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Omaha Magazine

Wanted: Freedom from Gender

Apr 26, 2023 03:08PM ● By Alicia Hollins & Julius Fredrick
Bert Martin

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

Behind the shimmering eyes of a clean-cut 21-year-old, anxiety gave way to acceptance. The hint of a smile tugged at his boyish face, a remarkable tale teetering on his lips. Or rather, tales—the cold sheen of his father-in-law’s rifle long before the phrase ‘shotgun wedding’ conjured visions of Vegas chapels. Perhaps his eyes shone with glinting spurs; hoofbeats and gunfire trailing him into Wyoming’s Big Horn County while on the run with “Black Jack” Ketchum’s infamous gunslingers. 

As it were, it was a tale that’d spark a media firestorm, and ultimately free him from the Nebraska State Penitentiary: that the husband, horse thief, and convicted felon sharing a cell with another man—known to fellow inmates, wardens, and even the prison doctor as “Bert” or “Burt” Martin—was born “Lena” or “Bertha” Martin. And while Martin’s origins, criminal exploits, and life after prison are susceptible to conflicting accounts, her character was consistent: she was plenty ‘man’ enough to earn the respect, even the fear, of her fellow outlaws and frontiersmen.

“Martin’s cellmate was summoned before the Prison Board,” preempts an exchange detailed by the Cincinnati Enquirer headlined “NOTORIOUS OUTLAW, WHO PROVES TO BE A WOMAN, MASQUERADED FOR YEARS IN MAN’S ATTIRE” (October, 1901): 

“‘Well I don’t mind telling you,’ he said finally, ‘if you’ll take her out that cell before she finds out I’ve given her away’ ‘Her? It’s a her then?’ demanded the astounded officials. ‘Sure,’ grinned the cellmate. ‘Burt Martin is Lena Martin by rights. But say you’ll take her out before you put me back?’ he demanded uneasily. ‘Women is handy with a shootin’ iron sometimes, and Burt won’t like this one little bit.’”

However, Martin’s cellmate had nothing to worry about going, by a report from the Nebraska State Journal that same month:

“She took the discovery of her sex without much chagrin and appeared to regard the matter as a rather comical incident,” the article revealed.

Beyond being arrested near Ashland, tried in Springview, and sentenced to two years in Lincoln’s Nebraska State Penitentiary on October 19, 1900 for horse theft in Keya Paha County, just how Martin arrived at this “comical incident” 11 months into their term varies wildly.

By some accounts, Martin was born in southwestern Iowa a “a dashing girl with considerable reputation as a beauty” named Lena “Bertie” Martin who was eventually “seen with some horses that the notorious outlaw, ‘Black Jack’ had run off the open range in the Niobrara country.” She was rumored to be “his sweetheart,” and counted “the boldest daredevil and best shot in the band.” (The Marion Star, 1901) 

However, by far the more plausible and supported origin is that Martin was born in Nodaway County, Missouri, to a Mr. Samuel Martin and an unnamed mother. Her actual name was Bertha, according to an interview with said father by an Omaha World-Herald reporter on October 7, 1901, and it’s known that she lived in Keya Paha County in north-central Nebraska by age 13.
Still, the dispatch raised more questions than conclusions:

“Martin says his daughter, Bertha, later married a young woman named Lena, the result of this marriage being a bright little baby boy […] Sheriff Cable of Keya Paha County believes that if this person now in the penitentiary is really a woman, he believes that it will develop that Burt’s wife, Lena, clandestinely exchanged clothes with her husband […] and exchanged places with him in the cell.” 

The Sheriff’s theory was officially debunked the following winter when Nebraska Governor Ezra P. Savage commuted Martin’s sentence:

“Arrayed in man’s clothing she would pass anywhere as a beardless young man. She has borne the name Bert since childhood […] After the sex of the prisoner was discovered, the prison officials and the governor decided that there was no place in the prison for such a person. The Sentence was commuted and the prisoner was released last February,” reads a 1902 Nebraska State Journal summary.

It is true, however, that Martin got married—in a ceremony that would echo in local legend for decades to come. Martin had settled in Ashland, Nebraska, working as a farmhand while fanning a reputation as an excellent rifle shot and an expert with the lariat. He befriended, and possibly fell in love with, a young farmer's daughter named Lena Dean. They absconded to Nebraska City, possibly because Lena was showing signs of pregnancy. Her father, William Dean, was convinced the two had engaged in improper relations. Enraged, he tracked the young couple down, forcing Bert and Lena to return and marry in Wahoo, as presided over by a shotgun barrel.

A headline from The Nebraska State Journal sums the scene up with sensational aplomb: “WOMAN CONVICT A WOER - MADE “HUSBAND” AT A SHOTGUN MARRIAGE. RESULT OF AN ELOPEMENT - While Masquerading as a Man She Runs With a Young Maiden at Ashland.”

Prior to getting married, Martin had requested to “borrow” a horse in Keya Paha County and decided to steer the reigns a few 100 miles longer than agreed upon. Sheriff Cable happened to be in Ashland and recognized Martin. The newlywed, who had been going by the alias ‘Bert Sherman,’ was promptly arrested and returned to Keya Paha for trial. According to some outlets, Martin was no stranger to law enforcement.

“Martin had such a reputation as an expert shot that the sheriff’s posse which followed wasn’t exactly in a hurry to catch up,” reads a November, 1901 description of the arrest from The Marion Star.

The Honorable Judge Harrington took pity on Martin, as his wife, Lena, plead for clemency with bawling babe, Dewey, in arms. On October 19,1900, Bert was sentenced to two years in the Nebraska State Penitentiary—a light sentence given the nature of the crime. 

The mugshot of inmate ‘3656’ shows Martin’s unblemished face, clean suit, and gentle eyes. Upon entering the jail, a bath was drawn, a striped uniform issued, and an examination by the prison physician took place. Dr. L.W. Edwards jotted down a few bodily ‘imperfections,’ including small hands and a mole on the left side of the back of Bert’s neck. At 21 years old, many excused his lack of facial hair as a symptom of youth. Dr. Edwards was later lambasted by the press following the discovery of Martin’s sex, who lamely lamely shifted the blame to “sleeping guards” when questioned.

For 11 months Martin performed his prison detail as a cook in the adjoining broom factory without incident—until “whisperings” filtering through prison bars culminated in “a gentle hint to the guards that an investigation would result in a revelation” if Martin were to be more carefully scrutinized. 

Indeed, to the uproar of the press, and the supreme embarrassment of Dr. Edwards and other prison officials, Martin was identified as a woman soon after, and relocated to the facility’s “women’s area.” Everyone was dumbstruck, except those who actually knew Martin—who preferred the company of “her dog, gun, and horse” to most people—and said “she was perfectly willing to put on women’s clothes [while serving time]…[but] as soon as she is released she will go straight back to her old cowboy companions in Keya Paha county.” 

Martin wouldn’t have to wait long, the governor commuting their sentence with a stoke of a pen and a final note scrawled in the prison record: “later investigation found Martin to be “‘alf + alf.’” 
An article published in The Californian revisits Martin’s tale just under a year later, and those of related individuals, brandishing the headline “UNSEXED WOMEN.”

It begins, “Forty-five or more instances of women who lived as men have come to light in the last ten years. There are also many accounts of men who lived as women. A scientist has estimated that one in every 3000 women is the victim of this strange mania.”

For Bert, and others like him, this “strange mania” went by a different name: “Freedom.” for more information.

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  
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