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14 September 2012

Bert Martin (1879 - ? ) farm worker, inmate

Berta Martin was born in Nodaway County, Missouri. As cousin Nancy Martin put it when interviewed in 1900: “she had many attributes of a male person and other peculiar characteristics”. Nancy attributed this strangeness as “owing to her mother having been badly frightened by a bear while hunting berries in Missouri a few months before the child was born”. From prison Martin remembered that as a youngster she felt that she was “not more than half a woman”.

Image from Nebraska State Historical Society
Martin grew up and became a man, Bert. He worked for a cattle-dealing firm, until he arrived at a farm in Ashland, Nebraska. He signed on as a farmhand, and soon the farmer’s daughter Lena was found to be pregnant.  In late 1899, Bert and Lena were married, and the next February they had a child, Dewey.

In 1900 Bert was arrested and convicted of horse stealing. After eleven months in the Nebraska penitentiary, his cell-mate spoke to a guard that he suspected Martin of being a woman. The officials investigated, redressed Martin accordingly and transferred him to the women’s section. The press and public wondered how this could have happened as all new arrivals at the prison were required to strip for a bath and an inspection. The prison physician became the butt of many jokes, and journalists dug up the information that the new arrivals were allowed a towel for modesty’s sake. Several of the press accounts refer to the prisoner as Lena.

Early in 1902, the Governor of Nebraska, Ezra Perin Savage, called the prisoner “a sexual monstrosity, unfit for association with men or women ... and that prison morals imperatively demanded its removal”. He commuted Martin’s sentence to 18 months on condition that she promised to be honest, and had him released immediately.

Bert’s marriage to Lena ended. Lena’s parents moved to Iowa , and took Dewey with them. Bert remarried in about 1907 and they they had at least two children.
  • “Horse Thief was a Thief-ette”. The Nebraska State Journal, Oct 4, 1901.
  • “Convict a Woman”. Lima Times Democrat, Oct 4, 1901.
  • “Woman Convicted as Man: Her Sex Discovered Only After She Had Remained in the Penitentiary Eleven Months”. Daily Iowa State Press, Nov 1, 1901.
  • “Pardons Disguised Woman”. Fort Wayne News, Jun 23, 1902. All the above online at: http://yesteryearsnews.wordpress.com/2010/07/22/horse-thief-was-a-thief-ette.
  • Peter Boag. Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011: 60, 86-9.
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None of Nodaway County, Ashland and Nebraska penitentiary list Bert Martin as a prominent resident on their Wikipedia pages.

2 comments:

Nicole Colón said...

I don't get how he married and had children if he was really a woman ...anyone??

Zagria said...

Well obviously Dewey's biological father was somebody else. Given the extreme social prejudice against motherhood outside wedlock, Lena was grateful to find anyone who would marry her.

PS 19th century persons did not carry id cards. Gender was one's appearance, not a 'm' or 'f' on a piece of plastic.

So what don't you get?