Joseph W. Martin: Curious Incident of the Missing Cotton Broker

This article originally appeared in Volume I, Issue III of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in July 2022.

On the morning of April 4, 1913, J. Lockhart Anderson arrived at his lodgings at Park Place, Saint James Street, London. He was planning to meet his house guest and friend from Memphis, Joseph (Joe) Wilberforce Martin. The two had planned to sail for the United States with saloon passage aboard the liner La France the next day.

But it appeared that Joe never came home the previous night. His bags were still in the room, and his clothing was undisturbed. La France set sail without him. He was also not aboard the Campania, the ship his family thought he had taken instead. 

The short, graying-blonde 41-year-old was gone. 

Joe Martin was a senior partner of the cotton firm Martin-Phillips and a member of the Memphis Cotton Exchange. He came from a prominent family, belonged to several social clubs, and lived with his mother at the Hotel Gayoso. 

In February of 1913, Martin’s business took him to London. On his way to New York to catch his ship, he spent part of a day in Washington, D.C., meeting with some Memphians who lived there, and getting several $1,000 bills broken into smaller denominations. Those friends later told reporters that he left with a large roll of banknotes. 

In London, he stayed with J. Lockhart Anderson, his friend and business associate, who had stayed with him the summer before in Memphis. The day before Martin vanished, he reportedly sold 60,000 acres of cotton-producing land in Arkansas to the firm of Bonstead, Anderson & Co. He sent a cable to his relatives that he would sail home the next day.

That evening, he had dinner with friends at the Royal Automobile Club, where Anderson was his sponsor for a month-long honorary membership. He wore a dinner jacket, opera hat, a black overcoat with a velvet collar, and a gold dress watch, and made plans to dine at the club before leaving for home the next day. Martin mentioned that he was keeping an appointment with a female friend and then took a taxi down St. James Street in the direction of Piccadilly. 

On the morning of Friday, April 4, roughly six and half hours after Martin was last seen, day laborer George Barnes found a pocketbook on Belvedere Road, Lambuth, near Hungerford Bridge, in front of the spiked iron gate leading to a wharf. Barnes later turned over the wallet, embellished with the gilt letters J.W.M. and containing Martin’s visiting cards and honorary membership card, to the police. A short while later, a boy named Tomas Salter found an opera hat near the same railing where Barnes found the wallet.   

Scotland Yard took up the case. Led by Chief Inspector F. Ward, officers began canvassing the city’s hotels and dragging the Thames. Detectives explored the theory that the wallet and hat may have been thrown from a train car leaving Charing Cross station.

Coincidentally, William J. Burns, also known as “America’s Front-Page Detective” and dubbed “The American Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was in London on another case and staying at the Savoy. He was a regular feature above the fold in many American newspapers, including The Commercial Appeal, and he operated a “Special Representatives” branch of the William J. Burns International Detective Agency in Memphis. He had a knack for taking on cases that would prove to be good newspaper stories, and he accepted a telegram offer from the Martin family to look into Joe’s disappearance. The family also offered a reward of $2,500 (over $70,000 today) for Joe’s discovery or for information that cleared up the mystery of his disappearance.

Newspapers made much of the difference between the two investigative strategies – especially a favorable view of “Burns’s open way of telling all that he thinks the public should know, but affably telling nothing vital” as compared to the “no information what-ever methods of Scotland Yard.”

A deluge of reports of Martin sightings, cabbies who thought they drove Martin, and even clairvoyants claiming special knowledge inundated both investigations. But none of the tips led either group to Martin.

While the detectives searched, newspapers across the United States and England circulated stories and rumors about Martin’s disappearance. Sensational reporting combined with Burns’s high profile made for compelling copy on both continents. Headlines flashed, “Mystery of the Missing Yankee,” “That Man Is Not Dead! Declares Famous Thought-Reader,” and “Is the Missing Millionaire On Board Ship on the High Seas?”

The Bradford Weekly Telegraph published six theories about the disappearance: Martin was decoyed to the spot, murdered for his money, and his body thrown in the Thames; he was attacked, seriously injured, and lying ill at some house; he suffered a mental breakdown and lost his memory; the hat and wallet were thrown from a passing train; Martin deliberately disappeared for personal reasons; or he had been kidnapped. The Associated Press reported that he was “in the hands of a gang of international ‘crooks,’” a claim dismissed by Scotland Yard.

A telegram, supposedly authored by Martin, arrived in London from Vevey, Switzerland, reading “Cease inquiries All well. Writing. J.W. Martin.” However, police searches of hotels, boarding houses, and clinics in that city failed to locate him. Reporters speculated that he was staying near Lake Geneva and came to Vevey to send the telegram. His brother Fontaine dismissed the message, saying, “I know that my brother, knowing our anxiety, and particularly the suspense under which mother has been, would communicate with us as his first act on learning of the trouble which his disappearance has caused were he alive.” Likewise, American officials in Berne officially announced no knowledge that he was staying in Switzerland. Rumors did continue to swirl that “a beautiful woman” was likely acting as Martin’s emissary and sent the telegram. 

Another report placed Martin aboard the steamship Walmer Castle, which set sail for South Africa on April 5. The Daily Mail sent a dispatch to the ship, which reported back that he was not aboard. Other papers reported theories that he was in Paris or Spain.

There were reports that London police were searching for a “mysterious” and “beautiful Brazilian woman.” Unnamed private detectives in Memphis reported that a woman matching the Londoners’ description lived at a hotel in Memphis for part of the summer of 1912 and posed as the wife of a cotton buyer.

On May 5, the Philadelphia Press reported receiving a cryptogram in an envelope postmarked April 23 from Glasgow, Scotland. Like a proper ransom note, the letter and the address were formed from words clipped from newspapers and pasted together. Joe’s brother Fontaine immediately dismissed it as a hoax.

After a few weeks of competing theories, creative interpretations, and wild speculations, Joe Martin was no closer to being found. The investigators, reporters, and Martin’s family failed to turn up any concrete proof about what had occurred, and they stopped looking. Burns told the Associated Press, “My information compels me to withdraw from the case, which is no longer a mystery. Mr. Martin is not in any danger.” True to form, he did not say what that information was. 

Read Part II in the next issue of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly to learn more about the curious financial dealings of Joseph Wilberforce Martin. 

Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and, as a historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.

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