As the sun set in the dead center of a hot and dusty Kansas in 1885, a man saddled up his horse, tied a bandana over his face, and rode away, counting his lucky stars, and his bullets.
He didn’t have time to read the Wichita Daily Eagle, so he wouldn’t have known that the Dow Jones Index had recently been launched, or that Louis Pasteur had just created a rabies vaccine, or even that Arbroath FC had beaten Bon Accord FC by thirty-six goals to nil, in the highest scoring win in competitive professional football, before or since.
No, he was fleeing fast on his able steed, to parts unknown, never to be seen again.
His name was Dave. Mysterious Dave.
He was nicknamed Mysterious before he disappeared, but not before robbing trains in New Mexico, gunfighting at variety halls, counterfeiting in Texas, stealing from prostitutes, murdering people in Dodge City, and defending outlaws in New Kiowa, which is the town he was fleeing on September 6.
He was not the first person to don a mask and head for the hills.
In 1696, the pirate known as Henry Every, or Avery, or Jack Avery or John Avery or Every, or Benjamin Bridgeman or Long Ben, or just The Arch Pirate, or even The King of Pirates, sailed away in confusion over his own identity, his salty, drooping hat low over his face, and was never espied again, despite a decade-long search with a weighty bounty on his piratically-well-known head.
The difference is, Mysterious Dave ditched the boat.
Born in Saybrook, Connecticut in 1851, Mysterious Dave Mather was about as far as you can get from the lawless West where he made and lost his name. He started out as a simple sailor, but his wild life really began by selling fake gold bricks, with his partner in crime, Wyatt Earp, before being hired by Bat Masterson to enforce territory claims for the railroads. Masterson went on to a respectable career in New York as a reporter, while Mysterious Dave headed south, in many ways.
First, he became a Deputy Marshall in New Mexico, and promptly robbed a train. On acquittal, he and his boss, Joe Carson, got into a brawl at Close & Patterson’s Variety Hall, where it seems the 'variety' included shooting dead two other men and wounding two more. He followed that up by killing Joseph Costello, a local businessman, and allowing the subsequent lynching of the two men he’d wounded days earlier in the gunfight.
While this was indeed the Wild West, Mysterious Dave was certainly mysteriously-wild in his ways.
Suspected of being as crooked as John ‘Jack’ McCall’s nose, Mysterious Dave left town and went to Dallas, Texas. There he was arrested for counterfeiting and stealing a silk dress, two diamond rings, and a watch from a prostitute, Georgia Morgan. Acquitted yet again, and realizing the silk itched his calves, he went where all good outlaws went, Dodge City, Kansas.
Of course, many before him have escaped a bad situation by changing location.
The infamous bodysnatcher, William Hare, for example, who in 1829 turned against his devilish partner, William Burke, and told the police of their gruesome crimes. After Burke was hanged for snatching bodies that weren’t exactly deceased at the time, Hare bolted to England and disappeared into the masses, wearing a mask of gentility.
Back in Dodge, Mysterious Dave was once again hired to be a Marshal, and strangely, the manager of a saloon, in which he served half-priced beer, which annoyed his fellow saloon owners considerably, not least Tom Nixon. Of course, as you’re beginning to know Mysterious Dave's ways, you know what happened next.
Yep, he shot and killed Nixon. And you know what happened after that as well. He was acquitted.
Someone who wasn’t let off his crimes so easily was ‘The King of the Crimps’, Joseph ‘Bunko’ Kelly, who kidnapped and sold to ship’s captains more than two-thousand men over a fifteen-year career. In 1908, he exited a penitentiary in Oregon, with a sailor's neckerchief around his face, and crimped himself out of existence, never to be seen again. Kelly, who once sold twenty-two dead men for $52 a head, and a wooden cigar store Native American as an able-bodied sailor, disappeared forever.
As mysterious as Dave was, he was also predictable. When his brother, Josiah, arrived in Dodge they went to the Junction Saloon for a sarsaparilla and a quiet game of poker, with a man called David Barnes.
And you’ve guessed the rest.
He shot and killed Barnes, and was charged with murder, and oddly, given his previous record, allowed to post bail, which he skipped, and rode off again, this time to New Kiowa, Kansas.
Which is where he was seen last. Having raised funds to defend another murderer, Dave Black, for which deed Mysterious Dave feared revenge, he took off with his dusty bandana as a mask, no more to be seen or heard from.
Mysterious Dave’s brother survived the gunfights and the saloons and the outlaws and the brothels, and stated categorically that that was the last time he ever saw his brother.
But then again, it’s hard to recognize people when they’re wearing a mask.
Ride on, Mysterious Dave, ride on.
Picture by Elijah Hail