“Our timid young women of this vicinity were very much frightened on hearing that Tracy and Merrill were coming this way.”
This item written by a correspondent in the Orhcards area ran in The Vancouver Columbian on June 19, 1902, while Clark County was searching desperately for two escaped convicts.
The names Harry Tracy and David Merrill still rank high on the list of desperadoes, more than 80 years after the two men died in violent deaths.
Merrill was a hometown product, having grown up in Vancouver, where he was known as David Robinson. His name first began appearing in the papers in the 1880s. When he escaped from the Clark County jail in 1887, for example, the Vancouver Independent noted: “The parents have done all they can to reform the lad, but he seems incorrigible.”
Merrill had a sister, Mollie Robinson, and she married Harry Tracy, who was to prove an even tougher case. Before his death, Tracy was to kill at least 10 men, before saving his final shot for himself. When the two bad men teamed up for a series of armed robberies, their fame spread throughout the Northwest.
On June 15, 1902, Merrill and Tracy escaped from the Oregon State Penitentiary at Salem after scaling the walls with a makeshift ladder and killing two guards and an inmate. They headed north toward their old hometown, Vancouver.
Arriving at the Columbia River, Merrill and Tracy forced three men to row them across to Fisher’s Landing. Facing the rower of the boat with rifle at the ready, Merrill told him, “We’re not bad men, but we intend to get away, and if anybody stops us, they are sure to get hurt. With us, it’s a case of burn at the stake or get shot.”
Landing at the Lieser farm east of Vancouver, the convicts freed their captives and started looting farmhouses for food, clothing and money. Their appearance here touched off one of the greatest manhunt in the history of the county, including several shootouts with posses. The criminals escaped each time, but one posse was badly wounded by another lawmen who was too quick on the trigger.
Merrill and Tracy continued to rob farmhouses along their route of flight. Among their victims was Henry Tiede on Fourth Plain Road. The highwaymen bound and gagged the hapless Tiede, ate a meal in his home and robbed him of $4 before leaving.
The convicts continued north. Near Napavine, in Lewis County, they quarreled and Tracy shot Merrill to death in a duel with rifles.
Tracy continued his flight throughout the state, with lawmen always hot on his trail. On Aug. 5, a posse finally cornered the desperado near Creston and wounded him. Seeing the hopelessness of the situation, Tracy took his own life with a bullet to the head rather than surrender.