It was the false teeth that tripped up Eva Dugan and sent her to the gallows in 1930 as the first woman to be hanged in Arizona.
Like so many killers, Dugan, a 50-year-old nurse, thought she knew more than investigators about how to administer a fatal dose of poison and make a body disappear. She was wrong and paid for her crime in a gruesome way.
There were other factors besides A.J. Mathis’s dentures that contributed to her being caught: the relentless pursuit of the truth by Pinal County sheriff Jim McDonald, a Sonoran Desert dust storm, and an anonymous man who happened to make camp atop the shallow grave that held the remains of the murdered rancher.
In early 1927, friends of the 60-year-old wealthy rancher were the first to bring the mystery to Sheriff McDonald, a sombrero-wearing, horse-riding lawman who seemed to be a throwback to the halcyon days of the Old West.
Although Mathis pretty much kept to himself on his remote ranch near Vail, Arizona, he was friendly with neighboring ranchers and known as a man with fixed habits and not prone to do things at the drop of a 10-gallon hat. Therefore, when his friends noticed that he hadn’t been seen in some time, they checked with his housekeeper, Eva Dugan.
Dugan, who was Mathis’s self-proclaimed “common law wife,” told them that Mathis had picked up stakes and moved to California.
The ranchers were unconvinced by her explanation.
“Seemed funny that he’d light out to California without telling anybody,” one rancher testified later.
But without anything else to go on, there was little they could do.
Then Dugan began to sell off Mathis’s stock and when she had collected all the cash, she disappeared in the rancher’s car. That prompted them to go to Sheriff McDonald who immediately began poking around.
McDonald and his deputies visited the now-abandoned ranch house and went over the place looking for evidence of foul play. He found nothing, but that didn’t mean he was satisfied.
“It was funny that he disappeared like that,” he told the local paper, concealing the fact that his investigation was far from over. “Still, old men do queer things.”
McDonald took a day trip to Tucson, where he visited Mathis’s bank. The head cashier was more than happy to answer any questions about one of his best customers.
It takes money to travel, McDonald knew, and Mathis had not made any withdrawals before his “trip.” For his part, the cashier was concerned that Mathis had also not made any of his regular deposits. Therefore, McDonald reasoned that Mathis was not in California but “someplace where he had no expenses.”
“The only places I could think of like that were jail and the cold ground,” he testified. “And I knew A.J. was not in jail.”
Dugan had a head-start on the sheriff and he had no clue as to where she was headed. But word travels fast in those close-knit communities and when the postmaster heard that McDonald was wanting to talk to the ex-housekeeper, he told the sheriff who Dugan typically communicated with locally. The postmaster was put on alert to let the sheriff know if anything from Dugan came in.
Acting as if she hadn’t a care in the world, Dugan continued to correspond with friends, and soon McDonald had a trail to follow. At first it looked like she was making a break for the Mexican border, sending a post card from Douglas, Arizona. Then she reversed course and headed east: Texas, then Oklahoma, followed by Kansas City. Then the trail went cold for a couple of weeks until she surfaced in White Plains, New York, where she had taken a job with a hospital as a nurse.
While McDonald headed to New York to question Dugan, more than 1,000 volunteers began going over Mathis’s farm and the surrounding desert, looking for what everyone figured would be Mathis’s grave.
In White Plains, Dugan smugly withstood a withering third-degree from local cops who had arrested her.
“The old man is in California,” she told them. “Someday he’ll wander home and make a fool of that sheriff.”
Unable to extradite Dugan for murder, McDonald settled for something he knew would force her back to Arizona and keep her where he could see her: grand larceny for stealing Mathis’s car. She returned to Pinal County and was convicted of larceny by a jury of the rancher’s friends who knew she was also guilty of something more sinister. They deliberated for 4 minutes before finding her guilty.
Even in jail Dugan retained her composure and refused to answer any questions about the disappearance of her “common-law husband.”
The evidence that Mathis was dead mounted. Rent money from his tenants went undeposited, and bills went unpaid. But this was only circumstantial evidence, and without a body, proving murder with such evidence would be impossible. Mathis’s rancher friends might convict Dugan, but an appeal would undoubtedly overturn the verdict.
Then Fate took over in the form of a desert wind storm.
It was an anonymous traveler who finally broke the case (All of my research has failed to turn up the man’s name). The man was on vacation with his “motor camper” and stopped for the night in the Sonoran Desert near Vail. A heavy wind coming across the open desert picked up sand and tossed it around the camper during the night.
The next morning when the man stepped out to see if there was any damage, he saw something white that had been uncovered. Looking closer, he realized that it was a grinning skull.
Journalists said that when the sheriff broke the news that a body had been found near the Mathis place, Eva simply smiled. She was confident that she had covered her tracks well enough, having covered the body with quicklime. The bones could belong to some poor cowboy who had been lying under the dirt for years.
She had not counted on the fact that while quicklime might (or might not) aid in decomposition, it has no affect on porcelain. Her face fell when Sheriff McDonald presented her with Mathis’s dentures, made shiny by a combination of the calcium oxide and sandblasting.
Every set of dentures is unique to the wearer, and the local dentist was quick to identify the teeth as a set he had made for Mathis.
Dugan’s trial lasted for just two days and her claim that some cowhand named Jack had done the killing was not believed by the jury. According to Dugan, who took the stand in her defense, Jack, with whom she was intimate, had a quarrel with Mathis and punched the old man in the heart, killing him instantly. The panic-stricken couple buried Mathis in a shallow grave in the desert. Dugan said Jack had abandoned her in Douglas and went over the border. However, the prosecution presented some of Dugan’s post cards that said she and Jack were traveling to New York. No one knew of a ranch hand named Jack and no evidence of his existence was ever found.
The jury quickly returned a guilty verdict to the murder charge and did not recommend mercy for Dugan. The judge had no choice but to sentence her to hang — the first woman in Arizona history ever to receive a death sentence.
Appeals dragged on for three years before Eva Dugan ran out of options and time. Toward the end her tough resolve failed her.
“She displayed emotion for the first time as the steel doors clanged behind her, and sobbed as she walked down the cell-lined corridor that leads to the death chamber,” wrote one reporter. “In her cell she gave way to hysteria, necessitating a call to the prison physician to quiet her.”
While awaiting her fate she sewed her own shroud and spent her final days sewing hand-made artificial flowers to the garment.
The mother of two (she had a lawful husband who kept the children) wrote farewell letters to relatives and sent a bizarre telegram to her father:
Have to die Friday STOP Wire warden $50 STOP Will be buried in Florence STOP Eva FULL STOP
The money was to pay the balance she owed the undertaker. She had also recently purchased a lot in a local cemetery.
Dugan recovered her composure as the day of her execution drew nearer. On Feb. 21, 1930, in the company of her minister, a jail matron, and the prison warden she called “Daddy Wright,” she ascended the steps of the gallows, blindfolded.
Shortly before Dugan was brought into the death chamber, Warden Wright revealed to reporters that a vial of what he said was “deadly poison” had been found in Dugan’s cell.
It was a notable day for Arizona. Not only was it executing a woman for the first time, this was the first non-public execution where women were allowed to assist on the gallows. Six women participated in the ritual of stretching the rope and making sure the gallows would function correctly.
Unfortunately — not because of the female participation — it was a botched execution.
On the scaffold, a black hood was placed over her blindfolded face and the noose affixed behind her ear. The hangman had apparently underestimated Dugan’s weight and planned for a six-foot drop. When the trap opened, Dugan fell through. At six feet below the scaffold, the rope stopped but Eva kept going. She was decapitated.
Arizona protocol normally required the body to hang for at least 20 minutes before the condemned could be pronounced dead. This time, the doctor pronounced her immediately as Warden Wright demanded that the numerous witnesses leave the death chamber. Reporters in attendance said that no one protested his order.