In the early morning of June 1902, a work detail marched to the prison foundry at the Oregon state penitentiary. Two inmates broke off from the group and retrieved a pair of Winchesters an accomplice had smuggled in from the outside. 


Minutes later, the calm of a Wednesday morning was shattered when Harry Tracy and David Merrill staged a bloody break for freedom.

Firing round-after-round, the two killers gunned down several guards and an inmate before navigating a rope ladder over the walls.

Tracy and Merrill grabbed one of the guards—already near death—and used him as a human shield. Once they reached the other side of the wall, Tracy put a bullet in the man’s head.

The breakout triggered one of the most intense manhunts ever conducted in the Pacific Northwest involving between sixty and 250 lawmen. 

Tracy and Merrill headed north. They stole horses, food, and clothing during a fifty-mile trek to Portland where they took a rowboat across the Columbia River to Vancouver, Washington.

Tracy—Born Harry Severns, in Pittsville, Wisconsin, 1874—turned outlaw early in life. He traveled to Oregon where launched a career involving crime, arrests, convictions, and jailbreaks.

He managed to escape a Utah jail after being imprisoned for burglary in 1896. He and Dave Lant hightailed it for Brown’s Hole and the Wild Bunch hideout. 

Tracy managed to outwit most of the lawman who pursued him. 

In 1898, he teamed up with Merrill, another common criminal, and began robbing merchants in downtown Portland. Between crimes, Tracy married Merrill’s sister, Rose.

The law eventually caught up with the two men. They stood trial and were convicted. One thing that puzzled Tracy, though, was why he drew a 20-year sentence and Merrill received only 12 years. 

When the escapees reached Vancouver, they stopped for a meal at a cabin owned by a farmer in the area. That’s where Tracy inadvertently learned why he drew the longer prisoner term. 

While reading a copy of the Oregonian newspaper at the cabin, Tracy happened to read an item about Merrill’s mother. According to the article, she was the one who turned in the two men but only after assurances that her son, David, received a shorter sentence.

Tracy later confronted Merrill with the information after the pair reached Chehalis. Tracy ultimately shot his brother-in-law in the back, killing him.

A posse finally caught up to Tracy at a small farm-house outside Creston, Washington, where he tried to hide out.

During a gun battle, Tracy made a break for freedom but took two bullets in the leg, one of them shattering a major artery.

In pain and losing a considerable amount of blood, Tracy crawled through a field of waist-high wheat.

Once, the outlaw promised no one would ever take him alive.

He carried through on the vow by putting his revolver under his right eye and squeezing the trigger, killing himself.

The Seattle Daily Times, in its July 3, 1902, issue stated there is “no record equal to that of Harry Tracy for cold-blooded nerve, desperation and thirst for crime. Jesse James, compared with Tracy, is a Sunday school teacher.”


Join the StoryTeller Posse
and receive a FREE copy of
“When the Smoke Clears: Gunslingers and Gunfights of the Old West.”

Tom Rizzo invites you to “Discover the Historical West” and read about the characters and events that shaped the American frontier. If you enjoyed the story above, please share it with your friends. Better yet, saddle up for Tom’s VIP Readers Posse in the box above to receive occasional dispatches about adventures on the High Plains & beyond.

2 comments to “BLOODY TRAIL OF TERROR”

  • Neweahkeah Jackson

    As usual, Mr. Rizzo…Tom if you like, you always come up with the good and juicy stories that really make us thirst for more…not blood, like Harry Tracy, but stories about the days of outlaws, dust, pistols on the hip and more grit than you can shake a stick at. I always try to keep up. My late hubby was a historian and archeologist so he hooked me even more than i already was. And now I have taken up his mantle of family historian and storyteller. It is so much fun. Thanks so much for your hard work! Love every article.

  • I do prefer, Tom, Neweahkeah. Your comment leaves me thrilled and humbled at the same time. It’s wonderful to hear how much you enjoy the stories. American history–especially of the Old West–is so fascinating, primarily because of the REAL characters who populated the frontier. You did a good thing by assuming the mantle of family historian and storyteller from your late husband. Most families have such a rich treasure of tales. And I can imagine you’re having a ball unearthing them. Thanks so much for stopping by and expressing your thoughts. You’ve made my day–heck, even week!

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>