Category Archives: Victorian Entertainers

In Search of Good Sleuths: A Downtown Lowell Treasure Hunt, 1912

Lowell Sun – September 21, 1912

“Are you a good sleuth?”  The headline teased, from the Lowell Sun’s front page.  One hundred years ago, on Saturday, September 21, 1912, the newspaper invited all would-be sleuths to Lowell’s Merrimack Square (today’s Kearney Square) that night, at 8 PM, ‘sharp’.  One lucky sleuth, they claimed, would win $100 ($2300 in today’s dollars) if he or she were the first to find a money order hidden somewhere within Lowell’s city limits, within the following 24 hours.

Hundreds turned out for the contest, which was overseen by three men:  a Lowell Sun representative, Lowell Commissioner of Finance James Donnelly, and Henry Savage, proprietor of “The Million”, a comedy set to open at the Lowell Opera House a week later.

1912 Buick Model 43 – Touring four-door, by New York Public Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At 8 PM, the three men would race their Buick out of Merrimack Square to find a place to hide the $100 or, more precisely, an order that the lucky finder could convert into $100.  The only rule:  the $100 order had to be hidden somewhere within the city limits.

Admittedly, finding a piece of paper that could be hidden anywhere within Lowell’s 14.5 square miles is a pretty tall order.  The Lowell Sun placed some conditions that made the contest a little bit easier.

The $100 order would speed away, at 8 PM, with the Buick leaving Merrimack Square.  Contest rules mandated that the men flash the order from the car before leaving.  Anyone participating in the contest was free to follow them, for as long as they could.  Those on foot and bicycles lost the Buick first.  Pursuers on motorcycles lasted only slightly longer.  The other cars lasted the longest.

After the contest leaders in the Buick lost their pursuers, they would hide the $100 order . . . just about anywhere.  Contest rules teased that the money could be hidden in a tree, behind a chimney, on the roof of a house, in a manhole, on an abandoned wagon, or perhaps in an awning on a public street.   The $100 order had to be found within the first 24 hours, before 8 PM on Sunday, or its value would decrease to $75.  Twenty-four hours after that, the value would drop to $50.

On that Saturday night (and the following Sunday), hundreds searched every corner of Lowell for the money.  And it did, indeed, remain hidden.  By Monday, the Sun stayed true to its word, retrieved the order from its hiding spot, and again flashed it from the Buick as it sped away from Merrimack Square that night in pursuit of the next hiding spot.

Lowell Sun – September 21, 1912

The inspiration for the contest came from “The Million”, a comedy that would come to the Lowell Opera House a week later. Coming off a wildly successful run at the Majestic Theatre in Boston, “The Million” featured “a bunch of cops, a struggling young doctor, an artist’s model, a young actress, a burglar, and others” all pursuing a million dollar prize.

In ten short minutes that Monday, the Buick had again lost all pursuers, and within 45 minutes, the order was hidden in the steps leading up to the Kasino dance hall, to the side of the fourth step, to be exact.  And, again, it was never found.  The reporter who hid the $100 order, from the Sun, watched as a man sat on those stairs that afternoon, running his foot along some grass, but never finding the order.

By Tuesday, the $100 order still hadn’t been found, and the automobile had eluded the pursuers twice.  The pursuers again attempted to follow the Buick in their own autos, motorcycles, bicycles, and even afoot.  The Buick first sped down Central, and over Prescott, along Merrimack, and up Central.  One car vigorously pursued the Buick longer than the others.  But, as the Buick climbed the hills, its driver noticed that their pursuer lost ground on the inclines.  The Buick’s driver exploited this advantage by taking hills until it had lost even this last car.

After the $100 order remained hidden through Tuesday, the Sun printed its best clue yet.  The clue promised that “the money is in the very heart of the city and in an exceedingly easy and simple place of concealment.”  The order, now worth $50, was written on pink paper and, according to the clue, hidden on Central Street, between Merrimack and Tower’s Corner.  The clue continued to say that the order was enclosed, so that it would be safe from the weather, and hidden in a ‘very open spot’, but in an “inaccessible crevice”.

Lowell Opera House – September 24, 1912

In the end, the $50 prize was eventually found.  The winning sleuth was a Marshall Street resident named Nelson La Porte.  Nelson had arrived in Lowell just two weeks earlier, looking for work. On the night of Monday, September 23, he went to the Kasino dance hall and waited with the rest of the crowd for the Sun reporter who carried the money order.

His searching efforts were not fruitful that first night.  But, he returned the following night and began his search of Central Street.  After what he thought was a thorough search, he called the Sun’s office and claimed that the whole search was bogus and that there was no hidden money order.  The Sun told him to keep looking.  He did, and searched all of Central Street again, from Tower’s Corner to Merrimack Street.  He searched the sewers, the cigarette boxes, and even all of the signs.  When he reached the sign belonging to Joe Haley’s barber shop (in the Central Block), he found the order, now worth $50.  He rushed to the Sun Office and claimed the reward.  La Porte claimed he was ‘dead broke’ and welcomed the $50 as a ‘godsend’.  La Porte received his $50, at the performance of “The Million”, from a member of the company.

The contest, which drew the interest of hundreds in the Greater Lowell area succeeded in drawing interest to “The Million”, which opened little more than a week later.  In retrospect, it seems genius in not only its concept, but its close tie with the plot of the comedy.  It’s hard to imagine such a contest happening today, with cars, motorcycle, bicycles, and even people racing through downtown streets in pursuit of a piece of paper worth something north of about $2700.


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.