Saturday, September 14, 2013

Mysterious Dave Mather & The Variety Hall Shootout

Dave Mather, approx 1880
The Variety Hall Shootout, also called the Las Vegas Saloon Shootout, took place on January 22nd, 1880. It was a gunfight that took place in Las Vegas, New Mexico. And yes. it's said that that was the gun fight that launched gunman and gambler "Mysterious" Dave Mather to fame.

That not to say he wasn't known before that gunfight, in fact while Mather's exact whereabouts during his earliest years in the West are unknown, it is certain that he and his brother Josiah were skinners in the buffalo trade around Dodge City, Kansas in 1872.

He was also reported to have partnered with Wyatt Earp in a scheme to sell fake gold bricks in the town of Mobeetie, Texas, in 1878. At the time, Mather had not yet achieved a reputation as a gunman. But that's not to say he wasn't working on a reputation as a gunmen. 

As with Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and many others who built up their own reputations with stories that can't be verified, mostly as a means of defense, there were not any real documented accounts of Mather being in gunfights. Of course that changed with his involvement in the Royal Gorge Railroad War when he was known as a hired gun. 
The Royal Gorge Railroad War took place in 1879. And yes, it was really the first documented evidence that anyone truly can point to of Mather being a gunman. In that instance, he was recruited by Bat Masterson to serve in a posse to enforce the claims of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The "posse" was a number of hired guns who never used their guns. In fact, the so-called "war" was actually settled in court between lawyers.

It was after that that Mather relocated to East Las Vegas, New Mexico. Supposedly he worked as a deputy U.S. Marshal for the Territory of New Mexico. But again, there is no list that I can find that confirms that to be true. Fact is, if one is to believe that every person that's said to be a Deputy U.S. marshal really was a Deputy U.S. Marshal, the numbers of them would be staggering.

Besides, by October of 1879, Dave Mather was arraigned and tried for being an accessory to a train robbery, but was acquitted. So really, does that sound like he was a Deputy U.S. Marshal in 1879? No, not to me either. 

As for him serving on the Las Vegas, New Mexico, police force? Well, that's up for grabs as well because I don't really know if that's true or not.

We do know that Dave Mather first ventured to Las Vegas, New Mexico, as a part of the Dodge City Gang, which also included gunmen John Joshua Webb and "Arkansas" Dave Rudabaugh. And it is always noted that gambler Doc Holliday was also in town at the time, and listed as a member of the Dodge City Gang as well. Yet there is evidence that says he wasn't even though Holliday was a friend or acquaintance of most of the gang members.

The Dodge City Gang was organized by Justice of the Peace Hoodoo Brown, to control the gambling houses in Las Vegas. He wanted to muscle out any unwanted rivals. Yes, monopolizing any and all profits to be made there. But frankly, that story is for another day. 

As for the Variety Hall Shootout, on January 22th, 1880, Marshal Joe Carson entered the Close and Patterson's Variety Hall due to complaints by citizens of some rowdy customers. A number of accounts say that Mather went into the Variety Hall right after Marshal Carson walked in.

Some say he followed Carson in because he was in fact Carson's deputy. And really, I've read where whether or not Mather was actually deputized is unknown. Some believe he was, while others say he wasn't and was simply a bystander who decided to jump in the fight after things got hot. Yes, I've read reports that say Mather just happened to be there at the time. For me, I want to believe that Mather was Carson's deputy. 

And while I say that I want to believe that he was Joe Carson's deputy, the story is that Carson walked in and confronted the rowdies alone. And yes, when he walked in there, he immediately came face to face with drunken cowboys Thomas House, James West, John Dorsey, and William Randall.

The four had been running around town all that day, said to have been in and out of saloons just stirring the pot and making a great deal of trouble. In the Variety Hall earlier, the four cowboys were said to have thrown their shot glasses at the bartender -- then dared him and anyone there to do something about it. And since Las Vegas, New Mexico, had a "no guns in town limits" rule just as many towns did at the time, Marshal Carson demanded that the cowboys hand over their guns.

The four refused and eye-witnesses later said that it was all as quick as a snap of one's finger when a shootout started between the four cowboys and City Marshal Carson. And just as quick, Marshall Joe Carson lay dead.

After Marshal Carson was killed, Dave Mather drew his gun and opened fire on the four. When the gunfire died down, Mather was still standing. And yes, the matter had been settled the hard way.

William Randall was mortally wounded and bleeding out on the floor. James West was too badly shot-up to escape or do much of anything else. John Dorsey and T.J. House were also wounded, but they managed to make their way to the stable and escape.

On January 25th, 1880, three days after the Variety Hall Shootout, Mather was now acting city marshal. He was summoned to an altercation involving Joseph Castello who drew his pistol on one of his employees in the heat of an argument. 

When Mather arrived, Castello warned him not to approach or he would shoot him dead. Newspaper reports of that incident reported that Mather drew his pistol and fired a single shot before Castello could return fire. That shot killed Castello instantly. And while it's true that he was initially criticized for killing Castello, a coroner's jury vindicated Mather's actions by saying the "shooting was justifiable and in self protection."

Now while some might think this sort of action on the part of Dave Mather would be applauded, the townsfolk were now taking a hard look at the Mysterious Dave Mather.

Two weeks after the Variety Hall Shootout, in February of 1880, Thomas House and John Dorsey were captured and returned to the San Miguel County Jail. But under Mather's watch, local vigilantes walked into the jail and pulled them and their fellow killer James West out of jail. The vigilantes took all three out and hanged them. 

Soon, the public began to suspect Mather had ties to a town mob boss and he resigned his post as acting city marshal on March 3th, 1880. And though one would think that he would have immediately left town after losing his job, Mather was still there until late March before leaving. 

While some say that Dave Mather had the advantage against the four cowboys simply because the four used most of their ammo against Marshal Joe Carson before Mather got into the fight, that still doesn't take away from the fact that they were still armed and dangerous and had their guns out when Mather took them to task.

The gunfight was the first substantiated account to which Dave Mather's name could be attached, and it launched him into Western fame as a gunman.

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