Starwich, Matthew (1879-1941)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 11/23/2016
  • Essay 20208

Matt Starwich was a colorful King County sheriff who left a wealth of stories to delight historians. He first rose to prominence as a deputy sheriff in the coal-mining town of Ravensdale in southeast King County in the early 1900s. His larger-than-life feats in catching crooks soon made him something of a celebrity, and he was elected King County sheriff in 1920. As sheriff he kept right on going, a bulldog for justice whose bandit-busting exploits were copiously covered by the press and eagerly read by its readers. Forced by term limits to retire in 1927, Starwich returned to the force in 1935 as a jail superintendent, where he served until shortly before his death in 1941. 

Dive Bombing

Mateo Starcevis -- Matt Starwich was the American version of his name -- was born in 1879 near Fiume, then in Austria-Hungry, but now (2016) in the country of Croatia. He immigrated to Chicago in the early 1890s and became an American citizen in 1894. He later moved to Marshfield, Oregon, where he married his wife, Hannah Bradshaw (1878?-1942). He and his wife first appear in King County in the 1900 U.S. Census taken that June, and if they weren't living in Ravensdale then, they moved there soon after. Over the next decade they had two children: Raymond "Ray" (1904-1943) and Loretta (1910-2002).

Starwich worked in the local coalmines during his first years in Ravensdale. In the summer of 1902 he joined a local posse hunting Harry Tracy (1877-1902), an escaped convict who killed six men in the Northwest during his two months on the lam. Starwich's work impressed the Board of County Commissioners, which soon made him a deputy sheriff of Ravensdale and the surrounding area. "Surrounding area" is a broad term here. His territory covered 700 square miles, extending from the eastern edge of King County along a line a few miles south of present-day Interstate 90, and west almost to the city limits of Tacoma and Seattle. It included a number of small settlements (Eagle Gorge, Kerriston, and Taylor are three now-vanished examples), all with saloons, "most of them dives of the worst character" ("Matt Starwich -- Every Day Hero"). Starwich had his hands full, but he had an edge. He was a short man, 5'4," and as a young man weighed about 160 pounds (in his later years he gained weight). People had a tendency to underestimate him. That was a big mistake.

One of Starwich's first appearances in The Seattle Times (out of more than 2,000 over the years) comes in September 1904, when he arrested a Washington state fugitive in Portland, Oregon, though he didn't have the authority to make an arrest outside of Washington state. It was classic Starwich, but it was peanuts compared to some of his other feats. He spent a lot of time breaking up fights in saloons, and by all accounts he relished the battles. Broken bottles, guns, and knives did not stop him. In a fight he used his short stature to his advantage to catch his opponents off guard by ducking underneath them and then shooting up and slugging them in the jaw. He had a powerful punch that could level men far bigger than he. At the same time, he was willing to talk if he thought it would defuse a crisis. Various accounts say he spoke between five and seven languages, which was handy in the melting pot of nationalities in King County in the early 1900s.

A Bulldog for Justice

He grew bolder. Early in 1907 a Ravensdale resident killed two men in a bar fight, then retreated to his house, daring the locals to come and get him. "Though there were forty men around there watching, none of them cared to take chances," Starwich said when he was interviewed 18 months later ("Matt Starwich -- Every Day Hero"). He had no such qualms and went in. The killer shoved a pistol under his chin and pulled the trigger, but it snapped on a faulty cartridge and Starwich nailed him with a couple of punches. The following year he received widespread renown when he fought a gun battle with three men who had murdered the Kent city marshal, then spent two days tracking two of them into the snowy Cascade Mountains, capturing them south of Stampede Pass. Three months later he single-handedly took on four toughs who'd commandeered a saloon in Kanasket, knocking two of them down. As he attempted to cuff one of them, a third man slashed him across the face with a knife. Starwich grabbed him and pummeled him into submission. (When he saw what was happening, the fourth man quietly surrendered.)

Though Starwich's territory was primarily eastern King County, he sometimes traveled out of the state, even out of the country, to bring back his prey. (Probably knowing that his Portland arrest was a lucky break, in later years he made sure he got the necessary paperwork.) In 1910 he traveled to Mexico City to arrest a man who'd murdered a young woman in Seattle nearly five years earlier. Starwich knew the victim's mother, and he had maintained a relentless eye for any leads about the killer until he finally got the break he needed. "His life reads like a dime novel of one's youth," marveled The Seattle Times in 1912 ("Stirring Events…"). (By 1912 Starwich had long been a favorite of the paper. In fact, it had published a glowing feature about his adventures in a Sunday Magazine issue four years earlier.) He seemed to be a natural when he ran as a Republican for county sheriff in 1912, but he came in a close third in the general election.

He left the sheriff's office in September 1913, planning to run a saloon in Ravensdale. If he did it didn't last long, because a little more than two years later Prohibition took effect in the state. A 1916 Seattle Times article found him still in Ravensdale, mourning the demise of the town after an explosion in a local coalmine the preceding year had killed 31 men. "Having nothing better to do, Starwich, a few days ago, again associated himself with the sheriff's office as deputy," the article casually concluded ("Starwich Mourns…"). It would be the beginning of a (mostly) stellar 10 years for the sheriff.

Sheriff Matt Starwich

Starwich spent the next four years raiding stills throughout the county. In 1920 he again ran for sheriff and this time won handily, winning more votes than both his opponents combined. He was sworn in on January 6, 1921, and got down to business. In December 1921 convicted murderer James Mahoney (1855-1922) was in the county jail awaiting transfer to the state penitentiary in Walla Walla and an eventual date with the gallows. Starwich's office spoiled a plot by Mahoney's mother and a neighbor to slip a gun to a cellmate of Mahoney's so they could shoot their way out. The next spring, The Seattle Times reported that Starwich and his two bloodhounds (he often used dogs for tracking) hopped a small plane out of Lake Union, bound for Discovery Bay on the Olympic Peninsula, in pursuit of three bank robbers. The paper made it a point to point out that "it was the first time an airplane had been used in a bandit chase in this part of the country" ("Airplane Takes…"). About the same time he had radio phones installed in two of his cars, cutting-edge technology for the day.

He ran for re-election in 1922, and in a classic October Surprise, his citizenship was called into question less than two weeks before the election. C. E. West, former mayor of Auburn, swore out a warrant challenging Starwich's eligibility on the basis that he wasn't an American citizen. There had been other attempts in the preceding weeks to discredit Starwich, and he knew the warrant was coming. Before it was even served he and his lawyer (John Dore [1881-1938], who later served as mayor of Seattle) appeared before a judge and demanded an immediate trial. He got it, was exonerated, sued West for malicious prosecution, and won. West was sentenced to serve six months in the state penitentiary, with the sentence set to begin on February 16, 1923. As he waited at his home that day for the police to arrive to take him to Walla Walla, he got word that the governor had pardoned him, specifically at Starwich's (and other officers) request.

Starwich won re-election -- this time to a four-year term -- in a landslide in the November 1922 election, beating his opponent by a more than two-to-one margin. His storybook successes continued. One of his more dramatic busts came in August 1924 when he learned of a planned bank robbery in Carnation. He set up a sting, and then traveled out to Carnation to execute it, inviting the press along. The caper went down in a hail of gunfire that afternoon, killing a robber and an informant. But Starwich stopped the robbery and arrested the driver waiting outside. It received lavish coverage in all three of Seattle's newspapers, mostly positive, though some naysayers said the shootout was "a botched job" ("Shooting Up…").

At that time state law prevented a sheriff from serving three consecutive terms, so Starwich wasn't eligible to run for re-election in 1926. Perhaps it was just as well. He was embarrassed by a bold county jailbreak in September 1925 in which six men escaped; two vanished and another two weren't caught for two months. A year later he was criticized for his seeming inaction in the early stages of the Letitia Whitehall case, a sensational murder in Kirkland in which a 14-year-old girl disappeared and was later found murdered. (Her killer was never caught.) Notwithstanding these setbacks, Starwich received mostly accolades when he left office in January 1927.

The Little Giant

A 1927 Seattle Times article says Starwich planned to work a manganese-ore mine he owned near Lake Crescent, located west of Port Angeles. The problem was that the ore had largely played out by then. By the early 1930s he was serving as a guard at the Department of Labor and Industry. After that gig ended in 1933 he retired to his home, raised chickens, and kept his eye on the sheriff's office. He was eligible to run again once he skipped a term, and he wasted no time in doing so in 1930. He came in a solid, but not close, second in the Republican primary that September. He repeated the performance in the 1934 primary. 

But now Starwich had a friend in the sheriff's office. William Severyns (1887-1944), Seattle's chief of police between 1922 and 1926, had long admired Starwich, and when Severyns won the sheriff's race in 1934 he appointed Starwich jail superintendent. Starwich, in his mid-50s by this time and slowing down some, spent the next six years telling stories, often over a long cigar, and pranking his friends. Even while he was still alive, stories of his exploits had become bigger than life. Starwich was quick to curb the exaggerations, but it would be a stretch to say (as a few have tried to suggest) that he was modest. He liked the press, and he liked his stories.

By his later years Starwich was known as the "Little Giant," a reflection on both his small stature and large accomplishments. He mellowed with age and in his final years tried to mentor a few of the younger or novice crooks that he thought he could help. His popularity never waned, even as times changed. By 1941 there was a different danger in King County, and Seattle conducted a blackout drill on March 7, 1941, recognizing the approaching Japanese threat, which later that year would plunge the United States into World War II. Starwich, watching the drill from the roof of the City-County Building, fell about five feet from a ledge on the rooftop, knocking himself out for several minutes.

At first it seemed to be minor. "Yes, sir, I was blacked-out along with the city" he joked the next day ("Matt Starwich 'Blacked Out'…"). However, he had hurt his back and badly bruised his leg, and was later hospitalized. Though he returned to work, he never completely recovered. During the first week of December 1941 his health quickly worsened (the descriptions in the papers sound to this writer as though he may have had pneumonia) and he died late on December 6, 1941. Because his death was expected the papers had detailed obituaries available right away, and in an odd historical quirk this turned out to be a very good thing. The obituaries made it into the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times the following morning, Sunday, December 7 -- just enough time for the papers' readers to read and reflect on the life of a remarkable man before news began to break about Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sources: Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "King County Sheriff Matt Starwich and posse thwart a bank robbery in Carnation in a shootout that leaves two dead on August 13, 1924" (by Phil Dougherty), (accessed November 5, 2016); "Monthly Broadcast of Radio News," Radio (magazine), March 1922, p. 33; "Matt Starwich Taken by Death," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 7, 1941, p. 1; "Starwich Won Fame For His Fearlessness," Ibid., December 7, 1941, p. 19; "Shooting Up of Town Called Needless," The Seattle Star, August 15, 1924, p. 1; "Returns Without Requisition," The Seattle Times, September 22, 1904, p. 2; "Ravensdale Citizens Honor Matt Starwich," Ibid., September 19, 1907, p. 11; "Servian Shot Kent Town Marshal," Ibid., April 13, 1908, pp. 1, 2; "Posse Takes Two More Bandits," Ibid., April 14, 1908, pp. 1, 2 ; "Nervy Deputy Whips Four Toughs," Ibid., July 21, 1908, p. 1; W.T.P., "Matt Starwich, Every Day Hero," The Seattle Sunday Times Magazine, August 2, 1908, pp. 1, 6; "Fyaad Here, Faces Charge of Murder," The Seattle Times, September 2, 1910, p. 4; "Stirring Events Mark Life of Matt Starwich," Ibid., August 27, 1912, p. 2; "Matt Starwich Has Left Sheriff's Force," Ibid., September 11, 1913, p. 7; "Starwich Mourns Deserted Town," Ibid., September 23, 1916, p. 14; "Election Returns on King County Offices," Ibid., November 4, 1920, p. 10; "Plotted to Shoot Way Out of County Jail," Ibid., December 9, 1921, pp. 1, 4; "Airplane Takes Bloodhounds to Scene of Chase," Ibid., March 31, 1922, pp. 1, 7; "Starwich is Cleared," Ibid., October 28, 1922, p. 2; "Election Returns on King County Offices," Ibid., November 10, 1922, p. 5; "Hart Pardons West at Starwich's Request," Ibid., February 17, 1923, p. 2; "Two Suspected In Slaying of Whitehall Girl," Ibid., November 16, 1926, p. 3; "Matt Returns to Private Life," Ibid., January 9, 1927, p. 13; "Starwich Goes on Vacation, First in 23 Years, Then Will Develop Mining Property," Ibid., January 11, 1927, p. W-4; "Seattle's 'Big Shots' of Other Years Now Walk in Varied Paths of Life," Ibid., July 30, 1933, p. 3; "Strolling Around the Town," Ibid., September 4, 1940, p. 1; "Matt Starwich 'Blacked Out' in Blackout 'Spill,'" Ibid., March 8, 1941, p. 3; "Matt Starwich Taken by Death," Ibid., December 7, 1941, p. 15; "Strolling Around the Town," Ibid., February 3, 1942, p. 17.

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