FLORENCE, AZ — Just before 5 A.M. on February 21, 1930, at the Arizona State Prison Complex, Eva Dugan laughingly sang her way into her own execution.
The colorful cabaret performer and prostitute traveled far and wide throughout her life and unfailingly charmed all comers — including five dead husbands and, at least at first, the rancher she’d been convicted of ax-murdering.
Brassy and upbeat, Dugan turned her final moments into a self-styled grand finale by belting out a popular ditty of the day: “I Don’t Know Where I’m Going, But I’m On My Way.”
Clad in a white silk shroud of her own making, Dugan smiled as she marched up the 13 steps to the gallows. She gently chided the guards not to hold her arms so tight, whispering, “People will think I’m afraid.”
She chose to make no final statement. Warden Lorenzo Wright, clearly saddened, took Dugan’s hand and said, “God bless you, Eva.” She replied, “Good-bye, Daddy Wright” and let go. At 5:02 A.M., the trap door opened, Dugan fell through it, and the noose jerked so suddenly tight it snapped her head clean off.
Five witnesses — including, for the first time in Arizona history, two women — fainted in horror upon sight of the unexpected decapitation
Born in 1878, Eva Dugan traveled vastly in her youth and hit her stride in Juneau, Alaska, during the late 19th century Klondike Gold Rush.
Charismatic, voluptuous, and dazzlingly talented, Dugan thrived among the era’s roughnecks and rowdy prospectors. She worked as a cabaret singer and saloon hostess who turned tricks on the side, beguiling customers of all kinds until the boom times dried up.
After the gold rush, Dugan drifted back down to the lower 48, ultimately settling in Pima, Arizona, where she took a housekeeping gig in the home of elderly chicken rancher Andrew J. Mathis.
Locals described Mathis as a miserly crank, and he apparently failed to fully succumb to Dugan’s otherwise steadfast allure — clearly to his own peril.
On January 14, 1927, Andrew J. Mathis vanished from his ranch. So did Eva Dugan. She took off in Mathis’s Dodge coupe accompanied by a 17-year-old farmhand simply called “Jack.”
The duo drove to Amarillo, Texas, where they sold the car for $600. Dugan took a train to Kansas City; no one knows what became of Jack.
Back in Arizona, a machinist drove a stake into a patch of ground and discovered Mathis’s body buried underneath. Police determined he’d been murdered with an ax, and alerted authorities nationwide to be on the lookout for Dugan.Related: Death Row Inmate “Breathing Heavily, Writhing, Clenching His Teeth” After Botched Execution
Early in 1928, the law caught up to Eva Dugan in White Plains, New York, where investigators discovered her father and a previously unknown daughter lived.
Far more damningly, it also came to light that Dugan had been married five times in the course of her adventures and that, indeed, all five of her husbands had disappeared.
After being extradited back to Arizona, a rapid trial resulted in a first-degree murder conviction and a judge sentencing Dugan to die by hanging.
In response to the trial outcome, Dugan turned to the 12 men who found her guilty and said:
“Well, at least I’ll die with my boots on and in full health. And that’s more that most of you old coots’ll be able to boast on.”
Once in jail, Dugan continue to captivate those in her orbit. She peddled interviews to the press for $1 apiece, and routinely received warm coverage. To pay for her own coffin, she made and sold monogrammed handkerchiefs that the public happily purchased.
Behind her beguiling veneer, Dugan planned to off herself one day before her scheduled demise. Guards thwarted the suicide when they came across razor blades and raw ammonia in her cell.
When staffers summoned Dugan for her walk to the death chamber, she reportedly kissed two guards on the cheek and said:
“I love everyone connected with the prison. You have all been good to me, and I can’t blame you for what the law is going to do to me.”
From there, Dugan’s hanging turned into a sudden, grotesque bloodbath. As a direct result, Arizona never hanged another female prisoner and they took rapid steps to make the ostensibly more humane gas chamber its official execution method.
Up until the very end, Eva Dugan made sure she’d never be forgotten.
For more on Eva Dugan, watch the “If Looks Could Kill” episode of Investigation Discovery’s Deadly Women on ID GO now!
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Main photos: Eva Dugan [Pima County Sheriff’s Department]