Saybrook Connecticut’s Mysterious Dave Mather came to be a lawman in the old west pretty much by chance.
Mather’s father Ulysses and his mother Lydia had died by the time he was 16. Dave’s father was a sea captain who died in Shanghai, China aboard his ship after the Chinese cook stabbed him.
Dave and his brother Josiah made one stab at following in their father’s footsteps by signing on as crew on a ship that took them to New Orleans, but that was the end of their seafaring days. From there the two looked to the rapidly growing West for their future.
The two Mathers became Buffalo hunters for a time, and by 1879, then in his late 20s, Mather joined up with famed western lawman and writer Bat Masterson as part of a posse he assembled to enforce a lawsuit over ownership of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad.
In the era of the 1880s, there was sometimes not much difference between lawmen and outlaws, but Masterson was considered somewhat progressive in that he would give an outlaw a chance to surrender before opening fire.
Not so with Mather, who earned the nickname Mysterious Dave because he didn’t speak much. Louis L’Amour wrote of him that: “Dave Mather 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.”
Mather’s career was a violent one, even by the standards of the day. He had been charged in several schemes, including counterfeiting and attempting to sell phony gold bricks in Texas. He was also an on-again, off-again cattle rustler and horse thief. But in 1880 his career as a lawman started in East Las Vegas, New Mexico where he was hired as assistant marshal.
The Mather legend was born in January of that year when he and the marshal were caught in a gunfight with a gang of drunks. The marshal died and Mather became acting marshal. He killed one of the gang and shot another. The two remaining men escaped.
Mather did a short stint as marshal in El Paso, Texas and he took up with he took up with the madam of a brothel for a time, but that ended badly with Mather being accused of stealing from her.
Mather, who incorrectly claimed to be descended from Cotton Mather and Increase Mather, returned to Dodge City where he had lived earlier and in 1882 he was hired as assistant marshal. Dodge City was wrestling with trying to control its saloons and brothels at the time and Mather’s rival was a man named Tom Nixon.
According to legend, Dave would sit on the porch at the marshal’s office daring anyone to make trouble. One night when the marshal was shot and killed, Dave is said to have proceeded to the saloon where the seven-man gang that killed the marshal had retreated and he single-handedly killed them all in a wild gunfight.
When Nixon managed to replace Mather as assistant marshal, their feud escalated. In 1884, Nixon took a shot at Mather, slightly injuring him. Three days later, Mather ended matters by shooting and killing Nixon. He was tried and exonerated of any wrongdoing under the theory he was simply defending himself.
Mather and his brother didn’t stay out of trouble for long. In 1885 they were accused of killing a gambler in a Dodge City saloon. When they were released on bail, the two men left town and Mysterious Dave disappeared from history.
In his absence, Mysterious Dave’s legend grew. One colorful anecdote involved his drinking at a Dodge City saloon. Mather was said to occasionally ask the bartender to hand him a pistol so that mysterious Dave could take a shot at a bell outside. If he missed the bell, he concluded he was drunk and needed to go home.
One night, few up with Dave, the bartended loaded the gun with blanks. Dave took his shot, missed the bell and headed off into the night. When he encountered a coyote, the drunk marshal reached for his gun and fired. Mystified, Dave concluded the animal possessed supernatural powers because he was unable to hit it – with the blanks in his gun.
The final days of Mysterious Dave are, naturally, a mystery. Some said he joined up with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Others said he went to Texas. His brother said that he simply never knew what happened to Dave after they left Dodge.