‘Mysterious Dave’ Mather was rather perturbed at Tom Nixon, who had replaced him as Dodge City’s assistant marshal— and he let him know it in deadly fashion.
In the West of the 1870s and ’80s law enforcement was an inexact science, and communities often elected or appointed officials with little or no regard to their past indiscretions. Many law officers spent as much if not more time on the wrong side of the badge as they did defending the law—and “Mysterious Dave” Mather was no exception. Born David Allen Mather in Connecticut in 1851 and descended from the clan that spawned notorious Salem witch-hunter Cotton Mather, Dave traveled west as a teenager with younger brother Josiah, or “Cy,” and reportedly joined a gang of Arkansas cattle rustlers. By the time he reached his 30s, he had been in and out of jails in Kansas, Texas and New Mexico Territory, served as a policeman, deputy sheriff, marshal and assistant marshal in various towns, and developed a reputation as a man not to be fooled with. After one arrest in Dallas that city’s Daily Herald referred to him as “the notorious horse-thief, stage robber and murderer who has been wanted by the officers so long.”
It was while he was residing in Dodge City, Kan., Mather most notably proved he was not a man to be fooled with, especially after he lost his job as assistant city marshal. A long-festering feud between Mysterious Dave and the new assistant marshal, Tom Nixon, came to a head in two July 1884 altercations. In the first no blood was spilled. The second clash, on the 21st, was the deadly one, though hardly the kind of showdown that epitomized classic Hollywood Westerns. In those sagebrush sagas, shootouts generally occur face-to-face in the middle of Main Street, at dawn or high noon. Life hinges on the comparative speed of the combatants’ draw, but fair play is the underlying premise upon which the duel is conducted. Not so in the historic West, and for good reason. Common sense dictated that if you resented a man (especially a skilled pistoleer) enough to take his life, it was the height of foolishness to allow him an equal chance at ending yours. Most of the renowned gunmen who died violently were shot either from behind or from ambush. Consider James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, John Wesley Hardin, Ben Thompson, Bill Doolin, John King Fisher, William “Billy the Kid” Bonney, Jesse James and Pat Garrett. Thanks to Mysterious Dave’s actions on the night of July 21, 1884, you can add the name Thomas Clayton Nixon to that list.
Mysterious Dave Mather was a companion and cohort of such nefarious characters as “Dirty Dave” Rudabaugh and John Joshua Webb and a prominent member of the Dodge City Gang, a criminal band that ruled East Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, in 1879–80. At the same time he served as the town’s assistant marshal, and it was in this capacity he committed his first recorded killing, in late January 1880. When an apparently inebriated railroad foreman named Joe Castello made what the Las Vegas Daily Optic termed the “wrong play” and pointed his pistol at Mather, Dave did not hesitate; he swiftly drew his sidearm and dispatched Castello with one shot.
The town eventually grew weary of the gang’s shenanigans and assembled its own vigilance committee. In its “Timely Warning,” published by the local newspaper and addressed “To Murderers, Confidence Men, [and] Thieves,” the vigilantes promised that all offenders who failed either to leave town or to conform to the law “will be summarily dealt with …if [we] have to HANG by the strong arm of FORCE every violator of the law in this country.” The blunt warning had the desired effect on a gang the Optic had described as “the most desperate men on the Plains.” Dave Mather and the other gang members soon left Las Vegas for less finicky venues.
May 1883 found Mather in Dodge City, Kan., during a feud between a saloon owner and the “reform” element of the city that has come to be dubbed the “Dodge City War.” Among the primary players was Mayor Larry Deger; opposing him, a diminutive gambler appropriately named Luke Short, co-owner of the Long Branch saloon. While Deger collected an assortment of townspeople on his side, Short aligned to his cause such luminaries as Wyatt Earp, W.B. “Bat” Masterson and Charlie Bassett. Anticipating violence, and seeing the need for a neutral assistant marshal to work with nonpartisan Marshal Jack Bridges, the city fathers appointed Mysterious Dave to the post—despite the fact that four years earlier the Ford County Globe, Dodge’s major newspaper, had named him as a regular associate of notorious horse thief “Dutch Henry” Born. Mather was also appointed to the post of Ford County deputy sheriff, under Sheriff Pat Sughrue.
The “war” was resolved without bloodshed, and Mather continued to serve as assistant marshal. However, the opposing political party won the next election, and incoming Mayor George Hoover appointed Bill Tilghman and Thomas Nixon as marshal and assistant marshal, respectively. Both had reputations as tough, capable men, but Tom Nixon was something of a local legend.
Nixon had been a fixture in the region since the only structure to break the horizon was Fort Dodge. A Southerner by birth, he had come west to try his hand at prospecting before moving with his family in 1870 to the site of what would soon become Dodge City. He built a ranch in the area and made a name for himself as one of the most skilled buffalo hunters on the Plains. Loath to stay at one job for very long, Nixon went into the wagon repair business, but in a political turnaround in 1881 (a fairly common occurrence in Dodge City) he was tapped to replace the existing assistant city marshal. He held the post for the next two years, during which time he and an associate named Orlando A. “Brick” Bond bought a saloon and dance hall.
Nixon lost his badge to Mather in 1883, but it was only for a short time, thanks to Mayor Hoover. Jack Bridges, Mather’s former boss, seems to have accepted the fact of his replacement with relative equanimity. Mather, however, harbored a deep resentment toward Nixon. It was the first step in a dance that would leave one of the men dead and the other on trial for his life.
In May 1884, while serving as Ford County deputy sheriff, Dave Mather bought the Opera House saloon, in partner- ship with Texas friend David Black. They immediately set about converting it into a dance hall, an “improvement” the new mayor was determined to stop. He and his city council met specifically to address the issue and later that month passed an ordinance making it unlawful for anyone in Dodge to maintain “what is commonly known as a dance hall, or any other place where lewd women and men congregate for the purpose of dancing or otherwise.”
To Mather the ordinance itself was bad enough; what fed fuel to the flames was the glaring fact that, while directing the ban at Dave and his partner, the city fathers did nothing to enforce the restrictions on rival saloon and dance hall the Lady Gay. Worse still, the Lady Gay’s owners were none other than Brick Bond and newly appointed Assistant City Marshal Tom Nixon—Dave’s nemesis.
To his credit Mather left his pistol in its holster this time and instead sought retribution through commerce. He and partner Black dropped the price of beer to 5 cents a glass— less than half of what the Lady Gay and other city saloons were charging. In response Nixon rallied the Dodge City saloon owners to put pressure on local brewers and wholesalers to withhold sales from the Opera House, effectively stemming Dave’s beer supply to a trickle.
The recent election and the saloon war were sufficient reasons for the bad blood between Mather and Nixon; but Mather biographer Jack DeMattos cites contemporary reports of further animosity between the men over the affections of a woman. Zoe Tilghman, Bill Tilghman’s wife, later wrote that the femme fatale who had won Mysterious Dave’s heart, or at least his attention, was Nixon’s wife, Cornelia.
Conjecture aside, events soon took a violent turn. On the evening of July 18 Mather was standing on the front steps of his Opera House saloon, when Nixon, standing at the foot of the stairs, took a shot at him. According to a report in the next day’s Dodge City Democrat, “The bullet went wild and struck the woodwork of the porch. Mather’s face was considerably powder burned, and the little finger of his left hand was injured by a splinter.” In retrospect, Tom made two serious mistakes: he shot at Mysterious Dave, a shootist of some renown— and he missed. According to Zoe Tilghman, Marshal Tilghman made this fact clear to his assistant: “You ought to shoot straight, or not at all, with a man like Dave. Watch out, now. He’ll get you.”
These were prophetic words indeed. Sheriff Sughrue immediately arrested Nixon, but Mather refused to lodge a complaint—which should have caused Tom to be especially alert. It was clear to many Dodge citizens the affair was not over; three nights later Dave proved them right.
Under the banner THE MURDER, The Globe Live Stock Journal of the 22nd reported, “At about 10 o’clock last evening, while assistant Marshal Thos. Nixon was on duty at the corner of Front Street and First Avenue, Mysterious Dave (Dave Mathers [sic]), who keeps a saloon in the Opera House, came down stairs and deliberately shot him through.” The account goes on to say Mather “called to Nixon, who was standing on the corner, and as Nixon turned around, Mather commenced shooting at him, firing four shots…killing him instantly.” Apparently, the shooting took place in the same spot as Nixon’s attempt on Mather’s life three nights before. True to form, Dave shot straight; The coroner reported that at least three, and possibly all, of the shots were fatal. One of the rounds that passed through Tom struck an onlooking cowboy in the leg. Mather was immediately arrested, and as he was marched off to jail, he uttered his sole regret: “I ought to have killed him six months ago.”
When a violent situation erupts to the accompaniment of staccato explosions, the accounts of eyewitnesses will vary. Predictably, in the preliminary investigation of the Mather-Nixon shooting, witnesses gave differing versions. Fred Boyd, who testified he stood “about 8 rods and 10 feet distant” at the time of the shooting, swore that Nixon was leaning on the saloon door, watching a game inside. Mather twice called out, “Tom!” whereupon Nixon started to turn, and Boyd heard “the report of a revolver.” Nixon, said Boyd, exclaimed either, “Oh! I am shot!” or, “Oh! I am killed!” Boyd said Dave fired the first shot into Tom while Nixon was standing and the last three rounds as Tom lay on the ground. “Tom Nixon,” swore Boyd, “neither drew nor attempted to draw any weapons.”
Andrew Faulkner testified he heard the first shot, then watched as Mather, standing only four or five feet from Nixon, fired three more shots into Tom’s prone body. Holding his revolver—according to Sheriff Sughrue, a “Colt’s .45 caliber” —in his right hand, Mather then “walked to the foot of the stairs and came up the steps.”
The court then adjourned to the home of Henry V. Cook, who testified from his sickbed. Cook swore Nixon was not leaning on the door but “walking toward the door of the saloon” when Mather called, “Oh, Tom,” just prior to taking the first shot. Mather advanced to within four feet of Nixon as he continued to fire.
The most interesting testimony came from Archie Franklin, the cowboy whom Mather had inadvertently wounded in the leg. He, too, testified to the court from his sickbed, “still suffering pretty severely.” According to Franklin, who had been leaning against a post at the Opera House portico, Nixon “was walking along” as he approached Mather. “Both spoke,” stated Franklin, “but I did not understand either one.” Franklin said Nixon “did not fall after the first shot. He fell between the second and third shots. The second shot hit me.” Franklin further stated that as Dave advanced on Tom, “Mather told him before he shot that he was going to kill him.…I kind of think he said, ‘You have lived long enough.’” No other witness testified that either man spoke, other than Mather’s peremptory, “Tom!” Yet Franklin, whose involvement in the shooting was perhaps more intimate than that of any other witness, described his position at the time of the shooting as close enough to have “heard them exchange…words.”
The next witness was something of a local celebrity: buffalo hunter, gunfighter and former Ford County Sheriff Bat Masterson. There is an interesting aspect to his testimony as well. “I was among the first to get to the body of Nixon after he was killed,” Masterson began. “He had his revolver on him. He was lying on it. It was partially drawn out.” Assuming the pistol hadn’t dislodged from Tom’s heavy leather holster as he struck the ground, Nixon might have been trying to answer Mather’s attack, even as he lay dying.
The August 3 edition of the Topeka Commonwealth, whose reporter sat beside the defendant during the proceedings, portrayed Mysterious Dave as a man cool under pressure:
The best observer of human nature could not have selected him as the man whose life was in jeopardy.…
During the trial Mather sat quietly and apparently little concerned, whittling the edge of his chair, but to a close observer evidently taking [in] every word. Observing a reporter of The Commonwealth present, he turned and advised us to give him a fair show when the other side of the story came to be told. This remark was made in as nonchalant a manner as if we had been reporting the [recent] bullfight.
The reporter described, somewhat inaccurately, Mather’s career in law enforcement and remarked, “[He] is reported to have killed several men.…It is said that at Las Vegas he came near hanging by a mob.”
Toward month’s end authorities released Dave on bail, and two months later the court granted him a change of venue to Kinsley, Edwards County, with a trial date set for late December. Despite a rumor he had been shot and killed in the interim, Mather showed up for his trial. After hearing the evidence, the jury returned within a half-hour to acquit him. According to the Dodge City Times of January 8, 1885, “The verdict was undoubtedly a proper one, as the weight of the testimony showed that Nixon was the aggressor in the affray, and that Mather was justified in shooting.”
Mysterious Dave Mather had won acquittal on the ground of self-defense. In retrospect the verdict seems to stretch the letter, if not the spirit, of the law. That three days had passed between Tom’s attempt on Dave’s life and Mather’s lethal response, and that Mather had earlier refused to pursue legal means of removing Nixon as a threat, apparently had no influence on the jury’s decision. The justification was simple: Tom had tried to kill Dave, and had Dave not eliminated Tom as he did, sooner or later Tom was likely to try again. This was Old West justice at its most pragmatic.
One would think the anxiety of going through such a legal ordeal for several months, with his life hanging in the balance, would have prompted Dave Mather to reflect on his good fortune and perhaps exercise some restraint. This he did—for four months, at which point he and brother Cy became involved in another shootout. The fight took place at the Junction saloon on May 10, with the Mather boys facing John and David Barnes. The Barnes brothers had come to Dodge to, in John’s words, “prove up on some land.” By the end of the day his brother David would be lying dead on the floor of the saloon—which stood next door to the Opera House, mere feet from where Mather had killed Tom Nixon the previous year.
By all reports the row had begun when Mather, who had lost a small amount of money to David Barnes at a game of seven-up, took the pot anyway and tossed his cards across the table at Barnes. When Barnes complained, Mather struck him. At that point gunfire rang out. According to the May 12 Globe Live Stock Journal, David Barnes was shot dead, two bystanders were hit in the legs, and Mysterious Dave was “cut across the forehead” by an errant ball. The May 16 edition of the Dodge City Democrat reported that “everybody who had a pistol was firing” and credited Sheriff Sughrue, who was present, with the prevention of further bloodshed.
Sughrue arrested the Mather brothers before the smoke had cleared. Ironically, Mysterious Dave’s pistol was fully loaded, indicating that, though he had started the fracas, he had not participated in the gunfight. Nonetheless, a coroner’s jury indicted both Mather boys on murder charges. Three weeks later Dave was back in Kinsley’s court, where he and Cy were permitted to post bond. Unwilling to try his luck in court a second time, on July 29 (months before their trials were scheduled to commence) Dave left Dodge City and Kinsley far behind him, taking Cy with him and defaulting on the $3,000 bonds their friends had posted for each of them.
The brothers split up, never to meet again. Cy went to Utah and then Idaho, while Dave briefly visited Topeka and then traveled to the south Kansas town of New Kiowa. The August 20 Dodge City Times reported on Dave’s activities: “Dave Mather on Friday last was appointed city marshal of New Kiowa and at once entered upon the duties of the office. Dave was marshal at Dodge City and also assistant marshal for a long time. Dave makes a good officer.”
In those three short sentences the newspaper made a number of errors. In fact, Dave had not been appointed New Kiowa city marshal; Mike O’Shea held that post. Mather had never served as marshal of Dodge, and his stint as assistant marshal
was short-lived. And finally, many Dodge City denizens would have questioned his qualities as a lawman if not as a human being.
When Mather went to New Kiowa, it was in the company of Dave Black, his former partner in Dodge City’s Opera House saloon. The pair soon made their presence felt. Within days of his arrival Black shot down a soldier in a saloon fight, and authorities had to spirit him out of town steps ahead of a lynch mob comprising some 100 soldiers. Upset at having missed their quarry, the soldiers reportedly considered his partner Mysterious Dave a satisfactory stand-in at a necktie party. Receiving word of the mob’s intentions, Mather, who had raised a few hundred dollars for Black’s defense, allowed discretion to play the better part of valor, took the money and ran.
It was then Mysterious Dave Mather lived up to his nickname, vanishing from the annals of Western history. Reported sightings filtered in, as did accounts of his death. A snippet in a May 17, 1886, Dallas newspaper reported the discovery of an unidentified body beside a railroad track, a bullet wound to the head. Although never proved, some believed the dead man to be Dave Mather. According to biographer DeMattos, who has run every conceivable iteration of Mather’s demise to ground, others claimed that Dave lived “well into the 1920s and beyond,” and that he committed crimes in New Mexico and California in the late 1880s under the alias “Mysterious Dave” Taylor. One spurious story placed him on horseback as a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman as late as 1922— by which time he would have been 71. Another account had him dying in Alberta, Canada, in 1916. One old acquaintance swore Mather lived out his last days in Blaine, Wash., while serving as a U.S. Customs officer; neither the U.S. Customs Service nor the town of Blaine records a single mention of Mather.
One fantastical tidbit appeared in a 1963 issue of Frontier Times magazine, describing not Dave’s death but rather his abduction by aliens. The schlock tabloid Weekly World News later ran an “eye witness” story head lined UFO SHOCKER!
Did Aliens Kidnap Old West Lawman in 1889?
They might as well have. To date, no reliable records exist to account for Mather’s movements from the day he skipped bail and fled New Kiowa. Until and unless such records surface, the life and death of David Allen “Mysterious Dave” Mather—lawman, badman, gambler and killer of Tom Nixon—must remain, well…mysterious.
Historian and author Ron Soodalter contributes regularly to Weider History Group publications. Suggested for further reading are Mysterious Gunfighter: The Story of Dave Mather, by Jack DeMattos, and Great Gunfighters of the Kansas Cowtowns, 1867–1886, by Nyle H. Miller and Joseph W. Snell.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.