It concerns Harry Tracy, a notorious killer, who at one time was said to be a member of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's gang.
Many area residents claimed that Harry Tracy once worked as a farm hand in Robinson Township and departed around 1894 to head west. Farmers said they knew him as Warren Sargent, a young and likable man.
The origin of his presence, or evidence of it, came via a letter in the possession of Edward Stearns, who lived in Robinson Township. Sargent had mailed Stearns the letter, postmarked from the state of Wyoming, a few years after he had left Ottawa County.
Stearns and others likely resurrected the letter and discussion of Warren Sargent after the Grand Haven Tribune published a picture of Harry Tracy on page 2 of its Aug. 18, 1902, edition.
Stearns’ mystery letter and its supposed writer became a novelty news item in some West Michigan newspapers shortly after the Aug. 6, 1902, death of Harry Tracy.
The Detroit Free Press, which published an article about the mystery letter on Jan. 3, 1903, vouched for Stearns’ integrity and the letter's authenticity. The newspaper said Stearns was “one of the best known young men of Robinson Township” and the “letter which Sargent wrote explaining his identity is still preserved.”
In the letter, believed to have been written and delivered to Edward Stearns a couple of years after Warren Sargent headed west, the man stated, “my right name is not Warren Sargent, but Harry Tracy.”
From the tone of the Stearns letter it was taken that Sargent, or rather, Tracy, was “leading a wild life out west,” newspapers reported.
Harry Tracy, born Henry Severn in Pittsville, Wisc., in 1874, became an outlaw with a string of crimes, arrests and jailbreaks. While not much was known of his youth, it was said he began his criminal ways around age 21, which would be after he left Grand Haven.
That is, if he ever lived or and worked here at all.
Historians write that Tracy charmed women with his courteous manners, was respected by men and always spoke fondly of his mother. This is how farmers in Robinson Township also described Sargent.
However, by 1895 Tracy preferred living the life of a desperate criminal and his crime spree left a footprint on the states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.
“In all the criminal lore of the country, there is no record equal to that of Harry Tracy for cold-blooded nerve, desperation and thirst for crime,” The Seattle Daily Times reported on July 3, 1903. “Jesse James, compared with Tracy, is a Sunday school teacher.”
Tracy's acclaim as a killer began on March 1, 1898, when he and three accomplices engaged in a gunfight at Brown's Park, Colo., during which posse man Valentine S. Hoy was killed. Tracy was captured in late 1901 and send to an Oregon penitentiary.
On June 9, 1902, Tracy and fellow convict David Merrill escaped the prison after shooting and killing three correction officers and as many bystanders.
While on the run, and the target of a massive manhunt by authorities, Tracy killed a detective and deputy near Bothell, Wash., during a July 3 shootout. Tracy then took several hostages in a residence and killed two posse members.
At Creston, in the state of Washington on Aug. 6, 1902, Tracy was shot in the leg during an ambush by a posse. Seriously wounded, and surrounded by law officers, he hid in a cornfield then shot and killed himself.
According to many historical accounts, the outlaw Tracy was once a member of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's Wyoming Hole-in-the-Wall gang — but no one knows for how long.
More ardent Harry Tracy historians write he was never part of Butch and Sundance's entourage, but a lesser known band calling itself “Hole-in-the-Wall” from the state of Utah.
But did Harry Tracy ever work as a farm hand and reside in Robinson Township?
It's possible Tracy could have come from Wisconsin to Grand Haven in the early 1890s via a steamship and settled in Grand Haven. But the only evidence is the letter Stearns supposedly received from Tracy, and eyewitnesses who worked beside him and saw photos of Tracy published after he killed himself.
“The people of Robinson (Township) are satisfied beyond doubt that the great bandit, who stirred the West by his daring crimes and adventures a few months ago,” the Detroit Free Press reported, “was none other than the farm hand they knew as Sargent.”
The newspaper also noted “his pictures (photos of Tracy), too, bear a striking resemblance” to the man known as Warren Sargent.
During the past century, much had been written about the life and demise of the outlaw Harry Tracy, but nothing concerning him ever having been in Ottawa County. Which can only mean two things — the tale is either an amusing legend, or an astounding piece of unrecorded history.