Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Oh, by the way, my wife was hacked to death last night

In 1910, an 81-year-old named Benjamin Franklin Matthews—called Frank—and his 71-year-old wife, Millie, lived on their farm in Cedar, a township in Boone County, Missouri. The federal census that year indicates that a servant made her home with them; yet, by 1914 they lived alone. The couple’s only two children, both sons, were seven years apart in age. Albert, the oldest, was born with a debilitating disability requiring constant care. He lived 45 years, dying in 1902, by which time the younger son, Eddie, had already died.
Mr. and Mrs. Matthews were respected in the community, though Frank had a reputation for being miserly and eccentric.  Although he apparently had money to live comfortably, he continued to toil on their farm into his 80s.
For two weeks during the end of September and the first of October in 1914, Frank, then 85, spent nights outside near the pigsty to shew away any prowling dogs from attacking his hogs. On the night of Tuesday, October 7, Frank returned to the bedroom he shared with his wife but slept in a different bed.
At 6:30 the next morning, he went to the home of a neighbor and asked for some matches. The two men chatted and discussed “trivial matters” before Frank prepared to leave.
“Millie is dead, so I must go home and get breakfast,” he said.
Dead? The startled neighbor asked what happened.
Oh, that. Frank took the neighbor to the Matthews farmhouse and showed him Millie’s body in bed, explaining that’s how he had found her that morning—bloodied from gashes in her neck and head.
Law officers and a coroner were summoned, but Frank had more important things to do than be bothered by a murder investigation. Needing to tend to farm chores, he wanted to bury the body of his wife that morning and didn’t expect his day to be interrupted by providing statements at the coroner’s inquest. The burial of his wife would be postponed until the next day.
The coroner’s examination revealed the four or five jagged wounds in 75-year-old Millie’s head and neck resulted from being struck by an axe or hatchet. Her death certificate simply states “Murdered” as cause of death, but a supplementary certificate specifies “skull crushed with some blunt instrument.” When the farmer’s wife was found in bed, she was still in the clothes that she had worn during the day. Frank could explain that; Millie’s nighttime habit was to shed her shoes, crawl into bed and sleep in her clothes.
Two hammers and a hatchet were found in the bedroom. In searching the house, several boxes of matches were discovered. Why, then, did Frank need to borrow matches from the neighbor? Investigators also searched an attic room and found an old lard can containing a blood-stained pair of trousers.
Oh, that. At the coroner’s inquest, Frank said that he had worn the trousers the previous morning when he was repairing a wagon. The blood had dripped from his hand after he accidentally crushed it attempting to set the wagon bed on the running gear. But why were the slightly bloodied trousers stuffed into an old lard can in the attic?
Frank theorized that the murder happened at night while he was milking his cows on a lot near the house. When he returned home, he found his wife lying in bed. He spoke to her, but she didn’t answer. Frank assumed Millie was already asleep. He slept soundly that fall night; nothing roused the farmer from his slumber, though he awakened twice during the night. Both times he spoke to her, but she never responded. The next morning when he awoke, he called out Millie’s name. Again, she didn’t answer. It was then, he said, that he realized that she was dead.
Rumors said the Matthewses were wealthy people who kept a large amount of money in their home, though some believed Frank buried pockets of cash in various spots on his farm. Some months earlier, Frank supposedly couldn’t get Millie to return money that he had left in her care, and townsfolk speculated that it caused discord in the Matthews marriage.
“No arrests have been made although suspicion strongly attaches to one person,” announced the Moberly Weekly Monitor (Oct. 13, 1914), alluding to Frank Matthews. Yet, investigators admitted they lacked evidence to make an arrest. Other Missouri newspapers, such as the Centralia Fireside Guard (Oct. 9, 1914), referred to the crime as “Another Ax Murder.”
Another?  Two years earlier, in Villisca, Iowa, five members of the Joseph Moore family and their two guests were hacked to death while they slept. Coroner E. G. Davis remarked that the Matthews murder “resembled” the Moore murders “in many respects.” In March 1915, a man named Loving Mitchell was arrested in St. Louis for a committing a triple hatchet murder in Illinois four years earlier. Mitchell was suspected of the hacking deaths of many others in the Midwest—including Millie Matthews, but detectives doubted there was a connection between the crimes. 
What became of Frank Matthews? He relocated some 40 miles north to New Franklin, in Howard County, where he survived his wife by five years, dying in 1919 at age 90. He suffered with chronic inflammation of the heart muscle, but it’s not known when he was diagnosed with that ailment. His death certificate states senility as a contributing factor to his demise, though that’s commonly found on early 20th-century death certificates for older adults. The death certificate gives full details about his exact date and place of birth and the full names of his parents and their places of birth, suggesting these facts were supplied by a close family member. Curiously, though, the spaced provided for identifying the informant is left blank. 

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