"John Tornow: Villain or Victim?"
urder. Incest. Sex. Intrigue. Implausible situations. Enigma. Unsolved mystery, a century later. “Victim or Villain?” is the true story of events a century old. It sounds trite, but it’s true: you can’t
make this stuff up.
John Tornow’s family follows the early American dream as they emigrate from Germany in the late 1800s and wend their way to the Olympic Peninsula’s Satsop Valley. Young John is fascinated with the deep virgin forest as
we follow him through his youth and early adult years. He is a deadly shot and his skill with a knife is practically unmatched. John is big, strong, fit and increasingly reclusive. He is not someone to trifle with in town. In the Satsop Valley wilderness of
1910, John is either a peculiar loner or an apex predator. Or both.
My Godfather, Lem Nethery, was an early Grays Harbor homesteader, timber cruiser and close friend to my father, Malcolm. “Uncle Lem,” also was one of the folks detailed
to bring out Tornow’s body after he was shot and killed in the upper Wynooche Valley. I heard the legend of John Tornow dozens of times as Uncle Lem told me the story every time we visited. John Tornow grew up with me.
As is often the case
with a legendary story, many memories are suspect. In John Tornow’s case a whole lot is suspect beginning with his own family. A botched abortion and subsequent trial in which no one seems capable of telling the truth, a questionable trip to an asylum,
greed over assets left by deceased parents set the stage for John. He becomes more reclusive and seemingly unstable as his family self-destructs. The deep woods become his refuge from the family’s bizarre actions.
Then it all goes south. John’s
beloved twin nephews, John and William Bauer, are shot, killed and buried. Circumstantial evidence clearly indicates John. He becomes the chief, no, the only, suspect and from that day forward is hunted by posses and bounty hunters. A novice crime writer could
sniff out at least two or three legitimate additional suspects. Two deputies are later murdered and the manhunts intensify, yet John never is charged with a crime. Tornow, meanwhile, shadows the men looking for him and steals food and clothing from settlers
and receives handouts from those who have known him as an odd, but decent, man.
John survives the next two years by being better at woodcraft than those paid to find him who, themselves, are very good. The odds, however, are not in his favor and he
eventually is killed, taking two more deputies with him. Those two sentences cover an incredible story of survival of the fittest, woods skills by the best in the business, good luck, bad luck, and, in the end, tragedy that leads the reader to wonder, “Why?
Why did all this have to happen to an unfortunate human being and the brave men who did what they were paid to do?”
Author, Bill Lindstrom, does a masterful job of leading us through the Tornow family’s life and times, the daily routines
and tragedies that create the story that endures to this day. Bill spent a lifetime researching multiple versions of events. He found himself reading century-old court documents, transcriptions, contemporary news articles, interviews, all needed to produce
the best account possible of our friend, John. Bill left no stone unturned to tell the story as best it can be told. He added dialogue so we can follow the family, the lawmen and a reporter, not just the tragic events. It is one of those books that, when you
must put it down, makes you want more. When it is done, you want to go back and change it to make a better ending. Alas, we can’t do that and the ending is well known to all: John is gunned down in a brutal shootout in which two other decent men are
killed, too. Bill does the job he must do to bring us the facts as best as they can be determined through diligent research, even if we don’t like them.
Bill Lindstrom’s thorough research cannot dispel the multiple riddles left behind. Who
actually shot the twins? Did Tornow really shoot Deputies Elmer and McKenzie? Did Tornow stay in the upper Satsop and Wynooche drainages or did he venture to one or more of the places where people swear they saw him? Was John sent to an asylum? If so, was
it done to access his wealth? Was John responsible for the never-explained disappearance of several folks who ventured into his country never to be seen again? John was a prudent investor, viewed with envy by family members. What happened to his substantial
holdings, his bank accounts?
Lindstrom does his best to answer the questions. He can’t answer them all. We are left to form our own opinions of the man. I choose to believe Tornow murdered his nephews in a case of mistaken identity. Further, he
likely murdered Deputies Elmer and McKenzie. But I don’t know that. Neither does anyone else and there are several plausible alternatives. Remember, Tornow was never charged with, much less convicted of a crime.
I also believe, had Tornow been
left alone, he would have become one of those peculiar people at the fringe of society ─ and civilization in those days ─ who would have died of natural causes having caused no harm. But, instead of being a footnote in history, John Tornow left a huge
footprint and at least seven dead men. Bill Lindstrom tells a great story which I hope you enjoy as much as I did.
Malcolm R. Dick, Jr.