and historian. Artist and photographer. Humorist and human rights activist.
Poet and songwriter. Investigator and naturalist. Stargazer and wanderer.
MaryJoy Martin, SCA, is all this and more, if you include costumer, snake
charmer, fungus breeder, and Bana-Bhuidseach* or brujalong
before Harry Potter, she was whisking her little brother and sister
away on wild broomstick rides. She worships at the feet of Coyoteone of
the Skygods, she tells me. She venerates marmots, pikas, herons and all things
feathered. Kisses every amphibian she meets...dances with yaks...pays homage at
the green altar of preying mantids and other six-legged people as
she calls insects.
Shes a humus-worshipping spruce-hugger. A
moss-adoring rodent-lover. Seeks the solace of mountaintops and remote red
cliffs. Keeps house with bats. Flings incantations to the moon. Celebrates
ancient tribal fire festivals. Might even be called a pyromaniac... and loves
to experiment with explosives.
Surrounds herself with the ghosts of
rebelsVincent St. John, Keir Hardie, Natalie Barney, P.G. Wodehouse, Mark
Twain, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Judith Sargent Murray, Covington Hall, Malcolm
X, Oscar Romero, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Hammerstein, Oscar the
GrouchCan't help loving those Oscars, she says and
hosts of others who people her daily life like murmuring angels at her side.
She writes because she says, It is more useful than
yodeling. And she just can't stop herself. She was telling stories long
before she trained as an investigative journalist at Metropolitan State
College, Denver. She unraveled mysteries long before she learned forensic
sciences from her association with a few of Denvers off-center FBI agents
and Elseviers Practical Aspects of Criminal and Forensic Investigations
Series. Following evidence, following paper trails, following the scraps of
lives that history leaves behind, she slipped from the fetters of interviewing
criminals and writing for newspapers (Rocky Mountain News and Denver
Post), and hound-dogged her way into the archives of the past, rooting out
bones and ghosts.
History is like well-aged Scotch, she
says. It tastes better than this week's fermentations.
History became her passion (okay, ONE of them). The people of the past
became her focus. Although she started her writing career as a journalist, she
is taxonomically a historian, in the atypical manner of an immigrant
without papers, she says, so that makes her a W.O.P.
historian or one with no academic affiliation: SCA (sine concilio
academico) instead of Ph.D. History isnt a reserved vintage
wine just for academics to uncork, she says. It belongs to anyone
who can get into the wine cellar. She is adamant that popular history
should not be denigratedafter all the word popular comes
from the Latin popularis, which means belonging to the
people, and has also come to mean regarded with favor or
I'd rather be a popular historian than an
unpopular one, she says.
As she wrote in
the preface of The Corpse on Boomerang Road: History shouldn't be
so hard that you get saddle
riding through it, for above all, it is made by the men and women who lived it.
This is their story
their tears of triumph, their long nights of terror,
and their boisterous companionship; their broken dreams, seething hatred, and
History belongs to the people and this historian
wants to provide it to us as our own story. And she has a keen expertise in
finding those forgotten gems of our story, like a porker rooting out
Martins historical research is scholarly,
meticulous, and impeccable. She lays a feast with endnotes, rewarding the
reader who dines on them with intriguing and oftentimes amusing side dishes.
Her almost wizard-like ability to uncover the last remaining shard of
documentation has made her a sought-after professional researcher for legal and
government work. She was principal
investigator for Ouray County during the infamous Camp Bird access court
Bird Colorado, Inc. vs. Board of County Commissioners of the County of
Juan Mountain Jeepers and hikers can thank their lucky stars for her
behind-the-scenes work that helped re-open a stunning historical trail from
Ouray to Telluride, Colorado, through the old Camp Bird Mine land.
Martin also was the historical investigator, writer, and
presenter for the nomination of the
Fort Peabody site to be
listed on the National Register
of Historic Places, part of the National Park Service. The Fort Peabody listing
became a symbol for anyone who loves labor history, the peoples history,
because it holds the ghosts of a time when mine owners in Telluride, Colorado
had treated workers and their supporters as criminals without just cause or due
process. Martin brought those ghosts out of the woodwork, and they won't ever
be hammered back in, since her book on the subject, The Corpse
on Boomerang Road: Tellurides War on Labor 1899-1908 is now in
development as a film with Elbow
Grease Pictures in Hollywoodworking title, Undesirable Citizens.
The movies title derives from Martin's current historical
work-in-progress, Undesirable Citizen: A Biography of Vincent St.
I don't know if a writer chooses the subject or if
the subject chooses the writer, Martin told me. I never set out to
write about Vincent St. John. He just kept popping up like one of those wee
Whack-A-Moles at a county fair. His life was nearly mummified inside layers and
layers of lies and obscured by nearly a century of defamation. In seeking the
facts about him, I seem to have taken him on as my life's work. He refuses to
leave me alone.
agrees with author and newspaper editor
Cagin, who says
St. John was one of the great yet nearly forgotten labor leaders of
the early twentieth century. She has worked on numerous other projects
since St. John first popped up in front of her in the 1970s as the "butcher"
who allegedly made William Julius Barney into a ghost. In fact, ghosts are what
started her published career.
Since she was a child, Martin has
collected ghost stories. She read every classical ghost tale she could find;
fell in love with the great ghosts of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Charles
Dicken's Christmas Carol. Wilkie Collins, Robert Lewis Stevenson, M.R.
James, Henry James, Edgar Allen Poe, and Alfred Noyes fed her love for the
Perhaps because I liked ghosts, I also liked the
dead, she admits. Her natural fondness for cemeteries as a child was so
marked that her family nicknamed her Cemetery Merry, the
Merry part referring to her joy at seeing or visiting a burial
ground. All these long forgotten people were very real to me, she
says, and I wanted to discover their stories. Unsurprisingly, as a
child she also enjoyed listening to old people: They told me so many
fabulous stories while other kids were off hammering rubber
As a young woman, Martin had more elderly friends than
she had friends her own age. She venerates the old and calls them living
history. Through interviews in the 1970s she collected the personal
stories of men and women who had experienced great historical moments of the
late 19th and early 20th centuries. She especially collected their ghost tales,
which soon were published in her books, Twilight Dwellers, Ghosts, Ghouls
& Goblins of Colorado, Something in the Wind, Spirits, Spooks & Sprites
of the San Juan, and Suicide Legends, Homicide Rumors: The Griffin
I met a number of people who had heard or seen the
ghost of Clifford Griffin playing his violin above Silver Plume, Martin
says. So I set out to see that one for myself. One of my brothers and I
went up to the Griffin monument on the anniversary of his death and
They didn't see anything unusual, but she got a
fabulous photo of the ghost at the tombstone
playing a violin.
How? I ask. She slyly smiles and simply tells me she had a very old
Seeking explanations for
supernatural phenomena has led Martin on moonlit treks into castle ruins,
cemeteries, ancient crypts, old mill houses, sawpits, and even forgotten
outhouses. Early on she connected with
George Wade of Wade & Son Ltd. in England, who invited her to his
17thcentury manor house near Norton-in-Hales, Shropshire. Each night by
the fireside he told her of his own ghost encounters. They became lifelong
friends until his death in 1986.
As an adventurer with a love for
history and pre-history, Martin enjoys traveling to mysterious places in Europe
where she can spend nights in Neolithic ruins, dance among Druidic standing
stones, or encounter strange things in mossed-over 11th century ruins. She also
loves the desert places of the American southwest, seeking the mysteries of
Chaco, Hovenweep, Comb Ridge, and other sites.
She keeps company with
archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, entomologists, toxicologists,
oologists, paleobotanists, paleontologists, forensic pathologists, mycologists,
scatologists, dendrologists, and scientists of many disciplines who are willing
to share their knowledge with her. Among these are the beloved labor activist,
folklorist and author, Archie Green, and the
inimitable sociologist who exposed the downside of the Braceros program,
P. Anderson. Once Martin connects with the sages of an era, she makes
lifetime friends of them.
Life is too short, she says
frequently, because the bottom line is, she has a passion for LIFE on every
Martin's interests are so diverse that she
considered various sciences as a career, including the law, forestry,
criminology, entomology, herpetology, zoology, and linguistics (when she was 16
she set out to learn Spanish, French, Norwegian, Italian, and Dutch, but
eventually settled for learning one of those well, a few of those barely, and
how to say thank you in 26 languages). Her mother encouraged her
toward writing and art. Her father encouraged her toward the law, declaring
she'd make a great lawyer, when he gave her a fine leather-bound
volume of Black's Law Dictionary. She studied many of these disciplines,
both in college and on her own, eventually realizing that as a journalist and
writer she could indulge in all sciences at any time, and consult with the
experts with the pleasure of an adventurer.
I think I might be an
adventurer first, she admits. My entire family for generations has
had the Wanderlust. If I had been born in the 16th century I would have been
off exploring Africa or South America.
At nine she read a
National Geographic story about Machu Picchu and wanted to be Hiram
Bingham. She pretended to be Bingham in her family's backyard, building little
ruins with her brothers. Drew pictures of the sacred site at school. Wrote
stories about it. Obsessed over visiting Peru and walking the ancient Inca
trails. Set out to learn the Quechua language of Peru. She still has dreams in
her sleeping hours that take her on untold adventures to not only Peru, but
also all the other places National Geographic, Smithsonian, and
Discover magazines flash into her imagination, an imagination that seems
to be in constant motion.
I grew up without television, she
tells me. All my brothers and sisters and I were huge readers. When we
played, we had few toys, but we had endless imaginations and we had each other.
We had great times together in the backfields and along the riverand even
in the city rain sewers. We could be anything we wanted, from Shackleton to
Moses, from Doc Holliday to Dickens, from Catherine de Medici to a Scottish
witch set afire and escaping through the aid of Raven
Martin lives life as an adventure of discovery. If she
wants to understand the power of explosives she hooks up with International
Society of Explosive Engineers members and gets hands-on experience. When she
wanted to learn everything about guns, from antique blunderbusses to modern
semi-automatic handguns, she took courses taught by experts. And she is a crack
shot (I'm a witness to her Dead-eye Dick style). With her amazing scores of
over 98% each session, she was invited to become a competitive markswoman. Over
the years her curiosity has given her experience in unusual fields, including
forensic entomology where she conducted studies for a Colorado sheriff on the
time it took blowflies to invade a corpse zipped inside a small tent at high
That study made it impossible to ever eat liver
again, she confesses. The control for the study was fresh calf
liver. A week of counting maggots in decomposing liver will do a severe
injustice to your appetite.
Martin has worked with various law
enforcement agencies as an independent researcher, so when she came upon a dead
man in the desert she knew precisely how to handle the site until forensic
technicians arrived. She also has done volunteer work for the National Forest
Service, helped monitor desert bighorn sheep, cougar, and pika populations for
the Colorado Division of Wildlife, helped restore native toad and frog
habitatwhich included live-capture of invasive northern
bullfrogsand has long been a wilderness activist and wildlife
an uncanny rapport with wild animals and birds. We've seen her sing
in coyotes with an eerie imitation of their gathering calls. Weve
seen wild birds alight on her. She charms snakes. Handles skunks
and raccoons. Kissesaye!kisses frogs. Has pikas crawling
onto her, which is quite unusual, since pikas are extremely wary of humans. She
can even get fish to swim into her hands. It is absolutely fascinating (if I
may inject my own opinion here), and many of her closest friends teasingly call
her St. Francis. She shrugs it off. Martin believes this rapport
merely reflects her calmness with and understanding of wild things.
Scent might play a role, too she quips. Perhaps I
smell like an animal.
Wildlife is welcome on her
farm, an overgrown and somewhat tangled natural paradise where wild raccoons
clean up orchard windfall, coyotes hunt voles, cottontails and foxes raise
their young, snakes occasionally slip into the house for high tea, and birds of
myriad kinds fill the trees with song.
One of her sisters says, I
freeze when snakes show up in the house and she invites them to tea. She just
isn't wrapped right!
Other family and friends agree with the
not wrapped right part. Martin laughs it off with a quote from 19th
century British philosopher, John Stuart Mill: In this age, the mere
example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is
itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make
eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that
tyranny, that people should be eccentric.
To thine own self be
weird, Martin says, because life is too short to worry about what
others want you to be. Be anything and everything. I'm a jack-of-all-trades and
master of skunks. And that's why I've found one big fat frog of joy in the
center of existence.
A fellow musician, who knows Martin well,
says of her, I think she's a cross between St. Francis, Edward Abbey and
Wednesday Addamswith 80 per cent of the latter.
harrying, we got MaryJoy Martin to admit she loves the daughter in the Addams
Family movies. She admits she might be a wee bit like her. Admits
she has spent days in her youth making guillotines and playing in cemeteries.
Admits she terrorized neighborhood children with her witchery. Admits she
recited Poe's poem, The Raven, for her fifth-grade class at
Catholic school; disturbed the teacher and classmates who had all chosen
poems about God and angels and
saints. Admits she did grammar school projects on Medusa, Bog witches,
Hades, and Poe's Hop Frog, with a Voodoo report complete with wax
figurines tossed in for good measure. Admits schoolmates chanted behind her (at
a safe distance), Mary, Mary dark and scary
She won't admit
anything further. Just that enigmatic smile says there's a world of shadow that
The Gothic and mysterious side of life feeds Martin's
poetry and fiction, yet her satire and parody, most of which has been published
for more than a quarter century in the
San Juan Horseshoe, comes from a
different place. Most of this body of work rises from history or current
political events. Influenced in her early life by the Monty Python clan,
particularly Terry Jones and John Cleese, Martin's irreverence strips away the
tears of our daily woes and leaves us laughing at ourselves. And at everyone
Society is a mess, she says. The world is a
mess. The only way to survive is to keep laughing. If I didn't have people like
Billy Connolly and Terry Jones, John Cleese and Martin Clunes, Madeline Kahn,
Connie Booth, and Prunella Scales, to name a few, I would be left playing with
my guillotine all day.
Comedians save the day, making certain Martin retains a semblance of
civility. They keep her almost normal (by Scottish standards, which might be
the wrong scale to determine normality), allowing her to be an active member of
the Colorado State Historical Society, the Wilderness Society, Amnesty
International, North American Mycological Society, Environmental Defense, and
other human rights and environmental organizations.
When she isn't
writing books or playing with that wicked guillotine, she paints, sculpts, and
writes music. She has written scores of songs and two musical plays, one of
which was under the influence of her friend,
Bill Oakley, the
genius behind the original Heritage Square Opera House in Golden, Colorado many
moons ago. The play was a melodrama spoof titled, The Undertaker's
Daughter. Of course.
In the beginning, Oakley was too busy to
meet with the then young writer, so Martin plotted with his wife and staff to
sneak her into the playhouse lobby one morning. She came complete with a heavy
cardboard coffin. Martin, dressed like Eliza Doolittle, was inside the coffin
with a copy of the play script and musical score on her chest, along with a
fine bottle of champagne. Staff lured Oakley out of his office where he
encountered the coffin in his lobby. He opened the coffin and Martin popped
out, handing him the champagne and script, much to his delight. The two worked
together, with Oakley offering Martin free access to his productions, as long
as she dressed in Victorian attire.
I adored Bill
Oakley, Martin says. I wish he could have lived
to wish all beloved characters could live forever. In a way, she fulfills that
wish by bringing them back to life in her work as an author and historian,
artist and photographer. One phrase she speaks frequently sums up the heart and
soul of her:
To contact MaryJoy Martin email either of the
* Scots-Gaelic for witch, a shaman-like person of