One name that figured prominently in the history of law enforcement in Vincennes in the first part of the 20th century was that of Thomas Martin. Beginning in 1918, Martin served two nonconsecutive terms as Vincennes Police Chief and, during his time in that position, saw dramatic changes in the department’s operation.
Thomas M. Martin was born in Lawrence County, Illinois, to John and Mary A. Martin on June 15, 1879. His father worked as a farmer south of Bridgeport.
Martin would devote his life to some form of police work. As the Illinois oil fields opened up, he took the job of deputy town marshal of Bridgeport, where he became adept at dealing with the rough, often drunken toughs who worked in the fields.
Martin came to Vincennes and for a time worked as a grocery store clerk. He joined the Vincennes Police Department as a patrolman in 1911, walking a beat, as was the practice in those days. He rapidly rose through the ranks holding a number of different positions on the force. In 1914, he was made secretary of the police board, remaining in that job until, on March 22, 1918, he was promoted to chief of police, following the death of Chief Herbert Jones.
One of the principal cases he was involved with during his first stint as chief was the infamous “cornstalk killing,” when aged widow Anna Leinbach was murdered near the Dunbar School in August 1919. Martin aided in bringing Mrs. Leinbach’s killer to justice.
Martin resigned his position in the fall of 1921, following the election of Republican John Grayson as mayor. He and his wife then moved to California, where, the following year, he took a job as chief of police at the Universal City movie colony. He returned to Vincennes in 1925 and briefly worked in the real estate business as part of the Alice Realty Company.
On April 1, 1926, Vincennes police officer Simon Carie was shot and killed by Dreyfus Rhoades on Main Street, and Martin played a part in helping capture the killer. Just a few months later, on July 12, he was again appointed police chief, under Democrat Mayor Claude Gregg’s administration, replacing retiring chief M. J. Crouse.
Martin saw many changes in the department during his time on the force. In 1916, the first motorized police vehicle was acquired and in 1922, the department got their first motorcycle. Fingerprinting of suspects was first instituted in 1926 and a crude police radio system (handmade) was installed in 1935 with the antenna placed atop the tall waterworks standpipe. In 1930, the department moved from City Hall at Fourth and Main Streets to a new building on South Fourth Street next to the fire department.
Martin retained the position of chief until 1937, when he was given a temporary leave of absence to take a position on the Indiana State Excise Police Board in Indianapolis. A big send-off was given him by 150 friends at the Elks Lodge on Oct. 13, a testament to the esteem in which he was held. His leave became permanent, and Mayor Joe Kimmell appointed Noel Swayze as chief, effective Nov. 1.
Martin maintained his home in Vincennes returning on weekends. After resigning his excise position, he was employed for a time as a watchman at the Standard Coal Company’s mine near Wheatland. He then gave up that job due to ill health.
Thomas Martin died of a heart ailment at the age of 64, on Feb. 14, 1944, leaving quite a legacy behind. When he died, this is what the Sun-Commercial had to say about his time as chief, “His reputation as a fearless and capable police chief was widespread and was in a large measure the reason why criminals, during the prohibition days of gangster killings, bank robberies and kidnappings, gave Vincennes a wide berth.”
Martin was survived by his widow, Augusta, and a daughter, Mary Ann. He was laid to rest in Fairview Cemetery.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com. His latest book. “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.