Boys will be boys — even when
they're old enough to know better
The year was only 10 days and an hour old when one of the 1933's strangest stories unfolded. Smack dab in the middle was a Solvay native and a member of one of the village's most prominent families. Except for the injuries inflicted, the story was ridiculous, almost humorous, resulting from macho nonsense fueled by alcohol, which was illegal at the time, though readily available.
J. Ray Mathews, who had taken up residence in Syracuse, was well known throughout the area, though some regarded him as the black sheep of Solvay's Mathews family, which over the years included a well-known doctor and one-time county coroner, a successful coal dealer who also served for awhile as the county sheriff, and one of the area's most visible lawyers, who at various times was the village of Solvay attorney and police justice, and the attorney for the town of Geddes.
But J. Ray Mathews? He landed in a heap of embarrassment, and for awhile suffered a heap of pain. He had been shot by a policeman, after all, and pronounced dead. But reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The man had amazing recuperative powers.
Syracuse Journal, January 11, 1933
Mathews, Gun Victim, Shows Gain
Hope for recovery of J. Ray Mathews, 377 West Onondaga Street, insurance agent and former automobile dealer, who was shot during a scuffle with patrolman Leo F. Handwright early this morning in the Walter Snowplow Company salesroom, 805 East Genesee Street, was expressed by surgeons at the Hospital of the Good Shepherd early this afternoon.
Surgeons informed police their examination indicated the two bullets lodged in Mathews’ body had missed vital organs and that unless complications develop he has an excellent chance for recovery.
Surgeons said one bullet struck Mathews in the leg above the knee, the other hitting him in the groin, piercing the abdominal cavity. The bullet is lodged near the spine. For the present no effort will be made to remove the bullet.
Despite statements from Mathews and witnesses, which indicate patrolman Handwright shot only in self-defense when Mathews threw him to the sidewalk and was twisting his leg, painfully injuring him, District Attorney William C. Martin decided this morning to present all evidence in the case to the January grand jury, now in session.
Handwright is in St. Joseph Hospital, his right knee swollen twice its normal size from torn ligaments. His thumb was also injured. He told officials he shot only after Mathews had tried to wrest away his handcuffs and gun, and was twisting his leg to the point he feared bones would be broken.
Chief of Police Martin L. Cadin this morning obtained statements from Joseph C. Georg, 36, of 3560 East Genesee Street, manager of the snowplow sales company; J. Colton, 37, 147 Erickson Street, salesman for the company, and Clarence Fiedler, 37, of 814 East Genesee Street, who heard the shots. Mrs. Mildred Wiley of 415 Second Street, Liverpool, is being held for questioning later.
According to Georg’s statement, he was alone in the office of the salesroom about 10:30 p.m. last night when Mathews and Mrs. Wiley arrived. They talked business for a time and then a pint of whiskey was produced and they had some drinks.
About midnight Patrolman Handwright peered in the front window which commanded a view of the office and then tapped on the door. Georg let him in. A drink was poured for the officer, but he only tasted it.
Then Colton came in. Handwright said he had to report to headquarters through the police box at East Fayette Street and University Avenue, and Colton offered to drive him there in his car. The two left together and a few minutes later returned.
Georg said Handwright did not drink any more, but that Mathews started to kid him. Georg decided to lock up and Mathews and Handwright went out on the salesroom floor. There they started scuffling around, but Georg said no angry words were spoken by either man.
Colton went out the rear door and Georg went back to make sure the door was locked. Mathews, Handwright and Mrs. Wiley were out the front door, the two men still scuffling. Then Georg said he heard a shot, followed in quick succession by two more.
Georg ran out to find Mathews on the sidewalk, Handwright standing nearby.
“I’m shot bad, I’m shot in the stomach,” Mathews cried.
“Are you really shot?” Georg asked.
“I’m shot awfully bad,” Mathews groaned.
George then ran back into the showroom and called an ambulance.
This story was substantiated by Colton and also by Fielder, who was up with a toothache and heard the shot. Colton did not hear the shots as he had left, but told of the start of the scuffle, which he thought was only friendly.
Detectives found Handwright’s uniform cap on the salesroom floor, but could not find his nightstick.
Mathews, when he regained consciousness at the hospital, told Prosecutor Martin that Handwright was not to blame for the shooting. Former Mayor Charles G Hanna and Mathews’ wife, Mrs. Ellen Mathews, visited him and he repeated the story that the officer should not be blame.
“I don’t remember exactly what happened,” Mathews said, “but Handwright is not to blame. I remember scuffling with him in a sort of friendly way and then I heard two shots and felt a sharp pain in my chest and knew I had been shot.”
Handwright was unable to walk when taken to headquarters for a preliminary questioning and was taken to St. Joseph Hospital on order of Dr. Harry L. Gilmore, police surgeon. Charles Edick, clerk of the district attorney, took statements from both principals at the hospitals.
Patrolman Handwright has been on the police force since December 1, 1923. He was dismissed for conduct unbecoming an officer on June 6, 1930, but was reinstated on November 30 of that year
Mathews is widely known in business circles for his activity in the automobile and insurance business. He is a nephew of the late James F. Mathews, former sheriff, and contested the latter’s will when he was cut off from sharing in his uncle’s $100,000 estate.
Mathews’ uncle had left him a bequest in a previous will, but in a final document signed in his deathbed, Mathews was cut off. The case went to trial before Surrogate Sadler and a jury, and the final deathbed will of the former sheriff was upheld.
Commissioner of Public Safety William E. Rapp this noon requested Chief Cadin to turn over to him copies of all affidavits in the shooting case with object of conducting an investigation to learn what action will be taken by him against the patrolman.
Patrolman Handwright has not as yet made a formal affidavit of his version of the shooting, but detectives and officials of the district attorney’s office will question him later in the day.
Tossing with pain in his bed in St Joseph Hospital, Handwright has refused to discuss the shooting with anyone but members of the district attorney’s staff.
A police guard has been stationed at Handwright’s room since he was admitted to the hospital with instructions to bar all visitors, including members of the patrolman’s family.
Syracuse Journal, January 11, 1933
Victim Shields Patrolman; “Don’t let them blame the cop, Charlie.”
These were the first words of J. Ray Mathews, insurance broker and former automobile dealer, to his old friend, former Mayor Charles G. Hanna, as he came out of a coma in which he had been since he was seriously shot by a patrolman early today.
Notified of the shooting of Mathews at 3 o’clock this morning, former Mayor Hanna went to the Hospital of the Good Shepherd where he remained until this afternoon.
Hanna’s version of the shooting as learned from Mathews is that Mathews and patrolman Leo Handwright started a friendly wrestling match. As they wrestled both became excited and the shooting climaxed the wrestling.
Later Hanna told District Attorney William C. Martin and Assistant District Attorney Homer V. Walsh what Mathews had told him. Mathews told them substantially the same story, absolving Handwright.
Mrs. Ellen Flynn Mathews, the victim’s wife, also was at her husband’s bedside a few minutes after the shooting.
Syracuse Journal, January 11
Telephone service in the Hospital of the Good Shepherd was practically disrupted this morning by a record number of calls from persons interested in the condition of J. Ray Mathews, critically wounded in an early morning scuffle with Patrolman Leo Handwright.
Calls for the floor on which Mathews is fighting death were so numerous as news of the episode spread that nurses in that part of the hospital were frantically attempting to keep up with the queries. The condition finally became so acute that no connections were made with the floor except in cases of absolute necessity.
Syracuse Journal, January 13, 1933
Not Like Others
At variance with other versions of the shooting of J. Ray Mathews, widely-known business man, the complete affidavit of patrolman Leo F. Handwright, 43, who shot Mathews, gives a colorful description of the friendly scuffle which came so near ending fatally.
The statement differs at important points with that of Mrs. Mildred Fuller Wiley of Liverpool, who was Mathews’ companion the night of the shooting.
Mrs. Wiley had said she was in the office of the Walter Snowfighter Truck Company at the time of the actual shooting and did not witness the events leading up to it. Handwright says she was outside on the sidewalk and that Mathews had called to her just before he started to wrestle with the officer.
All witnesses agreed the tussle started out in a spirit of fun, but Handwright said it became serious to him when the pain of his injured leg became unbearable and Mathews cut off his wind with a headlock.
In the belief that Mathews was mortally wounded, Handwright knelt beside him and recited prayers, urging the wounded man to repeat them after him, his affidavit says.
The Policeman says he was walking his beat when, at 1 o’clock on the morning of January 11, he noticed the lights in the auto salesroom at 805 East Genesee Street occupied by the Walter Snowfighter Truck Company.
"I saw and recognized Raymond Mathews in the place. I could see his head over the curtain," said Handwright. "I saw and heard Mathews singing in the office. I also saw another fellow and a girl in the office.
"This other fellow called Mathews’ attention to me looking in the window. Then the other fellow, whose name I later learned was Joseph Georg, proprietor of the place, came over and opened the front door which led into the showrooms.
"I have known Ray Mathews for the past 15 years and we have never had an argument all during that time. Along about 1926 I worked with Raymond (he was then a deputy sheriff) on the Ralph Seager bomb case. Raymond and I and other officers arrested Seager at his home on a farm near Homer, New York.
"Raymond and I started talking together about our experiences in the Seager case, in which we were mutually interested. Later Raymond entertained with songs and imitations and later on another fellow came in."
When Handwright said he had to go to a police box at University Avenue and East Fayette Street, Colton offered to drive him. The policeman accepted, and a short time later he and Colton were back in the showroom.
"As I spoke to Raymond, he squared off to me and started fooling. He got a hold on me and dropped me to the floor in the showroom, and I dropped my nightstick. This was all done in fun.
"Then we walked out the front door of the showroom onto the sidewalk. Mathews’ car was up on the sidewalk in front of the showroom, close to the window. After we got outside the door on the walk, I heard Mathews say, ‘Where’s the girl?’
"His question was not addressed to me particularly, but I pointed to her. At this time she was walking east in East Genesee Street. He called to her and she started to walk back. I do not know what her condition was. I had seen her have only one drink while I was in the office. Raymond was feeling good, but was not mean. He was very funny. Raymond called to the girl and she started to come back.
"Then again Raymond said, ‘One more hold.’ And he kicked my right leg out from under me and I fell just back of the rear of Mathews’ car on the sidewalk. I asked him to stop, reminding him that I was in uniform and had to go to work. He grabbed my right foot, still in fun, I believed, and dragged out to the curb, at the same time twisting my foot.
"At this time I asked him to stop, asked him if he was getting crazy or something. When he got to the curb, Raymond lost his hold and I started to stand up. My leg gave way and I fell and I grabbed at him to support myself and we both went down, me on top of Mathews.
"Raymond then got hold of my neck and started to wrestle with me while we both lay on the sidewalk. Then he got his hand round my hip, I put my hand back there and felt my cuffs gone.
"I thought he might have taken them from my belt. I thought, too, that he might be looking for my gun. At this time he was squeezing my neck and my leg was paining me terrible. All the time I was pleading with him to cut it out. He continued to squeeze my neck with a sort of headlock and the pain in my leg was terrific.
"At this time I am positive I had inflicted no injury whatsoever on Raymond. He had taken all the holds and I was merely trying to reason with him to cut it out. When I felt he was feeling around my hips for my gun, I reached for it and removed it from the holster on my right hip. I continued, after I had the gun in my hand, to plead with him to let go of me, but he refused.
"He was not saying a word, but had a wild expression in his eyes. I was on top of him when I had drawn the gun from the holster, but he still had the arm lock on my neck. I fired a shot out of my gun, which I had in my right hand, between our two bodies.
"I fired the shot low, intending to hit the pavement, thinking it might cause him to loosen his hold on me. His hold became tighter after the shot was fired and he squirmed around. Being almost crazy with the pain in my leg, I let two more shots go into Mathews’ body.
"His hold broke then and he said, ‘I’m shot.’
"A man whom I do not know came by and I asked him to go and call an ambulance. I was on one knee beside Mathews at this time.
"I recited the Act of Contrition and he repeated it after me. By that time the prowl cars had arrived and then an ambulance came. Again I started to rise to my feet, but my leg gave out and I was helped to the running board of a car by two patrolmen. Later one of the sergeants found my cuffs, hat and light where the tussle began in front of the door. I was sent to St. Joseph Hospital where I am now confined with a badly sprained right leg and a broken bone just below the knee."
Handwright’s version differed in many details from that of Mrs Mildred Fuller Wiley of Liverpool, who was Mathews’ companion and one of the witnesses.
No formal charges have been placed against Handwright as yet, but copies of all statements in the case have been forwarded to Commissioner Rapp by Chief Cadin.
Syracuse Journal, January 18, 1933
Not Scuffling, Claims Mathews
Flat contradiction of patrolman Leo F. Handwright’s story of the “torture shooting” of J. Ray Mathews in front of an East Genesee Street salesroom one night last week came today from Mathews, the victim, in an exclusive interview given to The Journal at his home, 377 West Onondaga Street.
Breaking his silence concerning the sensational case for the first time, Mathews said:
— That Handwright did NOT shoot him DURING a scuffle, but AFTER it, while they stood on the sidewalk, four feet apart.
— That the police officer drew his service revolver WITHOUT WARNING and shot him in the leg.
— That he implored the officer AFTER the first shot, to “put away the gun before you get in a jam.”
— That Handwright fired, in spite of the entreaty, a SECOND SHOT, which penetrated the victim’s chest and missed by a fraction of an inch a spot where a bullet would have been fatal.
All of these statements directly contradict the sworn statement made by Handwright, who told the district attorney he fired the shots WHILE Mathews was “torturing” him by twisting his leg and AFTER he had exhausted every other means of freeing himself from the grip of the man he shot.
Mathews’ statements correspond to the story of Clarence Fielder of 814 East Genesee Street, the only disinterested witness of the shooting, whose declaration that the men were several feet apart when the shots were fired was revealed to The Journal today by Commissioner William E. Rapp.
Additionally, Mathews told The Journal interviewer a remarkable story of his sensations at the moment attending physicians, working over him in the hospital, pronounced him dead and resorted to injections of adrenalin to “bring him back to life.” When his pulse and heart stopped, he said, “I saw banks of white clouds closing in around me and I seemed to be passing up a corridor lined by white-helmeted figures in white garments, like shrouds. It was an indescribable sensation, unlike anything else that can happen to a man.
“Suddenly the impression faded, and I heard the gurgling of water. I learned later this was caused by the filtering through water of the oxygen that physicians were trying to give me. It was my first conscious impression as I returned to life.
Mathews insists he bears the officer no ill will and does not desire to prosecute him.
“I don’t want to make trouble for Leo, but I want the exact truth to be known.”
Mathews is much disturbed by the publicity given to Mrs. Mildred Wiley of Liverpool, his companion on the night of the shooting. He describes her as “an old friend of the family” and as the victim of unfortunate circumstances for which she was in no way at fault.
When he and Mrs Wiley stopped at Joseph C. Georg’s salesrooms in East Genesee Street shortly after midnight, he explained, it was because he was planning a trip to New York and wanted to see Georg about a business matter. They sat and chatted with Georg and with Jay Colton, one of his employees, “as any friends might do.” Until the appearance of Handwright, who was walling his beat, there was no intimation of trouble.
Mathews, at the request of newspapermen, exhibited his two bullet wounds. The first bullet passed through his left leg above the knee and the two holes in the flesh are now connected by a long incision, the result of a surgeon’s cauterization.
The second bullet, the one surgeons feared would be fatal, struck Mathews in the center of his chest and passed through him to within a fraction of an inch of his spinal column, missing all vital organs. That bullet is still in him and will remained there always, nature sealing it with a covering of cartilage.
Mathews primary interest in relating his story was in clearing Mrs. Wiley.
He told of the friendship between the two families and then said, “Mrs. Wiley and I had a business matter to talk over with an automobile dealer. I went to her home in Liverpool, got her and we both went to the dealer’s salesrooms. Completing our business there, I suggested we swing around to Georg’s before going back to Liverpool as I wanted to talk over a business matter with him. That is how she happened to be with me.”
Syracuse Journal, January 18, 1933
The only disinterested witness of the shooting of J. Ray Mathews by patrolman Leo F. Handwright corroborates the story told by Mathews to The Journal and contradicts the story told by Handwright to his superiors. That was disclosed today by Commissioner William E. Rapp of the department of public welfare.
Informed that Mathews had related to The Journal a version of the incident in which he and the officer were pictured as standing several feet apart when the shots were fired, the commissioner said:
“That fits the story told to us by Clarence Fielder of 814 East Genesee Street, a citizen who says he saw the shooting.
“Fielder, awake on the night of the shooting because of a toothache, says he saw Mathews and Handwright on the sidewalk across the street and they were standing apart possibly five feet, when the shots were fired.”
There was, however, something seriously wrong this this picture. If Patrolman Handwright's version wasn't true, then why was his punishment no more than a fine amounting to 30 days' pay? He also was required to file his resignation, but having done so, he was immediately reinstated.
I could only conclude that Handwright's very detailed version of the incident was the only one that made sense. Given his injuries, which were real, there was little likelihood that he was standing, unsupported, several feet from Mathews when the shots were fired. The "disinterested" witness, Clarence Fielder, likely said what he thought investigators wanted to hear, or perhaps, in the darkness from across the street, didn't really see what he thought he saw. And the married Liverpool woman had her own agenda, having been placed in an embarrassing situation by a married man whose wife must have had several questions after she was summoned to her husband's bedside at hospital.
You may also have noticed some time discrepancies in the various versions of events, including the first newspaper account which had Mathews and Mrs. Wiley arriving shortly after 10:30 p.m. This seems more likely than one Mathews recollection that he and the woman arrived shortly after midnight.
AFTER HEARING testimony from all witnesses, the Onondaga County grand jury chose not to indict Handwright, who was suspended from duty while he recovered from injuries that sidelined him until April. Then he was charged with violating a police department regulation by leaving his beat on the night of January 10. By June he was back on duty, though still affected by those injuries. He was re-assigned to police headquarters as a dispatcher.
The Seager case mentioned in his statement to the district attorney involved the murder of a Syracuse woman by a bomb that was placed in her home. Handwright was involved in the arrest of the accused murderer, a man from Homer, New York, and testified at his trial.
The policeman had a checkered, but interesting career — during one of his low points he was dispatched to control traffic on State Fair Boulevard after an explosion at the Semet-Solvay Company in 1929. This was the worst such accident since the horrific 1918 blast and fire that took more than 50 lives at the company's Split Rock facility that manufactured TNT for the Navy.
HANDWRIGHT was a tragedy waiting to happen. Late in 1933 he was in trouble again, though he would insist he was made the "goat" in yet another police embarrassment.
Raiders from the Onondaga County Alcoholic Beverage Control Board showed up at a Syracuse restaurant that was a favorite of local politicians. A slot machine was found on the premises, and Syracuse police were called. Handwright took the call, but almost an hour passed before police arrived. By that time the restaurant owner, Paul Knaus, had gotten rid of the gambling device. The ABC board pulled his beer and liquor licenses, then later blamed Handwright for the slow police response.
Four days later the board was ordered to return the licenses because Knaus wasn't found guilty of anything. Another policeman, caught taking a two-hour meal break at the time, was forgiven, but Handwright lost his job as dispatcher and was assigned to direct traffic along the city's truck route. A few weeks after that he was assigned to walk a beat from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. on the Syracuse South Side.
But in June Handwright fell asleep on duty and was fined 15 days' pay. Leniency was shown because Handwright was still suffering from his leg injuries and also had a bad toothache. He said the pills he was taking to relieve the pain had caused him to fall asleep.
He soon was assigned to do clerical work for the police accident prevention bureau, but by 1939 was out and about again. In November that year he and three other patrolmen were credited with saving the life of a woman who was overcome by gas in her home.
IN MAY 1941, he saved an inmate who tried to hang himself in a cell at police headquarters. This, unfortunately, foreshadowed the last event in the life of Leo Handwright, who in 1946 was charged with misconduct for the theft of merchandise from a fire-wrecked warehouse that was supposed to be under police guard.
On March 13 Syracuse Mayor Frank J. Costello ordered Handwright's dismissal from the police department. The action was taken at a public hearing that Handwright failed to attend. Two hours later Handwright's body was found in the basement of an apartment building where he had hanged himself by a belt. He was 57 and had been a policeman for more than 22 years.
As for J. Raymond Mathews, he wasn't in the news much after the shooting incident, and when he did surface in the Syracuse Journal the news wasn't good — a 1939 trip to Jamesville Penitentiary when he said he couldn't pay alimony he owed his first wife, Mrs. Edythe M. Mathews, or the fine that went with an attachment for contempt signed by a New York State Supreme Court Justice.
In 1942 he was arrested for drunk driving after he collided with another car in Syracuse, and on March 28, 1945 J. Raymond Mathews died at St. Joseph Hospital. Each time he was the news he was living at a different Syracuse address.
At the time of his death he was eastern representative of the E. J. Woodson Foundry. He was survived by J. Raymond Mathews II, son of his first wife.
Mrs. Edythe M. Mathews was an underwriter with the Marine Office of America and a charter member of the Syracuse Insurance Women's Association, serving as the group's first president. She was active for many years as a volunteer with the Cerebral Palsy Clinic and a member of its board of directors. She moved to Fayetteville where she died in October, 1982. Among her survivors, besides her son, were two grandchildren, Miss Mary Ellen Mathews and J. Raymond Mathews III.