Arresting Elizabeth Wohlman

Arresting Elizabeth Wohlman

AFFIRMED.—The case of the state vs. Elizabeth Wohlman, for grand larceny, was affirmed in the Supreme Court yesterday, and the defendant committed to the County Jail for safe keeping until such time as it is convenient to take her to the Penitentiary. The defendant, together with Catharine Martin and Augusta Goetz, living in Belleville, came to this city on the 8th of November 1861, and visited many stores for the ostensible purpose of purchasing goods. They visited the jewelry stores of Cappel, Crane, Jackard, (sic) and others, and the hat and fur store of Mr. Gray. From each of these stores they stole jewelry, and were detected in the store of Eugene Jaccard, in the act of putting some jewelry in the basket which one of them carried.

Daily Missouri Republican (St. Louis), April 27, 1864

Her hair is oiled, parted in the middle, and worn close to her head in a tight bun. One hand peeks out from a heavy, striped shawl that’s draped across her shoulders and pinned over a knotted scarf around her neck. From her pierced ears hang beautiful earrings, possibly made of gold. Yet something is off about the photo. The woman’s expression is worried and frightened, even a touch angry, and one of her eyes seems to stare directly at the viewer, while the other gazes disconcertingly off camera.

Elizabeth back photo

Back of Wohlman ambrotype, which reads: Mrs. Wohlman-Shop Lifter, 29-years of age-5 foot 6 inches-Brown hair and-Gray eyes, German-Lucker. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Her name was Elizabeth Wohlman, and it’s no surprise she looks unhappy. Shortly before her likeness was captured, she and several family members were arrested at gunpoint outside of Eugene Jaccard & Co., a luxury goods store near the St. Louis riverfront. After being unceremoniously hauled off to the city jail and searched by police officers on that fateful day in November 1861, Wohlman was charged with shoplifting.

This extraordinarily detailed image exists because the St. Louis Police Department began taking photographs of suspects and criminals for the purpose of identification in October 1857. The portraits were hung in a public place in the police station, and citizens were encouraged to walk through and examine what soon became known as the “rogues’ gallery.” Many other American cities followed St. Louis’s lead and started rogues’ galleries of their own, but few of those photographs still exist today.

St. Louis jail

St. Louis City Jail, located at the southeast corner of Sixth and Chestnut, 1850. Daguerreotype by Thomas Easterly. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

A group of nearly 200 photos from the first 10 years of the St. Louis rogues’ gallery miraculously survived and was donated to the Missouri Historical Society by the police department in 1953. Several of the images, including the ambrotype of Wohlman, are identified with handwritten notes on the reverse side.

I discovered the collection while searching for mid-19th-century photos of “typical” German immigrants living in St. Louis, with the goal of getting a better understanding of what my ancestors, who immigrated to St. Louis during that period, looked like. The rogues’ gallery, which includes the likenesses of immigrants and native-born Americans, fascinated me, so I decided to research all the identified people using genealogical resources.

Elizabeth Wohlman is special for several reasons. She’s one of only three women in the collection and the only woman identified by name. Additionally, few women anywhere were photographed for rogues’ galleries because mid-19th-century Americans found it difficult to accept the idea that women committed crimes. This makes Wohlman’s photo exceptionally rare.

There’s more to know about Wohlman’s life, her crime, and the price she paid for it, along with many others whose photos were taken for the “illustrious collection,” as one St. Louis newspaper described it. Grab a copy of Captured and Exposed to begin exploring their stories on your favorite eBook device, then head to the Missouri History Museum to see their portraits on display once again (September 22, 2018 – March 10, 2019) in the new Atrium exhibit, The St. Louis Rogues’ Gallery.

Featured photo: Sixth-plate ambrotype of Elizabeth Wohlman, November 1861. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

All in the Family

All in the Family

In the arrest of nine residents of Sample alley during the last two days, and the recovery of about $10,000 worth of merchandise stolen from Pittsburgh stores, Commissioner of Police Peter P. Walsh of the North Side, believes that the greatest system of shoplifting ever conducted in this city has been exposed.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), May 14, 1914

Although she was only 17 years old, Gertrude Busch doesn’t look too upset about being arrested as a member of the “biggest shoplifting gang” ever to hit the city of Pittsburgh. Gertrude had a pretty good poker face.

She was born in Germany and immigrated to America with her parents and eight siblings in 1909. The Busch family settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Shoplifter skirt illus. - Newspapers.com

In May 1914 the owner of a Pittsburgh dry goods store, Maurice Kiwowitz, realized he was missing a large amount of his merchandise. Maurice figured about $100 worth of stuff ($2,500 in 2018 dollars) had gone rogue every week during the previous few months. He suspected a group of German women were responsible for the thefts when he noticed a pattern of things vanishing after their daily visits to his shop. He instructed one of his shop clerks to closely watch the women the next time they dropped by.

The clerk followed his instructions and caught one of the ladies in the act of secreting something in the “copious pockets of a specially designed skirt.” The clerk alerted Maurice, who promptly called the police.

The police arrested Gertrude, her mother, Annie Busch, and four of her sisters: Angeline, Theresa, Sophia and Margaret.

Mama_Angeline Busch

Anna (left) and Angeline Busch

Theresa_Sophia Busch

Theresa (left) and Sophia Busch

More arrests followed over the next two days, including Gertrude’s father, “Christ” (Christian), her brother, William, and three of her brothers-in-law. The final count of those in custody was eight members of the Busch family and three of their sons-in-law. Only three of Christ and Annie’s nine children weren’t implicated in the crime: Mary, age 33, Henry, age 21, and Annie, age 13.

The Busch gang’s modus operandi was for mama Annie to go into a store with several of her daughters. She’d strike up a conversation with the clerk while the daughters surreptitiously slipped items into the hidden pockets in their skirts. As soon as the ladies finished filling up, Mrs. Busch purchased an inexpensive item to keep the clerk from suspecting foul play and they made a rapid exit.

The police found over $10,000 worth of merchandise ($252,000 in 2018 dollars) stolen from shops around the city and packed into 18 trunks that were stored in the cellars of the family’s three homes. Most of it was inexpensive clothing and household goods. Many of the items had been soaked in water to make them look wrinkled, old and worn out in case someone questioned the item’s provenance.

Christ_William Busch

Christ (left) and William Busch

Fred_Jacob

Fred Volscoat (left, Theresa’s husband) and Jacob Bachmann (Angeline’s husband)

Angeline, Theresa, Sophia and Margaret Busch all confessed to shoplifting and were charged with larceny. However Annie, Christ, Gertrude and William Busch and the three of brothers-in-law claimed they “knew nothing of any robberies and did not know that the stuff in their trunks was stolen.” Convinced they were lying, the police charged them with receiving stolen goods. In addition to the adults, eight children ranging in age from two weeks to 14 years were taken to jail with their parents because there was no one left to care for them.

The four confessing sisters told police that the family planned to ship the trunks back to Germany, where they would use the stolen loot to stock a dry goods store they planned to open. It sounds like a half-baked scheme but these weren’t the cleverest of crooks, given that they went back to the same store to shoplift day after day.

In June 1914 a grand jury brought back bills charging the entire family, including the brothers-in-law, with larceny and receiving stolen property. The following February they were all put on trial.

Newspapers were silent on the outcome of the trial, but given the evidence it’s hard to imagine they weren’t found guilty. However Gertrude was very young, her parents were elderly and the rest of the family members had small children, so it’s likely none of them got much, if any, prison time.

By 1919 the Busch family had moved from Sample Alley, in the heart of Pittsburgh, to other towns in Pennsylvania where they found honest, gainful employment. There’s no evidence any of them ever broke the law again, but the shopkeepers of Pittsburgh must have rejoiced to see them go.

Christ, age 61, died of pneumonia in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, in April 1919. His wife Annie died two days before Christmas in 1946 at the ripe old age of 89. And, while many of the couple’s children lived only to middle age, poker-faced Gertrude beat the odds and made it to 76.

Featured photo: mugshot of Gertrude Busch, taken May 12, 1914, by the Pittsburgh Police. Collection of the author.

Note: I purchased the nine mugshots shown here from an eBay seller. The mugshots of Margaret Busch and Sophia Busch’s husband, Melchior Gebhart, were not available from the seller. 

She Resisted

She Resisted

Alleged Shoplifters Held

Two women, both of whom are suspected of being professional shoplifters, were arraigned at the Central Police Court yesterday. The defendants said their names were Annie Mitchell and Ellen Joyce, but they refused to tell the magistrate where they lived. Detectives Swan and Knox of Marks Brothers’ Store arrested the women on Monday after they had, it is alleged, stolen several pairs of gloves and a silk skirt. They were held in $600 bail for trial.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 24, 1900

The news article supplies only a dash of information, however the remarkable photo of Ella Joyce, taken on January 22, 1900 when she was arrested, speaks volumes. She resisted having her picture made, so the arresting officers held her hair and chin to get a clear picture. Even then, Ella closed her eyes and stuck out her tongue to make sure to ruin the photo. Perhaps it was her comment on the police and their practice of photographing people who hadn’t been charged with wrongdoing, much less found guilty of a crime.

Ella Joyce_back_lowresThe back of Ella’s CDV card provides a few personal details. She was 27 years old, slender and tall — almost 5’8” — with black hair, blue eyes and a medium complexion. She was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She had a small scar above her right eyebrow and another on her right thumb. She worked as a domestic. Her Bertillon measurements were recorded on a separate piece of paper that was glued to the CDV.

When the federal census was taken on June 9, 1900, six months after her arrest, there was only one young woman named Ella Joyce living in Philadelphia. Ellen “Ella” O’Donnell Joyce was a married woman who lived with her husband, William, in East Germantown in the northwest section of the city. They’d been married four years and had no children. William worked as a gardener and Ella was a housewife. Both were American-born children of Irish immigrant parents.

There was no follow-up in the newspapers about the shoplifting case of Ella and her pal Annie. Marks Brothers, the store where Ella was arrested, was founded as a millinery shop and was well-known for its women’s goods. The store opened at the southwest corner of Eighth and Arch Street in the 1860s and the building was reconstructed after a fire in 1889. It closed for reorganization in 1902 and reopened at a different location in 1904.

Marks Brothers Store

Marks Brothers, undated photo by Frank H. Taylor, Free Library of Philadelphia

Officer Knox, one of the policemen who arrested Ella, was temporarily kicked off the force, in 1905, after he “got in trouble at a picnic.” Officer William Swan, the other policemen involved in Ella’s arrest, worked as a detective assigned to keep an eye on the Marks Brothers store between 1895 and 1902. The Philadelphia Inquirer is full of stories of Officer Swan’s exploits, such as the time he nabbed Samuel Hoffman, a boy still in knee breeches, for stealing the pocketbook of Mrs. Huldah Katz. A few months later he detained Mrs. Maud French and Mrs. Alice Incas for shoplifting coats and shoes. Both women had babies in their arms at the time. The young, the old and the female comprised the majority of those Officer Swan arrested at Marks Brothers.

Marks Brothers, unable to compete with larger stores in the vicinity of its new location, closed its doors forever in 1909.

Ella and William continued to live in the same East Germantown tenement and were still childless when a census worker recorded them in 1910. William was employed as a steamfitter and Ella was without a profession. On September 13, 1911 — the day before her 38th birthday — Ella died at home of cirrhosis of the liver and exhaustion.

It was a cold day in late January 1900, and Ella Joyce needed a pair of gloves and she wanted a silk skirt, but she couldn’t afford either. Or maybe it was a misunderstanding and she intended to pay. Though we’ll never know exactly what she was thinking when her mug shot was taken, as a piece of photographic history, it is priceless.

Featured photo: Ella Joyce’s CDV mugshot, collection of the author

Checkered Career

Checkered Career

Arraigned in police court yesterday before magistrate P.J. McNamara, George Kelly, 27, of Wilkes-Barre, was held in $500 bail on a charge of larceny, while a woman, who describes herself as Dorothy, his wife, 22, was held under a similar bond as accessory.

 

The woman has had a rather picturesque career, according to her story to Superintendent of Police M.J. McHugh. She says she ran away from home, lured by the glamor of the stage, when only fifteen years of age. She started out as a chorus girl, drifted into the carnival field in the role of fortune teller, then cowgirl with a wild west show, later into vaudeville, and most recently into burlesque. Her mother, she says, is the owner of a store in Wilkes-Barre.

 

The couple were (sic) arrested here for the theft of a dress from the Jordan & Plottle store on Wyoming avenue.

The Scranton Republican (Scranton, Pennsylvania), October 26, 1923

Burlesque dancer 1920s

Burlesque dancer, 1920s.

Did Dorothy want a new dress for her burlesque routine or did she need something valuable to pawn or resell? One minute she and her friend George were discussing what to buy at an upscale Scranton ladies clothing shop and the next minute they were gone, taking an expensive dress with them but omitting to pay for it. The shop clerk immediately noticed the dress was missing and called the police.

Police quickly arrested Dorothy and George. Their refusal to tell detectives where they lived made the authorities think they had more stolen loot at their house. Add to that the fact that George had a police record — he’d been arrested a few months earlier on suspicion of burglary. The police decided he was not involved in the burglaries, but he was told to get out of Scranton — an order he’d ignored.

In her mugshots Dorothy looks more amused than worried about the situation she found herself in. Maybe she’d been arrested before and figured it was no big deal.

Dorothy Kelly_back_marked

Whether or not the couple was actually husband and wife or just shoplifting cronies couldn’t be determined. Young Dorothy had a checkered career after running away from home at a tender age. She started out as a chorus girl and things went downhill from there, to the point that she was doing semi-nude “burlesque” dancing for a living by the time she and George were arrested.

George pleaded guilty to larceny and receiving the following month. The case against Dorothy was dropped but there’s no doubt that the judge ordered her to get out of town. If she had any sense she complied.

Featured photos: Front of Dorothy Kelly’s 1923 Bertillon card. Collection of the author.

100 Stolen Hats

100 Stolen Hats

The detectives accordingly returned to the house, and found another hat in the yard, which they say was thrown out by Pearl Wolf. She was accordingly arrested on a charge of petit larceny. A lot of silk hats and other goods which were found in the flat were taken to headquarters. A number of merchants who were robbed will call this morning to see if they can identify the stuff. Pearl Wolf denies knowing anything about the stuff found in the flat.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 30, 1898

Police were called to Moore’s dry goods store in Cincinnati on April 29, 1898, after an alert clerk noticed a woman wearing a cloak that had been stolen from the shop the previous week. The woman, Anne Ernstein, alias Annie Campbell, claimed she purchased the cloak from a peddler, however the police didn’t swallow her tale, so they locked her up for shoplifting. Her companions, Pearl Wolf and Laura Butler, were not charged. Both women boarded with Anne.

Detectives went to Anne’s apartment where they discovered a large collection of stolen items, including hats from Appel’s millinery store. They also found Pearl trying to get rid of the evidence by throwing it out into the yard, so took her into custody on a shoplifting charge.

Pearl Wolf back_markedPearl, a local butcher’s daughter, had been in trouble with the police before. She and her roommate Laura (the other woman in the store when Anne was arrested) had been detained a few days earlier. The pair had been out drinking with a “traveling man” and he claimed they robbed him. It’s possible that sex for hire was involved and one of the women stole his money while he was “distracted” by the other. The man refused to press charges, likely because he didn’t want his name published in the newspaper.

What’s clear from her rogues’ gallery photo is that Pearl appreciated a nice hat. (Did she steal it or buy it?) During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries most women adored beautiful hats and never went on an excursion, jail included, without one. The police allowed Pearl to keep her pretty chapeau on her head in both the front and side photos — normally the hat would be removed for the side shot. She went to trial for larceny but the press didn’t cover the outcome of her case.

appel store ad

There was another attempt to rob Appel’s millinery store a few days later when young woman went into the shop wearing an inexpensive tam o’ shanter (a beret with a pom-pom on top) and tried to walk out with a $25 confection fit for a queen on her head. She was caught when she aroused the clerk’s suspicions by asking to buy some cheap roses to put on “her” expensive hat. Harry Appel, the shop’s owner, decided not to prosecute after the young woman’s employer pleaded for mercy. However the exasperated Appel complained that more than 100 hats had been stolen from his shop in the previous two months and noted that he intended to hire a private detective for his store.

Featured photo: Bertillon card of Pearl Wolf. Collection of the author.

Quick Quack Cure for Crime

Quick Quack Cure for Crime

BERKELEY. March 27. — The surgeon’s knife will be used in an attempt to reform Mrs. Jean Thurnherr, the notorious girl burglar. Specialists have declared that the girl, who was injured while disguised as a cowpuncher in Arizona, has never recovered from a blow on her head received while breaking a horse, and that this injury causes her to steal.

The San Francisco Call, Mar 28, 1911

It all began in 1903, when 14-year-old Bessie Barclay, later known as Jean Thurnherr, ran away from her Los Angeles home. She went to San Pedro, a community south of Los Angeles, where, disguised as a male, she found work in a bowling alley and then got hired as a cabin boy on a lumber schooner headed for the Puget Sound.

Her family, distressed at her absence, hired a female private detective to search for her. The detective located her in San Pedro before the boat left. She was returned to her father, Henry A. Barclay, an attorney and judge, and her mother, Lily Ward Barclay, an artist.

Jean_Thurnherr_as_Bessie_Barclay_adventures_and_picsIn 1904 Bessie ran away a second time. Again she dressed as a boy and found work as an elevator operator, a newsboy and a cowboy in Arizona. (The Arizona part of her adventures would, in later news reports, be expanded to include tales of tangling with Mexican outlaws and a head injury due to a fall from a horse.) She was located by authorities and returned to her parents but she didn’t stay home long. The next time she ran she went farther — all the way to San Francisco.

Disguised as a boy she worked as a bellhop at a hotel on Kearny Street. There met a miner from Alaska and robbed him of a purse containing $340 worth of cash and gold nuggets. This time she was arrested and convicted of grand larceny. However with her family’s legal connections, she got off with probation. During her court hearing she claimed that she was adopted and left home because she didn’t get along with her adoptive parents. While she was in jail in San Francisco, her mother, Lily, died in Los Angeles.

If only the law would let me fulfill those duties instead of trying to curb my venturesome spirit in a reform school. There’s no use pretending otherwise — it’s a boy’s life and a boy’s opportunities and above all the wide free life of the mountain ranger that appeals to me most.

— Jean Thurnherr, quoted in the San Francisco Call, June 15, 1909

Bessie’s father was fed up with her exploits and broke off contact with her. During her arrest in 1909, it was rumored that she was the biological child of her mother, Lily Barclay, but that Judge Barclay was not her father.

Instead of returning home after her release from jail, she remained in the San Francisco Bay Area, under the supervision of a probation officer and of women who worked for various charitable aid societies.

There is no doubt that Mrs. Thurnher (sic) is a natural and more than usually clever criminal. Possessed of a charming personality she makes friends readily and exercises an almost uncanny influence over men with whom she comes in contact. She never seemed to care for their attentions. She was always interested in stories of bold crimes and frequently expressed her admiration of clever thieves whom she read about.

— Mrs. F. Smith of Associated Charities, quoted in The Oakland Tribune, June 18, 1909

On October 1, 1908, Bessie, using the alias Jean M. Gordon, married Albert B. Thurnherr, a young dry goods store clerk, in Alameda. The couple moved to Berkeley and settled into an apartment near the University of California. On Christmas Day, 1908, Bessie pulled her first burglary at an apartment house close to her new home.

The Thurnherrs moved around Berkeley during their first year of marriage and everywhere they went, burglaries followed. At one point a homeowner returned while Bessie was in the process of robbing the woman’s bedroom. She leaped out the window to the ground, a drop of about 20 feet, and escaped unharmed. The homeowner got a glimpse of her fleeing form (surprisingly she dressed in women’s clothing) and reported to the police that it was a woman they should seek for the burglaries. The newspapers dubbed the burglar “the female Raffles,” inspired by the E. W. Hornung’s fictional gentleman thief, Arthur J. Raffles.

Jean_Thurnherr_under_arrest_for_may_crimes__picsShe was arrested several times during the winter of 1909, but the police lacked evidence and she wasn’t charged. By May they were convinced of her guilt and had her followed by detectives. She was arrested on June 11, 1909, at her Berkeley home. The police found numerous items in her home that she had stolen over the previous eight months. She pleaded guilty to 1st degree burglary and was sentenced to one year at San Quentin Prison. Her husband, Albert, stood by her and was reported to be heartbroken by her prison sentence.

Jean/Bessie spent 10 months at San Quentin before being released early for good behavior. She returned to life with Albert in Berkeley, but she didn’t stay out of trouble for long. She was caught shoplifting at a jewelry store in March 1911 — it was the third time she had robbed the same store.

At this point a clever doctor named H. N. Rowell came up with the idea that Jean/Bessie might be cured of her burglary habit by having surgery on her skull. She claimed that she hit her head during a fall while breaking horses in Arizona in 1904. Dr. Rowel believed that her head injury was what caused her seemingly endless lust for crime.

With difficulty Albert found two bondsmen who agreed to pay his wife’s bond so she could be released from jail for the operation. She went to the Fabiola Hospital in Oakland, where a trio of doctors removed a three square inch chunk of her skull. They said it was thickened so much that it pressed on her brain and this was, no doubt, the cause of her problems. Just for good measure Dr. Rowell also put her under hypnosis — he was supposedly an expert — to aid her recovery.

The operation was proclaimed a success. The patient lost little blood and her brain was described as “not injured at all.” The docs sewed up “the tissues” over the wound and then sewed up her scalp and sent Bessie on her way — cured of crime by surgery! “Hers was a case of disease rather than crime,” proclaimed her doctors.

Except that she wasn’t cured. Despite insisting that her urge to steal was gone, in September 1911, she was caught stealing from an office building in Oakland. Given probation, she was arrested again in 1913. Rather than jail she was sent to the Patton State Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane, in San Bernardino, California. The judge in her case believed she might be suffering from a “dual identity.”

Doctors at Patton decided she was not insane and returned her to her husband, Albert, who had moved to San Francisco. In October 1913 she reoffended but the judge decided to release her from jail because she was ill and he hoped going home would save her life.

Albert was married to someone else by 1918. It’s possible Bessie died of whatever she was suffering from in 1913, though no death record was located for her. (Having a piece of your skull removed and living without it would be no picnic, especially in the days before antibiotics). She may have moved on to commit more crimes under an alias or possibly she assumed a male identity. Whatever she did, she left her mark on the history of quick quack cures for crime.

Featured image: Bessie Barclay (Jean Thurnherr) mugshots, California State Archives; Sacramento, California; Duplicate Photograph Album Dept of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs 23374-23778

 

Cunning Conning Mugging

Cunning Conning Mugging

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.”

womeninprison18992

Female prisoners at the Detroit House of Correction in 1899.

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.