In 1919 a murder trial in Kansas City was interrupted by Eamon De Valera's tour of the United States.
Dev was in America fundraising for the newly formed Dail Eireann and his journey across North America drew crowds who turned out to hear the 'President of the Irish Republic.' He visited many places and met many people, including a female gangster on trial for murder!
On Oct 25, 1919, the De Valera bandwagon rolled into Kansas City. Dev was there to be awarded the freedom of the city and was due to give a speech at Convention Hall the following night.
At that time a court case was the talk of the town and the President of the Irish Republic found himself going to the city courthouse to see what all the fuss was about.
Judge Ralph Latshaw was presiding over a murder trial and when he heard that Eamon De Valera was in his court he was more than pleased to make a big deal out of it.
Dev was ushered to the bench where he shook hands with the judge who gave him an overview of the trial in process. The judge then led Dev to the platform near the witness chair where he delivered a brief speech.
"In Ireland," he said "court trials are more or less of a burlesque. They put you in jail then forget about you!" Cheers erupted and people surged forward to shake the hand of the Irish President. Everyone wanted to meet Dev, even the very person who was on trial.
Martha Alice Howard, better known as Mattie Howard,was a dubious character in the Kansas City underworld who found herself on trial for murder. She met Dev and as they shook hands she exclaimed "Glad to meet you Mr President. You're the first President I ever met!"
When the De Valera circus left the courtroom the trial resumed and the verdict would not be the one Mattie would have hoped for.
On the night of May 22nd 1918 Mattie Howard and 'Diamond' Joe Morino checked into The Touraine Hotel on 1412 Central Avenue, Kansas City. Morino was a jewel dealer and Mattie owed him money. They booked into the hotel for the week where Diamond Joe had intentions of keeping Mattie there to work off the money she owed him. However, a day later Mattie and her boyfriend Sam Taylor were seen rushing from the hotel and into a waiting cab. Hotel staff later found the body of Diamond Joe. He had been beaten to death.
It did not take long for the law to catch up with Mattie and Sam. Both were arrested for the murder of Diamond Joe. Mattie was convicted of murder in the 2nd degree and was sent to Missouri State Penitentiary to serve 12 years. Her boyfriend Sam was also convicted and sent to serve a long stretch behind bars.
Mattie had been a well-known fixture in the seedy underbelly of Kansas City life.
She was a blue-eyed blonde-haired lady of several aliases. A report in The Lincoln Journal Star of Oct 25, 1919, described Mattie's demeanor in court: "She was sitting composed and quiet, her strikingly cold blue eyes gazed out over the courtroom without revealing a vestige of emotion."
During her trial, the press dubbed 25-year-old Mattie as 'The Kansas City Bandit Queen.' In essence, Mattie was just a common pickpocket and blackmailer but she left that life behind her while serving time in the state penitentiary. While behind bars she turned to God and her good behavior resulted in an early release - 7 years into her 12-year sentence.
Mattie wrote her memoir in the late 1930s called "The Pathway of Mattie Howard To And From Prison. A True Story of the Regeneration of an ex Convict and Gangster Woman."
The reformed 'Gangster Woman' would go traveling the country as an evangelist preacher and was still active up to the 1950s, living out her days preaching in Denver. She never forgot her encounter with Eamon De Valera and would often remark how an Irish President came to greet her at the height of her criminal notoriety!
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