Detective Elmer Colby Matthews | Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas Pacific Railroad

Age: 25
Served: 3 years
1912 to August 18, 1915


For several months during 1915, Detective Matthews was detailed to ride a freight train leaving Cincinnati shortly before 1 a.m. and to arrest stowaways and thieves that were commonly boarding and/or breaking into train cars. Each day, he would ride the train and get off at Erlanger. This was dangerous work in 1915. During the previous 15 months, five law enforcement officers had lost their lives in or near Greater Cincinnati railroad yards: Cleveland Kemp in the Silver Grove yards below Newport; Elija Boileau in the Camp Washington yards in Cincinnati; Lester Johnson in the Silver Grove yards; James O’Neil in the Sedamsville yards in Cincinnati; and Martin O’Hearn near the railroad yards in Covington.

On August 18, 1915, as the Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas Pacific train was boarded near Ludlow by two hoboes bound for the Erlanger Fair, Detective Mathews placed them under arrest. They seemed to have submitted, but between Ludlow and Crescent Springs one went to the side as if to jump off and the other reached into his pocket and pulled a Colt revolver. Detective Matthews tried to disarm the man with the Colt when the other pulled a revolver and shot Detective Matthews.

Brakeman James Fleming happened to be on top of the car at that moment, saw what happened, and the tramps fired shots at him as he fled to get help. He came back with Conductor John Carney and Brakeman Fred Surber. The shooters had jumped off and Detective Matthews was lying face down on the floor of the car. When they turned him over, he gave a gasp and died. He had been shot five more times since Fleming saw the initial engagement – once through the heart.

The train continued on to Crescent Springs where his murder was reported to Kenton County Sheriff Allison and Ludlow Chief of Police Callahan. Detective Matthews was taken to his home at 9 Latta Avenue in Ludlow.

Detective Matthews was survived by his wife, Verna Louise Matthews; father, Thomas Matthews; stepmother, Mary Jane Matthews; grandfather, Richard Matthews; siblings, Sarah J. (Thomas) Syndor, Richard R. (Gertrude) Matthews, Emma E. Matthews; Cora B. Matthews, and Lewis T. Matthews; and brother in law, Leslie B. McKenney. He was predeceased by his mother, Willie Susan Matthews in 1895 and his sister Lulie A. McKenny the year before in 1914. His body was viewed by hundreds of people as he was laid out at his residence on July 18, 1915. He was then taken back to his old home in Hinton County on July 19, 1915 and funeral services were held on July 21, 1915. He was buried in Raven Creek Cemetery, Harrison County, Kentucky. Verna Louise joined him 28 days later, having taken her own life on September 13, 1915. His sister, Sarah, joined him four months later on Christmas 1915.

Sheriff Allison, his deputies, and local police officers began tracking the murderers immediately after the murder was reported. Two bloodhounds were immediately brought in from Lexington. They tracked the killers through cornfields to the farm of Mr. Holtheit. Holtheit, having been out hunting and seeing the tramps running from railroad property, assumed they were in trouble and held them at bay with his double barrel shotgun. But, when the train passed, believing that he had been mistaken, he let them go. The Sheriff and posse arrived soon thereafter.

As they closed in on the pair again near Schott’s Chapel below  Bromley, the killers hired a skiff at a fishing camp and a man to row them across the Ohio River to near the Anderson Ferry. The Cincinnati Police Department was notified, but to no avail.

After more than two months of investigation and working with informants, Leonard Prather was developed as a principal suspect. On October 31, 1915, he was found and arrested in Cincinnati. Based on letters found there Richard Donehy (35) was determined to be his accomplice and he was found and arrested in Lexington the next day on November 1, 1915. Behind the building that Donehy occupied was found the .38 Special Colt Police Special revolver that was taken from Detective Matthews on the day of his murder.

On November 8, 1915, Donehy and Prather were arraigned before Judge Walter Cleary. A special grand jury was convened on November 9, 1915. On November 11, both were indicted for Murder in the 1st Degree.

Their trial began January 10, 1916 in front of Judge F. M. Tracy, Kenton County. Stephen L. Blakely prosecuted for the Commonwealth. Judge Tracy appointed for the indigent suspects Attorneys O. M. Rogers and R. S. Holmes. The killers’ defense were alibis that were propped up by their friends. Donehy claimed to have been in Dandridge, Kentucky on the night of the murder. During cross-examination, he said he was in Louisville. Acquaintances testified that Prather was in Cincinnati. However, prosecution witnesses from Lexington described how Donehy bragged that he made Matthews dance until his tongue fell out and his throat rattled. Another witness testified that Donehy tried to sell him Matthews’s revolver. Both defendants were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment by Judge Tracy.

They appealed and, on May 31, 1916, the Kenton County Circuit Court affirmed the sentence. We do not know how long they actually served.

If you have further information, artifacts, archives, or images of this officer, please contact the Museum Director

This narrative was created on July 28, 2013 by Cincinnati Police Lieutenant Stephen R. Kramer (Retired), Greater Cincinnati Police Historical Society President, based on research material provided  by Cincinnati Homicide Detective Edward W. Zieverink III (Retired), Greater Cincinnati Police Museum Historian. All rights are reserved to them and the Greater Cincinnati Police Historical Society.