On November 21st, 1936, a local farmer named Elwood Matthews walked through the woods from his farm just north to the general store in Four Corners. He left the general store around 8 PM, but did not return home to the farm he shared with his brother. After two days unaccounted for, his brother reported him missing to the Montgomery County Police on November 23rd. A large search of the wooded areas along Northwest Branch and the creek itself ensued, but no evidence of Matthews was found. On December 3rd, almost two weeks after his initial disappearance, Elwood Matthews' body was found by some Boy Scouts in Northwest Branch Creek at the fall line, the area of the creek just south of Colesville Pike with large boulders and rapids.
The same day of this discovery, a gangster named W. Joseph Kirby was arrested in West Virginia for robbery and kidnapping. While being questioned by police there about his previous criminal activities, he revealed that he and two other men had murdered a man in Montgomery County, Maryland several days earlier. He named his two accomplices as William Read, 22, of Four Corners, and Lawrence Gingell, 22, of Kensington.
|Josephy Kirby, 22, one of the accomplices in the murder of Elwood Mathews who originally revealed what had happened. Image from the Washington Post.|
A December 15th, 1936 Washington Post article recounts Kirby's confession and the circumstances leading up to the murder of Elwood Matthews.
"Read, Gingell, and I went to the Indian Springs Country Club on the night of November 21st to steal some golf balls, but we could not find any." Kirby's confession stated "On our way home. we passed Four Corners, Md. and Read said 'There's old man Matthews, he always has plenty of money and he's the bastard that sent my brother to jail. I'll get even with him.'"
Kirby continued, "Read told me to hold the man up. We hid by the side of the road until the old man came by and I stuck a .32 caliber gun on him. He screamed and threw some money on the road. Read came up behind and hit him over the head with a Mauser revolver, knocking him down."
Kirby then describes how they dragged Matthews down to Northwest Branch. "We dragged the old man almost two miles through the woods--Read said we were right near the Matthews farm--until we got to the creek. Gingell took the old man's suspenders and tied a rock around his neck with it and then Read threw him in the water."
Matthews had been thrown in the water, but the ordeal didn't end there. Kirby continued, "The suspenders broke and the old man came to the surface screaming 'someone please help me!'" "I'll save you, you bastard, you sent my brother to jail!" Read shouted and fired two shots at Matthews. Kirby's confession continued, "He sank out of sight and didn't come up any more. We threw him in the water below the dam near a big rock."
|The area south of Burnt Mills Dam near where the gang threw Matthews' into the water, looking much like it would have in late November of 1936. Photo by Ken Hawkins.|
As stated in Kirby's confession, the original intention of the trio was to steal golf balls from Indian Springs Country Club (which existed on the southeastern corner of the intersection from 1922-1960). Robbing local country clubs and businesses had been the group's M.O. during the months preceding the murder. Kirby admitted that he and the gang had robbed a general store in Burnt Mills, held up a taxicab driver in Takoma Park, and attempted to rob Manor Country Club; which resulted in a shootout in the clubhouse there. On the evening of the 21st, they had intended to rob Indian Springs, as well, but they could not find what they were looking for and left aggravated.
The Post described the chain of events that followed the trio's departure from the club. "Matthews was preparing to start home from the Four Corners gasoline station just as the three bandits, in an ugly mood, were trampling across the field toward their tent in the woods. The aged farmer started trudging up the road which led to his home, one-fifth of a mile from Four Corners at 8:12 PM. As he crossed the road he waved to a friend on a bus which was due to start up the same road at 8:15. In the minutes that intervened, the gang had slugged Matthews and dragged him into the dark field. His friend was puzzled because he did not see the old man walking along as the bus went up the road."
After Kirby was arrested and signed his confession revealing the involvement of the other two gangsters, the police immediately began looking for Read and Gingell. The two remaining members of the trio had returned to their respective homes where they lived with their families. Gingell, of Kensington, was convinced to turn himself in to police by his mother, but he attempted to flee south into Virginia after telling his mother he was going to the Bethesda Police Station to give himself up. He was arrested on what is now the 14th Street Bridge after a motorist recognized him from acquaintance as Gingell was attempting to hitchhike across the bridge. The motorist flagged down a police officer who arrested Gingell without incident (although Gingell tried to give a false identity at first). After being taken into custody, Gingell fully admitted to the crime.
|Lawrence Gingell (left) arrested in connection with Matthews' murder after being picked up on what is now the 14th Street Bridge. Image from the Washington Post|
All three members of the gang were extradited to West Virginia for trial in the murder that they had committed in Charleston. Read, the Four Corners resident and triggerman in the Matthews murder, was sentenced to death and hanged in the West Virginia state penitentiary on November 5th, 1937. Kirby and Gingell were both sentenced to life in prison, with Kirby likely dying in prison years later (there is no information about what happened to him). Gingell, the Kensington native, was paroled at some point during his sentence, and he died in Montgomery County in 1981. Despite an indictment, it does not appear that any of them ever stood trial for the Four Corners murder of Elwood Matthews, as they were all convicted in the West Virginia murder before the Matthews trial could take place.