Mugshot March: Bert Martin’s Peculiarities

In the second-to-last installment of Mugshot March, we examine the case of Bert Martin.

Martin had been living in Ashland, Nebraska and boarding with a local family for only a short time before achieving notoriety. According to the Nebraska State Journal, he secured a team of horses from livery stable on the pretense of driving a short distance into the country. Instead, he headed for Nebraska City, eloping with the family’s eldest daughter in the process. Martin was not the sharpest criminal. When the livery stable missed the team, they easily tracked Martin down. Somehow, he managed to satisfy his debt to the livery, but the girl’s father was not so easily put off. He forcibly took Martin and his daughter to Wahoo, procured a license, and saw that they were legally married. After this romantic shotgun wedding, they returned home to Ashland.

Just a few weeks later, the sheriff appeared with a warrant for the arrest of Bert Martin, alias Bert Sherman, for stealing horses. Martin admitted his guilt, and was convicted and sentenced to 2 years at the Nebraska penitentiary. He arrived in October 1900,  but was told that with good behavior, he could be out by June 1902.  Prison intake forms reflect the baby-faced prisoner was 21 years old, stood 5’5 and weighed 154 pounds. Martin was temperate (didn’t drink alcohol), and had no religion. He gave his occupation as cook, and noted he had a wife and child.

Bert Martin, 1900. Photo NE State Historical Society


Things went merrily along for 11 months, until Martin’s cellmate dropped a bit of news on the guards. Bert Martin was actually a woman, and her name was Lena. She had confided in him that she had used her masculine appearance to get work as a cowboy–a job unavailable to women. This checks out, at least partially. Lena Martin was known to work with a horse trading outfit when she first arrived in Ashland.

I’m curious to know how this information was received by Ashland family with whom Martin had been living, because this was a big story.

But the press only covered the official reaction. The story was a huge embarrassment to prison officials. The casual glance the guards gave her when admitted, they protested, was not sufficient to reveal Martin’s “peculiarities”. Prison physician LW Edwards, who was present for Martin’s intake, was subjected to ongoing ridicule for not identifying Martin as a female. Dr. Edwards attempted to reclaim his dignity by protesting his examination was made only to rate prisoners’ physique for the work they were assigned.

Martin was moved to the women’s division, but this caused an outcry. Governor Savage was at a loss to know what to do. Mrs. Martin came to his rescue, with a plea to set her daughter free. She promised to take her home to Springview, Nebraska, where they would live in retirement. Savage eagerly commuted Martin’s sentence and she was released to her mother’s custody in February 1902.

Despite the coverage, little is known of Lena because the official records are based on falsehoods she told. She used at least two aliases, she was never a cook, and she didn’t have a child. I suspect she was younger than 21. It would be interesting to know what became of her.

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