Surrounded by towering trees and salmon-filled streams, the salty air of Grays Harbor has fueled a rich history, full of interesting people. Our county has always been home to unique characters, individuals who for good or ill, capture the imagination of residents and visitors alike. From serial murderers like Billy Gohl, to legendary musicians like Kurt Cobain, dynamic people have helped shaped the culture and reputation of the region.
While many are well-known, a few fascinating souls are just now being discovered and shared with residents of our communities. One such person was once on frontpage headlines around the Pacific Northwest, but his existence is barely mentioned by most. That man is John Turnow, the Wildman of the Wynoochee.
The Story of John Turnow
In the waning summer days of 1880, John Turnow was born. He grew up along the Satsop River, exploring the wilderness around the family homestead. After a few rough childhood incidents, John started retreating from society, spending weeks in the forests of the region.
By his teenage years, it is said that his family was worried about him due to the amount of time he spent away from people. While he occasionally joined his brothers in their logging business, John continued to retreat, subsiding off the land, dressing in animal skins, and supposedly wearing shoes made of tree bark. With his imposing figure of 6’4” and 250 pounds, most in the region considered him to be a gentle giant.
After his brothers sent him away to a sanitarium in 1909, John escaped and returned to the Wynoochee region, living off the land and rarely seeing outsiders. Occasionally, he would visit his sister and her husband and their twin sons, but he never visited his brothers. People would catch glimpses of John, helping to grow his legend of being a wild man. He was still a mostly peaceful soul, but that would soon change.
In September of 1911, John shot a cow and was dressing out the kill when a bullet is said to have flown overhead. He fired in the direction of the shot and upon inspection, discovered he had killed his sister’s twin sons. He fled into the wilds of the Wynoochee, where the story truly takes off.
When police were contacted because the sons were missing, the bodies were discovered and Turnow was named the suspect. A posse was quickly rounded up, in hopes to find, capture, or kill Turnow. Loggers, farmers, and everyone that was able soon was roaming over the Wynoochee Valley, hoping to bring John to justice. The search was in vain, as Turnow was an expert at surviving in the wilds of the region.
Winter came and the search was still fruitless, but signs of Turnow kept popping up. Cabins were robbed of goods, and The Jacksons’ County Grocery Store, which was also a bank, was robbed of flour, salt, matches, and $15,000. These thefts, along with the killing of the twins, saw a bounty of $1,000 for the return of the stolen goods. More men went outside in hopes to get Turnow, and the search caught a break. A man reported to the Sheriff and Game Warden of the region that he saw signs of Turnow, leading the two of them to head out to capture the Wild Man. Both men went missing.
In mid-March, another posse was gathered to hunt for John, but the group discovered something awful. They discovered the bodies of the Sheriff and Game Warden, both of whom had been shot and gutted. By mid-April, Deputy Giles Quimby and a few other men stumbled across a cabin they believed to be Turnow’s. Upon approaching the cabin, shots rang out, hitting the two other men. Deputy Quimby engaged John, shooting at bushes in which he believed Turnow was hiding. Silence filled the forest, but Quimby did not approach. Instead, he left, told the sheriff the location, and they gathered up a posse to get Turnow, once and for all.
When they arrived, they discovered the man dead, slouched against a tree. The Wildman of the Wynoochee was now dead, with the picture of his body plastered on newspapers and postcards.
Where to See the Legendary Locations and Learn More
The story of John Turnow is unlike any other story in Grays Harbor. While many regard him as someone with a lust for violence, others maintain that he was a good man that snapped. Even today, 106 years later, it is tough to know exactly what happened. Lucky for us, there are a handful of locals who are fascinated by this tale and are working to get the truth out there.
Tracy Travers, Dana Anderson, and Bill Lindstrom are a few of the experts on the life of John Turnow and help raise awareness for this unique story. Bill Lindstrom has written the book, “Villain or Victim: The Untold Story of the Wildman of the Wynoochee,” while Dana and Tracy are also working to write a book that complements Bill’s work.
The trio is a part of a tour and educational seminar put on with Grays Harbor College’s Community Education Program. Every year, starting at Grays Harbor College, there is a John Turnow tour that goes to the location of the shootout, a handful of other locations important to the story of John Turnow, as well as a trip to the museum, monument, and store to gain more insight and see images from the life of John Turnow.
The three also work to raise awareness of John Turnow at the Matlock Old Timers Fair in May and their website, which lists events and ways to learn more about this infamous resident of what is now Grays Harbor. Follow the links and learn more about John Turnow and this fascinating chapter of our region’s history.