Even so, the writer for the Idaho Statesman who reported on Tannum in 1910 may have added a little spice to his physical description. It made the man sound more menacing, matching the description of his heredity: “Tannum possessed all the crafty cunning of the Indian, the vengeful instincts and the tenacity and magnificent physique of the redskin, together with the baser qualities of the degenerate white man.” Jim Tannum was one-quarter Umatilla, so he inherited the popular assumptions about Indians that settlers at the time had. Describing Indians as terrible people was a way of justifying the terrible things done to them to provide settlers with land.
And what terrible things had Tannum done? He was a drunk who stole horses. When he was captured, he became a persistent practitioner of the art of escape.
Tannum had been thieving livestock for some time in and around Washington County and across the river in Oregon, when he stole one horse too many in 1905. The horse belonged to a prominent citizen. Washington County Sheriff Robert Lansdon vowed to track down the thief. It took some weeks to catch up with Tannum in Meadows, which is just a few miles east of today’s town of New Meadows.
Tannum, who had bragged that he wouldn’t be taken alive, fought fiercely. He was no match for the five men who took him into custody. They hauled him to Weiser to await trial.
While in jail, Tannum began an intense study of the methods of escape. First, he rolled the metal from the sink in his cell into a club, with which he intended to overcome the sheriff. Lansdon became suspicious, searched Tannum’s cell, and found the weapon.
Next, the prisoner worked the steel support out of the instep of one of his shoes, somehow fashioning it into a saw. It took him two days to saw through the chain of his shackles. Tannum had complained bitterly about having to wear the cuffs. When he suddenly stopped complaining about it, the sheriff wondered why. The why was because Tannum didn’t want anyone to see that the severed chains were now held together by a shoelace.
Tannum was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to five years in the pen. The two attempts at escape swayed the sheriff to bet Idaho State Penitentiary Warden Whitney a suit of clothes that the new inmate would get away within six months. Whitney took the bet. Landon won by a month and three days. Tannum escaped on April 7, 1906.
The prison escape came about while Tannum was working on a new wall around the women’s ward. When a guard turned away, the inmate slipped down the other side of the wall and crawled into an irrigation ditch. He followed the ditch until he was out of sight of the prison, and ran.
When Sheriff Landsdon heard about the escape, he “grinned and sent Whitney the measurements for that new suit,” according to the Statesman.
Landsdon stationed a deputy at the Weiser Bridge, thinking the escapee might come back to familiar territory. Tannum turned up riding a “borrowed” pony one night, intending to cross into Oregon. The deputy hollered for him to stop, but the horse thief had another plan. He spurred his horse into a run. The deputy fired buckshot at Tannum. It took his saddle horn off and left a couple of pellets in the Indian’s back, but he galloped back into Idaho.
Friends of Tannum got word to him that they had supplies and horses waiting for him in Oregon, if he could get across the Snake River. With the bridge under guard, the Indian dove into the water. The nearby posse spotted him and began to fire. He weaved, and dove, and weaved, and stroked, and dove his way across the river, evading bullets all the way. It was good enough to get away. For four years.
No posse ran Jim Tannum to ground. He caught himself. After spending some time sheepherding, he became bored. He rode into Burns, Oregon, had a few drinks, and announced that he was tired of the simple life and wanted some new trouble. He got it. Harney County Sheriff Richardson cuffed Tannum and took him to jail.
Idaho Penitentiary Deputy Warden Dan W. Ackley went to Burns to retrieve the escaped convict. While bending over to install an Oregon Boot, Ackley exposed his pistol to the prisoner. Tannum reached across Ackley’s back, grabbed the gun, and fired at Sheriff Richardson. He missed. Ackley grappled with the Indian, getting gut-shot in the process. The sheriff pulled his pistol and emptied it into Tannum, taking him out with six shots.
That was the end of Jim Tannum, and nearly so for Ackley. Early reports said he was dying, but he recovered well enough to live another 25 years.