Alice Matthews died clutching a broken hat pin, a clue to her struggle with an assailant who strangled her on a south Minneapolis street just before midnight on March 23, 1912.
Matthews, a 20-year-old flour packer at the Pillsbury mills, had been downtown with two women friends that Saturday night for a show at the Isis Theater, followed by a stop for some chop suey. Scrubbing plans to stay at her friend’s house that night, Matthews had boarded a southbound Cedar Avenue streetcar just after 11 p.m. and made it within a half-block of her home at 3547 S. 20th Av.
Fifteen-year-old Vernie Larsen was the first to hear her scream, poking his head out his open second-floor bedroom window.
“The girl cried out, ‘Let me go! Let me go and I won’t tell,’ ” the boy’s mother, Hedwick Larsen, told reporters. “The man answered: ‘No, you won’t tell.’ ”
Hedwick told Vernie to run next door and tell the neighbors (who had a phone) to call police. An officer came by but saw nothing. Sometime after midnight, Jennie Matthews, Alice’s 19-year-old sister, came home and her skirt brushed a body whom she assumed was a passed-out drunk. She didn’t bother to mention it to her father, a city sewer foreman.
It wasn’t until 7 the next morning that a neighbor found Alice’s body on the street, “disfigured and mutilated,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported on the front page. “Her lips were swollen from a blow in the mouth, her neck and throat were scratched and torn, her clothing was in tatters.”
Veteran cops considered it the most brutal crime Minneapolis had seen in the city’s 45 years. And more than a century later, we still don’t know who strangled and likely sexually assaulted Alice Matthews.
“It was considered one of the greatest unsolved murders in Minneapolis history. It horrified the population in the same way the Jacob Wetterling case has horrified us,” said Erik Rivenes, who produced a two-part podcast on Matthews’ murder earlier this year on his mostnotorious.com website (tinyurl.com/AliceMatthewspodcast). The murder dominated headlines in the spring of 1912 until the Titanic sank three weeks later.
Last fall, Matthews family descendants placed a headstone on Alice’s previously unmarked grave at Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, less than a mile north on Cedar Avenue from the scene of her murder. She’s buried beside her mother, Mary Blewett Matthews, who died of typhoid fever 11 years before Alice. Jennie’s grandchildren said she never talked about her sister’s death.
From the start, the Tribune reported, police were “baffled” and there was “not even the slenderest thread of evidence” leading to the killer. That didn’t stop them from arresting several suspects. Their names were splashed all over the papers though they were never charged.
There was a man with suspicious scratches on his face and neck, possibly from Alice’s hat pin. He said he was scratched in a fight with a man before the murder, and his alibi held up. Police arrested another man with facial scratches, but released him too.
Officers found a bloody shirt and torn coat under a streetcar viaduct near Fort Snelling, where bloody underwear was found in a barracks locker. They arrested a soldier who had been missing for a few days but were satisfied he’d spent that night with a woman in St. Paul as he said.
A married railroad executive who lived next door to the Matthews family was arrested on first-degree murder after a pastor passed along two tips from members of his congregation. But a grand jury declined to indict.
The owner of the chop suey joint where Alice and her friends ate that night told police of a man ogling them in their booth. A few days later, a mysterious man either committed suicide or was shot with a revolver found between his feet; a year later, police said he’d taken steps to mask who he was and they still hadn’t identified him beyond the letters “LEE” sewn on his linens.
One suspect did confess to the crime — four times. One-time bicycle thief Alfred Driskell, 19, had been on parole from the Red Wing reformatory at the time of the murder, and he kept saying that the did it, including once to cops in Chicago.
Police kept finding holes in Driskell’s stories and insisted he was disturbed and seeking attention. But more than three years after the murder, they finally arrested him in the murder and let him walk them through the crime scene. A three-expert panel of doctors ruled Driskell was insane and committed him to Rochester State Hospital.
After one of Driskell’s confessions, a reporter asked Hennepin County Sheriff Otto Langum what the latest confession amounted to. “Something less than 30 cents,” the sheriff said.
“Driskell likely didn’t do it because the detectives who were desperate to solve [the case] could have easily scapegoated him,” said Rivenes, the podcaster. “But as for who it was, I haven’t a clue.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.