If holding grudges was an Olympic event, Isabella Martin would have won the gold medal.
For 15 years, she was the bane of the Northern California legal fraternity. Just the sight of her in a courtroom was enough to send seasoned attorneys screaming into the night. But her extra legal activities were even more frightening.
In 1890, Isabella, a 28-year-old divorcee, came to Weaverville, Calif. — then a gold mining town — and married 58-year-old John Martin, a wealthy mine owner. When John Martin died in 1892, Isabella reached out to John’s brother, Henry, claiming that the people of Weaverville were conspiring against her and her 2-year-old son, “Baby John” Martin.
Henry Martin, however, wanted nothing to do with her. He suspected Isabella of killing his brother and didn’t believe that John was the father of Isabella’s son. But when Henry died in 1893, Isabella sued his estate on behalf of her son.
According to Isabella, she and Henry had a very close, secret relationship. She produced some letters he had written to her, along with a second will that, she claimed, Henry had written just before he died. In the alleged second will, Henry gave his beloved nephew, “Baby John” Martin, one third of his estate.
The sensational three-month battle over Henry’s estate became the Bay Area’s hottest ticket. Isabella added a note of glamour by wearing a fashionable new dress each day of the trial.
Arthur Rodgers, the opposing attorney, shredded Isabella’s reputation. He showed extortion letters that Isabella had written to wealthy Andrew Crawford claiming that Crawford was the father of her child. Witnesses testified that Henry Martin was too sick to have written the will, and handwriting experts testified that her letters and Henry’s second will were forgeries. Rodgers even cast doubt on Isabella’s maternal claim by showing that she was betting at the racetrack just the day before she allegedly gave birth.
The jury ruled against Isabella. And although Isabella lost the case, she gained a new enemy in Rodgers and immediately set about to make his life miserable. She threatened his fiancée and sued him numerous times.
Isabella was in court almost continually over the next 12 years. She was arrested for threatening an actor’s life and for trying to evict her tenants with an ax. She was sued for non-payment by numerous hotels, grocers, lumber dealers and the Bay District Race Track. She also initiated many lawsuits, often acting as her own attorney.
In 1901, two of Isabella’s Oakland cottages burned down, followed by a number of suspicious fires in the area. The Westchester Fire Insurance Company refused her claim on the grounds that the fire was arson. Isabella sued, and the case was assigned to Judge Frank B. Ogden. The case went on for years and was dismissed in 1905. Dissatisfied, Isabella went east and threatened the life of the president of the insurance company. In 1907, Judge Ogden’s home was partially destroyed by a mysterious dynamite blast.
The next year, the mystery was solved. Sixteen-year-old “Baby John” was arrested in Weaverville for setting fire to a barn.
While in jail, John made a horrifying confession to his jailor. Under his mother’s orders, he had burned Isabella’s cottages for the insurance and bombed Judge Ogden’s house. In addition, he and his mother had constructed bombs to blow up the houses of the head of the Contra Costa water company, and a police judge. They had dynamited an irrigation ditch, burned a barn, poisoned a sugar barrel in a grocery story and attempted to kill the inhabitants of Weaverville by poisoning their water supply.
For six years, “Baby John,” under constant beatings and death threats from his mother, had become the instrument for settling her many grudges. He showed authorities numerous caches of explosives that he and his mother had hidden.
Isabella was arrested and put on trial for the bombing of Judge Ogden’s house. She admitted that her son was adopted, blamed all the crimes on her son’s heredity and called him a “degenerate.”
“John has never had anything but good advice from me,” Isabella claimed. “He has been insane from his early youth.”
Isabella conducted her defense with her usual fury while her court-appointed lawyers competed to see who could sit furthest away from their client. Despite days of fierce cross-examination, John’s story remained intact. Other witnesses testified to Isabella’s mistreatment of John, which included her breaking his nose.
It took the jury only six minutes to declare her guilty, and she was sentenced to life in prison. Freed of his mother’s domination, John returned to Weaverville and emerged as a popular honor student. Upon graduation, he became a miner and managed what was left of his mother’s properties
Isabella managed to get a new trial, but the verdict was the same. Her time in prison did nothing to soften her temper. She threw hot soup on one matron and kicked another into unconsciousness. She also filed constant appeals to the courts. In 1914, she was committed to Napa State mental hospital, where she died in 1929.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.