DICK MATTOX: FRONTIER CHARACTER
He Gave “Eccentric” A Whole New Meaning
By Ernie Bulow
Though Richard M. Mattox was born in Wisconsin in 1873, I have always thought of him as the ultimate symbol of Gallup in the first half of the twentieth century. He was a man of many parts.
And many of those parts were about how this spectacular figure made a living for himself and his family. In the 1910 federal census, Mattox lists himself as “stockman.” In the 1920 counting he decided he was an “Indian trader,” and by 1930 he settled on “tourist guide.”
In fact, Dick was all of those things all the time and pursued half a dozen other careers, as well. Few of them involved keeping regular hours, wearing a uniform, or being in the same place every day – not even the same city or state.
One exception was his job as a night policeman for the city of Gallup. In 1919, during the famous flu epidemic that killed so many people, Mattox was quarantined away from his infected family for five weeks according to the Carbon City News.
He also served as house detective for the El Rancho Hotel because of his outrageous mustache, his cowboy garb, and his gift of gab. He was a one-man tourist attraction.
He was a regular during the early years of the Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial, hanging out with the fun-loving boys (J. B. Tanner, Mike Kirk and friends) rather than the local businessmen. He had a favorite shirt that was known to everyone, which he wore exclusively at Ceremonial. It was painted with Southwestern symbols all over, with a big covered wagon on the back.
The man’s biography is so tantalizing. A local paper ran this little notice in 1911: “Dick Mattox is home again after making a trip down into Mexico. Dick went to Juarez . . . He went down there to look after a turquoise mine for some parties who were contemplating purchase.”
For years the experts on Indian jewelry have said that there was virtually no activity in turquoise at that early date. It turns out that Mattox was known to the Navajos as “Turquoise Dick.”
One of the more interesting aspects of Gallup life in the early years of the last century was the outright warfare between the Republicans and the Democrats that makes today’s politics look relatively sane. The powerful Gregory Page, who owned extensive property in early Gallup, was the leader of the Republican faction and the lawyer, Arthur T. Hannett, challenged him by injecting life into the Democrats.
Hannett, who became mayor of Gallup and then Governor of New Mexico, always insisted that Dick Mattox’s notorious arson trial in 1915 was politically motivated. Turquoise Dick was just too independent and flamboyant for the Republican taste. Governor Hannett, in his memoir Sagebrush Lawyer, called him “One of the most colorful individuals of McKinley County.” Hannett was Dick’s defense attorney, but he only gives Dick and the trial two pages in his book.
It seems that a man named Jack Scott, one of Mattox’s “runnin’ buddies” was the son of Republican heavyweight N. M. Scott, part of Greg Page’s crowd. This Jack Scott is a problematic character, but apparently a fun-loving sort. He was an epileptic with a long rap sheet. As the newspaper put it, he was a pal of Dick Mattox, “with whom he pulled off several little stunts around these diggings.” The elder Scott had come to hate Dick with a passion.
It isn’t clear how the next part of the story went down, but here is what’s reported. Every year the Mexican city of Juarez had a race season. One of Mattox’s major sources of income was apparently gambling, which he must have been good at.
Every year he would spend some time in El Paso for the races, “peddling a huge quantity of Navajo blankets and jewelry,” as Hannett put it. While there he got a call that his house had burned to the ground. No mention is made of his family. Luckily, Mattox was with New Mexico governor William C. McDonald at the Juarez races the day of the fire.
McDonald, the first governor of New Mexico, was a Democrat and sported a big walrus mustache himself, though it didn’t hold a candle to Dick’s. He was an important figure during the Mexican Revolution, carrying on the border fight with Pancho Villa.
Mattox went home, collected the insurance on his house and went on with his colorful life. Then Jack Scott came forward to say that Mattox had paid him $100 to torch his place. Scott went to prison and Mattox went to trial. Nobody could explain why Jack confessed since there was never any suspicion about the fire.
True to Gallup’s character, the editor of the Gallup Independent, W. J. Hanns, published some inflammatory stories. It was reported that his statement was so worded, “that a most serious charge was made regarding the integrity of the prosecution, it being stated that political influence was being used in an underhanded manner towards the defendant.”
Apparently that was an understatement. In a waggish editorial the paper went on to say the jury from the Mattox trial is expected to get together and “on some pleasant evening in the near future, after they are thoroughly rested up after the trying case they have just heard, then and there select the kind of rope and the time and place for hanging the editor of the Gallup Independent, because he started the riot which caused the jury to be tied up.”
After a rather fiery and sometimes fairly absurd trial, the jury was hung up, eight to four for acquittal. The prosecutor moved the proceedings to Bernalillo Country and added the charge of railroad track obstruction, presumably because of the riot.
On re-trial Dick Mattox was convicted of arson. Lawyer Hannett had tried to get his client to cut his mustache off and buy a bowler hat. Dick said he’d rather spend his life in prison.
Hannett went directly to Governor McDonald, who had been with Mattox in Juarez, presented a basketful of evidence that epileptics were prone to delusional episodes, and the governor pardoned Mattox. A few years later Jack Scott was moved to a facility for the criminally insane.
Mattox would buy horses on the Navajo reservation and take them to Texas. He would buy mules on the eastern plains of New Mexico for the mines in Gallup. As a young man he had traveled with Wild West shows with his pal Will Rodgers and he had been in the movies as an extra and stunt man. In the early days horseback was still a major method of transportation in New Mexico.
As a horse trader and Indian trader, Mattox was well-known on the reservation. In 1915 he was asked to “post-sit” for E. H. Davis so the Davises could go to the fair in Farmington. While Dick was gone his favorite sorrel horse was stolen from one of the livery stables in Gallup. He was notified of the theft but he couldn’t leave his post. He thought the pony was gone, but a Navajo came into the store a couple of days later and said he’d seen the horse running wild. Not long after that, the horse amazingly, at one o’clock in the morning, found his way to Dick who pieced together the tale.
A Navajo, in town to sample some bootleg (prohibition was on at the time) had helped himself to the horse, though he said later he had no idea it belonged to Turquoise Dick. When he sobered up all he could think of was some Mattox revenge so he turned the animal loose.
All the Navajos knew whose horse it was so they sort of herded it along until it arrived at the trading post his owner was at. Such was the regard for Dick Mattox, and such was his reputation.
In 1917 there was a short notice in the paper that Dick Mattox had just sold one of his “modern” houses on Knob Hill to a local doctor. “Mr. Mattox has only two more for sale.” Yet another occupation.
On one occasion the press noted that Mattox had been fined $25 because he “beat his fist against the face of L. E. Gould, the alleged editor of the Gallup Herald.” Those were the days.
In 1935 M. L. Woodard noted in his paper Southwest Tourist News, that “old timer and dude wrangler” Dick Mattox had passed through town. His wife had recently inherited a farm in Michigan and Mattox said he was “suffering from comfort.”
About the same time the Albuquerque Journal noted the old pioneer had been robbed at gunpoint of $40 in the Santa Fe bar in Gallup. I keep wondering what else I don’t know about this colorful character.