PALMYRA, Mo. | History-lovers in Marion County are hoping that an appeal to the public may help shed some more light on Mary Anderson Matthews, a woman that local historians fear is at risk of being forgotten.
“The problem with history is that once it's gone, it is gone. There is a lot of history that happened in this town, and people don't realize it,” said Carol Brentlinger, who is the curator at the historic Marion County Jail and Jailor's House, which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places for the role the building played in the 1862 killing of 10 male Confederate prisoners of war known as the Palmyra Massacre.
Mary Anderson Matthews was born in Palmyra in April 1878. She was the daughter of William R. Anderson and Anne McPheters Anderson and the granddaughter of Colonel Thomas L. Anderson, who in antebellum Marion County was considered one of the most prominent men, according to an article published in the Omaha World Herald in June 1899. After establishing a legal career, Colonel Anderson would later be elected to the state legislature and eventually the U.S. House of Representatives in 1856 and 1858.
“I think the election of her grandfather and her father's and brother's legal careers really did influence her, coming from a family who was involved in politics, I think it was only natural for her to become involved in politics too,” Brentlinger said.
After graduating from the now-defunct Centenary College in Palmyra, Matthews would become the first woman admitted to the Marion County Bar Association in 1899. Matthews would later serve at least two terms as Palmyra's prosecuting attorney, being elected in 1900 and 1901.
“She was doing things that were really unheard of for a woman to do at that time,” said Betsy Welty, who is the curator of the Gardner House, a museum dedicated to Palmyra-area history.
According to a May 1905 article in the St. Louis Republic, it was during her tenure as prosecuting attorney that Matthews met her eventual husband, Otho Matthews, an attorney who had come to Palmyra to represent a client. The couple's romance served as the basis of “Love vs. Law,” a book written by Mary Anderson Matthews.
During their marriage the couple continued to blaze trails, quite literally, as they went to the west coast in 1914 to collect depositions in their case representing the heirs of William H. Russell, the man who helped start the short-lived Pony Express in the 1860s. Russell's heirs had filed a lawsuit against the federal government.
In a report from the Palmyra Spectator, the Matthews couple interviewed hundreds of former Pony Express riders, including famed rider Buffalo Bill Cody.
While the couple later separated – some historical records point to a divorce, others have Mary Anderson Matthews listed as a widow – Mary Anderson continued to make her home in Macon, Mo., where she had relocated following her marriage.
In Macon, Mary Anderson continued to be an outspoken advocate and lecturer on topics related to the equality of the sexes, including women's suffrage, marital relationships, employment opportunities, and hunting and fishing. She became the first woman in Macon to receive a hunting and fishing license in June 1905.
Very little is known about Mary or Otho's life in Macon.
“I am really hoping that somebody is out there has some knowledge or information about Mary Anderson Matthews. I am hoping that somebody has something, anything that may help us learn about her,” Brentlinger said.
According to Missouri death records, Otho died in Macon on November 23, 1933, from complications of cirrhosis. He was 58 and is buried in Macon.
Mary died in Columbia on February 18, 1948, from pancreatitis. She is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Palmyra.