Meet Isabella J. Martin, the Crappiest Criminal in Bay Area History

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A sour-faced white woman in high collared Victorian clothing and feathered hat stands with a numbered card attached to her chest.
Isabella J. Martin after her 1908 arrest.

She was deceitful, she was depraved, and she might have been truly dangerous if she’d ever stopped being so dim.

This was Isabella J. Martin, a woman whose attempted crimes spanned locations from San Francisco and Oakland all the way up to Weaverville, a small Gold Rush town 200 miles north of Sacramento. In her lifetime, Isabella committed a lot of offenses. They just rarely gave her the result she’d been hoping for.

A New Yorker by birth, Isabella became California’s problem in 1882, when she turned 21 and moved west to Weaverville. Four years later, Isabella married a wealthy mine owner named John Martin who was 30 years her senior. A year into their marriage, Isabella came home from a trip to New York with a baby son and claimed he was John’s. She even named the child after him. A year after that, John Sr. was dead in mysterious circumstances and his brother Henry suspected Isabella had poisoned him. No one ever proved the murder either way, but the accusation thoroughly infuriated Isabella. So much so that when Henry, a San Francisco resident with his own family, died in 1893, Isabella came up with a preposterous scheme to try and get her hands on some of his cash.

In 1894, Isabella sued Henry’s family, presenting them with a forged will that said Henry wanted to leave her and John Jr. a third of his estate. She did this despite Henry’s family already being in possession of his actual will — one that he had written alongside his wife. Isabella repeatedly insinuated that John Jr. was really Henry’s son, the result of an illicit affair. She made this claim despite the fact that Henry had openly despised, badmouthed and actively avoided Isabella when he was alive.

At this point, Isabella was no doubt spurred on by the fact that she had used a child to extort money out of someone before. In 1885, she’d managed to convince a former lover named Andrew Crawford that she’d given birth to his baby. He sent her $1,000 to disappear. It would appear to be the first and last time one of Isabella’s crimes went according to plan.

A black and white courtroom sketch from the turn of the century depicting a stern looking woman, wearing dark suit and hat.
Isabella J. Martin, as sketched in court. She reportedly wore a different outfit every day of her high profile trial against Henry Martin’s family.

Isabella’s court case against Henry’s family dragged on for three months — and the public couldn’t have been happier about it. Hundreds of spectators packed the court daily and San Francisco newspapers had a field day reporting on every tiny detail. Isabella’s self-confidence remained steadfast throughout the trial, despite her reputation getting torn to shreds in both the courtroom and the press on a daily basis. She was prone to violent outbursts that disrupted testimony. She also insisted on bringing her three-year-old son to the court every day — at one point even suggesting that the judge might like to take care of John Jr.


“My goodness, no!” Judge Coffey exclaimed, according to a San Francisco Call report at the time. “I’m too busy! I’ve got work to do! Take the child anywhere. Put him on the desk, put him on the roof, but don’t bring him to me.”

By the end of the case, Isabella was a laughingstock. Having learned absolutely nothing from any of it, in 1895 Isabella decided to go after Arthur Rodgers, the attorney who had exposed her lies in court. Isabella sued him for defamation of character because of Rodgers’ suggestion at the trial that John Jr. was, in fact, secretly adopted and was neither the biological son of John Sr. or Henry.

Isabella filed a second suit on behalf of John Jr. alleging that Rodgers had “defamed the child by attempting to bastardize him.” All told, she asked for $1 million in compensation — that’s almost $36 million in today’s money. While all of this was going on, Isabella was also sending Rodgers’ wife vaguely threatening letters. (“Arthur Rodgers can never, while life lasts, undertake or attempt anything that will not be closely followed by myself,” Isabella wrote in one.)

Needless to say, Isabella didn’t win a penny. Moreover, the suits against Rodgers took on a whole new level of absurdity in 1907 when Isabella began claiming that John Jr. was, in fact, the biological son of the Princess de Chimay— a Detroit socialite named Clara Ward who’d married into Belgian royalty. Isabella of course, thought this assertion might entitle her to some of Ward’s money. It did not.

At that point, Martin could’ve cut her losses and given up on her life of failed schemes. But she wasn’t done. In 1901, she forced her son to burn down two Oakland cottages she owned so she could collect the insurance money. When the Westchester Fire Insurance company refused to pay out, rightfully suspecting arson, Isabella — the genius! — sued them. That case was dismissed four years later by a judge named Frank B. Ogden who also suspected Isabella of foul play.

It is at this point that Isabella left the neighborhood of money-hungry scam artist and flew headlong into unhinged maniac territory.

Two years after Judge Ogden threw her case out, Isabella hatched a plot to kill him and perhaps his family. One night, Isabella invited over a male admirer so she would have an alibi. She then gave John Jr. “an oil-skin coat and overalls” to wear, handed him a bomb she had made, and demanded he leave the device at Judge Ogden’s Alice Street home in Oakland. John Jr. lived in fear of his abusive mother, so did as he was told.

Not wishing to have blood on his hands, however, John Jr. did not put the bomb at the front of the house, as his mother had instructed. Seeing Ogden’s family gathered in the parlor there, John Jr. instead took the device around to the back of the house and left it on their veranda. When the bomb detonated, the veranda was destroyed and a portion of Judge Ogden’s house badly damaged, but nobody got hurt.

Isabella’s house of cards really started collapsing after John Jr. (now 16) was arrested after attempting to burn down a Weaverville barn on her behalf. He later told police that the man living in the barn had once failed to give Isabella “permission to stop in the New York Hotel on the ground that there was no room,” and that she still felt slighted by the incident.

Once John Jr. was in police custody, he sang like a bird, relieved to finally be away from his domineering mother. He revealed that Isabella was in the process of building a bomb for another judge, George Samuels, because Samuels had once given Isabella what she considered bad legal advice. John Jr. even took the cops to his mom’s dynamite stashes to prove it.

John Jr. also revealed details about the time that he and his mom had poisoned a barrel of sugar with lead powder at Hansen’s, an Oakland grocery store. “She had no grievance against Hansen,” John Jr. later testified, “but she wanted to get every person in town; she wanted to poison every man, woman and child in this city.”

The lead-in-the-sugar incident wasn’t the first time Isabella had sought to murder an entire community either. At one point, she had also put a combination of acetate and arsenic into what she thought was Weaverville’s water supply. In classic Isabella style, she put the poison in the wrong water spring. No humans were harmed.

On another occasion, Isabella had forced John Jr. to throw phosphorus onto the home and property of some neighbors she was having a spat with.

In December 1908, a jury took just a few hours to convict Isabella of the bomb plot to kill Judge Ogden. Her defense during the trial was simply to blame her son for everything. Isabella testified against John Jr. at great length, emphasizing:

He has been insane from his earlier youth. My life has been terrible watching him. I have seen him pin my canary to a fence and dance and clap his hands until the canary died… He has always played with fire… All his habits of life are those of a degenerate… He was born that way. I do not know to whom in heredity this reprehensible conduct is to be charged, but I do know it is not to me.

The jury believed none of it. Isabella was sentenced to life in prison, the latter half of which was served in a Napa mental institution — though, as far as records indicate, she never received a formal diagnosis. John Jr. went on to lead a good, law-abiding life once out of the clutches of his mother. Isabella wound up being one of the most ambitious but somehow least successful criminals in California history.


Isabella J. Martin spent her whole life wanting to watch the whole world burn. Fortunately, she never quite figured out how to light the match.