The detective treasure of San Francisco


Published on June 22, 2014

This Pictou County born man became a famous police detective who was the arresting officer in one of the first sensational Hollywood murder scandals in United States history. This individual would go on to have an outstanding public service career and have one of the top jobs in the City of San Francisco.

Duncan Matheson was born in the Fox Brook, Middle River area, in the year 1862. He would grow up with good Presbyterian moral background, nurtured by his hard working Pictou County parents, William and Isabella (Douglas) Matheson. Young Duncan and his six siblings would attend the one-room school in his community and he would graduate from Pictou Academy in the year 1880, with honours in mathematics.

The next year at the young age of 19, Duncan set out in the world on his own and settled in Northern California. His first job was helping to construct the Elk River Railroad, near Eureka, Humbolt County. At the age of 30, he became Southern Pacific Railroad Companies’ chief roadmaster and was awarded a gold medal for his services.

Duncan still had connections back in his home county in Nova Scotia. His future wife Christibel Douglas of River John travelled out to the California coast to be with him. They were married on Sept. 7, 1896, in Los Angles.

In the year 1900, Duncan Matheson signed up with the San Francisco Police Dept. This career change would have profound gratifying results for both Duncan and the city. He would rise in status and leadership within a very short period.”He served in every grade and rank of the department.” Duncan passed each promotion exam with honourable distinction. He became San Francisco’s first traffic department commander and introduced sweeping new laws and changes. From a 1930s biography, “Lieutenant Matheson’s original plan, including street improvements, traffic arteries and boulevards, has never changed or deviated therefrom.” Another change introduced by D.S. Matheson was traffic violators were not arrested but told to report to a driver upgrading school operated by Duncan Matheson.  

For the next 29 years Duncan Matheson‘s life would be dedicated to police service. He would be involved in some of the most sensational criminal cases in California. A compilation of drug and gambling wars, shootouts, death threats, bare knuckle fights and a list of incredible court cases would accompany this man’s police career.

San Francisco in the early 1900s was a raucous, freewheeling, open city with a quick growing population of a million and a half people. Crime and corruption were rampant. In the second year on the beat police officer Duncan Matheson was in the thick of things during the notorious Union Labour Party Carmen’s strike. Police were asked by the mayor to use any force necessary to break the strike. Our Duncan Matheson during one of the dustups was charged by one of the teamsters for “knocking him down and hitting him with his club, inflicting a scalp wound.” Duncan was not charged. The strike lasted well into November with five people killed and over 300 wounded.

Duncan Matheson made a great impression on city council, being promoted to Detective Sergeant in 1908. Detective Matheson was assigned duty in San Francisco’s Chinatown in April, 1910 “for the suppression of gambling and lotteries.” Within nine months he was assigned another district, following the howls of outrage from the Chinese community because of unrelenting tactics used by Detective Sergeant Matheson and his squad. Again he was charged, but not prosecuted.

In 1911, Duncan Matheson was made Lieutenant of Police. According to the records it was Duncan Matheson who changed the entire detective bureau of the Police department. Changes made under his planning have never been “equalled anywhere in America.” He would continue with exemplary service.

In 1917 he was made Captain of Detectives and would be in charge of some very high profile cases for the next 12 years. In 1921 he was the arresting officer in the Roscoe 'Fatty’ Arbuckle murder case.

Arbuckle was one of the highest paid actors/directors in the motion business. But on Sept. 5 of that year, during a weekend party thrown by Fatty, a young actress named Virginia Rappe ran screaming from a hotel bedroom, where she claimed Roscoe Arbuckle sexually assaulted her. She died four days later. On Sept 17, Detective Duncan Matheson arrested Fatty Arbuckle without incident. Detective Matheson stated “This woman without a doubt died as a result of an attack by Arbuckle. That makes it first degree murder without a doubt. We don’t feel that a man like ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle can pull stuff like this in San Francisco and get away with it.”

This trial became a media circus, the public wanted Fatty’s head. Reporters “exaggerated and sensationalized” the story, portraying the silent film star as a “gross lecher who used his weight to overpower innocent girls.” After eight months and three different trials Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was acquitted and his career pretty well ended.

Detective Matheson retired in 1929 and in the early 1930s ran for the top job as treasurer of the City of San Francisco. He won and retained this job until his death in 1942.



John Ashton of Bridgeville is a local historian and the province’s representative to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.