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Artifact in Harry Houdini scrapbook collection highlights career of mind reader “The White Mahatma”

By Helen Baer

The Ransom Center recently launched a new platform of digital collections on its website, which includes the Harry Houdini scrapbook collection. More than 50 items from that collection, including the scrapbook highlighted in this blog post, can be viewed on the new platform.


American magician S. S. Baldwin (1848–1924), also known as “The White Mahatma,” was a celebrated mind reader or “mentalist” who made several tours around the world, initially with his wife and partner Clara Baldwin, and later with his second wife, Kittie Baldwin. The centerpiece of his act was a question-and-answer session in which he hypnotized his wife. Under his spell, she would answer questions from the audience without having heard the questions. Like his contemporary Harry Houdini, Baldwin insisted that he did not possess any supernatural powers, and he sought to expose spiritualism as trickery.


In 1924 Baldwin’s daughter Shadow sent Houdini her deceased father’s scrapbook from his fourth tour around the world. This magnificent scrapbook is an eclectic mix of photographs from places he traveled, juxtaposed with printed notices of his performances and other items. Many of the images reflect Baldwin’s interest in the indigenous peoples of the countries he visited.


The first image shows a piece of Baldwin’s stationery from his fifth world tour, ca. 1889–1890, embellished with skulls and devils.


The second image features an engraved notice for Baldwin’s performances in Peking, China, in 1879, pasted above a review for an appearance at the Academy of Music (city and date unknown).  Notably, the engraving was designed and printed by a local Chinese artist, Ning Foo Shang. Also included are photographs from Burma, British Guiana, and, somewhat incongruously, England (one photograph is labeled “Castle Gate, Nottingham”).


Click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.



Kaz Cooke

I’ve been researching Baldwin’s travels in Australia and elsewhere which he undertook with a group of vaudevillians who eventually settled here in Melbourne. They were Ada Delroy (who stole Loie Fuller’s dances) and the Bell family, often mentioned in clippings in this scrapbook. They visited the north of England several times between 1890 and 1894. The Baldwins’ clairvoyant act and Ada’s serpentine dance were big hits. Kittie Russell was a well-known singer and ‘facial delineator’ (impersonator of types eg Scottish lass, spinster, sea captain) and each can be seen in publicity photos in the scrapbook. Clara, thrown over for new girlfriend Kittie in 1889, died a morphine and alcohol addict in Sydney. ‘Shadow’ Baldwin’ was also his girlfriend, billed as his daughter or ‘Shadow the Mystic” or “Sensitive’. Baldwin had gone from debunking spiritualists to posing as an astrologer and clairvoyant. If anybody knows Shadow’s real name, please let me know!

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