Account of 1904 Murder

Duluth Evening Herald

September 8, 1904


Death Sentence May End Mob Law In Kentucky County.

Robert Mathley Convicted of Slaying Man and Woman.

Owensboro, Ky.. Sept. 12. — If Robert A. Mathley pays the death penalty, now assessed against him by a jury, for the murder of Emma Watkins and James Gregson there will occur the first legal execution to take place in Daviess county in fifty years the last preceding hanging having been that of Curtis Richardson, who was executed Nov. 1, 1854 for the murder of William Lanifer.

During the half century between legal executions in this county is a record of lynchings and mob violence that in attributed largely to the unwillingness of juries to inflict the death penalty.

Mathley’s crime was one of extraordinary circumstances and strange surroundings. Emma Watkins was the object of his jealousy because she spurned his attentions, although he had heaped upon her brutal treatment that repulsed her love for him.

His defense, that of insanity, developed some of the strangest actions for a sane man— which the jury decided him to be — in the criminal history of this section.

Following the murder of Emma Watkins and James Gregson there was much surprise that the law was to be allowed to take its appointed course, so imbued was the public with the idea that no jury would exact the fullest penalty for the crime. However, the attitude of Judge J. T. Birkhead and Prosecuting Attorney Ben D. Ringo, and the energy with which they prosecuted, placed a restraint upon the public.

Robert Mathley’s actions prior to and following the commission of the crime that sent his sweetheart and his supposed rival into eternity form a study for the alienist.

Mathley is a widower, 43 years old. He was married to a sister-in-law of the sheriff of Daviess county, I. W. Short, who died in the early summer of 1903. Prior to that Mathley was a prosperous contracting carpenter.

Coincident with the death of Mathley’s wife there came to Owensboro, from Grayson county, Emma Watkins, a daughter of Gannoway Watkins, a farmer. She became an inmate of the Mathley home, engaging to care for Mathley’s invalid mother and his two children, a boy of 11 years and a girl of 8, for a weekly wage.

Mathley’s grief at the loss of his wife was apparently enough to wreck his mind; but at the trial it was shown that within a month he was engaged with boon companions in serenading expeditions, and that he soon developed an affection for Emma Watkins. Evidence showed that the girl was subjected to restraints that finally became irksome. Mathley held her a prisoner, practically, in his home. She bore it in silence. The small stipend due her was unpaid and her clothing became threadbare.

Finally, the spirit of the girl was aroused and she left the Mathley home, going, on the advice of her cousin, Will Gregson, a brother of the man whom Mathley later murdered, to the home of Gregson’s sister, Mrs. Will Warren.

In the meantime James Gregson, as well as Will Gregson, had become infatuated with the girl. At the Warren home the three, Mathley and the two Gregsons, frequently called.

Two weeks before the killing Mathley made two attempts to commit suicide. It was stated and believed that he took enough morphine to kill several people. At the trial, however, it developed that Mathley’s supposed attempts at suicide failed to make him ill.

June 25 Mathley called at the Warren home, after a spree of two weeks, and saw the Watkins girl. He insisted that she marry him and she refused. Mathley slept on the rear porch of a grocery store, where he was found by a patrolman early the following morning.

That night, Sunday, June 26, occurred the murder for which he is now sentenced to pay the death penalty Mathley went to the Warren home and was urging the girl again to marry him when James Gregson entered the house.

Without a word of warning Mathley drew a revolver and fired twice, the first shot striking Gregson in the abdomen and causing his death two days later. The second shot claimed the Watkins girl as a victim, the ball penetrating her heart and passing out beneath the shoulder blade.

Mathley sat down beside the body of the girl and, taking her head upon his knee, waved his revolver to and fro over her inanimate form. Twice he raised the pistol to his breast to take his own life, but each time failed to pull the trigger.

Officers were soon on the scene, and to them Mathley declared he intended forcing them to kill him, but that he would not shoot himself.

The following day in the county jail, Mathley’s mind was a blank. He apparently had no recollection of his crime. He knew fully the details of the happenings of his life between the time of his wife’s death and the slaying of his victims, but of the homicide itself he remembered nothing.

During that afternoon he attempted suicide by plunging his head against the bars of his cell. His action attracted the attention of jail attendants, and an examination showed that his desperate efforts to end his life had borne no result beyond a number of very slight bruises to the scalp.

Mathley is a singer. It is the custom at the Daviess county jail to conduct religious services on Sunday, and in these devotions the murderer was a leader, reading words and music with apparent ease. At these time there was no indication that Mathley was of unsound mind. He was bright, intelligent and careless in his mood. Sometimes he became moody, but was never unable to discuss any matter intelligently except the killing of Emma Watkins and James Gregson. On that one great point he failed to remember anything.

The defense of Mathley was one of the most able ever made in the behalf of the life of an accused man in this county. Financially unable to procure competent counsel. Judge J. T. Birkhead assigned to the case three of the ablest attorneys practicing In his court. The maze of idiosyncrasies produced in the effort to convince the jury that Mathley was insane was a surprise even to the prosecution, and gave rise to the belief in the minds of many that Mathley was really unaccountable for his actions on the night of the murder.

Shortly after the killing of Mathley’s victims his mother died. Disease had fastened upon her, but grief hastened the end. Brothers of the murderer sought permission to bury the remains in the lot at the cemetery purchased by Robert Mathley, but he refused. His children, however, being left without protection, Mathley accepted the proposition of a local charitable institutions to provide a home for them, and with all the evidences of sanity, executed the proper authorization for their adoption in order that they might be given a home.

Among the many things done by Mathley as indicating a deranged mentality, was that of nailing a store counter to the floor upside down. He was a clever mechanic, and prior to the death of his wife, erected several frame buildings in the city. And yet, after designing and making one of the finest pieces of woodwork in the city, he placed it in a store and attached it to the floor with the base upward.

Mathley, in jail, was a different individual from the Mathley in court. In confinement he conversed intelligently upon any subject save that of his crime; reference to that gave rise to morose broodings and a retirement into a shell of reticence. But when arraigned before a jury he wore the expressionless face of an imbecile, with dull, lusterless eye and emotionless features. For two days he sat without speaking while witnesses and attorneys related the story of the homicide.

When the final evidence was submitted and the jury took up its deliberations, Mathley entered the court room with a different countenance. Where heretofore he had been unable to recognize acquaintances, he then knew dozens of these in the court room, speaking to them and calling them by their names. Where during the trial he sat with staring eyes, he was now keen and watchful.

Mathley watched closely the jury as the written verdict was passed to the clerk. As the words condemning him to the gallows fell from the lips of the clerk, the prisoner started perceptibly, and the old look of imbecility that had marked his demeanor during the progress of the trial, again settled upon him.

A motion for a new trial was made and was taken under advisement by the court

It was then seen that the question of Robert Mathley’s insanity was a matter of supreme interest to the people. Public sentiment had taken the position that the death sentence must be returned as an evidence that there was protection to be found in the courts and juries of Daviess county, but public sentiment doubted that Robert Mathley was sane and there grew immediately after the verdict feeling that Mathey should be given another chance in which it might be fully and without doubt established that he is either sane or insane.

Mingled with the feeling that an error may have been made is the satisfaction generally expressed, that the time has come in the history of the county that the courts are competent to give the people juries that will enforce the letter of the law.

In the public mind the question of Robert Mathley’s mental condition is as yet unsettled. The most weighty fact with the public is that at last the reign of mob law, that has sacrificed so many lives in its passion, is broken. For half a century the only murderers to suffer death for their crimes have been executed by the mob, and law-abiding citizens arc rejoicing that the period of summary vengeance it at an end.