Since I ‘ve been involved in Cowboy Action Shooting people will occasionally ask me where I came up with the alias Mysterious Dave. I tell them he was a real person and for someone like me who has loved the Old West from the time he was big enough to hold a cap pistol and ride a stick horse, his name summons up the sound of bootheels clunking on Front Street in Dodge City, the smell of cigar smoke and the laughter of a "soiled dove" in a Las Vegas, New Mexico saloon and, well, mystery.
I make no claims of being anything like the real Mysterious Dave. In fact, its sort of like what Rooster Cogburn said to Mattie Ross when describing the Original Mexican Bob in True Grit,"there's another one, but he ain't a patch to this 'un." However, I want to share what little is known about this man who spent so much of his life in the margins of society and whose ultimate fate remains just beyond grasp of historians.
David Allen Mather was born in Connecticut in 1851, the son of a sea captain. By the mid-1850's Captain Mather had deserted his wife and two young sons. Dave's mother remarried, but passed away a few years later. Immediately after her death, Dave and his brother Josiah signed on as deck hand and cabin boy on a packet ship. Apparently a life on the seas didn’t agree with the Mather brothers. They jumped ship in New Orleans and sometime after 1870 Dave Mather made his way to Arkansas. It is here that David Allen Mather transforms into Mysterious Dave.
By the mid-1870’s Mather is rumored to have operated with a horse stealing gang in Arkansas and Texas and to have participated in the murder and attempted robbery of a popular cattleman in the Ft. Smith, Arkansas area. However, there is no documentary evidence to support this claim. It is known that he joined the legions of other young men during the economically depress era of the1870’s exterminating the buffalo from the plains of Kansas.
Two interesting stories have surfaced about Mysterious Dave from this period. Dr. Thomas McCarty was one of the earliest settlers of Dodge City and except for the post physician at Fort Dodge, the only doctor in the area. He reports sewing up Dave’s stomach after it was slashed in a fight with a gambler. This delicate surgery was performed on a table in the lobby of the Great Western Hotel. The only anesthetic was that old frontier standby, whiskey. Dave recovered and supposedly forced other gamblers and buffalo hunters to seek treatment from Dr. McCarty until his bill with the doctor was squared.
A taller tale about Mather involves his habit of surrendering his gun to the bartender upon entering his favorite saloon. He would drink and gamble for about an hour, then borrow his shooter back, step outside the saloon and take a shot at the church bell down the street. If he hit the bell, he would give his gun back to the bartender and continue his drinking. However, if he missed, he would go home. One night unknown parties decided to have some fun with Dave. They convinced the bartender to trade Mather’s cartridges for blanks, and when he stepped out side to take his shot at the bell it sounded like a miss. Dave immediately left for home. On the way there he encountered a coyote and emptied his pistol at it without effect. Supposedly Dave did not drink again for a long time.
More ominously, Mather is reported to have killed a man during a "difficulty" in the Texas Panhandle during this time.
Rumors and legends aside, the next official mention of Mysterious Dave occurs in early 1879 when Ford County, Kansas Sheriff Bat Masterson arrested the notorious horse thief Dutch Henry Borne in Trinidad, Colorado. The Dodge City newspapers reported that when located Dutch Henry was in the company of Mysterious Dave and others.
Apparently, the relationship between Masterson and Mather was not fractured too badly because he hired Dave to be one of the Dodge City gunmen protecting Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad property during its dispute with the Denver and Rio Grande over control of the Royal Gorge in Colorado. Dave was among the Dodge City toughs assigned to guard the telegraph office in Pueblo and was forced to flee out a rear window after an assault by an overwhelming force of deputy sheriffs and DG&R gunmen.
Mysterious Dave next surfaces in Las Vegas, New Mexico sometime after the arrival of the Santa Fe railroad turned it into a boom town in the summer of 1879. Interestingly, the Santa Fe tracks did not run directly into the village of Las Vegas, thus causing the formation of a separate town called "New Town," or East Las Vegas.
The administration of this new community came under the control of a gambler and confidence man named H.G. Neill (alias Hoodoo Brown) who managed to secure an appointment as Justice of the Peace. The loose confederation of gamblers, pimps and confidence men who operated under his protection was known as the "Dodge City Gang." Dave secured an appointment to the police force soon after his arrival and was considered a "Hoodoo Feller" in good standing and an effective tool of Brown’s corrupt J.P. court.
Although little known today except to western history buffs, the rein of the "Dodge City Gang" in Las Vegas made it one of the wildest towns on the frontier. The period from August 1879 to March 1880 was an especially bewildering parade of lynching, murder, train and stage robbery and general meanness unparalleled in the Old West. During this period the town saw the likes of Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and possibly Jesse James. In the midst of it all stood Mysterious Dave, apparently enjoying his work as a peace officer since it was a position he sought to obtain just about anywhere he landed for the rest of his known life.
Maybe it was the power of the badge that attracted him to law enforcement, or possibly the danger because it was as a Las Vegas policeman Mysterious Dave was involved in his first documented killing. A railroad worker named Joseph Costello tried to "throw down" on Dave one night in January 1880. Costello hesitated. Dave didn’t.
A twisted and complicated series of events, including two homicides brought an end to the control of Hoodoo Brown and the "Dodge City Gang" in Las Vegas. Brown is believed to have fled town with city funds, the widow of a dead town marshal and the marshal’s corpse. Mysterious Dave also left Las Vegas, hopefully without a corpse in tow, for Dodge City.
We next find Dave in Dallas in late 1881 in the company of a black madam named Georgia Morgan. He soon departed Dallas for Ft. Worth where he found work as a policeman. Georgia Morgan then appeared on the streets of Ft. Worth with a pistol and butcher knife hunting Dave and accusing him of stealing her clothing and jewelry. Both were arrested and Dave was returned to Dallas and jailed for three months because he couldn’t raise $500 bail. He was eventually acquitted in April of 1882 of stealing Georgia’s property.
Mysterious Dave apparently spent the next year following the gambling circuit through Texas. He was known to have gone to El Paso immediately after his acquittal and was arrested there for cheating a man in a crooked three card monte game. The Governor of Kansas later received an inquiry from a man in Manchaco, Texas (near Austin) regarding any warrants for Mysterious Dave.
By the spring of ‘83 Mather was back in Dodge City, probably pitching the oblongs in one of the cowtown’s numerous saloons. Just after the start of the shipping season Dave was appointed Assistant City Marshal. It is during this sojourn in Dodge City that Mysterious Dave will attain his greatest notoriety.
The only known picture of him comes to us at this time. The photo shows a thin man with dark hair in a rumpled suit coat leaning against something in the photographer’s studio. His dark hat with a rounded crown was pushed slightly back from his forehead, but you can still read the hatband which says "Assistant Marshal." His body is relaxed, but his eyes reflect the smoldering intensity of a man who has seen too much trouble in too many places.
However fierce Mather appears in his photograph, apparently he had a sense of humor. There is a legend that a traveling preacher appeared in Dodge during Dave’s term as Assistant Marshal. The preacher, obviously enjoying a challenge, inquired around town as to whom might be the vilest sinner. Mysterious Dave was pointed out as the most likely candidate. The preacher then approached Dave about attending a service he was planning to hold at the Lady Gay Saloon. Surprisingly, Dave responded positively to the invitation. The day of the meeting found Dave sitting in the front row listening intently to the preacher’s message. As the traveling minister reached the climax of his sermon, he is said to have lifted both hands toward heaven and declared that he would be willing to die right there if he could know that he saved one soul from the fires of hell.
Dave then rose to his feet, obviously moved by the preacher’s declaration, and pulled his Colt from under his coat. Wiping a tear from his eye, he said that he would be no more ready to go to heaven than he was at that moment. He stated further that he would save the minister and deacons from any chance of backsliding and they could all climb the stairway to heaven together because he would kill them and then himself, punctuating his remarks with a shot which clipped off a corner of the preacher’s uplifted Bible. This caused the astonished minister to fall behind a drygoods box and the rest of the brethren to flattened themselves as Dave proceeded to shoot out the lights. He then sauntered toward the door muttering that the congregation was a bunch of liars and frauds because they weren’t ready to go to heaven with him after all.
With a change of city administration, Dave lost his Assistant Marshal’s post in the Spring of 1884. Mather then partnered with a Texan named Dave Black in operating the Opera House Saloon. This decision put him into conflict with the man who had succeeded him as Assistant Marshal.
Tom Nixon was a former buffalo hunter and an early pioneer in the Dodge City area who was a business rival of Dave’s as one of the owners of the Lady Gay saloon. No one knows the exact cause of their enmity but possible reasons include rivalry over Nixon’s appointment to Assistant Marshal, a "war" over the price of beer in the two competing saloons, and possibly Mather’s relationship with Nixon’s wife.
Tensions boiled over on the night of July 18, 1884 when Nixon shot at Mysterious Dave as the latter was standing on the front steps of the Opera House Saloon. Although his face was powder burned and his left hand injured by flying splinters, Dave grimly refused to press charges. Three nights later all of Dodge City would know why.
Nixon was standing at the corner of First Avenue and Front Street in front of the Opera House about 10 p.m. on July 21 when a voice behind him called out gently, almost sweetly "Oh, Tom." Nixon turned to see what was probably his last vision on this earth, Mysterious Dave pointing a Colt .45 at him. The bore probably looked the as big around as a stove pipe before the gun flashed and roared. Nixon took four hits to the body, one piercing his heart. He was dead before he hit the ground.
This killing and the subsequent trial attracted national attention in the Summer of 1884 as a bevy of witnesses and attorneys argued as to whether Nixon was reaching for a gun when Mather shot him. The jury was out for only twenty-two minutes before returning a verdict of not guilty.
After the trial Mysterious Dave returned to Dodge and remained out of trouble for the next few months. However, in May of 1885 Dave and his brother Josiah were involved in a wild gun battle in the Junction Saloon. One man was killed and several were wounded, including Mather, whose head was grazed by a bullet.
Mather posted bail and moved on the New Kiowa, Kansas with his partner "Black Dave" Black and opened a saloon. "Black Dave"soon killed a soldier in a brawl and Mather went among the saloon crowd raising several hundred dollars for Black’s defense. Some of the dead soldier’s comrades threatened to come to town and lynch Mysterious Dave simply because he was Dave Black’s partner. Dave took the money he had raised and left New Kiowa.
Here Mysterious Dave Mather officially drops off the radar screen.
Numerous theories have been offered as to his ultimate fate, including alien abduction (a 1988 article in a tabloid called Weekly World News made this claim). However, the most plausible explanation of Mysterious Dave’s fate appears in newspaper accounts of an unidentified dark haired man with a long mustache found dead near the Texas Central Railroad tracks in Dallas in May of 1886. The man had what was in all likelihood a bullet hole in his head. Beside the physical description, the thing that gives this version of Dave’s fate the most weight is that his bondsmen in the Junction Saloon shooting were released from their responsibilities "due to the death of the defendant."
Did "Black Dave" take revenge on his partner for running out on him, or did Mysterious Dave quietly live out his days in some obscure place.