Edward H. Martin: A West Point Grad’s One Man Crime Wave

By Paul Negelovic
Documents Librarian

EdwardH.MartinCadetPhoto

West Point graduates are normally thought of as people of positive character who go on to positions of leadership and responsibility, in the military or in other fields of endeavor.  The Academy is justly proud of the great contributions made by the overwhelming majority of its alumni.  However, there will always be some black sheep; Edward Hugh Martin, USMA 1898, whose crimes spanned from coast to coast, must truly be one of West Point’s most interesting. Tracking Martin’s notorious career was made possible through the availability of numerous online searchable historical newspapers which have allowed the recovery of fleeting events that would otherwise have been lost to history.

WEST POINT

Edward H. Martin grew up in New York City.  His family was well to do; his father, Hugh Martin, had made money in real estate.  As a cadet, Martin was relatively undistinguished, graduating 46th in order of merit out of a class of 59.  Interestingly, in his last year, his standing in discipline was 178.6 out of a maximum of 200, which was superior to the graduate ranked 3rd in merit, whose discipline standing was 139.5.

Apparently Cadet Martin went by the book; an 1895 story published in the New York Herald relates the story of new cadets Seay and Wigmore attempting to flee training camp hazing by giving a false (although similar in sound to the correct) password to the sentry on duty.  Martin happened to be nearby and detected the deception that the sentry failed to notice.  Martin turned the pair in, which resulted in a court-martial proceeding against them. They were found guilty and sentenced to dismissal from the service; the President subsequently commuted the sentence to three months’ confinement in the barracks and gymnasium (of the two, only Wigmore went on to graduate). 

 A clue to a possible character deficiency from Martin’s cadet days can be seen in a jocular reference in the 1898 Howitzer yearbook; Edward H. Martin is named (on page 105 along with a handful of other cadets) as a member of the fictitious club the “Knights Hospitaler”- presumably a play on the name of the medieval order, meant to poke fun at members of USMA ’98 who shirked duty by frequently going on sick call.  A cartoon on the page shows a cadet laying in sick-bed with a caption that reads “MOST ROYAL DEAD-BEAT.” 

1898a

There could be a darker implication here as well, when viewed in the light of future events.  Elsewhere on the page there is a cartoon of a cadet clutching his stomach, captioned “THE ATTACK CAME IN THE MIDDLE OF THE KNIGHT” next to a cartoon of a medicine jug labeled PAIN KILLERIn testimony at his court martial for embezzlement in June of 1900, Martin claimed that he began using morphine while he was a cadet at West Point.  He stated “Morphine had been prescribed for a toothache while I was at West Point and I acquired a habit for it.”   

 CUBA

The Class of 1898 graduated earlier than usual, on April 26th, the day following the Congressional declaration of war against Spain.  Within weeks, Martin was serving in Cuba.  Here began Martin’s precipitous fall, according to a nationally syndicated newspaper story  published in 1908 (most accounts of Martin’s drug addiction attribute it to medical treatment he received while serving in Cuba).       

The story, titled Hero of San Juan Hill Faces Death on Gallows, alleges that Martin distinguished himself at the Battle of San Juan Hill, carrying three wounded soldiers to safety while under fire; “For this he was awarded a medal by congress.”   An obvious reference to the Congressional Medal of Honor, Martin’s name does not appear on the CMH Society’s list, nor does it appear on the list of names purged by the 1917 CMH Review Board.  The story mentions no sources for these claims.

 Also while in Cuba, Martin contracted a fever; the syndicated story indicated that an army surgeon treated him with morphine, leading to a serious addiction (no mention is made of any morphine use while he was a cadet).  Later, Martin’s 1900 court martial testimony indicated he used morphine in September of 1898 to induce sleep while suffering from malaria.  A “United Service” notice in the September 4th, 1898 New York Times reported that Martin had been granted a leave of absence to combat sickness, a leave that had started in July and had been extended through September.

COURT MARTIAL & MARRIAGE TO GUSSIE MCKEE

 Martin next served as the Treasurer of the canteen at Fort Hancock, New Jersey, and in short order was court martialed for falsifying accounts while there.    General Order 106 dated August 3rd, 1900 states that a court martial proceeding against Second Lieutenant Edward H. Martin convened on May 18th, 1900. All of the charges and specifications against him were laid out in great detail.  Martin testified in his own defense on June 7th, 1900; he claimed irregularities in the books might have been due to carelessness caused by his drug addiction.  He also denied earlier testimony by a witness named Joseph Collins (a steward at Fort Hancock) who claimed that Martin had attempted to bribe him into taking responsibility for the irregularities.

 During the course of the court martial it became known that Martin had been secretly married to a notorious shady character named Gussie McKee.  This woman, originally from Chicago, became wealthy by running illegal “pool rooms” for women (“pool room” was the popular term for an illegal establishment where one could engage in off-track betting on horse races and had nothing to do with billiards).  McKee was known as “The Pool Room Queen;” she died of natural causes in July 1903.  Martin no doubt saw her as an easy source of money to feed his drug habit.

 G.O. 106 listed the findings of the Court (guilty on all counts) as well as the sentence: dismissal from the service, effective August 10th, 1900.  Martin’s military career lasted two years, two months, and ten days.   

 POST ARMY LIFE & MARRIAGE TO THERESA GRIFFIN

 Martin was arrested in New York on June 16th, 1901, for forging a signature on a check.  While cashing the forged check he displayed his 1898 West Point class ring as proof of his trustworthiness.  When first approached by detectives prior to his arrest, he was asked if he was Edward H. Martin.  Martin denied his identity, but the lie was quickly discovered – he happened to be returning home from the laundry with a bundle of his clean clothes, with the laundry ticket bearing his name still attached.

Martin pleaded guilty to this crime, and, at his sentencing on the morning of July 12, 1901, made a self serving statement that reeked of self pity.  He made several unsubstantiated claims of heroism and blamed his problems on the drug habit he said he acquired while serving in Cuba.  After Martin finished his statement, the judge noted that Martin had “discreetly” omitted some unsavory facts about his career, and then sentenced him to a year in jail.

Colorado and Idaho newspaper accounts place him in Idaho, engaging in gold mining activities throughout 1903 (his parents had purchased part interest in a mining claim).    

 In February 1905 Martin was suspected of the murder of a partner in the Idaho mining venture.  He was released in October of that year (his partner’s body was never found) but some time before he was released he made a bid for freedom by trying to burn down the jail.

 At some point Martin returned to New York.  He was arrested in early September 1906 on a charge of public intoxication, discharged, then immediately re-arrested on a charge of vagrancy.  The police wanted to hold him because they suspected his involvement in some burglaries in the Bath Beach area.

 Martin married Theresa A. Griffin of Syracuse, NY on October 19th, 1906, (according to a story on page four, column four of the May 7, 1908 Standard of Ogden, Utah).  Funded by Martin’s parents, they immediately left for Portland, Oregon, so that Martin could attend medical school.  Martin allegedly deposited the money from his parents in a bank that failed, causing Martin to leave school.  The Morning Oregonian reported that the couple met at a hospital in Syracuse, New York, where Theresa worked as a nurse.  Martin went there for treatment of dysentery, an ailment the story says he suffered at infrequent intervals after originally contracting it in Cuba.  The same story (dated May 6, 1908) says that she had gone east “more than a year ago” seeking a divorce;  friends of Theresa’s back in Syracuse were to say that Martin completely deceived her as to his character, and the marriage was unnecessarily  hurried by Martin’s parents, thinking Theresa would make a man of Edward.  They must have prevailed upon Theresa to give her husband another chance; at some point she rejoined him in Portland.  The two remained together until his death. 

THE GRUESOME DEATH OF NATHAN WOLFF

 Portland Oregon pawn shop owner Nathan Wolff was brutally murdered in his place of business in the early evening of Friday, May 1st, 1908.  The crime was so vicious police first thought that it had been committed by two men.  While behind the counter making preparations for closing, Wolff was shot in the neck with a .32 caliber bullet.  He was then dragged to a room in the back of the store, where he was hacked about the face and head with a hatchet, mutilating his features beyond recognition.  “Huge deep gashes were hacked on both sides of his skull and on his face the flesh in a number of places was laid bare to the bone.  On the right side the jawbone was cut through, the cheek ripped open and the tongue half severed from its roots.”  The blood stained hatchet was found beneath Wolff’s head.  One of Wolff’s hands had also been gashed in the attack.  Not far from Wolff’s body an unloaded rifle was found propped against the wall; its stock and grip were bloody.  Evidently the rifle had been used as a club (an affixed tag showed the rifle to be part of the shop’s stock).   Police found a bloody necktie and removable collar (still in fashion then) at the scene, incriminating articles no doubt discarded by the killer(s).  The motive for the murder was robbery; police estimated that the murderer(s) stole $1500 in jewelry and $300 in cash.

Edward H. Martin was arrested by Portland, Oregon police a little after one o’clock in the afternoon on Tuesday May 5th, 1908.   The clue leading to his arrest was the discovery of a bloody shirt in a heap of debris behind the cheap rented cottage residence of the Martins.  The collar band matched the size of the bloody collar left behind at the crime scene; laundry marks on the shirt made it possible establish it as Martin’s. 

 Martin had some prior dealings with Wolff, having pawned a watch, an Army revolver, and drafting tools all in an effort to bring home money and convince his wife that he was working when in fact he was not.  His wife suspected Martin of the crime as soon as she read of it in the Morning Oregonian of May 6th.  Her husband had arrived home at midnight the prior evening with his face and head cut and scratched, wearing a different suit than the one he had on when he left in the morning.  She was aware of his drug problem. Many times at night, while under the influence of morphine or cocaine, he would get out of bed, grab a hatchet, and stand in his nightclothes in front of the window; he would then brandish the hatchet saying “There they are – they are after me – they are following me.”  In a jail cell interview soon after his arrest, in response to questions about his life, Martin gave an account of his military career that was of dubious accuracy.  He made no mention of morphine use as a cadet, saying an army doctor gave it to him in 1899.  He said, “I was forced to resign” from the army in 1902 because of his drug addiction and denied ever having been court martialed. 

 TRIED, CONVICTED, IMPRISONED, RELEASED

 Martin’s trial began on October 8th, 1908; on that day jury selection had been completed, opening statements of both sides given, and testimony of the first two prosecution witnesses heard.  The preponderance of the evidence against Martin at trial was summarized in the Morning Oregonian of October 10th, 1908.  Most of it was circumstantial; witnesses testified in various ways to establish Martin’s ownership of bloody articles of clothing found either at the murder scene or in proximity to Martin’s residence, as well as the presence of cuts and scratches on Martin’s face after the time of the murder that had not been there earlier. 

The bulk of Martin’s defense was reported in the Morning Oregonian of October 14th; one witness, a local clothier, testified that the bloody collar was not a unique one,  he sold 10 dozen collars of the same size and brand monthly.  Another witness testified to having seen Martin with a scratched up face the night before the murder had taken place, disputing the prosecution’s earlier witness, a barber who said he had shaved Martin the night prior to the murder and saw no cuts or scratches at that time.  The paper reported that at this stage, Martin appeared to be in a happy mood.

The case went to the jury late in the afternoon of October 16th.  After deliberating for 25 hours, the jury found Martin to be guilty of manslaughter; the verdict was read to the court at 3:30 in the afternoon on Saturday, October 17th, 1908.  The Sunday Oregonian newspaper reported that the manslaughter verdict was a compromise among the jurors (to a charge with a less severe penalty).  The maximum sentence for manslaughter was 15 years incarceration.  The paper also reported that Martin awaited the verdict with a smile, anticipating acquittal.  The smile disappeared upon the pronouncement of the verdict.  As he was being returned to the County Jail, Martin was quoted as saying that “It was a most unfair court and jury.”

 Martin regained his equanimity the following day; the Oregonian interviewed him in his jail cell on Sunday the 18th.  Still denying his guilt, Martin said that he looked forward to imprisonment as a means of curing his drug addiction.  He also managed to utter yet another lie; elsewhere in the interview he claimed to have once scored a touchdown for Army against Yale.  However, Martin’s name never appears on the 1895-1898 rosters in Edson’s standard historical reference to Army football, The Black Knights of West Point.

Shortly after 9:30 am on Tuesday, October 20th 1908 Martin received his sentence from the Judge: “The judgment of the court is that you serve a term of 15 years in the State Penitentiary and pay a fine of $1,000.”

 Any doubt of Martin’s responsibility for the crime was removed several years later.  On Tuesday, June 27th, 1911, while the old four room cottage where he and his wife had lived was being removed bodily from the lot where it stood, one of the house movers saw the glint of an object on the ground beneath the raised building.  Crawling under the lifted structure, the workman retrieved a cache of jewelry, a nickel-plated revolver, and two dozen envelopes stamped with Nathan Wolff’s name and business address, all obviously hidden by Martin.  When asked about this newly discovered evidence, Martin lamely explained it away by claiming that someone else had hidden it there after the trial, to make him look guilty.

Several weeks prior to the incriminating evidence’s discovery, Martin’s parents met with the Governor of Oregon, asking him to consider a pardon for their son whenever he thought it proper to do so.

 Late in 1912 it was reported that Martin was being considered favorably for a pardon.  The new superintendent of the State Penitentiary had put Martin’s West Point engineering skills to work in conducting a survey of the Penitentiary grounds.

Ironically, while Martin was serving his sentence in the Oregon State Penitentiary for the manslaughter conviction that capped off his sordid criminal career, Hubert L. Wigmore (who had almost been thrown out of West Point because of Martin) died of natural causes in Japan on September 2nd, 1913 at the rank of Major, age 39.  At the time, he was serving as Military Attaché at the American Embassy to Japan in Tokyo, and in contrast to Martin, had led an honorable and exemplary career in the Army prior to his death.

After serving six years and three months in the Oregon State Penitentiary for the slaying of Nathan Wolff, Governor Withycombe pardoned Martin for the crime.   The Oregonian reported that many Oregon citizens that were Spanish-American War veterans had urged his release, in addition to testimonials to his good behavior by two successive prison superintendents.  Martin and his wife moved back east to New Rochelle, New York to move in with his parents.     

SILENT MOVIE ACTOR

In the strangest of career turns, three months after his release from prison, Edward H. Martin went to work as an actor in the silent movies.

The following is an excerpt from a carbon copy of a letter dated January 25th, 1936 from J.S. Murphy, Chief Clerk of the Oregon State Penitentiary, to Mr. Quincy Scott of the Oregonian newspaper: “…in March 1916, he went to work for the Thanhouser Film Corporation.  He remained there until October 1916, when he moved to Los Angeles, Cal.  His address there being 827 Green Ave.  He was still working for the Thanhouser Film Corporation.  On November 13, 1916, he went to work for the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co. …”  This letter, located in the “Cullum Files” of the United States Military Academy Library’s Special Collection and Archives Division, was originally sent to the Oregonian as part of research on Martin the newspaper was conducting for an article about him that was published in the 1930’s.  The carbon copy came into the possession of the West Point Association of Graduates from a later effort to collect information about Martin.  Evidently, Martin was required to keep the Oregon prison authorities informed of his activities.

 Additional evidence of Martin’s involvement in the film industry can be found in the image of his WWI draft registration form, which is located in the Ancestry.com database.  The date of birth, July 2, 1874 matches the date found in his Cullum’s Register entry; his occupation is given as actor, and his employer is given as the “Lasky Film Co.”

 The Thanhouser Film Corporation was, in its time, one of the leading silent film companies.  It was headquartered in New Rochelle, NY, in the era immediately before the American film industry relocated to Hollywood.  In all likelihood, Martin, fresh out of prison and in need of a job, worked for Thanhouser as an extra.  The company certainly made movies with large casts; this can be seen in the Thanhouser production of King Lear, which was released late in 1916. 

 A search of Google Books (“Edward Martin” Lasky Film) yielded a snippet view of the first few lines for the entry for the 1919 Lasky film The Grim Game in the 1988 reference book The Motion Picture Guide: Silent Film, 1910-1936.  The entry gave none other than Harry Houdini star billing; an actor named Edward Martin came in towards the end, his no-name character simply called the “Police Reporter.”

 In an attempt to get a look at Martin at this stage of his life, an effort was made to locate a still from The Grim Game; several still exist and are in the possession of the Margaret Herrick Library, at the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (revealed by a search of their online catalog).  A reference librarian at the Herrick library has indicated that they have no information definitively identifying any of the characters shown in the stills, other than the lead players.  When provided with pictures of Edward H. Martin, the librarian was still unable to identify Martin in any of the stills.

There are several blogs about Harry Houdini maintained by Houdini aficionados; one in particular, harryhoudinicircumstantialevidence.com is focused largely on The Grim Game.  Joe Notaro, the blogger, is a magician and Houdini collector obsessed with having The Grim Game made publicly available.  He has studied all of the film’s stills and script, and has blogged about many aspects of the movie.  After being approached for assistance in identifying Edward H. Martin in any of the surviving stills, Mr. Notaro wrote the following two blog posts:

In Search of the Police Reporter

Police Reporter is West Point’s Own Edward H. Martin

In Notaro’s opinion, Martin is the character in the straw hat on the far right of Still 298-07, Scene 199.  The script calls for a reporter in the police station to grab a phone to report that Houdini’s character has just been seized by the police and is being hustled away to a jail cell.

DEATH

The California Death Index, available through the Ancestry.com database, indicates that Edward H. Martin died on September 9th, 1919, not long before the release of The Grim Game (the earliest newspaper reviews of the film are dated in late September).  Martin’s notorious criminal career come to an end, not as the result of a violent encounter or drug overdose, but through an illness (copies of official records in the USMA Library’s Cullum File indicate tuberculosis as the cause) that took its toll on his body, ending a colorful and varied life that started with much promise but concluded quietly and with little fanfare.