Saturday, September 14, 2013

"Mysterious" Dave Mather - A Deadly Individual

Dave Allen Mather, believed born on August 10, 1851, but his date of death is unknown - possibly May 1886.

He was known as "Mysterious" Dave, or sometimes as "New York Dave."

He was an Old West lawman, gunfighter, rustler, buffalo hunter, and hired gun.

Dave Mather, approx 1880

Little is known today of Mather's life; the gaps in his personal history and his taciturn personality may have been what earned him the sobriquet "Mysterious Dave."

Historical records show that he was a lawman in Dodge City, Kansas, and Las Vegas, New Mexico, and was a frequent associate of Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp.

The date and circumstances of Mather's death are contested.

The only account says that he was shot to death in Dallas, Texas, in 1886, and left on the tracks of a railroad.

The body found matched his description and the bondsman holding a $3,000 bond on him was released of the obligation that same year on the assumption that the client had died.

However, other accounts describe Mather leaving Dodge in the 1880s, remaining hidden with help from friends to avoid paying a debt, and then traveling by boat to Canada, enlisting in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and living into the 1920s.

Another account, according to a newspaper of the day, describes him leaving Dodge and becoming a Deputy Marshal in New Kiowa, Kansas.

Dave was the son of Ulysses and Lydia Mather (née Wright) of Connecticut.

His father was a Sea Captain who was descended from the famous Mathers of New England who had included Richard Mather, Increase Mather, and Cotton Mather.

Ulysseus Mather abandoned his family following the death of his son and the loss of his ship.

He died in 1864 while in port in Shanghai China. He was stabbed by the ship's Chinese cook.

Lydia Mather remarried, to a man named George H. Randle, sometime in the late 1850s.

When she died in 1868, Dave and Sy ran away to sea. This lasted less than a year before the boys opted for a life on dry land and jumped ship in New Orleans.

Dave seems to have fancied himself a direct descendant of Cotton Mather, but this was in error. Cotton Mather had no male children live to adulthood.

Accordingly, Americans born in that era with the surname Mather are most likely descended from Timothy Mather, a farmer, brother of Increase Mather and uncle to Cotton Mather.

Dave was the first of three sons born to the Mathers.

His brother, Josiah "Sy" Mather was born October 11, 1854. Another brother, George Conway Mather, was born in 1855 and died in 1856.

By the time that Dave was 16, both of his parents had died, and Dave and his brother Josiah headed west and settling first in Dodge City, Kansas.

Mather's life through most of the 1870s is poorly documented.

He seems to have operated as a cattle rustler and outlaw in Arkansas along with Dave Rudabaugh and Milton J. Yarberry.

A warrant was issued for the three after a prominent rancher was murdered and his home robbed. They fled to Decatur, Texas, in 1873.

Sy reported that he and Dave tried to work as buffalo hunters on the Llano Estacado around 1874.

The venture did not last long, but it is possible that Mather may have met future associates such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Bill Tilghman, who supposedly tried their hand at hunting buffalo.

Dave was a resident of Dodge City, Kansas, in the early 1870s, where he befriended Dr. Thomas L. McCarty.

When Dave was badly wounded in a knife fight, McCarty was able to save his life.

In 1878, Mather and Wyatt Earp traveled to Mobeetie, Texas, with a scheme to sell phony gold bricks.

The two claimed that the bricks were from a lost mine dating back to the days of the conquistadores.

Before they could get far with their scam they were run out of town by a lawman named Jim McIntire.

Mather was one of the Kansas gunslingers assembled by Bat Masterson for the Railroad Wars of 1879-80.

The Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad was competing with the Denver and Rio Grande for the rights to build a track through two disputed areas.

Other gunfighters working with Mather for the Santa Fe line included Dave Rudabaugh, John Joshua Webb, and Ben Thompson.

The "war" ended with the Santa Fe established in Raton Pass and the Denver and Rio Grande gaining control of the Royal Gorge.

In 1879, Mather joined John Joshua Webb, Dave Rudabaugh, and several others in the city of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

The group was collectively known as the "Dodge City Gang" and was led by Hoodoo Brown.

The gang monopolized the gambling and prostitution in Las Vegas while they acquired political power as well. Hoodoo Brown became justice of the peace, and Dave Mather was named deputy U.S. Marshal for the area by Governor Lew Wallace.

Members of the gang, including Mather, were also alleged to have been responsible for several stagecoach robberies.

Mather's career during this time seems to have been a mix of law-enforcement and alleged law-breaking, a pattern common to the famous lawmen of the Old West.

Variety Hall Shootout

On January 22, 1880, Las Vegas Marshal Joe Carson was shot and killed by four cowboys in the Close and Patterson's Variety Hall during a shootout.

Whether or not Mather was actually deputized has never been confirmed.

The account told most often has him going in with Carson, with some accounts listing him as Carson's deputy, while others simply say they were together that day.

Cowboys T.J. House, James West, John Dorsey, and William Randall had been going around town that day, in and out of saloons, generally making trouble.

A "no guns in town limits" rule was in effect, and Marshal Carson demanded that the cowboys relinquish their weapons, to which they refused.

A shootout between Carson and the cowboys started, with the marshall falling dead. Dave Mather drew his gun and returned fire.

When the gunfire died down Mather was still standing. William "Big" Randall was mortally wounded, and James West was too badly injured to escape.

The other two men, John Dorsey and also wounded T.J. House, managed to make their way to the stable and escape.

House and Dorsey were captured two weeks later, and brought to the Las Vegas jail to await trial.

An angry mob broke into the jail and pulled House, Dorsey, and West from their cell, and took them to the windmill on the Plaza to hang, Mrs. Carson opened fire on the men, denying the mob their opportunity to lynch them.

The gunfight, which became known as the Variety Hall Shootout, was the first substantiated account to which Mather's name could be attached, and it launched him into western fame as a gunman.

By March 1880, public sentiment had turned against the Dodge City Gang; they broke up to head their separate ways.

Mather seems to have spent time in various places in New Mexico and Texas before settling in Dallas, Texas, in December. During this period he often used the alias Dave Matthews.

In Dallas, Mather had his only recorded romance of any length.

He was involved with an African American woman named Georgia Morgan who worked as the madame of a brothel called the "Long Branch".

The romance lasted until January 1881 when Dave abandoned his lover, taking some items of property belonging to her. Supposedly she pursued him with a butcher knife but was arrested before she could do anything.

Dodge City

In May 1883, Mysterious Dave returned to Kansas and became assistant town marshal during the so-called Dodge City War, a dispute between saloon owners who were friends of the mayor of Dodge City and Luke Short, owner of the Long Branch Saloon.

Several gunfighters including Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp gathered to support their friend Short.

The show of force was enough to cause Short's enemies to back down, and violence was avoided.

Mather also served during this time as a Deputy Sheriff under Sheriff Patrick F. Sughrue.

On September 29, 1883, Mather led a posse in pursuit of train robbery suspects, capturing two the same day in which the posse left town.[2]

While in Dodge City, Mather became owner of the Opera House Saloon, became active in politics as a Democrat, and may even have gotten married, but that is unconfirmed. Though the evidence is marginal, he may have been married to a woman named Josephine.

Mather became involved in a feud with a rival saloon owner named Tom Nixon.

Tom was the owner of the Lady Gay Saloon and was a friend of the mayor.

An ordinance had been passed that restricted all saloons in town, except the Lady Gay.

Dave's resentment grew when he was replaced as deputy by Tom Nixon.

On July 18, 1884, Mysterious Dave and Tom Nixon had an altercation in front of the Opera House Saloon. Nixon drew a pistol and fired once, missing Mather.

Nixon posted a bond for assault with intent to kill in the sum of $800, but Mather himself elected not to file a complaint.

The Dodge City Democrat published an article on the shooting which states plainly that by all indications, the situation was "by all appearances not yet at an end". The article could not have been more accurate.

Three days later, Mysterious Dave walked up to Nixon and shot and killed Nixon.

He then surrendered himself to authorities and was exonerated of murder.

The common consensus at the time was that because of Nixon's previous attempt on Mather's life, Mather was acting in self defense.

On May 10, 1885, Mather was arrested again.

This time he and his brother Josiah (called Sy) were accused of killing a gambler named Dave Jones over a game of cards, inside the Junction Saloon.

The gunfight also resulted in Dave Mather being wounded by a bullet that grazed his head, and it has been reported that his brother was killed, but in fact he did not die until 1933.

There was a preliminary hearing on the shooting, during which it was revealed that Dave Mather never fired a shot, and that Dave Jones had fired on Dave Mather, grazing him, only to be shot dead by Josiah Mather.

The shooting and the aftermath were well publicized at the time, due mostly to the notoriety of Dave Mather.

The results of that hearing were posted in the Dodge City Democrat on May 22nd, 1885. There were several witness statements included in that article.

The brothers made bail and left town, though the details of how are unclear.

One account says that Marshal Bill Tilghman ran Dave out of town after an armed standoff, another says he slipped away disguised as a woman.

Neither are believed to be true, and it is most likely he simply left town, and for all practical purposes disappeared from historical record.

After Dodge City

There are only a few reliable reports of Mather's life following his departure from Dodge.

Mather's friends said that he was obliged to leave Dodge permanently because of a vengeful mob that wanted to kill him; they did not disclose his whereabouts.

However, one newspaper of the day reports his appointment as a Deputy Marshal in New Kiowa, Kansas, in Barber County, where he remained for nearly a year.

He had skipped out of Dodge City under a $3,000 bail, which he never paid.

Another report describes a man matching his description being found dead in Texas.

According to another report, Mather migrated north to Vancouver where he joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and served with them until at least 1922.

Drinking In Dodge

Dave Mather would periodically retrieve his pistol from the bartender and fire at a bell on the street outside.

If he missed the bell he would conclude that he was getting drunk and go home.

One night, the bartender replaced the bullets in Dave's gun with blanks. When his shot missed Dave headed home.

On the way he saw a coyote crossing the street and fired several shots at it.

Dave was terrified when the animal seemed impervious to bullets and the incident left him feeling nervous for days.

The Henry Bunch

Dodge City Marshal Tom Carson was gunned down in the Long Branch Saloon by seven outlaws from the "Henry Gang."

The marshal staggered outside and collapsed on the street.

As he lay dying, his deputy, Dave Mather mysteriously appeared from nowhere.

Dave swore to the dying lawman that he would avenge him, then entered the saloon and gunned down all seven of the outlaws.

Accounts of this shooting can be verified by a check of the local press.

The next day, Mather was back in his familiar chair on the porch.

Then there's the story of Mysterious Dave and the Sky Pilot

Once in Dodge City a traveling preacher came into town and was holding a Revival meeting.

One evening Mather walked into the revival, drunk.

The pastor recognized Mather and began to harangue him to repent of his sinful ways.

Finally Dave stood up and announced that he had seen the light. Drawing his pistols he announced that, being assured of Heaven, he was ready to die.

He invited anyone who was certain of their salvation to die with him and began to shoot out the lights.

When the preacher and the crowd fled, Dave pronounced them all hypocrites and went home.


There are several legends that are told about Mysterious Dave which cannot be firmly placed at any specific point in his career.

Whether they are accurate stories, distortions of actual events, fabrications, or straight out lies, it's difficult to determine. Fact is, a lot of Old West legends are more myth than fact.

Dime Novelist, reporters, townsfolk, and the gunmen themselves use to make up all sorts of deeds that could not be proven - or simply were not done.

If one were to believe Hollywood and television, men like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson were dropping people left and right - when in reality their numbers of shooting certainly don't match waht they really did.

Deadwood is a prime example of a place where there was not very much violence at all during its boom, yet HBO series Deadwood made it look like the most foul place in the west.

Myths are like that, they can be very useful and self-serving for those who need a reputation such as in the case of Earp or Holliday or Bily the Kid who didn't shoot hardly any of the men that they said they did. 

They can be a burden to the honest historian who doesn't want to go along with the crowd and simply "print the legend" instead of the truth.

Louis L'Amour once said there were three types of lawmen in the Old West:

1.the Bat Mastersons, who were concerned with your rights and would give you a chance to surrender

2.the Wild Bills, who would "post you" out of town, putting your name on a list on a tree in public warning you to be out of town by sundown, and after that, would shoot on sight.

3.the Mysterious Dave type. He simply killed his enemies on sight. No warnings, no postings, no talk, just shooting.   While he did not garner the publicity of other famous gunmen/lawmen of the day, he is regarded as one of the most dangerous.  

In L'Amour's own words, "Dave Mathers didn't wait for you. If you came to town talkin' loud about what you intended to do, Dave would find you and shoot you before you even got started." (From "The Empty Land", Bantam Books, 1969).  

Yes, Mysterious Dave Mathers was a deadly individual.  


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