Mysterious Dave Mather came to be a lawman in the old West pretty much by chance. The taciturn son of a Connecticut sea captain, he plied his violent trade on both sides of the law.
He was born on Aug. 10, 1851, in Saybrook, Conn., the eldest son of Ulysses and Lydia Mather. He called Cotton Mather and Increase Mather ancestors, an incorrect assertion that would have had the old Puritans rolling in their graves.
Mather’s father and mother had died by the time he reached 16. Ulysses, a sea captain in the China trade, died in Shanghai after the Chinese cook stabbed him.
Dave and his brother Josiah tried following in their father’s footsteps once. They signed on as crew on a ship that took them to New Orleans, but that ended their seafaring days. From there the two looked to the rapidly growing West for their future.
Mysterious Dave Heads West
The two Mathers turned to buffalo hunting for a time, and by 1879, then in his late 20s, Mather joined up with famed western lawman and writer Bat Masterson. Masterson assembled a posse to enforce a lawsuit over ownership of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad.
In the 1880s, there was sometimes little difference between lawmen and outlaws. But people considered Masterson somewhat progressive because 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, “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 led a violent career, 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, N.M., where he took the job of assistant marshal.
The Legend of Mysterious Dave
The Mather legend began in January of that year when he and the marshal got 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 then did a short stint as marshal in El Paso, Texas. He took up with the madam of a brothel for a time, but that ended badly when she accused Mather of stealing from her.
Mather then returned to Dodge City, where he had lived earlier. In 1882 he got a job as assistant marshal and developed a rivalry with a man named Tom Nixon.
Dodge City was trying to control its saloons and brothels at the time. According to legend, Mysterious Dave would sit on the porch at the marshal’s office daring anyone to make trouble. One night, after a gang killed the marshal, Dave supposedly proceeded to the saloon where the seven-man gang had retreated and 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. 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, fed up with Dave, the bartender 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.
This story was updated in 2022.