up some hostages in Creston, Wash. and shot it out with some more police and killed two more posse members. From there it gets a bit cloudy on facts.

One report is that Sheriff Gardner of Lincoln County on Aug. 6, 1902 had Tracy surrounded in a field. The fugitive was wounded in the leg and committed suicide with his pistol.

I prefer the next version and there are A lot more details to support it. This version was written up by Norman B. Wiltsey in the 1967 “Gun Digest” and my research shows it to be much more plausible and correct to the facts. So here’s how it went down…

Tracy had been holed up in a farmhouse, the residence of a Mrs. Van Horn around Bothell, Wash., since Aug. 5.  King County Sheriff Ed Cudihee got a tip about his whereabouts.

I’ll bet this whole time you were trying to figure out how I could call Horrible Harry a “local.”

Ha! Stay with me.

Jack Parberry, a former miner, was the police captain who went with Sheriff Cudihee to deal with Tracy, once and for all.

He and Cudihee proceeded to the Van Horn residence and heard/saw two men inside. A boy came to make a delivery that night and they employed him to be their spy. He relayed that Mrs. Van Horn had whispered to him to get help.

Cudihee sent the boy to get the local police chief. A game warden and some other officers, who wanted to get the bandit themselves, beat the King County boys to the prize.

This less experienced group of interlopers ordered Tracy to throw down his guns when he stepped out of the house. He promptly perforated them with hot lead and ran. Inside the house he had strapped on a stolen gun belt containing a Colt Single Action Army/Peacemaker in .45 Colt and grabbed his Winchester when he saw armed men outside.

After dispatching the greenhorns in front of the house, Tracy headed for a wheat field. He tripped over a rock and the Winchester went flying. Getting to his feet, and grabbing his lever gun, he took a shot to the leg. Staying upright, he took an aimed shot at the officer who had shot him (I want to believe it was our hero) and pulled the trigger. The rifle cracked but no one fell. The great rifleman had missed!

Harry stared at his best friend, who had just ultimately betrayed him. The Judas rifle was dropped for the final time by Tracy. Bleeding in a wheat field, with no possibility of escape, he pulled the hog leg out and put one through his own head.

That pistol is on display in the White River Valley Museum in Auburn, Wash. It’s a well-worn 7½-inch-barrel model with wood grips. The Winchester rifle was given to the Washington State Historical Society, according to Charles May Anderson M.D. of Sprague, Wash. as reported in “The Pacific Northwesterner” in the fall of 1973.

His account has a completely different cast of characters, in a different town. Even the house Harry was holed up in is different in his account, and many others.

This account also has many specifics listed so, like many western stories, the reader must decide which makes the most sense. The problem is most of these stories were recorded decades after the events happened.

I believe that, in the days before our modern entertainment, these stories were THE form of entertainment and the accounts “improved’ significantly over time. The rifle shown in the photos of Tracy’s body lying in the field looks to be a long-barreled rifle of 24 to 26 inches. To me, though, the revolver in his hand looks to be an early Double Action Colt rather than a SAA. The old photo doesn’t show a lot of detail, though.

Many a shooter has been told, even reminded himself: Watch the front sight. Surely, Harry Tracy followed that dictum through his whole life of crime, as he was always victorious with a rifle in his hand. This one time, though, that was his downfall as, upon examination of his rifle, the front sight was most definitely bent by his first tumble before the wheat field.

As stated; there are many accounts of the events of Tracy’s death and they absolutely do not all agree, even on the people involved. However, every report I can find states that the rifle’s sight was bent upon retrieval from the wheat field.

At the time of his capture Harry Tacy was a nationwide story. Virtually every report agrees that souvenir hunters stripped him, to varying degrees, of his hair, clothes, gun belt etc. One report even claims that his face was burned off with vitrol before burial to dissuade grave robbers from digging up his body for display.

So here’s the local angle: Jack Parberry moved to Scio and became a very successful rancher. He is our local western hero. There are many mentions of “Jack Ranch” in the modern-day Scio area, but I’m not sure if they are referring to Jack Parberry.

Regardless of the exact history and circumstances of the events, it’s interesting to have one of the last old west gunfights and manhunts here in the Northwest.

Harry Tracy returned to Oregon one last time. He’s buried at the Oregon State Penitentiary Cemetery, dead at the age of 26 – or 31. See what I mean about “alternate facts?”

– Jeff Hutchins writes occasionally about firearms-related topics for The  New Era.  He operates Rangemaster Gunworks at 1144 Tangent St. in Lebanon.