By Logan Camporeale
Logan Camporeale writes a regular column for Nostalgia Magazine called “Heroes & Scoundrels.” Find his articles in the print edition of Nostalgia, and also online on his personal blog at thelocalhistory.com.
Above, mugshots of Louis Coynt, “The Tiger,” one of the most persistent criminals of eastern Washington.
Louis Coynt was given the nickname “Tiger,” and he earned it. The fierce criminal had a rap sheet that made the most hardened convicts envious. Assault with a deadly weapon on a deputy, burglary, highway robbery, and sensational prison escapes were some highlights of his career.
Despite his nickname, Coynt was a short man, just five feet five inches with dark brown hair and hazel gray eyes. His complexion was dark and his face was thin, complimented by a large nose typically dressed with a mustache. He often wore a short beard, protruding slightly from his rounded chin. He was a fashionable guy, adorned with fine suits and top hats.
Coynt was born around 1885 in Quebec, Canada to a working class family. He left home at just fifteen years old and headed west. It is unclear what occured over the next decade, but Coynt ended up in untamed western Alaska, likely chasing the promises of a gold rush that kicked off there in 1898. Like most prospectors, chances are Coynt came up empty handed, and instead of striking it rich, he fell into a life of crime. In 1912, he was convicted of burglary in Nome, Alaska and sentenced to three years in federal prison at McNeil Island in western Washington. This was just the beginning for Tiger.
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He was released from federal prison in 1914 but quickly got back to work. The following spring, Tiger robbed the conductor and motorman of a street railcar at gunpoint in San Mateo, California, just south of San Francisco. He shot the motorman and stabbed him in the temple, leaving him for dead. Tiger escaped from the scene. Weeks later, he was apprehended in the woods near San Francisco by an agent from the Federal Secret Service. He was discovered there with a cache of money and a counterfeiting operation. He fought with the agent but was ultimately arrested and taken to jail. When he was searched, authorities found a wooden tube containing two saw blades in his rectum. Tiger was anticipating his arrest. Local newspapers recounted his story and deemed him the “Bandit of Sutro Forest.”
The violent criminal was transferred to San Mateo County Jail to stand trial for attempted murder. According to a fellow inmate, Tiger crafted a saw blade out of a watch spring, which he used to saw the bar of his cell and escape the jail through a skylight. Once on the roof, he climbed down the side of the building using a drain pipe attached to the facade. Just days before he was scheduled to start trial, Tiger was gone. The Under Sheriff of San Mateo County reflected on Tiger’s cunning, writing he “is a man of unlimited resources and would hesitate at nothing to gain an end.” The Sheriff issued wanted posters and a $100 reward to aid in his recapture.
Four months later, Tiger surfaced again, this time in Spokane, Washington. While riding the North Post Street Traction Car, he repeated a previous crime, holding up the conductor and motorman of the train and making off with fifteen dollars. Once daylight broke, a special agent of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company discovered the robber in the railyards. Tiger opened fire on the agent who pursued him with the help of local police. A gun battle followed with at least two dozen shots exchanged between the parties. The authorities ultimately captured Tiger with the money he stole and a revolver in his possession. He was brought to the Spokane County Jail, where yet again a tube containing three small hack saw blades was discovered in his rectum.
While awaiting trial, Tiger requested an interview with the prosecuting attorney in his case. A deputy at the jail obliged and brought him to the attorney’s office. While they moved through the first floor corridor of the courthouse, Tiger assaulted the deputy with a piece of iron he had taken from his bed frame. The deputy was left unconscious on the floor and Tiger escaped the courthouse. He scurried south toward downtown Spokane and into the Spokane River gorge. Deputies pursued him shooting at the fleeing convict with their rifles and striking him twice in the shoulder. After a long struggle, they apprehended him in the Spokane River. He was returned to the county jail, but before his conviction two months later, Tiger made multiple escape attempts.
In December 1915, Tiger was convicted of robbery and sentenced to five to twenty years in the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla. The prosecuting attorney and judge in his case wrote a report on his crimes advocating that he be deemed a habitual criminal and handed a life sentence. They identify him as one of the most “desperate and cunning of criminals handled” in Spokane County. They continue, explaining that “he has the appearance of being a very meek sort of individual, but he is really a human tiger when in action.”
Arriving at Walla Walla did not change Tiger’s attitude. He continued to cause problems for the prison superintendent and his guards. Prison officials identified him as a leader of prison riots and unrest, so he spent much of his time in the isolation ward known as “Little Siberia.” In addition to being confined in isolation, he was often suited in an inhumane Oregon Boot. On August 20, 1918, after multiple days of unrest, Tiger broke free from two Oregon Boots that had been secured on both of his legs. He and another prisoner began beating on one of the prison gates attempting to break free. The prison guard on duty at the time, John Davidson, was the oldest guard at the prison and he was apparently lacking in restraint. Likely fed up with the convicts antics, he lifted his gun and shot Tiger Johnson through the heart. (This would not be the last time John Davidson killed a prisoner who was confined within the prison walls.)
The prison superintendent wrote a one page letter to the State Board of Control briefly explaining the circumstances of Tiger’s death. No investigation was conducted into the guards’ use of force, and Louis “Tiger” Coynt was buried at the Walla Walla Prison Cemetery where he remains to this day.