By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register
June 28, 2014
The story begins Aug. 7, 1917.
Des Moines Police Officer George W. Mattern walked his beat near Court Avenue and Third Street in downtown
Des Moines. It was a rough part of town in those days, filled with factories, warehouses and taverns for the men who worked at them.
Mattern heard gunshots nearby. Some reports say the 300 block of Locust Street. Other reports say the 300 block of Walnut Street. Either way, Mattern, as police officers do, ran toward the danger.
A man had robbed a bar, and there was a shootout. Mattern caught up to the robber in an alley. The robber then shot it out with Mattern and another police officer.
The robber shot Mattern in the belly. His injuries were grave, even by today’s standards.
A bullet lodged in his spine, and doctors couldn’t remove it. Mattern lived — for a time. A month after he was shot, he and his wife and two daughters, one an infant and the other about 5 years old, went to visit his uncle in Carroll.
But the bullet killed Mattern. It just took its time doing the job. He died April 12, 1918. His death certificate lists “peritonitis” as the cause — infection produced by the robber’s bullet.
Mattern was the third police officer to die by gunfire in the city’s history. Yet no one was ever tried for the crime. His is the only unsolved homicide involving the killing of a Des Moines police officer.
Technically, the case is still active, said Sgt. Jason Halifax, Des Moines police spokesman. But it isn’t as if there’s a 21st-century detective assigned to the file, he said.
“We don’t get a lot of tips on cases five years old, let alone almost 100,” Halifax said.
The case is beyond cold. It’s at absolute zero.
That brings us to 2014. Anthony Garza is an art teacher at Carlisle Middle School who lives on the south side of Des Moines and has always been interested in true crime stories.
For some reason unknown even to him, Mattern’s story stuck with him. He began digging into the case.
Garza isn’t trying to solve the crime, though that would be a nice result. That’s probably impossible. Not only is Mattern dead, but so are his wife and daughters. Police questioned at least four men in the case, but none was ever charged. All those men are dead, too, and probably anyone who ever knew them.
That is, in part, what tugs at Garza. Mattern is largely forgotten.
“A family lost a son, a brother, a father and husband,” Garza said. “And Des Moines lost a protector. We all think of ourselves as important today, but after enough time, we all fade away.”
Garza says this with a lump in his throat. He’s genuinely moved by Mattern’s sacrifice and the cruel reality of the temporary nature of human memory.
He’s also intrigued by the mystery. Garza spends a lot of time at the State Historical Society of Iowa’s library looking at old maps of Des Moines. He’s trying to pinpoint the exact location of the shooting.
When Garza walks along Third Street and Court Avenue today, he tries to picture the city as it was nearly 100 years ago. It was a time when both cars and horses jammed streets with streetcars and people.
“I think about how they took Mattern from downtown to Mercy,” he said. “Today, we think about that as a drive of just a few minutes, but what impediments did they face then? How hard was it to get there?”
Garza digs into every detail of Mattern’s life. Mattern’s widow, Grace, never remarried. The daughters married. One moved out to California. Both died long ago.
Mattern had been a Des Moines policeman for only two years. Before that, Garza discovered, he worked at Black Label Cigar Co., formerly at East 12th Street.
Mattern is supposed to be buried in St. Ambrose Cemetery, the Catholic part of Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines. But when Garza visited, he found graves for Mattern’s father, mother and brother, but not the fallen policeman.
Garza has even researched the Temp Brewery, which made its headquarters in Des Moines during Mattern’s day. Garza looked into it because some newspaper stories (there were at least four daily papers in Des Moines in 1917) referred to the location of the bar where the shootout took place as “a Temp bar.” Others spell “temp” with a lowercase “T.”
Is the Temp bar connected to the brewery or is it the British interpretation of a temp bar, which means a bar that serves soft drinks? Garza figures it’s the latter, given the temperance movement in the United States. But he isn’t sure.
The variances in vernacular are part of the journey in reconstructing the story. Some documents use the Old English spelling “clews” for what we would call “clues” today.
It’s all shorthand of the day, of course. A person reading a Des Moines newspaper in 1917 would know what that meant. But 97 years later, it’s a muddled echo of memories long evaporated.
So Garza digs. None of this will get him an award or a raise at work. He’s working on the project this summer while preparing lesson plans for his classes in the fall.
Still, Garza believes someone ought to remember George Mattern. It might as well be him.
But there is another story here, about a man motivated to follow his curiosities. Teachers talk to their students about being lifelong learners. Garza is out there doing it.
DANIEL P. FINNEY is a general assignment reporter who tells stories of Iowa and Iowans. Contact him at dafinney @dmreg.com and 515-284-8144.