Recently, as the Archives staff was working with Ogden City to review historic records from Ogden held in the Archives, we ran across some mysterious records. The records were in the format of 24 large glass negatives, 11” x 14”. They had been identified simply as documents from the Ogden City Police Department. In order to determine more exactly what the documents were on these glass negatives, the Archives staff made digital images of the negatives and transcribed the handwritten documents. It soon became clear that the documents were from a criminal investigation.
They date from 1911-1913 and include letters from a dark anonymous figure who signed one of them with the title “The Tall and Short Man”. The letters were addressed to members of some of Ogden’s leading families and included demands for money, arrangements for late-night meetings, and threats of harm. In addition to letters, there were handwriting samples comparing writing from the anonymous letters to known writing of a man named Joseph Henry Martin.
Further investigation into court records, prison records, and newspapers revealed the broader story. Joseph Henry Martin was the apparent ring leader of a gang that targeted wealthy Ogdenites (especially widows), stealing and ransoming expensive jewelry and eventually extorting money with threats of violence. At one point, when the gang felt their demands had not been met adequately, they planted explosives at the house of a member of the Eccles family.
At one of the late-night meetings, police and a Pinkerton detective showed up. A gun battle ensued and the detective and Martin were both shot. Martin escaped, but his injuries gave him away and he was arrested. The police gathered known examples of his writing to compare with the extortion letters. Handwriting experts from out-of-state were called in to testify. In the end, Martin was convicted of assault for the shooting of the Pinkerton detective and sentenced to 5 years in the State Prison. In a second trial he was convicted for robbery and given a life sentence. Despite the life sentence and having escaped from the prison for a time, Martin was paroled in 1920 and he eventually left the state for California.
While much of the story is revealed in newspaper reports of the time, the documents found on the glass negatives are perhaps the most interesting evidence of the events. The letters allow us to hear the voice of Joseph Henry Martin and give us the clearest window into his schemes and the workings of a criminal mind in the early 20th century.