Museum Monday: Bringing back Harry Tracy
February 18, 2019
Editor’s note: Through a cooperative agreement with the Museum of Northwest Colorado, the Craig Press will begin publishing “Museum Monday” in each Wednesday’s edition of the Craig Press.
"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. Jesse James, compared with Tracy, is a Sunday school teacher.”
— Seattle Times, July 3, 1902
As a historian, one of the hardest things to accept is the inability to travel back in time … but that doesn't mean we don't occasionally try. This was recently the case with a couple rare images of the infamous outlaw, Harry Tracy.
If the measure of an Old West outlaw is his/her brazen disregard for the law and human life, Harry Tracy should be the most infamous of them all. He somehow managed to escape four different jails/prisons and shot his way out of numerous "no-win" situations while killing several lawmen in the process. The man has no comparison in Western history, period. Why Hollywood hasn't capitalized on Tracy's real-life story is beyond us (Bruce Dern's 1982 "Harry Tracy" definitely doesn't count!). Perhaps the real story is just too unbelievable, even by Hollywood standards.
In 1898, Tracy was arrested in Northwest Colorado's Browns Park after escaping prison and murdering posseman Valentine Hoy. Tracy and cohort David Lant were then transported to the Routt County jail at Hahns Peak via Craig. While in Craig for the night, two photographers, Amos Bennett and D.W. Diamond, arrived at the Royal Hotel (next to the West Theater where Cramer Flooring is today) to capture images of the duo. Their photographs of Tracy were taken at nearly the exact same moment and only a couple feet apart. Fortunately, both of the images survive today. Our museum has a copy of Bennett's photo, and Diamond's photo resides with the Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat Springs.
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These photographs are the only non-mugshot (and still-alive) photos of Harry Tracy known to have been taken … and he nailed it. His outfit — along with his unnerving gaze and relaxed, unworried stance — look straight out of a bad-man Western.
Unfortunately, the images from that day have a few issues. Bennett's photograph held Tracy's direct gaze and has amazing clarity, but it's lacking his legs and shackles. Diamond's photograph is a full-length shot including Tracy's shackles, but the image quality leaves much to be desired. With an image this important to our local and national history, we felt it was finally time to give it its due.
Through the wonders of Photoshop, we were able to slowly clean and combine all the best parts (an arm here, a leg there) from both photographs to create a superior, albeit Frankenstein-esque, image. From a standpoint of simple curiosity, we then decided to see what would happen if color was slowly added. The resulting image accomplished exactly what we hoped for: it helped bring Harry Tracy and the Old West back to life.
For now, until technology catches up with historians' desires, this will simply have to do.
Paul Knowles is assistant director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado. To learn more about Harry Tracy's story, as well as other stories and artifacts from our area's rich Western history, drop by the Museum of Northwest Colorado at 590 Yampa Ave., or visit the museum's Facebook page, facebook.com/MuseumNorthwestColorado.