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  • Writer's pictureVanny Nunez

Eva Dugan - Execution gone wrong!

Classification: Murderer

Characteristics: Robbery

Number of victims: 1 +

Date of murder: January 1927

Date of arrest: March 4, 1927

Date of birth: 1878

Victim profile: Andrew J. Mathis, 65 (chicken rancher)

Method of murder: Beating with an axe

Location: Pima County, Arizona, USA

Status: Executed by hanging at Florence on February 21, 1930, at 5:02 am(the first woman to be legally executed in Arizona)

About the case:

Eva Dugan was a convicted of murderer the murder of Andrew J. Mathis. She was sentenced to execution by hanging at the state prison in Florence, Arizona, which resulted in her decapitation and influenced the state of Arizona to replace hanging with the lethal gas chamber as a method of execution.

Childhood and early life:

Born in 1876, Eva Dugan somehow managed to survive a difficult and unstable childhood to become an adult with few skills, and even fewer expectations. She had been married at sixteen and bore two children. Eva’s husband abandoned her and the kids, leaving her destitute. Dugan relocated to Juneau, Territory of Alaska, after trekking north during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896–1899 and became a cabaret singer and worked as a prostitute to support herself and her children.

It was later discovered that she had been married 5 times but every single one of her husbands had disappeared. This led people to conclude that AJ Mathi was probably not her only victim. With limited technology and resources in the 1930s, she was never charged or tried for the other disappearances.

The crime:

By January of 1927, Eva was in her early 50s and after her beauty faded with age, she started working in Arizona as a housekeeper for Mr. Andrew J. Mathis, a wealthy reclusive rancher from Tucson in Pima county. Mathis was demanding, cranky, and cheap. Mathis and Eva butted heads frequently during the two months that she was in his employ. Mathis even accused Eva of trying to poison him! Dugan also admitted that she had sex with Mathis on a weekly basis and performed prostitution at the ranch. According to her, if Mathis saw any of the men on the street that he thought was all right he would call them off and tell them to come on out to the house. She would perform sex acts for three dollars and give Mathis fifty cents from each transaction.

An acquaintance of Mathis’ said that he’d been present when the man had finally given Eva her walking papers. Mathis had told her in no uncertain terms to leave the ranch and never return.

A few days after his friend had overheard him banishing Eva from the ranch forever, a group of Mathis’ neighbors reported him missing. The neighbors had become suspicious when Eva offered to sell them some of Mathis’ livestock. She claimed that Mathis had departed for California, and had turned all of his property over to her. A notorious tightwad, Mathis wasn’t a man who would have willingly turned over his property to a woman who’d only worked for him for a couple of months.

Not long after Mathis went missing, Eva also vanished. A search of the ranch by local authorities didn’t turn up a body, It was months before Eva was finally discovered living in White Plains, New York. Returning to Arizona to face auto theft charges, Eva was convicted. The judge sentenced her to a three to six-year term in the state penitentiary.

Nearly a year after Mathis had disappeared, a camper on the property near the ranch noticed an odd depression in the soil. The camper scraped away some of the topsoil, and after a minimum of digging, he unearthed the skeleton of a man. Tattered clothing and hair on the skull indicated that the body discovered in the shallow grave was that of A.J. Mathis.

Once Mathis’ body had been found, Eva had some explaining to do; however, she preferred denials to explanations. She told cops that if she had been responsible for Mathis’ death and subsequent burial, she’d have buried him deep enough so that he’d never have been found. Eva finally settled on a story and stuck with it. She alleged that she’d met a young man named Jack outside of a local restaurant. The two started a conversation, and Eva told him that he could get a job on Mathis’ ranch.

Jack went directly to the ranch, where he was employed on the spot. Unfortunately, his first day on the job didn’t quite turn out the way he had planned. Maybe things would have been different if Jack had known how to handle the basics. Mathis got enraged when Jack failed to milk a cow as he’d been directed and struck him. The young man quickly recovered from the blow and hit Mathis, who fell to the ground and did not get up.

Eva insisted that she and Jack had tried unsuccessfully to revive Mathis. She also claimed that she wanted to go for aid but that Jack told her if she didn’t help him get Mathis’ body into the car so he could dispose of it, he’d leave her to face the music on her own. Eva’s story had more than a few holes in it – the biggest one being Jack. Not everyone was convinced that the young man had ever actually existed because only one person was ever found who could corroborate Eva’s statement.

Eva Dugan's personality:

To pay for her own coffin, Dugan gave interviews to the press for $1.00 each and sold embroidered handkerchiefs that she knit while she was imprisoned. She also made for her hanging, a silk beaded "jazz dress," but later relented and wore a cheap dress as she was worried that her silk wrapper "might get mussed." She remained so upbeat that Time magazine called her "Cheerful Eva" in a March 3, 1930 story about her execution.

Trial and execution:

Eva was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. The only thing that could have saved her from execution would have been a successful insanity plea. Two doctors testified that her mental state had been compromised due to the “inroads made by a disease she contracted more than 30 years ago.” Eva was syphilitic. Despite the medical testimony, a jury determined that Eva was indeed sane, and plans for her execution continued.

Eva remained awake during all of her last night on earth, in company with the prison chaplain and a few friends from outside the prison and another woman prisoner. She ate a dozen fried oysters and two boiled eggs last night. Her order of three T-bone steaks and two lamb chops for breakfast this morning remained untouched.

Eva remained stoic as she walked to the place of her execution. She even recited an ironic bit of doggerel: “We came into this world all naked and bare; Where we are going, the Lord only knows where; If we are good fellows here; We’ll be good fellows there.’’

Given an opportunity to make a final statement as the back cap was adjusted, she merely shook her head to the negative.

Warden Wright clasped her hand.

“God bless you, Eva” he said.

“Goodbye, Daddy Wright,” she said. Those were her last words.

The execution was witnessed by approximately 100 persons who crowded into a small chamber that provided adequate accommodations for only 50. As it turned out, it was fortunate that Eva took the warden’s advice and didn’t wear her handmade silk shroud to the hanging. Due to a miscalculation on the executioner’s part when she fell through the trap at the end of a rope, her neck wasn’t broken; she was decapitated! Eva’s head rolled within a few feet of the witnesses – all of whom fled in terror.

Newspaper cutout of Eva Dugan's execution

She was buried in a Florence cemetery in a beaded, jazz-age silk dress she had made while awaiting execution, and had paid for her own coffin by selling handkerchiefs she embroidered in her cell.

On February 21, 1930, Eva Dugan was the first – and last – woman to be legally hanged in the state of Arizona. Three years after the horror of Eva’s botched execution, Arizona switched from the rope to the gas chamber.

For more detailed information on this case, listen to our 2 part podcast episode of Scott Falater and visit our sources listed below.


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