GRAND RAPIDS, MICH., May 30. — Isma Martin, one of the most famous swindlers in the country, is wanted here for swindling Grand Rapids people out of $2,000 by a bicycle swindling scheme. She is the woman who robbed Mrs. Frank Leslie out of $8,000 worth of diamonds. She is a native of Detroit, and first came before the public there by shoplifting in Mabley’s store.
This was in 1893. In 1894 she was a reporter on the World. She returned Mrs. Leslie’s diamonds and was not prosecuted. Afterward she turned up in Denver, Colo., where she was arrested for forgery. She, through influence of her wealthy relatives in Detroit, secured her liberty. She came to Grand Rapids four months ago and entered good society, becoming a chum of Miss Gertrude Anderson, a government employee. She used Miss Anderson to secure orders for bicycles from her male friends, saying that her brother in Cleveland was a manufacturer of bicycles and she could get them $100 wheels at half the price. Every order Miss Anderson took from her had to be accompanied by the money. She got $1000 this way and fled.
— The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 31, 1897
You know the old adage — if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The trusting Miss Anderson and her friends apparently never heard the phrase, or if they did, they forgot to take it to heart. They found out the hard way when they were bilked out of $1000 in May 1897.
Moral: never trust a smooth-talking con woman who claims she can get you a bicycle (or anything else) at cost!
Ismena Theresa Martin, known as “Isma” was the middle child of seven, born to Irish immigrants Joseph Martin and Fanny Brennan Martin, on March 15, 1871, in Detroit, Michigan. The family prospered in America — Isma’s father started out as a bricklayer but worked as the sewer inspector for Detroit by the time he died of a heart attack in October 1896. His death may have been hastened by emotional distress over his daughter’s criminal misadventures.
Isma’s illegal activities stretched back to 1890 when she stole mortgaged furniture and china in Saginaw, Michigan. She showed up with a small girl at the railroad depot, claiming the child was hers and they were destitute and in need of railroad tickets. She got the tickets, using the furniture as security, all while using an alias — her mother’s maiden name.
In 1895 Isma was “working” as a reporter in Cleveland, Ohio, when she was given access to a valuable diamond brooch and asked to write an advertising copy about the item. Instead she tried to make off with the jewelry, but the theft was discovered and she was fired. Another favorite scam of Isma’s was to get into the good graces of wealthy individuals, often by claiming to be a distant relative. She’d move into her mark’s home and head out to upscale stores and obtain expensive items on credit (false pretenses) by virtue of her connection to her rich benefactor. By the time the ruse was discovered she was long gone.
When Isma’s misdeeds were uncovered, her family in Detroit paid her victims off to keep her out of the courts. Generally if the victim got his or her money or valuables back, they didn’t prosecute. Her criminal activities were written up so frequently in the Detroit Free Press during the 1890s that often the only headline the paper used was “Isma Martin Again.”
Isma fell into the clutches of the police, in Covington, Kentucky, in 1897, for the bicycle scam, and they decided she needed to be photographed, or “mugged.” She objected, supposedly based on advice from her attorney. The “Michigan adventuress fights like a tiger when an effort is made to photograph her” was a newspaper description of the chaotic scene. An officer had to work hard to keep Isma from breaking things up in the Bertillon room, but between “fights and twisting” the photographer got a photo. Unfortunately it was not of much use for identification, though a reporter noted that, “Miss Martin is far from pretty, but she has an intellectual face.”
Sentenced to 18 months in the Detroit House of Correction for grand larceny, Isma applied for parole in 1898, claiming she was dying of a toothache. Parole was denied. Released in February 1899, she headed to Mackinac Island in northern Michigan “to engage in literary work at the up-lake resorts.” This working interlude was cut short when her typewriter and bicycle had to be confiscated to pay her bills.
Perhaps getting “mugged” in 1897 inspired Isma to go straight. Or maybe it was that stint in the Detroit HOC. At any rate, she stayed out of prison after 1899. Her obituary noted that she worked, under the name I.T. Martin, as a Catholic Correspondent for the Detroit Free Press, but there was no mention of her criminal career. She even wrote a couple of books. She never married and died of a stroke in Detroit on October 6, 1931.
Featured photo: Isma Martin, half-length portrait of criminal for police identification purposes, seated, facing front, 1897. Bail Collection, Library of Congress.