Artie “Art” Baker, serving 10 years at San Quentin, had a desperate request for the prison doctor in 1916: reassignment to the Women’s Ward, revealing he was actually female. 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 Baker claimed increasing harassment from male prisoners.
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 incarcerated people whose influence on the 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. 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, (they) were ashamed to put me in dresses,” Baker said, according to the Riverside Daily Press, Aug. 10, 1916. “So despite the physician’s verdict, I went on living my lie to the world, as a boy instead of a girl.”
As she grew older, despite wearing boy’s clothing, she began to be teased.
“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.
Marrying to save family from disgrace
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.”
Artie Baker flees west with each discovery
Baker was intelligent and educated. Dressed as 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 sought a better life and meaning for that life.
Minister discovers gender
With evangelical tent revivals popular during the early 1900s, Baker wandered into one run by minister “Gypsy” Smith.
Baker became a regular at the religious services, but once again, her gender was discovered.
“One day 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, Leonard believed surgery could help Baker.
“She claimed (genitalia surgery) would make Baker into a normal woman,” reported The Urologic and Cutaneous Review, October 1916.
Baker continued attending the revivals, now openly as a woman. Life was very different. She formed friendships, finally honest about who she was underneath her clothing. One relationship 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. If she did undergo the surgery, she may have suffered complications. 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.
Without income and dependent on her sister, the otherwise fiercely independent Baker decided to use her abilities to swindle religious leaders out of cash. She also took advantage of her sister’s position.
“Desperate, I stole a handful of money orders. I mailed (one for) $100 to a minister near Los Angeles. In the letter I (claimed) I was my mother, sending the money to a wayward son in his city. My letter asked the minister to look me up and if I was trying to do better to give me the $100,” she recalled. “Then I attended the minister’s church, thanking him for the good his sermon had done me, and leaving my address. After he saw my letter, and came over, giving me the $100. I worked this scheme all over Southern California.”
Artie Baker finds crime a more stable career option
After years of working as a teacher, she said swindling was more stable. Also, gender identity wasn’t an issue.
“I found it easier than working in schools and getting (fired),” she said.
Her scheme came crashing down when she was arrested. 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 (reveal my) real sex,” she said.
Off to prison
“When Sheriff (Frank) Wilson of Riverside county landed Artie Baker in San Quentin prison, he breathed somewhat more freely. Baker is the Summerdale post office robber, sentenced to state prison,” reported the Morning Press, June 13, 1913. “The sheriff (said he) actually handed (Baker) over to the warden, and took his receipt (for) the slippery individual who escaped once by jumping from the train.”
Baker was received June 8, 1913, and assigned number 26591. She is listed as 5-feet, 7-inches tall, weighing 152 pounds. There was immediate confusion regarding Baker’s gender. 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.
“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 newspaper 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. (During) bathing time, I experience the keenest suffering and humiliation,” she said.
Early efforts to help
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.
What became of Artie J Baker?
Baker was discharged from San Quentin State Prison on December 8, 1919. There is no indication Baker was ever transferred to the Women’s Ward.
The name “Artie Jane Baker” appears in the California death records, listed as female, passing away in 1973. Her birth year is shown as 1888, rather than 1876. She was 85 years old.
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Learn more about California prison history.