There may have been a Union Army drummer boy of Lookout Mountain. Lookout Mountain certainly was the site of a fierce 1863 Civil War battle in Tennessee. But if there was a drummer boy there, it wasn’t Martha Stiles. So why did thousands of Americans think it was?
Stiles was born in 1848 in Amherst, N.H. and raised in Amherst and Nashua. At age 17 she found her voice – as a temperance speaker. For much of the 1870s she traveled the United States delivering her anti-alcohol lectures, “The Prodigal Son” and “The National Evil.”
She visited churches, community halls and Grand Army of the Republic lodges. And at the GAR meetings she began to develop a new angle to her act. It was at these temperance speeches she began inventing a history for herself. As a girl, she said, she volunteered for the 27th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as a drummer boy. She changed the name she used, sometimes saying she enlisted as Tom Smith. Other times, Homer Woodworth.
As the drummer boy, she was captured at the Second Battle of Bull Run, she told crowds, and was exchanged for rebel prisoners. Later, at Lookout Mountain, she was shot, and her masquerade was finally uncovered while she was at a hospital recovering.
While Stiles’ story didn’t mesh, she pulled it off for years during the 1870s and 1880s while traveling the country, largely in the west and southwest where she wasn’t likely to run into many veterans from the Massachusetts 27th.
Over the years, Martha went through three husbands – which gave her a convenient excuse to change up her name as she moved from town to town. This was helpful because Martha and her husbands had a habit of running up bills they couldn’t pay. She’d borrow money from locals when she arrived in a town and leave before they could collect.
At one stop in New Orleans in 1882 Martha’s past nearly caught up with her. She was arrested for debts left behind in Colorado, but the governor of Louisiana refused extradition.
Through the mid-1880s, Martha grew bolder in her act. She donned a soldier’s hat and played a drum as part of the show. She recited patriotic poems, such as ‘Ode to the American Flag.’ She rode in parades and claimed to be granddaughter of Winfield Scott. She claimed to be the soldier who delivered the pardon from President Lincoln hat spared the life of Vermont’s Sleeping Sentinel, William Scott.
Part of Stiles’ success was based on the public’s affection for drummer boys, heroic children soldiers. Tales of their adventures and bravery were often embroidered and magnified for entertainment. But another part of Stiles’ success relied on the powerful effect she had on the men she encountered. Newspapermen fell over themselves to promote the hero-soldier-girl. Men loaned her money freely.
In an 1884 visit to Salt Lake, she pulled a fire alarm at her hotel. When the firemen arrived she explained that she thought the alarm-pull was to summon hotel staff. She only wanted a box of oranges, she said. The fire men scrambled to get them for her. When she left Salt Lake unexpectedly, the newspaper was inundated with eager young men who wanted to know where she (and probably their money) had gone.
By this time she was traveling as Kate Clayton, (a name from a prior husband.) But her scam was getting harder to pull off. She would be greeted upon arriving in a town with a news clipping that detailed her past and charged she was a fraud. Sometimes she brazened it out, daring anyone to prove her wrong. Other times she just quietly moved on.
In May of 1884, she kicked her game up to a new level. She met Edwin Robbins Howe, husband number three, on her travels – probably in New Orleans.
Howe was a civil engineer of limited capacity, but he had an alumni directory that told the history of all his chums from the Harvard Class of 1864. It was not uncommon for Howe to hit up his school pals for a loan, and his friends didn’t seem to mind. They knew Howe had little by way of family money.
But once Howe teamed up with Martha, she immediately saw the potential in stepping up Howe’s efforts to extract money from his old buddies. They would arrive in a new town and immediately seek out Howe’s friends, using the directory, and collect as much as they could. Sometime Edwin would take the lead. Other times Martha would seek out help, explaining that she was passing through. She had fallen victim to a thief, she would say, or lost her money. Edwin would certainly repay the loan, she assured the men.
By 1894, Harvard’s brightest and best were catching on. Comparing notes, the men realized they were being taken; they had Edwin arrested in Chicago. Martha slipped the noose and remained on the loose while the headlines told of the Harvard man run amok. Edwin’s friends, however, thought they knew the real truth.
A school friend recalled Edwin:
“As a man he was gentlemanly, and instead of being shrewd mentally was, if anything, rather soft without of course being foolish . . . he was entertaining, but not quick.
“We heard of the marriage here and also learned that the woman of his choice was not everything she might have been. If there is anything in this trouble he is in now, I’ll wager that she is the one that is to blame. He is not a swindler in my opinion.”
That summer in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, a new group of victims was emerging. A group of Yale alumni were reporting that they were being swindled by a woman who was playing on their sympathies. Martha had simply taken the Harvard scheme to a different group of alumni. She was raising money, police theorized, to pay for Edwin’s defense.
In August of 1894, the police chief in Hartford, Conn. received a disturbing tip: Martha Howe was in town. She was traveling under the name Robbins and staying at the Heublein Hotel. Police summoned her to the lobby. Martha made one try to get away, claiming she was sick and needed to briefly return to her room. But police took her to jail, instead.
And that ended the career of the famous Drummer Boy of Lookout Mountain. She served two years in prison and was reported reunited with Edwin. She spent her remaining years under the care of her family.