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Ten-year-old Charles F. Mattson is kidnapped in Tacoma and held for ransom on December 27, 1936.
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On Sunday evening, December 27, 1936, Charles F. Mattson, age 10, is kidnapped from the living room of his home in Tacoma, Washington, by a masked man armed with a handgun. After menacing the other children in the house, the kidnaper picks up Charles in his arms and vanishes into the night, leaving behind a ransom note demanding $28,000 for the boy’s safe return. His father, Dr. William W. Mattson, makes every attempt to contact the kidnaper and pay the ransom money, but is unable to do so. A hunter will find the boy’s battered body in a Snohomish County field, approximately four-and-a-half miles south of Everett, on January 11, 1937. Although law enforcement authorities make every effort, the kidnapping and murder of Charles Mattson has never been solved and remains an open case at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The Mattson Family
William Whitlock Mattson (1885-1968) was a well-known Tacoma physician and surgeon. He played end on the University of Washington football team for three seasons, 1907-1909, two of them coached by Gilmour Dobie (1879-1948), and in 1910 at the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated from medical school. The Mattson family’s 6,400-square-foot, Tudor-style, brick mansion at 4605 N Verde Street was built in 1925 and overlooked Commencement Bay in the Point Defiance Park district, one of Tacoma’s most exclusive residential sections. From the back lawn, a path led down a steep, 300-foot, terraced embankment to a picnic ground and swimming pool, railroad tracks, Ruston Way and then the waterfront, crowded with docks and boathouses.
At approximately 8:45 p.m. on Sunday, December 27, 1936, 10-year-old Charles Fletcher Mattson (1926-1936) was in the living room of his home eating popcorn and drinking root beer with his brother William Jr.(Billy), age 16, his sister Muriel, age 14, and her friend from Seattle, Virginia Chatsfield, age 15.
Intruder at the Door
The children were alone, waiting for Dr. Mattson and his wife, Hazel, to return from a social function, when they heard someone knocking loudly on the French doors that opened onto a terrace at the back of the house. Charles went to investigate and then ran back into the living room, telling the others that he had seen a man wearing a mask, standing in the courtyard in front of the glass doors.
The man continued pounding on the door, demanding entry and muttering incoherently. When the children refused, he broke some glass panes with the butt his gun, reached inside and turned the latch. Once inside the room, he menaced the children with his revolver, shouting: “Don’t you kids try anything, because I have a bullet-proof vest on.” The intruder demanded money and then searched Billy’s pockets, finding nothing. He muttered: “A home such a this should be good for some money,” and Billy replied that they did not keep money in the house.
Then the intruder said to Charles: “I want you to come with me. You’re your father’s favorite so you’re worth more money” (The Seattle Times). He told the children not to call the police or he’d come back and shoot them. Then he dropped a ransom note in the glass shards on the floor, grabbed Charles by the arm and fled through the French doors. As the children watched, the kidnapper ran across the back yard and down the steep embankment toward Commencement Bay with the 70-pound boy clutched in his arms.
William immediately telephoned the police, who arrived at the Mattson home within minutes, and then his parents. While in the living room, the kidnapper’s mask slipped off, allowing the children to see his face and give detectives a good description. Later, an FBI artist produced a drawing of the kidnapper for the police, which was distributed widely on posters, published in newspapers and in the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin.
Tacoma police immediately began combing the district, both in patrol cars and on foot, looking for an unshaven, swarthy man about 35 to 40 years old, five feet seven inches tall, 145 pounds, with dark hair, brown eyes, and a foreign accent, wearing a dark blue jacket, dark work trousers, and a brown and white checkered cap, accompanied a young boy, four feet six inches tall, wearing a gray sweater, blue knickerbockers, and house slippers. The kidnapper’s escape route strongly suggested a getaway car parked on Ruston Avenue and a possible accomplice. An escape by boat would have been nearly impossible, as one of the lowest tides of the year occurred on Sunday night. An all-night search for the fugitive was unsuccessful.
At the scene of the crime, detectives recovered a folded, pocket-worn, note that appeared to have been printed on a child's toy typewriter, using an odd color ink. Initially, it appeared to be rambling and incoherent, but a closer analysis showed the ransom note to be well written and succinct. It read:
"The price is 28,000 10000 in fives and 10s 18000 50 & 100s. Old bills pleasd no new ones. Put ad in Seattle Times personal colum read Mable -- What's your new address Tim. Put this ad Times no other paper. If no answer from you within week price gos up double and doubl that each week after. Dont fail & I wont't. The boy is safe. Tim" (The Seattle Star).
Since the ransom note was old and dirty, and there was no mention of Charles or the Mattson family, detectives theorized it could have been used for any convenient kidnapping. But they believed the kidnapper originally may have intended to abduct John Franklin, the six-year-old son of George G. Franklin Jr., and his wife, Margaret, who lived in nearby Haddaway Hall, 4301 N. Stevens Street, the former residence of the late lumber baron John Philip Weyerhaeuser Sr.(1858-1935). A man matching the kidnapper’s description had attempted to break into Franklin’s house on two occasions in late November. As in the Lindbergh case, a homemade ladder had been used in an attempt to gain access to the boy’s upper story bedroom. On the second occasion, the intruder was discovered inside the house and fired a handgun at the guard while escaping. The attempts were kept secret and soon afterward, the Franklin family went to California for an impromptu vacation.
Federal Kidnapping Act
In an effort to combat the virulent “snatch” racket, popular during the early 1930s, Congress passed the Federal Kidnapping Act (also known as the Lindbergh Law) on June 17, 1932, making interstate kidnapping a Federal felony, under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The law was a response to the New Jersey kidnapping and murder in March 1932 of the two-year-old son of Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974), the renowned aviator, and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906-2001).
Until the Mattson case, there had been no major kidnappings involving the FBI since the kidnapping of young George H. Weyerhaeuser in Tacoma on May 24, 1935. The FBI, notified of the abduction, determined that the Federal Kidnapping Act had likely been violated, and immediately sent nine agents to Tacoma to assist the police in the hunt for "Tim.” The kidnapper was declared “Public Enemy No. 1,” and within a week, FBI Director John Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) dispatched some 40 agents to Tacoma, along with assistant Director Harold Nathan, to take charge of the investigation. Supporting Nathan was Inspector Earl J. Connelly, from bureau headquarters, who had successfully directed the Weyerhaeuser case 18 months earlier.
As in the Weyerhaeuser kidnapping, media coverage of this “sensational crime” was intense. The Mattson residence was inundated with syndicated and local newspaper reporters, each hoping for a scoop. Lending to the circus-like atmosphere were newsreel crews, photographers, radio broadcasters, and a spate of curious onlookers. To Dr. Mattson’s chagrin, reporters shadowed him everywhere, making it impossible to negotiate discreetly with the kidnapper. His every move, along with leaks from “inside sources” and much speculation, was broadcast daily on the radio and reported by the newspapers.
On Monday, December 28, 1936, an advertisement appeared in the classified section of The Seattle Times, which read: “Mable -- Please give us your address. Ann.” Although the Mattsons denied knowledge of the ad, a special delivery letter arrived at the Mattson home the Tuesday morning, which said that anyone could deliver the ransom money as long as the courier was alone and driving a Ford automobile. Further instructions said: “Ignore all messages delivered to you unless they are written in the same letters and the same color ink as this. Tim” (The Seattle Times).
The police and FBI publicly agreed to refrain from any interference with the negotiations until the ransom had been paid and Charles was safely home. Meantime, however, investigators continued searching for clues, pursuing leads and questioning anyone who resembled the description of the kidnapper. Although facts of the investigation were supposed to be secret, the media continued reporting every lurid detail, allegedly obtained from insiders.
Other messages were being received at the Mattson residence about paying the ransom, but investigators believed that interlopers were attempting to hamper the negotiations and hijack the money. To compound problems, that night subfreezing temperatures enveloped the region, causing grave concern over the boy’s safety, because he was without winter clothing.
On Wednesday, December 31, the ad was replaced by another, which read: "Mabel -- We are ready, everything in accordance with your desires. Ann." But the negotiations seemed to have stalled, so a third ad was placed in the “Personal” column on Monday, January 4, 1937, which read: "Mable -- We have received your communications. Police have not intercepted them. Channels are entirely clear. Your instructions will be followed. We are ready. Ann."
Once again, Dr. Mattson publicly requested that law enforcement authorities cease searching for the kidnapper, leaving all avenues open for the payment of the ransom and the release of the boy. He also asked the news media stop following him everywhere and reporting inside information from “reliable” sources. But, of course, they didn’t.
On Tuesday evening, January 5, 1937, subfreezing temperatures and a strong north wind brought snow flurries to Puget Sound. If it snowed heavily, the FBI feared the kidnapper might hold Charles indefinitely, fearing he could be easily tracked. The weather cleared on Wednesday, but still there was no word from the kidnapper.
On Thursday, January 7, 1937, the Mattsons ran a fourth classified ad in The Seattle Times, which read: “Mable -- I am getting the notes. Police are not intercepting them. I accept your message of identification. All requests have been carried out. I will do as instructed without anyone knowing. Ann.” But they received no creditable response.
This was 11th day of captivity and the family had no idea whether Charles was dead or alive. To make matters worse, Dr. Mattson continued receiving spurious ransom messages, both by telephone and in the mail. The police and FBI held firmly to their promise of non-intervention, pending the determination of the boy’s fate, but pursued the interlopers attempting to waylay the ransom money. The news media, however, continued to keep the Mattson family under constant surveillance.
In an attempt to thwart interlopers, the Mattsons ran a fifth classified ad ran in The Seattle Times on Friday, January 8, which read: “Mabel -- We are still waiting. All arrangements have been carried out in accordance with instructions contained in notes received. Be certain to give me information so I may guard against impostors and hijackers, and be more specific in your instructions. Ann.” On Sunday, January 10, and the following Monday, the same ad appeared with the addition of one sentence: “In view of lapse of time also desire new proof my son is alive and well. Ann.” But, time had already expired for Charles.
On Monday morning, January 11, 1937, Gordon Morrow, age 19, was hunting rabbits on a snow covered field of brush and stumps, behind his home in Snohomish County, approximately four-and-a-half miles south of Everett, when he stumbled across the naked body of a young boy, lying frozen in the fresh snow. Gordon ran home and told his father, Charles Morrow, and they returned to the site to look at the body. Then Gordon ran a half-mile through the snow to a nearby gasoline service station and telephoned Snohomish County Sheriff Walter E. Faulkner with the news his discovery.
The body had been dumped in a thicket of alder saplings, 150 feet west of the Edmonds-Beverly Park Road, and approximately one-half mile west of the Pacific Highway (State Route 99). Sheriff’s deputies discovered tire tracks and footprints in the fresh snow, indicating the boy had been murdered elsewhere and left there late Sunday night or early Monday morning. Gordon Morrow thought the body was probably left about 9:00 p.m. on Sunday when his bulldog, Nick, started barking excitedly and running from door to door, trying to get out of the house.
The body was held in an ambulance at the scene, where it was identified as Charles by Paul H. Sceva, a close family friend, and James Gowdey, a relative of the Mattsons. A preliminary examination of the remains, conducted by Snohomish County Coroner Stowell Challacombe and King County Coroner Otto H. Mittelstadt, determined that the boy had probably been killed by blows to the head with a heavy blunt instrument. Bruises on the body indicated he had been handled roughly, and marks on the wrists showed his hands had been bound tightly with rope. They thought Charles had died no later than Thursday and possibly only a short time after his abduction. Abrasions, grease marks and dirt on the skin indicated the frozen body had been hauled around in the trunk of an automobile.
On Monday night, at the FBI’s direction, pathologists performed a formal autopsy at the Buckley-King Funeral Home in Tacoma, which revealed that, in addition to the massive head injuries, Charles had also been stabbed in the back with a long-bladed knife. Below freezing temperatures had prevailed in the region for nearly a week, keeping the body from decomposing and making it impossible to determine the time of death. But blue clay on the boy’s face and hands indicated the body had probably been hidden on a river bank or near mudflats.
On Monday evening, White House officials were informed of the finding of Charles Mattson’s body and on Tuesday morning, January 12, 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) issued an official statement to the nation:
“The murder of the little Mattson boy has shocked the Nation. Every means at our command must be enlisted to capture and punish the perpetrator of this ghastly crime. Attorney General [Homer Stille] Cummings [1870-1956] informs me that he has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the criminal and that the special agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice are engaged in a search which will be pursued relentlessly and will not be terminated until the murderer is caught. I bespeak for the agents of the Department of Justice the continued and wholehearted cooperation of the local police and all other law enforcement agents in this necessary work. A crime of this kind is renewed evidence of the need of sustained effort in dealing with the criminal menace” (The Seattle Times).
A Family's Ordeal
During a press conference on Tuesday, Paul Sceva, spokesman for the family, told reporters that the wary kidnapper had communicated at least three times with Dr. Mattson, by mail and telephone. But as days passed, his communications were confusing and conflicting, and Dr. Mattson was unable to get clear instructions on how to deliver the ransom. In early January, Dr. Mattson attempted a rendezvous at a secret location on Beacon Hill in Seattle. But there had been a snow-related traffic accident nearby, attracting the attention of several passersby. The kidnapper, apparently fearing a trap, failed to appear and the negotiations ended abruptly.
The funeral for Charles H. Mattson was held at the Buckley-King Funeral Church, 201 S Tacoma Avenue, on Thursday afternoon, January 14. The 25-minute service, conducted by Reverend Harold B. Long, pastor of the Immanuel Presbyterian church, was attended by family and some 200 friends, after which the body was interred in a crypt at the Tacoma Mausoleum. Included among the scores of floral tributes was a large arrangement of roses and gardenias from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Continuing the Search
Meanwhile, police and FBI agents were busy collecting information from the public and pursuing every conceivable lead. They tracked down known criminals, questioned scores of possible suspects, looked for stolen cars, and doggedly searched the county, looking for potential hideouts and clues.
The search parties found many promising items, including a stolen, blood-stained automobile, a kitchen knife, bloody clothing, and a shack, containing a quantity of boy’s and men’s clothing, that could have been used by the kidnapper. FBI agents collected all the various pieces of evidence for analysis, but they led nowhere. The story slipped from the front page in late January 1937 as leads began to peter out.
Role of the News Media
On Saturday, January 16, 1937, Dr. Mattson issued his first written statement about the kidnapping, which was both published in newspapers and broadcast on the radio. First, he thanked the public for its support and praised law enforcement for their tireless efforts. Then Dr. Mattson commented on the behavior of the news media
“True enough, I did have to beg the press to lay off and it was trying at times to carry on under an overly avaricious news service, but they did withdraw when I requested them to and continued to cooperate with me in every way and for this I am very thankful” (The Seattle Times).
However, the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce was not so forgiving and issued a scathing indictment of the news media for their handling of the Mattson kidnapping. The newsmen were berated for making “gross mistakes that many people believe may have prevented the return of this child, unharmed,” and then went on to list the worst offenses that hindered negotiations and the efforts of the police and FBI to solve the case (Time).
On Friday night, July 8, 1938, a 32-year-old man named Lester Mead, but using the alias Frank Olson, was arrested at a farm near Ritzville, Washington, by Adams County Sheriff Melvin Oestreich after confessing he had killed someone. He bore a remarkable resemblance to the FBI sketch of the Mattson kidnapper and was taken to the Hotel Winthrop in Tacoma for three days of interrogation by police. Initially, Mead denied any involvement in the Mattson case, but under continued questioning, admitted that he participated in the kidnapping with others. Eventually, he signed a written statement that he had abducted the boy, killed him and buried the body near Everett. The FBI, however, found the confession rife with discrepancies.
The incident made newspaper headlines when it was determined that Mead was a mental patient who had escaped from the Eastern State Hospital for the Insane in Medical Lake and was there on the date of the abduction. Hospital director Dr. Marinus W. Conway Jr. told reporters: “Mead ran away from the hospital vegetable farm last week. He is entirely harmless, but is given to fantastic theories that he is a big-time criminal” (The Seattle Times). The authorities were admittedly disappointed at the outcome of what appeared to be the solution to the case, but vowed to continue the hunt for the kidnap-murderer. It was the last time the Mattson kidnapping ever made front-page news.
In the ensuing years, the FBI interviewed approximately 26,000 people, among them scores of eccentrics who confessed to the crime, either to get attention or because of mental illness. The kidnapping and murder of Charles F. Mattson has never been solved and, because capital crimes have no statute of limitations, the case remains an open file at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“Tacoma Snatch,” Time: The Weekly Magazine, January 11, 1937, p. 19; “Death in the Underbrush,” Ibid., January 18, 1937; “Tacoma’s Censure,” Ibid., February 8, 1937, p. 43; “Patient of Dr. Mattson Now Sought by Police,” The Seattle Times, December 28, 1936, p. 1; “Boy’s Abduction Mars Record,” Ibid.., December 28, 1936, p. 2; “Demand for Money Was Coherent, Says Friend,” Ibid., December 29, 1936, p. 1; “Neighbor’s Son Twice Sought by Marauder,” Ibid., December 29, 1936, p. 1; “Physician Gets Mail; Is Followed by ‘G-Men,’ ” Ibid., December 30, 1936, p. 1; “Go-Between to Be Named for Pay-Off of $28,000,” Ibid., December 31, 1936, p. 1; “I Am Still in Fog, Says Father on Fifth Day,” Ibid., January 1, 1937, p. 1; “Posse Heads for Ranch in Woods of Thurston Co.,” Ibid., January 2, 1937, p. 1; “Police Get Mysterious Bundle at Neighbors,” Ibid., January 3, 1937, p. 1; “Fourth ‘Ad’ Hints Boy’s Return May Be Imminent,” Ibid., January 4, 1937, p. 1; “Boy’s Life May Also Be Endangered by Weather,” Ibid., January 5, 1937, p. 1; “Secrecy of Movement Is Necessary, Says Doctor,” Ibid., January 6, 1937, p. 1; “Mattson Gets No Word; Cold Causes Concern,” Ibid., January 7, 1937, p. 1; “Snow Likely to Delay Freeing of Kidnapped Boy,” Ibid., January 9, 1937, p. 1; “Victim Is Identified by Relative of Doctor,” Ibid., January 11, 1937, p. 1; “Clues Spur Search for Slayer of Tacoma Boy,” Ibid., January 12, 1937, p. 1; “$10,000 Reward Offered by U.S.,” Ibid., January 12, 1937, p. 1; “Blood-Stain in Machine in Everett Reported,” Ibid., January 13, 1937, p. 1; “Suspect Is Seized by Police in Sacramento,” Ibid., January 14, 1937, p. 1; Frightened Bunglers Slew Son, Declares Dr. Mattson,” Ibid., January 16, 1937, p. 1; “Mattson ‘Confession’ False!,” Ibid., July 13, 1938, p. 1; “$28,000 Sought by Mattson Kidnapper,” The Tacoma News Tribune, December 28, 1936, p. 1; “Mattsons Wait Message from Charles’ Kidnapper ,” Ibid., December 29, 1936, p. 1; “Believe Contact Made with Mattson Kidnapper,” Ibid., December 30, 1936, p. 1; “Hint Ransom Money for Charles Paid Last Night,” Ibid., December 31, 1936, p. 1; “Uncertainty in Kidnap Case,” Ibid., January 1, 1937, p. 1; “Suspect Seen Near Olympia,” Ibid., January 2, 1937, p. 1; “New Ad. Hints Contact Is Made with Kidnapper,” Ibid., January 4, 1937, p. 1; “Kidnap Want Ad. Reprinted,” Ibid., January 5, 1937, p. 1; “Latest Tip Strengthens Shelton Clue in Kidnapping,” Ibid., January 6, 1937, p. 1; “Way Open for Boy’s Return,” Ibid., January 7, 1937, p. 1; “G-Men Rush to Action in New Mattson Hunt,” Ibid., January 8, 1937, p. 1; “Hijackers Delaying Return,” Ibid., January 9, 1937, p. 1; “Federals Open Grim Search for Murderer,” Ibid., January 12, 1937, p. 1; “Rites for Charles Today,” Ibid., January 13, 1937, p. 1; “Quiet Rites for Charles,” Ibid., January 14, 1937, p. 21; “Now believe, Kidnapper May Be Madman,” Ibid., January 16, 1937, p. 1.
Note: This essay was corrected on April 5, 2016.
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Charles Mattson (1926-1936), age 10, kidnapped and murdered, 1936
Courtesy The Tacoma News Tribune
Headline, Charles Mattson kidnapping case, The Tacoma News Tribune, December 28, 1936
Mattson's back yard and scene of Charles Mattson's kidnapping, Tacoma, December 28, 1936
Courtesy Tacoma News Tribune
Charles Mattson's kidnapper's possible escape route, Mattson back yard, Tacoma, December 28, 1936
Courtesy The Seattle Times
First Mattson kidnapping ransom ad placed in The Seattle Times, December 28, 1936
Courtesy The Seattle Times
FBI sketch of the kidnap-murderer of Charles Mattson, The Tacoma News Tribune, February 3, 1937
Last ransom ad placed in Seattle Times personal column for kidnapped Charles Mattson, January 10, 1937
Courtesy The Seattle Times
Snohomish County sheriff Walter Faulkner pointing to spot where Charles Mattson's body was dumped, near Everett, January 12, 1937
Courtesy The Tacoma News Tribune
FBI reward poster for kidnap-murderer of Charles Mattson, January 16, 1937
Courtesy The Tacoma News Tribune
Lester Mead, innocent mental patient who claimed Charles Mattson murder, 1938
Courtesy Seattle Post-Intelligencer