Tuesday, January 13, 2015

1936 Four Corners murder

During the difficult times of the Great Depression, Four Corners and other rural communities across the country saw a rise in gang activity.  While the idea seems odd today, these gang's main activities consisted of attacking travelers on isolated highways (which Colesville Road and Old Bladensburg Road were at the time) for the purpose of robbery.  Because law enforcement coverage was sparse, these gangs often carried out their crimes unobstructed and without capture.

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.

Matthews had been shot two times, strangled with his own suspenders, and thrown into the water.  The perpetrator(s) of the crime were not yet known.  

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.

Kirby's detailed written confession explained that the three had met in prison while serving time for other crimes, and upon release, Kirby moved to the area around Four Corners (where Read lived as well) and Gingell returned to nearby Kensington.  After being released from prison, the three formed a criminal trio and began committing various crimes in Four Corners and surrounding areas of Silver Spring and eastern Montgomery County.  While carrying out this crime spree, the trio lived in a tent not far from Read's family home in the woods along Northwest Branch.

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  

The only member of the gang still at-large once Gingell was in custody was William Read, the one who lived very close to where the Matthews murder took place.  Read had returned home to Four Corners after the Matthew's killing.  Read's parents heard on the radio that their son was wanted for the Matthews' killing after Kirby had given him up and Gingell as part of his signed confession.  Read's parents asked him to turn himself in, and their son appeared to be willing, so his father called the police.  However, the Montgomery County Police were understaffed at that time and officers had to respond all the way from Poolesville to pick Read up.  By this time, he had snuck out of the home and escaped to Louisiana.  He was captured there several weeks later in January of 1937 after kidnapping a taxi driver.  

This home on Dennis Avenue was built by a man named William T. Read Jr. in 1903.  It is almost certain that one of the members of this criminal trio, also named William Read, was the son or grandson of the man who built this home.  The William Read who murdered Elwood Matthews may have even lived in this home for a time (he was born ~1914), though it appears the Read family sold this home less than a decade after it was built, but they stayed within the Four Corners area.  Photo by the author. 

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.

William Read was sentenced to death in West Virginia for the murder of a travelling salesman named Earl Dollman, which the gang had committed just a few days after the Matthews murder.  Read was never tired for the Matthews murder.  Image from the Washington Post

I found all of the information about this case from the Washington Post's online archives.  I first got the idea for this post from a random email I got from a reader a couple months ago who thought a murder like this had occurred in Four Corners during the 1930's.  I didn't really believe it until I read the news accounts.  

In an interesting twist, the murder victim in this case, Elwood Matthews, was actually one of the first developers in Four Corners, creating the "North Takoma Highlands" subdivision in 1917 from land he owned near today's University Boulevard.  This subdivision's platting predates Woodmoor's, but it does not appear that any homes were built on the lots until after the war.  For those wondering where North Takoma Highlands is, it was the name of the platted land along the first block of Saint Lawrence Drive in what is now Woodmoor.  In another interesting but logical twist, Saint Lawrence Drive was previously known as "Matthews Drive" prior to being renamed sometime in the 1950's, as it was named after the property owner, Elwood Matthews, who would soon fall victim to the most vicious crime Four Corners has ever seen.  

These men who composed this criminal trio were some serious thugs (it takes a certain kind of twisted person to drown someone by tying a rock around their neck, and then shoot the victim when the first idea doesn't work).  It's reassuring to know that justice was served so quickly in this case (triggerman was executed within a year of the crime and other two had been sentenced to life).  It also remarkable that the police were to make the arrests so efficiently despite limited police capabilities and greater communication challenges that law enforcement faced in the 1930's.  

This story is certainly an interesting piece of Four Corners history.        



  1. Steve, Thank you for fasinating story and the photos make this history come to life ( thanks to to Ken Hawkins)

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks for the shout-out. Kudos also to Larry Beall, who posted a news clip about the gang in the Woodmoor group last month. More to come.

  2. Thank you for putting together this most interesting story. I grew up in Four Corners and never heard about this. Saint Lawrence Drive should be renamed Matthews Drive.

  3. Sean, this is a great story, well told! Nice job on your research. Thanks so much for putting all of these facts together for us.

  4. Sad but interesting story. It dispels the myth that the good old days were safe. Brings to mind the story of the Four Corners youth that broke in to Fred and Harry's from the roof to steal money. When he was ready to leave he set the restaurant on fire only to find he couldn't escape through the doors that were locked from the outside and couldn't get back out through the roof. Fire Department found him and I don't recall his longterm outcome. A couple years later a Four Corners home on Harding Dr between Brunet Av and Lorain Dr was reported to be on fire. Fire department found a small fire in the kitchen waste basket had gone out on its own, but not before filling the house full of choking smoke. Firefighters found an adult female in the bedroom dead. The woman was the mother of the kid that broke into Fred and Harry's. I do not recall hearing if the woman's death was attributed to the fire or other circumstances. May be another opportunity for the full story. Thanks again for the work on a great blog.

  5. Really interesting stuff. Thanks for putting this together

  6. After all theses years, we always knew the Wm. T. Reed home as the Clement home. And his daughter was married off to a Hasting and built the home at Univ.Blvd.@ Royalton. I remember the adult's would whisper about this crime when I was a kid in the 50's. Great work Sean....amazing. Jimmy Bassford

  7. Great story! Who knew that my family's homestead had such a sorted history!
    Billy Clements

    1. That is pretty cool. House is an awesome one, too.

    2. Thank you, Tony. It's been a great source of pride for my family.

    3. Growing up in that community in the 60s, I remember this house quite differently. It was always a cool house, but it looks larger now and with a different facade. Can this be right?

  8. The Boy Scouts who found the body were likely at Camp Wilson (the "fall line" area of the NW Branch pictured); Camp Wilson was supposedly visited by Teddy Roosevelt who called the area "splendid"

    1. My father-in-law used to camp at Camp Wilson as a 12-14 yr old Scout from downtown DC. Took a couple street cars and busses with all their gear and the scoutmaster met them there.

  9. Couldn't stop reading! Thanks! Amazing how quick the police were to catch these guys. Back then everybody knew everybody that lived in town I guess.

  10. Sean, I have more to this story and would love to share it with you! I am W. Joseph Kirby's daughter. Thanks, Joleen Kirby Shultabarger