The Crime of the Century
The Confession of Ernest Wright
The Crime of the Century
Perry County News
May 7, 1998
The discovery was shocking and macabre -- a bare hand, uncovered by searchers armed with shovels. In a shallow, crudely dug grave lay the crumpled remains of Alice Martin, a 53-year-old, unmarried recluse residing on a farm over-looking the Ohio River south of Derby.
It was Saturday, Feb. 3. The year, 1934.
As stunned searchers exhumed the doll-like remains, clothed in two pair of overall, a man's undershirt and overshoes, from the cold earth, many found it difficult to believe the body they held once swung on a trapeze fearlessly and courted death on tight-wire walks high above throngs of admirers in America, Europe and South America.
Underneath the bloodstained clothing and gunnysacks in which her legs were bound, was a one-time circus and vaudeville star, whose aerial feats few could equal. Her stage name -- Alice DeGarmo, Queen of the Big Top.
Now the Queen was dead, her skull fractured and throat slashed. The circus star who once toured the world in lights now gone, murdered by a dismissed farm hand in a squabble over $2.75.
Today, a modest granite tombstone in the Lower Cummings Cemetery denotes the resting place of Alice Martin. Visitors to the grave are reminded that Alice was an aerialist for over 20 years. What it fails to do, however, is recount Alice's tragic demise 64 years ago -- a crime that shocked Perry County and made headlines here and around the country.
Locally, it was called the crime of the century. As it so often does, time has eroded the memory of Alice. Still, many people recall the events of February and March of that year.
Born in 1881, Nancy Alice Martin was a Derby girl who found big time success. her father, William Martin, was a local farmer who bought and sold several farms and eventually purchased a tract of land boasting one of the grandest views of the Ohio River. Perhaps it was from this advantage point, staring out over the river's shores, that the young Alice pondered the possibilities of cities and towns that lay beyond the horizon.
Alice left Perry County for Marion Normal College in 1898. Upon graduation in 1900 she moved to New York and worked for a time as a stenographer. But it was her love of athletics coupled with the slim figure that never left her, which led her to become an aerialist.
Alice's true calling was the popular combination of aerial feats and show business. She took the name Alice DeGarmo and became a star on the trapeze in circuses and vaudeville. Reports after the murder said she toured with noted traveling shows of Loew's, Western and Canadian. During the years of 1910-1920 , she toured Europe and South America followed by almost exclusive work on the vaudeville stage. During the 1920's she toured many American vaudeville circuits with important bookings in New York City and vicinity.
It was on May 2, 1929, that Alice left partial retirement in New Jersey for Derby after learning her father had died. Alice told friends her stay in Indiana would be temporary and she would soon make a glorious return to the state. The promise would go unfulfilled.
Alice remained on the upper farm for the last five years of her life, at first settling her father's affairs and then settling down to the life on the farm. Reclusive, she was seldom seen by neighbors. Rumors circulated that she was immensely rich. In fact, Alice earned a good living while performing, making from $75 to a then amazing $400 per week. Others, however, said her fortune had been lost in the crash of the stock market and resulting Great Depression.
Alice dressed in men's attire when around the farm. Friendly enough to those she knew and liked, her reputation included being quick-tempered and vicious with her tongue when her ire was raised.
Frank Sandage, a tenant on Alice's river bottom farm fronting the river, was perhaps closest to the woman. Each week he would ferry mail and groceries up to the Martin homestead. it was thus on his usual Saturday morning trip that Sandage found one-time farm hand Ernest Wright at the home. Alice was no where to be found.
Wright, 32, told a fascinating and, to Sandage, incredulous tale. Alice had left for Plainfield, N.J., with a man driving a large automobile. Even more surprising was Wright's claim that Alice had sold the farm to him, with cash money he had found in Cannelton.
It was not until the next Friday that U.B. Cummings, a distant cousin to Alice and owner of the Tell City News learned of Alice's disappearance. Cummings told others that Alice never left town without informing him of her whereabouts and expected return. He cabled authorities in New Jersey. The return wire said Alice was nowhere to be found.
Suspicious of foul play, the newspaperman summoned Perry County Sheriff Anton Voges and State Patrolman William Wittmer. The search was on.
Wright had made himself at home in the Martin house for nearly a week and had told the same story of Alice's departure to his half brother, Carmie Badger, who was helping him sort and burn many of her papers and other belongings. Little did Badger know that within 200 yards of the home, in a field of broom sage, lay Alice's murdered body, her gave covered with manure to conceal the hastily overturned soil.
In his confession, Wright wrote that he had walked to Alice's home the night of Feb 25 with the intent of obtaining $2.75 the woman owed him for past work he had done on the farm. In his hand was a heavy wooden club. Intoxicated, he confronted her as she came out of the barn from milking. In her hand a pail of milk.
Irate at the late-night intrusions, Alice ordered Wright off her property. As the last words left her mouth Wright began swinging, striking her nine times. As she lay on the ground, he cut her throat with a pen knife.
Voges and Wittmer led a search party to the Martin home the following Friday, Feb 2, to search for the woman and question Wright, who saw the group coming, recognized Wittmer and ran into the nearby woods while they searched the home and outbuildings.
The home was described as a squalor. Alice's bedroom was on the second floor, the bottom floor rooms filled with trunks of costumes, papers and memorabilia. Holes in the kitchen and upstairs appeared as if someone had been looking for hidden valuables.
The group of searchers found nothing Friday but returned the following day. Someone in the group saw what he believed to be wagon tracks leading to a manure pit behind the home, a sight that seemed out of place. With shovels in hand, they began probing and digging. As searchers prepared to leave in frustration, someone yelled in disbelief. There, from the manure, was Alice's hand. The Queen of the Big Top had been found.
Wright turned himself in to authorities in Cannelton the following Monday but denied killing Alice. Instead he offered a fascinating tale surpassing the one he gave to Sandage. he had buried Alice in the shallow grave, but did so at gunpoint. A mysterious man had arrived at the farm and killed the woman.
Police were unconvinced and whisked Wright from the jail at Cannelton, leaving behind a crowd of 200 people trying to catch a glimpse of him. At Evansville, Wright was taken into the interrogation room and told that fingerprints on the club matched his. It was a ruse -- no prints were found. yet it worked. Wright broke down. His words. "Damn it. Sure I killed her!"
A large crowd attended Alice's funeral. A sale of her personal items Feb. 17 brought a crowd of 1,000 people and with the proceeds of $1,200. Many bidders bought as yet unopened trunks in hopes of finding cash. One man buying a half keg of nails found a $5 bill and two $1 bills.
Wright was convicted of murder March 20 before a crowd estimated at 800 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Wright took the stand in his own defense and, rescinding his confession, reiterated his original story that another man named Jack had murdered Alice.
A decade later while serving time at the state prison in Michigan City, Wright escaped but was recaptured a short time later. he died on Feb 12, 1962 at the age of 60. His body was returned to Perry County and rests today in Lilly Dale Cemetery.
Frank Sandage, the one-time farm hand who alerted authorities to the missing circus star, died in 1994 and was buried next to Alice.
Driving the stretch of Indiana 66 between Derby and Rome, the gaze of drivers and passengers is still drawn to the high hill on which the Martin home stood. Those who remember the events of that year or had their memory passed on to them still share the tale -- of Alice Martin, Queen of the Big Top.
The Confession of Ernest Wright
Perry County News
May 7, 1998
Ernest Wright finally confessed to killing Alice Martin while being interrogated in Evansville. He gave the following signed account of events surrounding the crime:
I have known Miss Alice Martin, known in vaudeville as Miss Alice DeGarmo, about three years. Sometime during September or October, 1933, I worked for Miss Martin. I worked for her about five days.
Miss Martin failed to pay me for doing this work.
Sometime during the week of Jan. 14, 1934, I again went to the home and requested her to pay me. She refused. However, she told me that in the event I worked another day for her she would pay me for my wages from last fall and also for the day during the week of Jan. 14. However, she again failed to pay me.
I have been drinking heavily for the past two or three months. On the night of Jan. 25, I went to the residence of Miss Martin. I arrived there about 10 p.m. at night. Just as I reached the residence, I saw Miss Martin coming from the barn. She had just completed milking her cows. She was carrying a pail of milk.
I walked up to her and demanded the money. I had a club in my hand which I had picked up en route to the Martin residence. She put the lantern on the ground and held her mil pail in her hand, at the same time saying, "Get the hell off here or I'll shoot you."
Just as she had completed this statement, I struck her over the head with the club that I had carried. I continued to beat her as she fell to the ground. While she was lying on the ground I took out my pen knife and cut her throat.
To the best of my knowledge Miss Martin did not utter a sound after I struck her with the club. However, she struggled considerably before I cut her throat with the pen knife. While she was laying on the ground, I went into the residence and sat down in a effort to sober up as I was pretty well intoxicated.
About two hours elapsed and then I went outside again. I obtained a shovel and a grubbing hoe and dug a shallow grave in the rear of the residence. The grave is located about 200 yards from where I killed her.
I then half dragged and half carried her over to the grave. I placed her body in the grave and covered it up with dirt. She was dead to the best of my knowledge. It was between 12:30 and 1 a.m. when I placed the body in the grave.
I then went into the Martin residence and attempted to sleep. I could hardly sleep. Some time around 9 or 10 (a.m.) in the morning I hauled a load of manure to the grave. I placed the manure over the grave in an effort to hide the fresh dirt which had been placed over the body.
On Friday afternoon I went to the country (store) nearby and obtained a quart of whiskey. I returned and remained at the Martin residence Friday night by myself.
After slaying Alice Martin, Wright would spend much of the next week in and out of the home, ferreting through Martin's belongings for money or valuables, burning papers and selling the dead woman's grain and even chickens. His activity was noticed by neighbors in and around Derby, who became suspicious.
Friday Feb. 2
I rode into Tobinsport, where I tied my horse. I obtained a boat and went across the river to Cloverport, Ky., arriving there Saturday morning, Feb. 3. I remained in and out of Cloverport until Monday morning, Feb. 5, at which time I made up my mind to give myself up to Gus Ramsey. He took me to Cannelton and turned me over to authorities there.
Upon his surrender to Ramsey, Wright absolved his half brother, Carmie Badger, who had spent some time at the Martin farm, of any involvement in Martin's disappearance, telling him she had left on a trip to the East and had rented the farm to him until the time of her return.