By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications.
Artie “Art” Baker, already three years into a 10-year sentence at San Quentin, had a desperate request for the prison doctor in 1916. Convicted of swindling southern Californians out of nearly $2,000 via the U.S. Postal Service (roughly $47,000 today), the nearly 40-year-old convict reported increasing harassment by the other inmates and sought relief. Baker requested reassignment to the Women’s Ward, revealing he was actually female. Dr. Leo Stanley immediately set about trying to improve her situation but the commitment orders were clear – Baker committed crimes as a man, was convicted as a man and sentenced as a man. It wasn’t going to be as easy as reassigning her to the Women’s Ward especially a century ago. This is the story of a young person who struggled with gender identity, employment, love, crime and incarceration. Baker is one of the many early inmates whose influence on the state prison system is still felt today.
Rural birth leads to gender confusion
Born in 1876 in the rural Midwest, the Bakers believed they had a bouncing baby boy on their hands. During the early years of the child’s life, Baker was treated as any other young lad – until puberty arrived. Fearing something awful, the family summoned a doctor to their home. That’s when the doctor made a startling discovery – Artie was actually female. The doctor said her genitalia was “misshapen” and “deformed,” leading to the confusion.
“I was a deformed baby. In my deformity my mother mistook my sex until I was 11 years old. My family was ashamed of me and I was told to keep my deformity a secret. After I had lived so long as a boy my people were ashamed to put me in dresses,” Baker said in the Riverside Daily Press, Aug. 10, 1916.
“My mother did not dare face the ridicule of the neighbors by putting me in dresses after I had worn boy’s clothing. So despite the physician’s verdict, I went on living my lie to the world, as a boy instead of a girl,” she later told a reporter in 1916.
As she grew older, despite her outward appearance, she began to be teased by others.
“The instincts of a woman were so strong in me, however, that I began to excite comment among the neighbors. The children called me ‘sissy,'” she said.
Artie Baker’s sibling, a brother, had pre-marital relations with another woman in town, putting the family in a bind. Artie, trying to help smooth over the situation, stepped up to offer assistance. She was 28.
“In 1904 one of my brothers got into trouble. A girl was about to become a mother. To save my brother from prison, the girl from disgrace and at the same time to quiet the gossip of the neighbors about my effeminacy, I married the girl and became the ‘father’ of my brother’s child,” she later recounted. “This marriage occurred in Harlan, Iowa, and soon afterward in pursuance of my agreement, I separated from the girl.”
Fleeing west with each discovery
Baker was intelligent and educated. Still in the garb of a man, she taught school, traveling ever farther west each time her gender was discovered.
“After that I left home and taught school as a man in Iowa, Kansas and Colorado,” she said. “I was driven from my schools in all of those states when the superintendents learned that I was a woman.”
Like many who make their way to the Golden State, Baker was in search of a better life as well as some deeper meaning to that life. In the early 1900s, evangelical tent revivals were common. In Los Angeles one such enterprise was run by a minister known as “Gyspy” Smith. Baker began attending the religious services, becoming a regular. Once again, her gender was discovered, this time by the minister.
“One day ‘Gypsy’ Smith, in the presence of Dr. Ethel Leonard, accused me of being a woman,” she recounted. “Smith then bought me woman’s clothes and I wore them to his revival meetings.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Leonard believed surgery would help Baker. “She claimed that (genitalia surgery) would make the Baker being into a normal woman,” reported the The Urologic and Cutaneous Review, October 1916.
Baker continued attending the revivals, now openly as a woman. Life was suddenly very different. She formed friendships, finally honest about who she was underneath her clothing. One of those relationships began to develop into something more.
“There I met and fell in love with a young man named Fred Vincent,” she recalled. “We became engaged to be married.”
Failing health leads to desperation
How exactly Baker’s health began to decline is unclear, but she may have suffered complications if she underwent the surgery Dr. Leonard recommended. Regardless of the cause, Baker’s wedding was put on hold while she went to live with her sister to recuperate.
“Before the wedding my health failed and it was postponed. I made my way to Summerdale where my sister was postmistress. I was sick and broke,” Baker recalled.
She took advantage of her sister’s position at the post office. Without income, sick, and dependent on her sister, the otherwise fiercely independent Baker decided to use her abilities to swindle religious leaders out of cash. Her motives regarding the targets of her crimes are unclear but given her circumstances and the path leading to them, it isn’t much of a stretch to claim she may have harbored some resentments toward religious figures.
“Desperate, I stole a handful of money orders. I mailed a money order for $100 to a minister in Sawtelle, near Los Angeles. In the letter I made believe I was my mother, sending the money to a wayward son in his city, whom ‘mother’ hoped had reformed. My letter asked the minister to look me up and if I was trying to do better to give me the $100,” she recalled in her 1916 interview. “Then I went to Sawtelle, attended the minister’s church. I thanked him for the good his sermon had done me and left my address with him, saying I would become a member of his church. A day or so later he saw my letter and came over and gave me the $100. I worked this scheme all over Southern California, cashing something like $1,800 worth of money orders.”
After years of working as a teacher, she found swindling to be more stable and not dependent on her gender identity. “I found it easier than working in schools and getting discharged,” she said.
It all came crashing down in 1913 when she was arrested. On one trip to the jail, she managed to escape the county sheriff, but was recaptured. She pleaded guilty to forging money orders and passing them in Riverside County.
“I was tried and sentenced as a man, but I did not open my lips as to my real sex,” she said.
“When Sheriff (Frank P.) Wilson of Riverside county landed Artie J. Baker in San Quentin prison this week, he breathed somewhat more freely. Baker is the Summerdale post office robber, and is sentenced to … state prison,” reported the Morning Press, June 13, 1913. “The sheriff stated on his return that he actually handed over to the warden, and took his receipt therefor, the slippery individual who escaped once by jumping from the train and who later pleaded guilty to forging money orders and passing them in Riverside.”
Baker was received June 8, 1913, and given number 26591, listed as 5-feet, 7-inches tall and weighing 152 pounds. There was immediate confusion regarding Baker as a note on the police department’s copy of the inmate description simply reads, “penis amputated.”
The breaking point
Baker’s secret was discovered over time during her incarceration. Fearing for her safety, she sought help from Dr. Leo Stanley.
“I am serving my long sentence as a man, but now I am breaking down under the strain of it. The convicts all know my secret and if I am not freed soon I am going to kill myself,” she said, according to news accounts published in 1916.
“The woman known as ‘Artie’ Baker … was jostled and jibed and insulted until an appeal to the prison doctor brought her a separate cell and a little booth at one end of the big room where from 1,400 to 1,800 men take their baths every week. Even this bit of privacy accorded her by the prison’s executives has not lessened the sting of a woman’s life, lived among men,” the widely published newspaper article reported in 1916.
“I have lived three years of horror in this prison among male convicts and they made my life a hell. I cannot describe the long days of labor among them in the jute mill and the prison yard or the insults offered me as we line up and march in and out of the prison. I experience the keenest suffering and humiliation when bathing time comes,” she said.
The prison officials did what they could quickly, while trying to get new commitment orders.
“The prison officials have at last allowed me to disrobe and bathe in a little booth at one end of the great bathroom, where from 1,500 to 1,800 men convicts take their baths. They have also given me permission to have a cell of my own, so that I am not compelled to sleep in the same cell with a man convict. Before those privileges were granted, my life was even a greater hell than it is now,” she said.
Baker was discharged from San Quentin on Dec. 8, 1919, and her trail goes cold. There is no indication Baker was ever transferred to the Women’s Ward.