Imagine a crime big enough to draw the attention of a president — then imagine it happening in Tacoma.
Eighty years have passed since Sunday, Dec. 27, 1936, when a stranger snatched 10-year-old Charles Mattson from his parents’ home in Tacoma’s posh Point Defiance Park District and held him for ransom.
For 15 days, the hunt for Charles and his kidnapper made national news, drawing personal statements from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. The Jan. 11 discovery of the boy’s broken body in a frozen field south of Everett intensified the outcry, but the kidnapper was never caught, the case never solved. Though investigative efforts ceased decades ago, the Mattson case continues to be described as the oldest unsolved kidnapping on the federal books.
William Whitlock Mattson, the boy’s father, was a well-known figure locally — a doctor and one-time starter on the University of Washington football team. Old photos depict a broad-shouldered man with round glasses and a linebacker’s build.
The Mattson home at 4605 N. Verde St. was described as a mansion. News stories of the time lingered over the live Christmas tree and the outdoor lights, given special recognition by the Tacoma Garden Club.
The Mattson home at 4605 N. Verde was described as a mansion. News stories of the time lingered over the live Christmas tree and the outdoor lights, given special recognition by the Tacoma Garden Club.
On the night in question, Mattson and his wife, Hazel, were away from the house at a social event. Their three children — William, 16; Muriel, 14; and Charles, 10 — stayed home, along with Virginia Chatfield, a 14-year-old friend of Muriel.
News accounts say the break-in occurred about 8:45 p.m., when a man appeared at the French doors that opened onto the terrace.
Who was the man?
The only witnesses were the three teens. They said the man came through the French doors with a gun. Charles had seen him first, they said, and wanted to grab his own toy gun, but was told no.
The man “just stepped up to the door, smashed the glass and stepped into the room with his pistol level at us,” brother William, the oldest, told reporters the next day.
The man looked around and spoke.
“Huh, this place ought to be good for some money.”
He collared William.
“He reached for me first and went through my pockets looking for money. I had a very helpless feeling. There wasn’t much to do.”
He reached for me first and went through my pockets looking for money. I had a very helpless feeling. There wasn’t much to do.
William Mattson, 16, brother of kidnapped Charles Mattson
The man wore a blue zipper jacket and a tan checkered cap. He had hairy hands.
A white rag over his face slipped down, revealing a full beard, high cheekbones, a dimpled chin and a dark complexion (“swarthy” was the word used repeatedly in FBI statements). He man spoke with an accent later described as “Southern European.”
The man cast William aside and hooked Charles by the arm.
“This is better than money.”
A version of the story published in The Seattle Times suggested the man knew exactly which house he had entered and who owned it.
“I want you to come with me,” the man said as he grabbed Charles. “You’re your father’s favorite so you’re worth more money.”
Charles struggled, to no avail. The man threw down a crumpled note and dragged him out the door, warning the children, “Don’t call the police or you’ll be sorry.”
The man rushed into the night, in the direction of an embankment overlooking Ruston Way. Soon, the children called police.
Two weeks of news
News coverage was instantaneous and dramatic, as reporters from Tacoma and Seattle trampled each other in the rush for scoops. Kidnappings, or “snatchings,” to use the term of the time, were big news. At times, the stories ended badly, as had the kidnapping and killing of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh’s son in 1932.
Tacoma had a more recent and equally famous case to draw on: the 1935 snatching of George Phillips Weyerhaeuser, then 9, as he walked home from school. The case had transfixed the nation, but ended reasonably happily. The boy was returned alive to his family in exchange for a $200,000 ransom payment, and the kidnappers were caught and sentenced to lengthy terms in prison.
At first, it seemed that the Mattson kidnapping would follow the same pattern. A day after Charles’ disappearance, The News Tribune front page screamed with details: $28,000 RANSOM SOUGHT BY MATTSON KIDNAPER! (sic)
Statements from the teenage witnesses and police got big play. Hoover announced that his “G-men” would cooperate with local authorities. That meant Tacoma police, headed by Chief Harold Bird, and the Washington State Patrol, commanded by William Cole. Discussions of an earlier kidnapping attempt in the same area, previously undisclosed, turned into sidebar news — a month earlier kidnappers had tried to snatch the 6-year-old son of grocery magnate George Franklin, who lived not far from Mattson in a sprawling mansion known as Haddaway Hall.
Stories on the first day and in coming weeks focused on the crumpled ransom note. Police were cagey about the precise wording, and reporters nibbled around the edges. Some elements surfaced in stories, but not all.
The note had been typed in colored ink on what was believed to be a child’s typewriter. Handwritten corrections also appeared. It ordered William Mattson to take out classified ads in The Seattle Times and await further instructions.
The note had been typed in colored ink on what was believed to be a child’s typewriter. Handwritten corrections also appeared. It ordered William Mattson to take out classified ads in The Seattle Times and await further instructions. According to an account of the case by historylink.org, The Seattle Star, now defunct, published the text of the note in its entirety, including misspellings:
“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”
Mattson followed instructions. An ad appeared in The Seattle Times, conforming to the requested wording, duly spotted by the newshounds and mentioned to Mattson, who denied rumors that he had been in contact with the kidnappers. In fact, he had.
News stories through the first week of January reveal a second ad, then a third and a fourth: a waiting game, interrupted by cranks, false leads and so-called “crystal-gazers” offering information. At one point, Mattson made a public plea for the press to avoid surveillance. The News Tribune announced its agreement.
The sad ending came on Jan. 11, 1937, when Charles’s body was found south of Everett by a teenager hunting rabbits.
The corpse was nude. A coroner’s report found the boy had probably been beaten and bound, stabbed in the back and struck in the head with a blunt instrument. News accounts said Hazel, the boy’s mother, already suspected her son was dead; but William Mattson, the father, collapsed into her arms when he heard the news.
The discovery of the boy’s body prompted a statement from President Roosevelt:
“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. ... 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.”
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.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jan. 13, 1937
The manhunt was on. Hoover vowed to capture the kidnapper. The Department of Justice offered a $10,000 reward, a figure that matched the highest bounty ever offered by Hoover’s feds, for John Dillinger, the original Public Enemy No. 1.
A grieving Mattson gave a full statement Jan. 16, revealing new details. He confirmed for the first time that he had spoken to the kidnapper over the phone during ransom negotiations and said the man’s instructions had been confusing and incoherent at times. The kidnapper was an amateur, Mattson said, and he believed investigators would track him down.
“I am confident his man and whoever his colleague is, are crooks who have never handled a job of this magnitude, and when they advanced to the stage where they were ready to receive the ransom, they found Charles knew too much and they dared not release him, so they destroyed him.”
Gradually, the leads dwindled. Rumors of suspects led nowhere. On April 16, 1937, three months after the discovery of Charles’s body, Mattson spoke to reporters again, disappointed by lack of progress, but still confident the culprits would be captured.
Tacoma was a small community, Mattson said, and criminals knew it.
Criminals know Tacoma’s police force is the most undermanned on the coast. That’s why this town has been the site of two major kidnappings.
William Mattson Sr., father of slain boy, April 19, 1937
“Criminals know Tacoma’s police force is the most undermanned on the coast. That’s why this town has been the site of two major kidnappings.”
Confidence gave way to depression. The kidnapper was never found. A break in the case appeared imminent in July 1938, when Frank Olson, a man matching the description of the kidnapper, confessed.
Olson, also known as Lester Mead, was held and interrogated at the Winthrop Hotel downtown, but his admission was a fantasy. He was a mental patient from Eastern Washington, prone to painting himself as a big-time criminal — he had been hospitalized at the time of the incident, records revealed.
News stories lessened with time. Every five years or so, a lead would emerge — a tip from an inmate who heard something from another inmate, a suspect interrogated in another state.
The last such story appeared in 1958, 22 years after the incident. The kidnapping had become a statistic: one of the few active unsolved cases on the FBI’s books. William Mattson died in 1968 at the age of 84, never knowing the true story of what had happened to his son.