Sunday, August 9, 2015

The life and death of Will Mathis

My brother-in-law, Alan, recently shared with me a document he found in some of his Mississippi grandmother’s belongings. In great shape other than a few torn and folded edges, this first person account of a man named Will Mathis appeared to have been typed more than 100 years ago.

As it turned out, this Mathis guy had quite the story to tell.

According to his statement, he arrived in Lafayette, Mississippi in 1897 and married the daughter of his liquor-distilling boss. He was clearly not an ideal husband and wrote, “I cannot remember the times she has sit by my side and begged with all the love and tender feelings that a wife could have for a husband to quit my wicked ways, she has offered to work in the field, if I would let whisky alone, she never would get mad.”

As I continued reading, it became clear Mathis’s offenses went far beyond his whisky drinking. In 1901, he was involved in the murder of brothers who were federal officers who had come to serve him with a warrant. Sadly, John A. Montgomery and Hugh Montgomery were shot, dismembered, and then burned beyond recognition when Mathis’s home was set on fire in a lame attempt to destroy evidence of the crime.

I turned to Google to see if there were any records online of Will Mathis and I was not disappointed.

The November 21, 1901 issue of the Oxford Eagle reported:
“One of the most horrible double murders that ever occurred in North Mississippi was committed near Delay, a small village 12 miles south east of Oxford, Saturday night, in which two brave and faithful officers were the victims. Special Deputy United States Marshal John. Montgomery of this place, and Hugh Montgomery of Pontotoc, left Oxford about 3 o’clock that afternoon with a warrant for the arrest of Will Mathis, a desperado, for illicit distilling. The arrest was made, and the trio were supposed to have made the arrangements to return to town.

Pistol shots were heard in that direction at frequent intervals during the night. About 4 o’clock Sunday morning Mathis’ house was discovered on fire, but when Messr. Dan Welch and Robuck, reached the scene the house was reduce to ashes, and the charred remains of the brave officers were found.

The news was received here about 9:30 o’clock Sunday morning and the town was thrown into intense excitement and a large posse left at once for the scene of the horrible deed. Coroner Turner at once impaneled a jury and began the taking of testimony.

The scene was appalling. Brave men were moved to tears as they viewed the work of the assassins. The cremated bodies were removed from the dying embers. Mr. John A. Montgomery was identified by a small piece of clothing and a pocketknife and Mr. Hugh Montgomery was identified by a gold tooth.”
Mathis, his father-in-law, and two other men were accused of committing the crime and, although Mathis claimed he was innocent, he and another man were found guilty and hung in Oxford, Mississippi on Sept. 24, 1902. 

Click to Enlarge

Account of the hanging of Will Mathis
and Orlando Lester in the
San Francisco Call on September 25, 1902

Mathis’s father-in-law, Whit Owens, was likely the one who was actually responsible for the murders and subsequent fire although he was eventually acquitted. He was later found guilty of the murder of a witness in another crime and sentenced to life in prison. After serving only 10 years in the Rankin County Prison Farm near Jackson, Mississippi, he was released for "meritorious conduct in preventing the escape of a fellow inmate" and lived with his family until his death in 1928.

Why would Alan’s grandmother have this document in her possession? The whole story became so notorious, reproductions of his account were sold throughout the area as a souvenir.

It’s likely Alan’s grandmother purchased this somewhere in Mississippi as a young girl and saved it all these years.

Even though this 100-year-old document isn’t an original, just like the story, it's as fascinating today as it was back during the turn of the century.

You can read more about this entire case on or explore what happened next to the Owens and Mathis families on

For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website. 

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