Category Archives: Writing Life

We made the Lowell Sun! A Look at the Art and Artifacts of the Lowell Historical Society

Description of . Ryan Owen, the new Lowell Historical Society curator, speaks about some unusual items he has been finding in the museum's collection. (SUN/Ashley Green)

Ryan Owen, the new Lowell Historical Society curator, speaks about some unusual items he has been finding in the museum’s collection. (Photo Credit: Lowell Sun:Ashley Green)

We’ve been active lately, at the Lowell Historical Society.  Among the responsibilities of my role as curator of the society’s art and artifacts is not only to figure out and document what we have, but also to share this information with the public, many of whom have parents and grandparents (and maybe great-grandparents too) who donated the items to our care in the first place.  The Lowell Historical Society traces its roots to 1868, which means we have some really old stuff.  And, like that box of old photographs in your attic, someone, somewhere, back in our history probably couldn’t envision a day when we wouldn’t know the whole story (with all its interesting twists and turns) behind what we have, just by looking at it.  In the end, though, oral histories live only as long as those telling them.

So, one of our goals for 2014 is to wade through our collection, and fill in those blanks, as Katie Lannan of the Lowell Sun wrote today.  It’s always a good day (and a very good start to this initiative) when our society’s efforts are recognized and several of our items are showcased in our city’s newspaper.  To see the article, please follow the link below:

http://www.lowellsun.com/news/ci_25263232/his-job-is-filling-blanks-lowells-history


The Rise and Fall of Shorthand in Victorian-Era America

Shorthand experienced its heyday in the years immediately following the Civil War.  As the end of the 19th century approached, many reporters began to swear off its usefulness, saying that shorthand’s time had passed, and that it was no longer worth the significant effort required to learn it.  By the early 1890′s, the century’s practice of producing verbatim speeches in the newspapers was on the wane, and this reduced the need for the most skilled stenographers.  Readers preferred more interpretation of great speeches and the happenings of Congress, rather than just reading the proceedings verbatim.  And, speeches were beginning to be transcribed from their prepared written copies rather than the shorthand notes of those who actually witnessed them.

Teach Yourself Shorthand

Teach Yourself Shorthand (Photo credit: Crossett Library Bennington College)

Often called the ‘wiggling art’, shorthand, or stenography, first emerged as a skill learned by men, hoping to advance their reporting careers in courtrooms or for newspapers.  Many underestimated the time required to learn the art of stenography and overestimated the number of well-paid positions available for those who mastered it.   In the early 1890′s, authorities on the subject estimated that, of the 100 young men who took up shorthand, 90 lost interest within the first six months and lacked the discipline to see their studies through.  Another 5 persevered through 18 months – and became able to write about 130 words per minute, if they were of everyday use on easy topics. Another four reached the verbatim speed of 180 words per minute, as long as the topics were familiar and routine, like political addresses or sermons, or interviews with famous people on famous topics.  It was estimated that only one of those 100 men ever achieved verbatim speed, regardless of the topic.

As the typewriter came into more widespread use in the late 19th century, women began to find work in dictation, or recording their bosses’ memos and letters in shorthand, as amanuenses.  The 19th century world saw the two types of shorthand as so different that it was said that even the best amanuensis would find recording court reporting in shorthand very difficult while the best court and newspaper reporters would find the dictation work performed by amanuenses nearly impossible.

The dictation work performed by amanuenses was said to require much less skill and brought lower pay.  Most amanuensis work involved recording letters and memos while they were dictated by a boss or other executive.  Unlike recording speeches, letters and memos were often spoken more slowly than talking speed.  And, in the one-to-one meetings that often accompanied dictations, amanuenses could ask their speakers to repeat their words, or even to slow down.  Also, over time, amanuenses developed professional relationships with their subjects, making it easier to record what they said, even at higher speeds.

The Lord's Prayer in Gregg and a variety of 19...

The Lord’s Prayer in Gregg and a variety of 19th-century systems (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was said that the stenographic work of newspaper men and court reporters was more difficult to learn than that of dictation shorthand.  Stenographers were judged by their ability to take notes precise enough that they could then be reconstituted later into first class reporting.  This, of course, required good note-taking and an understanding of the material sufficient enough to fill in the gaps.  After six months of diligent study and practice, a dictation shorthand writer might be able to write 120 to 150 words per minute.  During that same time, a person studying court or newspaper reporting might have just begun learning practical shorthand.

The mark of a good court reporter was to avoid becoming ‘rattled’ by rapid, nervous speakers, or speakers who used unfamiliar words or phrases.  Shorthand also required a good vocabulary, which aided stenographers in deciphering and recomposing their messages from their notes later.  Even the most professional reporters could become rattled.  Transcription of a speech also required specialized knowledge of its contents.  One story well-known among 19th century shorthand men told of a reporter who recorded “Amicus Plato, amicus Socrates, sed major veritas” and then transcribed “I may cuss Plato, I may cuss Socrates, and Major Verrytus”.

The pay was best in the government positions, which were few and hard to land.  After that, the most lucrative work was found in the taking court cases and the pleas of lawyers.  This work was mostly reserved for firms who employed shorthand men.  In the early 1890′s, these men, serving as court and general reporters, could earn incomes ranging from $2000 to $1000 a year.  Some earned as much as $5,000.  Salaries of the average shorthand reporter usually topped out at about $40 a week; in smaller cities, these salaries topped out at $25 a week in 1892.

In general, women stenographic amanuenses could command about $12 a week in the northern and eastern cities of the United States, about $8 a week in others.  The best earned salaries of approximately $15 a week.  Some men took work as amanuenses in hopes of advancing into roles of private secretaries and confidential men.  In the 1890′s, shorthand was still seen as a valuable skill in business to be used as a stepping stone into more lucrative and influential positions.

The study and use of shorthand has waned during the last several decades, as more modern recording devices have been introduced.  It is still used in some medical circles for writing notes on medical correspondence or in charts, probably for the privacy that writing in a sort of code provides.  And, that was actually one of the characteristics that led to shorthand’s rise.  Before the Civil War, writers of shorthand mostly used it to write down their thoughts or to secretly record the discussions of others.  Many used shorthand to write their own diaries and journals.


Cornhill – Once Boston’s Literary Center, Today Replaced by Government Center

Cornhill (Quincy Market in background, Sears block in foreground), 1901 – (From BPL Flickr Photostream)

It wasn’t Cornhill Street, Cornhill Road, Cornhill Avenue, or even the Cornhill; instead, it was just Cornhill, and in its day, knowing this was just one more way that those in the know had to distinguish locals from those visiting Boston as tourists.

In its history, Boston has had two roads called Cornhill.  The first, named after its namesake in London, ran from Water Street to Dock Square, was laid out in 1708 as part of a winding road between Roxbury and Boston.  Some 80 years later, in 1789, George Washington drove over ‘Old Cornhill’ during his ceremonial visit to Boston as the country’s first president.  As part of the occasion and as part of a larger movement to rename Boston streets after the Revolution, this first Cornhill was renamed Washington Street.  Around the same time, State Street emerged from King Street, and Court Street replaced Queen Street.  Pudding Lane became Devonshire.

A generation later, in 1816, Uriah Cotting planned ‘New Cornhill’.  From Court Street to its terminus with Washington Street at Adams Square, the curving road was initially called ‘Cheapside’, later ‘Market Street’, and ultimately ‘Cornhill’ in 1829, thus resurrecting the street onto Boston maps.

This 1832 map of Boston shows the area that would one day become Government Center. At the time, Cornhill spanned from Court Street to Washington Street.

‘New Cornhill’ was planned in every way, from its curving design to the materials and methods of construction required for any buildings raised along its route.  The new road was admired by many luminaries of the day, including John Quincy Adams, who in 1817, called it an improvement to the city that ‘contributed to the elegance and comfort of the place.’

Burnham’s Bookstore, on Boston’s Cornhill. (From the Library of Congress)

Cornhill quickly attracted Boston’s best booksellers and publishers. With them came the best-known religious, social, and political thinkers of the day.  Cornhill soon became a mecca for Boston’s intellectuals during its mid-19th-century heyday.  Writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier met at Burnham’s book store (later the Brattle Book Shop) on Cornhill, in the Sears Crescent Building.  Oliver Wendell Holmes kept law offices there.  And William Lloyd Garrison published The Liberator there, as well.   Angry mobs were twice seen dragging him from his office, subsequently tarring and feathering him.

Yet another Cornhill thinker, Horace Mann, became famous for his contributions to American education reform, creating the model eventually adopted by many states for their public school system.  Even the creator of the Graham Cracker, Dr. Sylvester Graham, claimed an office on Cornhill.

J. J. Jewett, also a Cornhill merchant and a supporter of the Underground Railroad, published the first American version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from Cornhill, selling 3,000 copies on his first day, and 300,000 during his first year.  During the Civil War, many runaway slaves were hidden in the basement under William Lloyd Garrison’s Cornhill office, a vital link in the underground railroad.  Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” there.

Sears’ Block, 72 Cornhill Street, Boston, Suffolk County, MA – (Via Library of Congress – Created by Crevin Robinson, 1962). Court Street Tavern is now the site of Starbucks, which today boasts above its entrance a 227-gallon golden kettle, rescued from nearby Scollay Square during its razing.

So the legacy of Cornhill continued through the middle of the 19th century.  As the 19th century came to a close, even Cornhill began to lose some of its luster as the preeminent location for publishers and booksellers, the street was still dominated by the city’s booksellers.  Scholars, casual browsers and even future personalities like Theodore Roosevelt, FDR and JFK all frequented the area as students.  The intellectual energy so synonymous with Cornhill may have subsided in the wake of the Civil War, but the days of the area’s booksellers continued until the coming of Government Center.

Intersection of Court Street, Cambridge Street and Tremont Street, at Government Center, today (via Wikipedia, contributed by M2545).  The Sears Block (tan) and the Sears Crescent (red brick) still stand at the intersection, the sole survivors of the location’s pre-Government Center history.

Today, the only surviving remnants of Cornhill are the Sears Block and Sears Crescent.  David Sears built the Sears Crescent in 1816, after being inspired by Charles Bullfinch‘s Tontine Crescent.  The building follows the gentle curve of Cornhill’s original layout.  The Sears Block, right next door and built in 1848, followed, and today houses a Starbucks known for its golden steaming kettle, cast in 1873 for the Oriental Tea Company.  The kettle, which originally hung in nearby Scollay Square (like Cornhill, also destroyed during the construction of the Government Center), became famous when the Oriental Tea Company ran a contest in 1874, encouraging those so-inspired to guess the kettle’s capacity.  Eight winners stepped forward to claim chests of premium tea when they correctly guessed that the kettle held 227 gallons, two quarts, one pint, and three gills.  The kettle was rescued from Scollay Square during its razing, and moved to the front of the Sears Block in 1967, where it remains today.

Cornhill, along with Scollay Square, was destroyed during the construction of Boston’s Government Center during the city’s 1960s-era Urban Renewal Scheme.  Initially, Government Center was lauded as “a model of how urban renewal, when imaginatively conceived and carried out, can bring new vitality and beauty to a city”.  Government Center even captured a special commendation from the American Institute of Architects in 1972.  Today, the aesthetic merit of the area is assigned, at best, mixed values.  Many view the area as a brutalist ‘brick desert’ in the heart of what was once one of Boston’s most picturesque Victorian neighborhoods.

Teapot on the “Sears Block” on City Hall Plaza, Boston, Massachusetts (Via Library of Congress, Contributed by: Carol M. Highsmith)


A ‘Forgotten New England’ Book?

The Jail on Lowell, Massachusetts' Thorndike Street, circa 1908 (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Good evening readers – it’s been a good week at Forgotten New England.   The site has hit 150 followers and has been experiencing some of its heaviest traffic ever.

And – an editor from a reputable publishing house happened upon this blog last week and asked if I’d be interested in writing a book on Lowell (Mass.) history.  I am.

I’ve got tons of content and research, but am short on photographs that aren’t already readily available on the Internet.  Does anyone have old photographs/memorabilia (1800′s to 1970′s) of Lowell landmarks and personalities that they’d be willing to contribute?  I can scan and return any originals.  Credit for the photo will be included in the book, of course.  Please send me a message at forgottennewengland at gmail dot com for further details.

And, as always, thanks for your continued readership and for all of the ‘shares’.


1918: Spanish Flu, Attitudes toward Housekeeping, and a Little Bit about Linguistic History

"Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases - As ...

Image via Wikipedia

One of the more interesting aspects of writing a blog is seeing which topics attract the most interest.  In mid-December, I wrote a post about the Spanish flu (link below) and its spread across Massachusetts in 1918 and 1919.  Since then, it’s been one of my most popular posts (placing fourth most popular of the current 45 posts, actually).  So, the other day I was reviewing my notes from that post and came across an interesting column (also below) that I didn’t use at the time, but saved for later.

Spanish Flu, sometimes called the 1918 Flu Pandemic, was a worldwide pandemic and one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in humanity’s history.  Experts estimate that somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died worldwide, and that some 500 million were infected.  Stateside, one in every four people suffered some form of the Spanish flu, and the death toll was so staggering that it shortened the average US life expectancy by 12 years during the first year of the outbreak.

These days, it’s rare to come across first-hand living memories of the Spanish flu epidemic, now more than 90 years ago.  My grandfather, who grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts often spoke of his memories, but he died more than 35 years ago.  That’s why when I came across this column, in the November 1, 1918 edition of The Lowell Sun, I decided to save it.

There are a few things that are interesting about the article, from a column called Man About Town.  First, I’m also working on a post exploring the linguistic heritage of New England – said more simply, the distinctive accent and unique words and phrases we’re known for.  More specifically, I’ve been exploring the idea that we would notice ‘historical accents’ if we were able to talk with people of the past.   In the column below, the writer, uses the phrase “issue of even date” in her letter – a term, now obsolete, that she uses to refer to “today’s edition” of the newspaper.

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16...

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16, 1918, during the "Spanish flu" influenza pandemic. - Image via Wikipedia.

Another interesting comment about the letter is the writer’s reaction against the “fresh air” idea that was so prevalent during the epidemic.  Soon after Spanish flu emerged, fresh air was thought to be one way to protect against infection.  Open-air emergency camps were quickly set up across Massachusetts to treat the infected.  And, amidst all of the fear, one newspaper columnist proposed that a messy home and poor housekeeping put people at a greater risk of infection.  An irritated reader wrote the following response, taking him to task for assuming that her house was “in a dirty condition” just because the Spanish flu had invaded her home.

From the Friday, November 1, 1918.  Lowell Sun, Page 18.

Dear Sir: 

In your issue of even date you say you wish we could have a national, state, or municipal statute to enforce personal and household cleanliness among industrial families.  You state you have thought about it more particularly since the Spanish influenza has been prevalent because the social workers tell you of unsanitary homes (bordering on being in a state of filth) and that this causes the disease to thrive more than any other single agency.

I am writing this in all kindness and good feeling toward the Man About Town, but I do not like to think that because I happen to have a case of Spanish influenza in my home, it was brought about because my home was kept in a dirty condition.  I am

Sincerely yours,

A MAN ABOUT TOWN READER

The Man About Town responded, and his counterpoint also exhibits the general thinking of the time, regarding WWI-era thoughts about women, housekeeping, and protection against infections:

The Man About Town’s Response:

A woman wrote this.  No name was signed to it, but I can tell a woman’s handwriting and sometimes detect the feminine process of thinking.  I rather think she is a good housekeeper and her house is kept in a clean condition.  If it got to that point where she wanted me to personally inspect her home and qualify as a judge of a clean home, or, if she had any lingering doubts in her own mind as to whether she was as good a housekeeper as she ought to be, I think here is a situation she and I ought to both sidestep.  I think, if judgement must be passed on her home, she and I ought to leave it to the opinion of her family doctor and of the nurse employed.  But I am satisfied to believe that this woman’s home is clean and all right.

Sometimes, veering off the beaten path of research materials (and into the land of columns and other ‘lighter’ newspaper content) can yield interesting insights into the lives and thoughts of people whose living memories have long since faded.  These insights can help us better envision as living, breathing people the names and dates of the individuals who make up our family trees.  They can also breathe life into the events and beliefs that shaped their lives and that we now read about in historical accounts.


In His Words: Charles Dickens’ Perspective on New England and Public Transport, 1842

We New Englanders have long called Boston “the Hub”.  And there’s a sense, just barely concealed, that we’re really referring to the hub of the universe, and not merely the hub of the state or region.   Undoubtedly, New England has a strong regional identity that includes the ubiquitous image of the “proper Bostonian” as well as a rich, well-known history that stretches back, at least from a European perspective, almost four centuries.  So, when one thinks about Massachusetts during the Victorian period, images of God-fearing, long-hemmed, be-hatted New Englanders walking to white, steepled churches in verdant town commons emerge.  Great Britain, whose long-reigned monarch gave the period its name, surely corners the market on the prim manners and complex social rituals associated with the Victorian era.  But, from an American perspective, how was New England viewed during the Victorian period?

By From an oil painting by R. J. Lane [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens, ca. 1840

Enter Charles Dickens to provide us some perspective, from one of Queen Victoria’s most well-known subjects, no less.  When Charles Dickens and his wife made their first trip to the United States and Canada in 1842, he was barely 30 years old, nearly three years away from publishing A Christmas Carol, and almost two decades from publishing A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.  Even with his early works, however, Dickens, by 1842, had already amassed a large following in New England.

The long-time Justice at the Lowell Police Court, Samuel P. Hadley, a ten-year-old boy at the time, recorded his memories of the Dickens visit to Lowell, Massachusetts years later for the Lowell Historical Society.  He recalled Dickens’ early novel, The Pickwick Papers, and how Lowell had grown enamored with the rich scenes and contagious humor displayed by Dickens in the work.   Judge Hadley, like many Lowell residents of the time, had taken turns reading the book aloud with his family, and recalled watching his father convulse with laughter, until they had to close the book and stop reading, not being able to stand any more.  He also recalled spilling tears over Little Nell Trent, the angelic and virtuous young heroine who met a tragic fate in Dickens’ novel, The Old Curiosity Shop.

While visiting Boston in early February 1842, Dickens took a one-day excursion to see the factories of Lowell, a young city barely 20 years into its existence at the time.  Very little documentation of the visit exists in the Lowell papers of the day.  Dickens made no friends with the reporters when he failed to notify them of his coming visit.  His recollections of the trip survive mostly in his travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation, published later that year.  He used the travelogue to discuss his perceptions of American culture, and provide some interesting insights into how our Victorian-era ancestors were viewed by the English.

Q:  What were Dickens’ impressions of rail travel in the United States?

A:  Dickens noticed that the American railroads had no distinct first and second class carriages like their British counterparts.  Rather, he remarked that the railroad cars were divided into gentlemen’s cars (where everyone smoked) and ladies’ cars (where no one did).  He also noted, nineteenth-century perspective clearly exhibited, that “as a black man never travels with a white one, there is also a negro car”, which he went on to describe as a “great, blundering, clumsy chest”.

He found the railroad cars to provide a “great deal of jolting, a great deal of noise, a great deal of wall, not much window, a locomotive engine, a shriek, and a bell”.  The cars, he said were like “shabby omnibuses, but larger, holding thirty, forty, or fifty people.”  For warmth, the cars were equipped with a stove, he noted, fed with charcoal or anthracite coal, which was red-hot and “insufferably close”.  Through the light of its embers, one could see fumes co-mingle with the tendrils of smoke wafting in from the gentlemen’s car.  Gentlemen did ride in the ladies’ car, when they accompanied ladies.  Also, some ladies travelled alone.

Q:  Victorian-era people have a reputation for being rather standoffish, even stiff in their rigid, long-hemmed clothes.  What did Dickens think of the Americans he met on the train?

A:  Dickens bristled at the informality exhibited by the train conductor (“or check-taker, or guard, or whatever he may be”).  As he explained:

“He walks up and down the car, and in and out of it, as his fancy dictates; leans against the door with his hands in his pockets, and stares at you, if you chance to be a stranger; or enters into conversation with the passengers about him.”  He also found it odd that “everybody” on the train “talks to you, or to anybody else who hits his fancy.”

Q:  And the American intellect?

A:  Dickens wasn’t impressed.  He noticed that when upon learning he was an Englishman, Americans asked how the US railroad compared to its British counterpart.  In his travelogue, Dickens presents this rather comical exchange:

“If you are an Englishman, he expects that the railroad is pretty much like an English railroad.  If you say “No,” he says “Yes?” (interrogatively), and asks in what respect they differ.  You enumerate the heads of difference, one by one, and he says “Yes?” (still interrogatively) to each.  Then he guesses that you don’t travel faster in England; and on your replying that you do, says “Yes?” again (still interrogatively), and it is quite evident, doesn’t believe it.  After a long pause he remarks, partly to you, and partly to the knob on the top of his stick, that “Yankees are reckoned to be considerable of a go-ahead people too;”  upon which you say “Yes,” and then he says “Yes” again (affirmatively this time) ; and upon your looking out of window, tells you that behind that hill, and some three miles from the next station, there is a clever town in a smart location, where he expects you have concluded to stop.  Your answer in the negative naturally leads to more questions in reference to your intended route (always pronounced rout) ; and wherever you are going, you invariably learn that you can’t get there without immense difficulty and danger and that all the great sights are somewhere else.”

Dickens noted that politics was much discussed aboard the train, as were banks and cotton.  He also noted that, as today, “that directly [after] the acrimony of the last [presidential] election is over, the acrimony of the next one begins”.

Q:  And the landscape of Victorian-era New England?

A:  Dickens found the rail very narrow in the United States – with the forest closing in tightly, almost claustrophobically, on the train.  Where a view could be had, he saw only “stunted trees: some hewn down by axe, some blown down by the wind, some half fallen and resting on their neighbours, many mere logs half hidden in the swamp, others mouldered away to spongy chips.”

Q:  And the picturesque lakes and ponds we treasure today?

A:  “Each pool of stagnant water has its crust of vegetable rottenness; and on every side there are the boughs, trunks, and stumps of trees in every possible stage of decay, decomposition, and neglect.”

Q:  And the idyllic New England townscapes we imagine as even more pristine in Victorian times?

By Boston Directory [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1852 B&L RR Schedule, Showing Dickens' Route from 11 Years Earlier.

A:  “Now you emerge for a few brief minutes on an open country, glittering with some bright lake or pool, broad as many an English river, but so small here that it scarcely has a name; now catch hasty glimpses of a distant town, with its clean white houses and their cool piazzas, its prim New England church and school-house; when whir-r-r-r ! almost before you have seen them, comes the same dark screen: the stunted trees, the stumps, the logs, the stagnant water.”

So much for an appreciation of the wetlands protection act.

Dickens appears to have viewed the towns along the Boston to Lowell route – Somerville, Medford, Winchester, Woburn, and Billerica, to name a few, as hinterlands on civilization’s edge.  He noted stations “in the woods” where it seemed “the wild impossibility of anybody having to get out is only to be equalled by the apparently desperate hopelessness of there being anybody to get in.”

On arriving in Lowell

Dickens thought it odd that no gate, policeman, or signal marked the railroad crossings.  As his train rushed through the last crossing before Lowell, he noticed only a wooden arch (“rough”, in his words) with these words of caution: “When the bell rings, look out for the locomotive.”  He found his arrival into Lowell startling as the train raced through the darkness under a wooden bridge and emerged into the blinding brightness of the main thoroughfare of a large town (probably Lowell’s Merrimack Street).

He watched as tradesmen looked up from their trades, people leaned from their doors and windows, boys stopped playing with kites and marbles, pigs stopped burrowing, and horses reared up,  as the train pulled into the station in a shower of burning sparks, screeches and groans.

Dickens had arrived in Lowell – to see the factories of a manufacturing town that, at approximately 21 years old, was “only just of age”, in his words.

Next Post:  Dickens thoughts on Lowell, the City.


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.

When should you set your story?

New England has so many interesting time periods, in which to place a story.   In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the whale ship Pequod sets sail from early 19th century Nantucket, providing interesting insights into both one man’s soul and into New England’s whaling industry of the time.  The Civil War gets attention too, maybe more so in the US South, but Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women gives readers a window into Concord, Massachusetts during the conflict.  Then, there’s Make Way for Ducklings, written by Robert McCloskey and set in early 1940′s Boston at the Public Garden.  A Separate Peace also takes place in the early 1940′s, in New Hampshire.  Then, there’s the period I find myself most drawn toward – the late Victorian years.  Henry James based his novel, the Bostonians, during the 1870′s.  And, then there’s the way back.  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter comes to mind.  It too is set in Boston, but 300 years earlier, in the 1640′s.  What is your favorite New England time period to read about?  To write about?


How street dirt can change the world

Historical fiction, like any genre of fiction, relies on a solid, engaging storyline, but it’s just as important to get the details right.  Flub those and you’ll quickly lose credibility with readers.  Readers seek out historical fiction to escape into another world, and another time.  Who wouldn’t want to send this coming Monday a few centuries into the future?

I write a local history column for the town newspaper.  While researching a topic,  I came across a fascinating bit of lost lore – the daily act of street watering in the late nineteenth century.   So, say you’re writing a story and it takes place in a New England mill city – Lowell, Massachusetts will do, or even Boston.  A young boy, six or seven years old, races down a city street bordered by tall brick buildings, peopled by horse-drawn carriages and women in leg-of-mutton sleeves.  The men, extravagantly mustachioed, turn to look at your boy.  Some reach up to grasp their bowlers as a cooling breeze arrives from the east.  It’s July 1894.  Your boy, call him a good 19th century name like James, needs butter from the store.  It’s not far; there were far more neighborhood stores then.  He races along.  His mother needs the butter for a cake.  And the cake needs to be made before Father returns from work.

When you read the scene, you’ll expect to see horses, and carriages, and lots of elaborate (and less than sensible) dress; you might even expect to see cobblestone lanes, streetcars, and the occasional newspaper boy hawking the latest editions of the Boston Globe or Lowell Sun.  But would you expect to see a street watering cart?  Probably not.  Street cleaning survives today in the form of street sweepers, slow-moving, tank-like vehicles that present excellent opportunities for modern day drivers to dart around before oncoming traffic closes the chance.  In Victorian-era cities like Boston or Lowell, it took on a whole new importance.  While today’s road dust consists of seasonal waste (like road sand or fallen leaves) and litter, Victorian-era road dust contained a long-forgotten nineteenth-century component – horse waste.

Scollay Square in Boston, 1883

The pollution of Victorian cities was not the auto exhaust so bemoaned today, but quite literally horseshit, or the dried dust from it.  As James runs to the store, any one of the horses that he passes could leave behind as much as 25 pounds of . . . exhaust daily, which dries into the roads, becomes pulverized by hooved, heeled, and wheeled traffic, and gets blown into the airborne dust that finds its way into Victorian homes, clothing, and lungs.  As an aside, the Sanitary Division of Boston’s Street Department towed 30,478 loads of street sweepings to sea in 1894, each load weighing one-and-a-half tons.  Although the street dirt contained house refuse, street litter, and sometimes seasonal waste such as fallen leaves, the largest component was horse excrement.

So, what does this have to do with James‘ run?  As he runs to the store, he dodges foot traffic, horse traffic, and fresh, moist horse deposits along the way.  Add to that the fashionable wheelmen and wheelwomen (now called bicyclists) who have seized upon the decade’s latest trend and are pedaling through the road traffic, and the scene starts to come together.

But, what does the road feel like, under his shoes?  He’s in a city in Massachusetts, which in 1894, most likely means that the road is graveled, or as the more technical terms calls it, macadamed.  This affects the sound of James‘ footfalls against the road as he runs, the feel of the road through his shoes, even the speed at which he can run.

But, there’s another thing to consider.  As James runs along the road, let’s call it Main Street, his shoes crunch across the gravel.  It’s July 1894, one of the hottest, driest summers in memory.  And one of the windiest.  Victorian-era roads are dusty – unless they’re watered.  And Lowell and Boston both have healthy street watering budgets.

So, instead of kicking up dust, James’ footfalls crunch through the moist gravel, and splash through puddles in the road’s uneven surface, as the heat of summer weighs down his clothes in the humidity.  Fashionable young ladies chide him as puddle droplets find and dry into their dresses.  There’s a moist earthy smell in the air.  He takes care as he steps around street car rails and larger stones in the road, slippery perils to both pedestrians and wheelmen.

Some graveled roads are watered by the street watering cart as much as twice daily.  On his trip to the store, he may pass a paved road, a luxury in 19th century Massachusetts.  If James were running along say, Boston’s prestigious Beacon Street, his shoes would clack along freshly washed, freshly swept pavement.  But even there, no less than 16 cross streets intersect his route.  As he passes each graveled cross street, he strides across a strip of dust and mud left by crossing hooves and wheels.

We are all products of our environment.  The setting where you place James as he runs to the store will determine his life experiences, his story, and even his speech.  Perhaps as he runs along Main Street, he’ll notice that there’s a strip of dry gravel on each strip of the road that has not been watered.  Many northeastern cities considered following Chicago’s example, leaving these strips dry to accomodate wheelmen and wheelwomen, who worried about losing a tire (and/or bruising a limb) on a wet, slippery rail or stone.  Perhaps, he’ll find himself on a road in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1894, freshly sprinkled to the dismay of clergymen he passes who passionately complain that any labor on a Sunday desecrates the Sabbath.

There are so many details you can work into any scene.  I see the writing as “the coming together” of the research process.  When you come down to it, the research process can be even more interesting and fun than the writing itself.  But, there is a balance.  Too little detail and the story lacks authenticity – and the ability to engage your reader through the window of time.  Too much detail and the story drowns.  If James takes 25 pages to get to the store and back, your readers, and perhaps even you, will have lost interest in the cake, James‘ father, and any other subplots your larger story explores.  But, a few well-placed details will help take your reader to that place and time you are trying to re-create and succeed in helping him or her push that inevitable Monday morning meeting decades, or even centuries away.

Sources:

  • Annual Report of the Street Department – Boston, Mass. Street Dept., pp 72-74, 1895.
  • “Puritans of Somerville.”  The Boston Daily Globe.  11 May 1897: 1.
  • “Mud or Dust?”  The Boston Daily Globe.  29 June 1897: 2.
  • Report of Commission on Street Cleaning and Waste Disposal, the City of New York, p. 44, 1907.