Martin McNulty Crane, lawyer and politician, the son of Martin and Mary (McNulty) Crane, was born on November 17, 1855, at Grafton, Taylor County, West Virginia. After his mother died, his father took the four-year-old boy to Kentucky and subsequently to Stewart County, Tennessee, where the elder Crane died suddenly in 1860. For the next ten years friends of the family raised Crane. At the age of seventeen he left Stewart County and moved to Johnson County, Texas.
For a number of years he worked on a farm and attended school. Later he supplemented his income by teaching. During this time he also prepared himself for a legal career. In 1877 he was admitted to the bar. Although quite young and new to the area, Crane established such a favorable reputation that in 1878 voters elected him prosecuting attorney. He was reelected in 1880 but declined to stand for renomination in 1882. In part this decision was a result of family obligations. On January 22, 1879, Crane had married Eulla Olatia Taylor, and by 1882 the couple had three children and little financial security. To remedy the situation, Crane concentrated on his private legal practice. Ultimately, the Cranes had five daughters and three sons. In 1884, however, Crane's supporters persuaded him to return to politics. That year he was elected representative of the Thirty-sixth District to the Nineteenth State Legislature. After the term, family responsibilities again prevented him from running for reelection. In 1886 he returned to private practice. He devoted the next four years to his growing legal career.
For years he sympathized with the economic disadvantages North Texas farmers suffered. He approved of many of the programs suggested by the Farmers' Alliance and was alarmed at the unregulated power held by railroads, oil companies, and metropolitan banks. As a result of these sympathies Crane, a Democrat, aligned himself with the faction of the party that supported the reform efforts of future governors James S. Hogg and Charles Allen Culberson. This commitment to progressive politics, combined with his legal skills, attracted a group of influential Democrats who in 1890 persuaded Crane to run for office. In 1890 voters elected him state senator from the Twenty-first District (Johnson, Ellis, and Hill counties). In the Twenty-second Legislature he served on a special committee established by Governor Hogg that successfully lobbied for the bill establishing the Railroad Commission. Two years later Crane was elected lieutenant governor. In 1894 he resigned from that office to campaign for attorney general. The voters elected him, and for the next four years he distinguished himself in a series of precedent-setting cases, including the case enforcing the new Texas antitrust laws against the Waters-Pierce Oil Company (see WATERS-PIERCE CASE). Crane represented Texas against the United States in the Greer County case, in which Greer County was declared to be north and east of the true Texas state line and became part of Oklahoma.
When some tried to nominate Crane for governor, he withdrew, perhaps prematurely, after failing to secure as many delegates as he expected. He returned to private practice in 1899 and for the next forty-four years managed a successful law firm in Dallas. In 1906, in a well-publicized debate with Senator Joseph Weldon Bailey of Houston, Crane argued against politicians' practice of accepting fees from businesses. In 1917 he was chief counsel in the impeachment proceedings against Governor James Ferguson. During the early 1920s he served as head of the Dallas County Citizens League, organized in 1922 to oppose the political influence of the Ku Klux Klan. On August 3, 1943, after a brief illness, Crane died, at the age of eighty-eight. He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Dallas.