The Harrowing Story Of Eva Dugan: The Only Woman To Be Executed In Arizona

Eva Dugan was convicted of the murder of Andrew Mathis and sentenced to death, she is the only woman to have been executed in the state of Arizona. Her execution went gruesomely wrong and resulted in her being decapitated, leading to death by hanging being abolished in the state.

Eva Dugan was sentenced to death for the murder of Andrew Mathis
Eva Dugan was sentenced to death for the murder of Andrew Mathis

Above the condemned cells on the second floor of the Arizona State Prison At Florence was a small, drab room. Because of its singular purpose, the room was not often used. Death was its sole function, the scaffold its only machinery. Directly below, separated by a trap door, was a second room. Into it would fall bodies dangling from rope's-end, breathing their last breaths. On its walls in glass cases were photographs of sixteen people - all men - who had died there. Each was framed by the noose that had ended his life. Many Arizonians hoped a seventeenth photograph would be added - one that would offer a striking departure.

She had been born Eva McDaniels in Salisbury, Missouri, in 1878. Her fifth husband gave her the name Dugan, and that is the name that she would take to a pauper's grave on the prison's ground in Florence.

Eva's odyssey began during the early days of January 1927, when she went to work as a housekeeper for Andrew J. Mathis. A recluse, Mathis was the owner of a small chicken ranch on North Oracle Road on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. For reasons that remain obscure, Eva was fired after a couple of weeks. Rumour claimed she had tried to poison his meals. Mathis told neighbours he had driven her from his ranch and ordered her never to return. But Eva did return and with a vengeance.

Sometime around January 19, 1927, Mathis disappeared. With him disappeared his nearly new Dodge Coupé, recently paid off, and other personal possessions. What no one knew is that Mathis, fifty-eight years old, slight of build, and in poor health had been bludgeoned to death and bore a three-inch gash on the left side of his skull. A shallow grave had been dug on an obscure patch of his ranch land, and into it went the corpse. Before the first shovelful of dirt had been sprinkled over the body, chloride of lime was added to the grave to hasten decomposition. It did its job.

But Eva had made a mistake. Before fleeing in the Dodge, she offered neighbours an opportunity to purchase some of the dead man's belongings. Mathis had given them to her, then gone off to California, she said. It was an unlikely story. The rancher was not known for his generosity, and neighbours knew he had no use for the woman. Eva became a suspect in a supposed murder. But there was nobody. Soon there was no Eva.

Later, she would claim that an itinerant ranch hand named Jack, who, it was said, had worked on the Mathis spread two days, bludgeoned the owner to death and forced Eva to accompany him in the stolen vehicle. It was an interesting tale, but one that did not wash well. The fact was that Eva and Jack - if that was his name - had driven the Dodge to Amarillo, Texas where the car was sold for six hundred dollars. Eva represented herself as Mrs Eva Mathis and introduced Jack as A.J Mathis, her son. She then forged a signature on the title and collected the money. Jack was never heard from again.

More than one hundred volunteers scoured the Mathis ranch in search of a body. They scanned the brush, cacti, and arroyos but found nothing. Officers, however, did find the charred ear trumpet (Mathis had been nearly deaf) in the ashes of an old wood stove. That discovery intensified the assumption that the chicken rancher had met with a violent demise.

A two-hundred-dollar reward was offered for Eva, one hundred dollars for information about Mathis. The task of finding the woman fell to Pima County Sheriff Jim McDonald. Eva's movements were traced from Texas to Chicago, to Buffalo, New York, to New York City. At last, Eva was found working in a hospital at White Plains, New York. McDonald, accompanied by the county attorney, pleaded his case before authorities at the capitol in Albany, and extradition papers were signed.

A newspaper article that followed Eva Dugan's execution
A newspaper article that followed Eva Dugan's execution

On March 4, 1927, the Apache Limited made a special stop at Vail station in Arizona to unload McDonald and his prisoner. They motored the remaining distance to Tucson, where Eva was charged with the theft of the Mathis automobile. Because no body had been found, murder charges could not be lodged.

Eva's stout, matronly form became a fixture in the Arizona press. Had colour photography been available, readers would have seen a mane of flaming red hair with a slash of steel grey at the part line. She often wore a bun at the back with a tortoise comb and was usually seen in shell-rimmed spectacles.

Tried, convicted and sentenced, Eva was sent off to Florence to do a three - to six-year term for vehicle theft, all the while proclaiming her innocence and insisting the elusive Jack had stolen the car. The Mathis disappearance nagged at authorities, and the investigation continued at full steam. Finally, the big break came.

On December 23, 1927, a travelling Californian named J.F. Nash selected a secluded spot on the Mathis ranch as a suitable place to camp. Efforts to drive a tent post into the ground were stymied by a hard object. Assuming it was a rock, Nash dug around it. What the digging revealed was not a rock but the yellowed skull of a human being. Police were summoned, and the skeletal remains of Andrew J. Mathis were removed from the shallow grave where they had rested for nearly a year. Identification was made by papers in the clothing and a set of dentures. At last, murder charges could be brought against Eva.

The Mathis killing was one of the most talked-about murder cases in years. The public clamored for each tidbit or rumour, gossip, and innuendo and read every word printed about the accused woman. Court convened on February 21, 1928, and, for so spectacular a case, was of remarkably short duration - just five days. During three of those days, the victim's skull was on display in the courtroom. Among those asked to identify it was a former neighbour, a woman who testified the skull bore a "close resemblance" to the head of Mathis, and the dead man's barber, who testified he had taken "particular notice" of the shape of the skull. It was hardly the testimony of expert witnesses.

No one had witnessed the crime; the murder weapon had not been found; fingerprints were not available. Virtually all of the evidence used against her was circumstantial, but Eva would prove to be her own worst enemy. Her testimony was disjointed, rambling, contradictory, and nonsensical. She even went so far as to produce a postcard "signed" by Jack absolving her of any wrongdoing. Incapable of telling the same story the same way twice, Eva's credibility suffered irretrievable damage.

At 9:40 pm, on February 25, 1928, after deliberating less than three hours, the jury found Eva guilty of murder in the first degree. The verdict specified the death penalty. This was thought to be the first time in Arizona it had been meted out on circumstantial evidence. The convicted murderess, pale, and shakey, leaned forward in her chair but made no outcry, no comment. Her stolid demeanor would become the stuff of legends.

Eva was returned to the prison at Florence, but this time she was incarcerated on death row. In that atmosphere of gloom and uncertainty, she would spend the better part of two years while her lawyers and a handful of supporters worked behind the scenes to effectuate a commutation of her sentence to life in prison. During that time, she would become a favourite of the press, who would suggest she was witty, warm, gracious, and without self-pity.

But no one could help Eva - not her lawyers, not her supporters, not the press, not even Governor John C Phillips. On February 15, 1930, six days before her scheduled execution, all hope of a commutation was abandoned. "My hands are tied," Phillips told the Associated Press. "The law does not empower me to grant a reprieve or commutation. A sanity hearing is the condemned woman's only hope."

In a last-ditch effort, Mrs Allie Dickerman and Mrs John H. Durham, both well-connected Tucsonans, made a public appeal for funds to support a sanity hearing. The next day, it was announced that they had raised sixty-four dollars. But funds were not all that was necessary. Pinal County attorney Ernest W. McFarland (later, majority leader of the U.S. Senate, governor of Arizona, and Arizona Supreme Court Justice) would have to be convinced that the enterprise had merit.

The next day, Dr Charles W. Brown, former prison physician, signed an affidavit attesting that Eva was, indeed, insane. In quick order, prison warden Lorenzo Wright, former warden Scott White, prison physician Dr L. A. Love, and Phoenix psychiatrist Dr Win Wylie all signed affidavits attesting to insanity. A Florence physician, Dr George Huffman, added his opinion that Eva's health was so precarious she would die within a couple of years at best. He said she had suffered from a "social" disease - then a polite term for syphilis - for thirty years or more and was a very sick woman. McFarland was persuaded, and a sanity hearing was scheduled.

"As an eleventh-hour means of snatching the fifty-two-year-old woman from the grim and inexorable grip of the noose," wrote Gilbert Cosulich in the February 16, 1930, issue of the Tucson Daily Citizen, "her two young attorneys have secured an insanity trial for her." The hearing was scheduled for February 18, three days before Eva's scheduled execution.

Eva Dugan's hanging noose
Eva Dugan's hanging noose

Ruth Hale, vice president of the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment and wife of distinguished New York Evening Telegram critic Heywood Broun, was in Tucson to visit their son, Heywood Hale, a student at the Arizona Desert School. Soon she was in the act, telling reporters, "It is a horrible thing to take a human being and, with measured step, lead him or her to the shambles as one might do an ox or lamb." That said, she whisked her son off on a vacation in California.

Mrs Leroy Miller, another Tucsonan, jumped into the fray but in the opposite camp. She told the press she would devote all of her time and strength to circulating a petition to counteract the activities of the Anti-Capital Punishment League, contending that the "sentimental" appeal on behalf of the murderess was a "disgrace."

Dickerman and Durham countered. "Due to the fact that there was not an eye witness to the crime and that Eva Dugan has constantly maintained her innocence to the last." they told a gathering of reporters, hoping their words would reach the authorities, "we feel the facts and evidence rendered in the case are not sufficient to warrant the supreme penalty or sacrifice, therefore we pray that you will grant clemency in the case."

The sanity hearing got under was as scheduled, and, according to the Arizona Daily Star, McFarland conducted "a withering cross-examination of witnesses called by the Dugan counsel and entered upon the taking of testimony for the state with only one sworn witness, a prison guard in charge of the condemned woman, who was not called to the stand."

It was all for nothing. A jury of twelve men judged Eva sane. With three days left to live, she was little more than a walking corpse. The public continued to agitate on both sides of the issue, those loudest in favour of sparing Eva's life. "I say keep her away from society, but don't hang on her circumstantial evidence," wrote Mrs J.J.Butterfield of Coolidge, Arizona, to the Star the day after the sanity hearing. "Why, the poor, half-witted wretch, she is to be pitied, for she surely is demented."

As the controversy raged, Eva-very much in command of her ego - removed her shell-rimmed spectacles, clasped her hands behind her back, poked out her chin, and grinned (or smirked?) at newspaper photographers. The photo is that of an obese, middle-aged woman not without vanity. Her flaming red hair is nearly coifed. Covering her bulk is a paisley dress, sleeveless and stylishly cut in the day's fashion. Her neck is accented by a bauble dangling to her midsection. Ribbons adorn her shoes. Her appearance is in stark contrast to the bars looming in the windows behind her. It would be Eva's last formal portrait.

The day of reckoning arrived, and Gilbert Cosulich, writing for the February 21, 1930, issue of the Tucson Daily Citizen, said, "Jauntly swinging her guard's hand as does a maid who goes a-Maying with her swain, Eva Dugan this morning approached her rendezvous with death with a light step and a lighter laugh."

Writing for the same paper, Harold G. Wilson was only slightly less romantic. "She walked to her doom with the courage and wanton abandon which marked her activities during the night, when she smoked cigarettes, played cards, chatted freely with visitors, and mildly and nonchalantly affirmed her innocence."

Whether "jauntily swinging" or expressing "wanton abandon," Eva may well have wanted to cheat the gallows by taking her own life. Two women prisoners who refused to reveal their names told an unknown reporter for the Miami, Arizona, Silver Belt that Eva admitted having in her possession a razor and a bottle of poison. "Would you want a rope or would you do something else?" She is reputed to have asked the women. According to the story, the woman encouraged her to face her execution bravely.

Acting on a tip, probably from one or both of the women, Warden Lorenzo Wright transferred Eva to the condemned cell at about one o'clock in the morning. The razor was not reported found, but a search of the cell turned up a two-ounce bottle of "deadly poison" bearing the label of a Florence drugstore. The gallows would not be cheated. Eva would remain alive another four hours until the hangman's noose was tightened.

Sometime during the night, a telegram arrived from South Bend, Indiana. It read:

My dear mother: Be brave... God is with you. All my love. I will pray for you always.

Sent by the condemned woman's daughter, it was the first communication Eva had had from her offspring since her troubles began. It brought her as close to the breaking point as anything would. Still, the woman put forth a stolid demeanor. The small, drab room on the second floor would be used on the morning of February 21, 1930.

The room had been built to accommodate a scaffold, the condemned criminal, those people necessary for the execution, and twenty-five spectators. But things were different that morning. One newspaper account suggests sixty-five spectators gathered in the room. Another puts the count at seventy-five. Yet another insists eighty people packed themselves into a room designed to hold less than a third of that number. Whichever count is accurate, it is certain that the onlookers - whose intentions were many and varied - would not only satisfy a morbid curiosity but would carry away memories they would take to the grave.

According to the United Press (UP), Eva donned a "Skillen shroud" she had sewn in her prison cell. Accompanied by a guard, she climbed thirteen steps from her cell to the death chamber. Then, with a guard on each side of her, she stepped the few feet to the scaffold. Her shell-rimmed spectacles were removed and a black hood was placed over her head. Warden Wright, according to the Associated Press, clasped her hand out and said, "God bless you, Eva."

A few seconds later, a steel trap was sprung, and everything went wrong. Eva's body plummeted to the floor below. Evas' head did not. In a split second, it had detached from the torso and then was flung to the floor. It rolled across the room, splattering blood on the feet of horrified spectators. One report says four women fainted. Everyone there was shocked and stunned.

Eva Dugan is the only woman to have been executed in Arizona. She was the first woman executed west of the Mississippi River and the twenty-third woman executed in the United States.

June 12, 1930, under the headline "Undesirable Publicity," the Arizona Daily Star lamented a new song titled "The Hanging of Eva Dugan" as unfavourable to the good name of Arizona. "According to Variety, the leading theatrical journal," said the article, "this lyric lament has attained remarkable sales."

Tenacious even in death, Eva would not go away quietly. After the decapitation of Eva Dugan during her execution, the state of Arizona replaced hanging with the lethal gas chamber as a method of execution.

The Story of Sylvia Likens: A Young Girl Tortured, Abused, And Murdered By Gertrude Baniszewski


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