Performers of the Victorian Stage – Professor Samri Baldwin, Installment I

I’ve climbed my family tree.  Amidst laborers, farmers, and even a pirate hidden within its branches, I’ve also found circus performers and musicians clinging to the acorns.  Someday (yes, the proverbial and elusive someday), I think it would be interesting to write a story around the Victorian stage, and its actors and actresses – and maybe even incorporate some of the interesting personalities I’ve come across in my research for my column and for my family tree.   While that story remains a work in progress, I’d hate to see all this inspiration go to waste.  So, this post marks the first of a series of profiles detailing performers of the Victorian stage.

Enter Samri S. Baldwin, perhaps better known as “Professor Baldwin” or, more colorfully, one of the two “White Mahatmas” (his wife, Kitty Baldwin, was the other).  Though not a New Englander, Professor Baldwin was born Samuel Spencer Baldwin in Cincinatti, Ohio, in 1848, and went on to become an internationally known entertainer who made six tours of the world during his life, including many performances in New England.  His early start in entertainment was briefly interrupted while he saw some Civil War service as a private in Company B of the Ohio 83rd Infantry Regiment in 1864.  By the late 1870’s, he, under the name of “Samri Baldwin” or “the White Mahatma” and his wife, known most often simply as “Mrs. Baldwin”, were performing such lofty New England venues as the Tremont Temple in Boston.  During another later tour of Boston, the Baldwins performed in the Bowdoin Square theatre in 1895, and the Lowell (Massachusetts) Opera House soon after.  Yet another New England tour saw them perform at Poll’s in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1904.  In his book, The Secrets of Mahatma Land Explained, Baldwin claims, by 1895, to have performed in “nearly all the capitals of Europe” as well as places in Africa, Asia, and South America – not to mention “all parts of the United States, Mexico, and Central America” as well.  The book may explain his success best, when he says “everywhere the largest theaters and halls have been crowded to suffocation.”

So, at this point, we’ve established that Professor Baldwin was successful.  But, what was the show?  His earliest show was one in which he placed an egg under one teacup and a potato under another.  While his captivated family watched, he waved his wand over the cups and made the egg and potato change places under the cups.  The account does not record his age at the time, but it does state that his mother was quite cross with him when she discovered the secret behind the trick – two holes cut into her dining room table.

Professor Baldwin soon became fascinated by the Davenport Brothers, and followed the magicians from town-to-town as they toured the United States during the 1860’s.  The Brothers were heavily influenced by the mid-19th century Spiritualism movement, and their performances relied heavily on illusions that they claimed were made possible by spirits.  Baldwin incorporated Spiritualism into his own act, and attended spiritual seances for inspiration.  Several years into his studies of all things spiritual, Baldwin concluded that it was best to confront spiritualism with a healthy dose of skepticism.  His first acts replicated the tricks performed by other mediums.  He then gained fame for offering $500 for any trick he could not explain away after watching it twice.

In the mid-1890’s, a ticket to see the  “Marvelous Baldwins” at the Lowell Opera House of Lowell, Massachusetts could be had for as little as a quarter, or as much as one dollar (if you wanted one of the best seats).   Arriving before the 8 PM (sharp, as noted by their newspaper ads) start, you would find your seat, sit, and catch Professor Baldwin, as he prepared the  audience with jokes and witticisms.  After a brief intermission, Professor Baldwin re-emerged, ready to start his cabinet act, amidst a “committee of gentlemen”, recruited from the audience.  While Baldwin continued the stream of jokes and witticisms, the committee examined the cabinet, not noting anything untoward.  They then tied Baldwin to a chair,  with his hands behind him and his feet on the floor of the cabinet.  The Committee double-checked the knots as the curtain closed.

After the curtain closed, the audience heard a crash of china against the floor, and the sound of tamborines, something like a couple dozen Salvation Army members, as the contemporaries explained it.  When the curtain drew aside, the professor was revealed to the audience, still tied with the ropes, as confirmed by the committee.  A member from that committee then placed a paper under the Professor’s feet.  As he did, the Professor released his arm from his knots, threw a hoop around the gentleman’s neck, all as the gentleman bent by the Professor’s feet.  The Committee approached at this, examined the professor’s knots, and found them to be fastened as tightly as before, still around his wrists.  They were baffled.  The committee then closed the cabinet, with the professor inside, and watched, with the audience, as the professor threw his hands out the top.  While they were still processing that, he stepped out the cabinet, leaving the ropes behind.  The comittee and the audience watching them were dumbfounded.

Mrs. Baldwin then took the stage, promising an act of telepathy.  Mrs. Baldwin first asked the ladies in the room to remove their right hand gloves, to help her activate her telepathic powers.  The audience was then given slips of paper, on which they wrote questions for Mrs. Baldwin.  What won Mrs. Baldwin such fame was that she not only knew the answers to the questions, but the questions themselves, which had remained with the audience members until Mrs. Baldwin identified the question through telepathy.  To help the audience, Mrs. Baldwin’s act supplied blocks to the audience members on which they could write their questions.  They also were provided pencils.  After a reasonable time passed, the pencils and blocks were collected; the questions remained with the askers in the auidence, usually concealed in their pockets.  During a five minute intermission, Mrs. Baldwin would depart the stage while a couple provided an act mimicking domestic infelicility in a new marriage.  Another performer took the stage and played the mandolin.

Mrs. Baldwin then reappeared, blindfolded, and began asking her questions to the audience, who sat rapt, anticipating that theirs might be the next question that Mrs. Baldwin perceived.  In one 1895 show in Lowell, Massachusetts, a woman wondered if her husband was in the company of another woman the previous Wednesday night.   Per Mrs. Baldwin, that woman’s husband was in Boston playing seven up that night, and lost $2.25.  Mrs. Baldwin next found the woman in the audience who wondered if she would marry or live to be an old maid?  Sure enough, the woman stood up, retrieved her paper with question from her pocket, and confirmed that the question was hers.  In other cases, Mrs. Baldwin would describe the woman who had written a question, about a lost item or something else, down to her dress, shoes, residence, and even her husband’s occupation.

The true fun of her act would occur when the audience would ask questions about stories popular at the time.    At one show in 1895, her audience asked who would win the heavyweight boxing match between Steve O’Donnell of Australia and Jake Kilrain of Baltimore.  Mrs. Baldwin predicted O’Donnell as the victor.  She was right.  She wasn’t as accurate on the prediction of the president who would succeed Grover Cleveland.  She guessed Benjamin Harrison.  William McKinley was the victor that November.Her act captivated the crowd and drew large numbers to the venues where she appeared.  Many women in the audience were reported to have been frightened, and even to have fainted, while witnessing these apparentlly spritually experiences.

The Baldwins never claimed to believe in spiritualism, and Professor Baldwin spent much time explaining that the tricks were really illusions, not supernaturally charged events.  Nonetheless, they took their act to venues worldwide, and performed in front of royalty, during their decades of performances.  Professor Baldwin spent his last ten years in San Francisco, where he died in 1924 while living with his daughter, Blanche.  Mrs. Baldwin died about a decade later.

Sources:

  • Ancestry.com. California, San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1895-1985 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
  • Historical Data Systems, comp.. U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2009.
  • Baldwin, Samri, S.  The secrets of mahatma land explained., 1895.
  • “Some Mysterious Doings.”  The Lowell Sun.  1895, May 7.  1.
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2 responses to “Performers of the Victorian Stage – Professor Samri Baldwin, Installment I

  • Stephanie

    I wonder if the blocks of wood were the reason she could guess the questions.

    • forgottennewengland

      Yes, the millboards were a key part of the act. The Baldwins distributed them to the audience for them to use as a writing surface, but a small number of them had been slightly altered so that they included a hidden sheet of carbon paper atop a sheet of regular paper. After the audience members had written their questions, the assistants collected the millboards, placed most on the stage, but brought the small number of doctored boards backstage where the Baldwins could review the questions during the next act. There, the assistants would also pass on details of the askers and even their situations that they had been able to glean while collecting the boards. Mrs. Baldwin would then appear on stage moments later, ready to amaze the audience with her ability to call out the questions of certain audience members, and armed with details of their situations that she couldn’t possibly have known, without the help of ‘spirits’.

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