A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. A Physician Rubs Shoulders with Magic and Vaudeville.


In my continual search to find remedies for stubborn diseases, I ran across a Magician. He used various names, sometimes it was Walter Cody, sometimes it was something else, but he was always an M.D. under some name, though. At this time, he had drifted to the stage, a kind of rival of Kellar and Hermann the Great.

He certainly was a magical chemist, claimed to have been in government employ at one time, in the secret service. Had practiced in Missouri, and had originated and sold the formula for Listerine to the Lambert Brothers for $75.00.

He was a big man with brown eyes. It was always difficult for me to pick out the truths from the falsehoods he would tell me in his intense enthusiasm. But since then, I have met other people that way.

He was broke when I met him, and lived in a small upper flat on 17th Street with his wife. He had married a circus magician’s chief performer, whose name he told me was Baldwin. They had one grown-up son, and she had a sister 18 years old, one of the prettiest brown-eyed girls I ever saw. He was teaching her magic, out of books and other ways, while she was in town looking for some light office work.

[Background: here’s the preface, forward, and notes from the editor of R.L.W.’s memoir; here’s his account of his upbringing through medical school;  here’s when he self-inoculated with tuberculosis and went off to Paris with a charlatan; here’s where he  treated typhoid, learned to dance, theorized, and sutured guinea pigs together; here’s where he contracts cholera and hooks his uncle up with testicular juice; here’s his misadventures in self-publishing while treating a slow-motion suicide-by-drinking; and here’s a piece I wrote for New York Press upon first reading the memoir.]

We did work out together some new applications of remedies which I afterwards found to be more valuable than I thought at the time. He charged very little for his work. I recollect that he had a bottle out of which he could apparently pour anything one would call for – whiskey, beer, cider, a perfume, etc.  He claimed that he could hypnotize anyone, and that his wife in a trance would see the future and the past.

I sent him on a job once – he was such a braggart about hypnotism – to have him straighten out by hypnosis an affair in which a certain party claimed, contrary to my idea, that I owed him money. I gave Cody $10 for expenses, but he came back with the affair more mixed up than ever.

This man that Cody went to see was erratic, as well as smart, in many ways. I suppose he, like myself, had troubles of his own. It was related of him that he had a fad of purchasing Holstein or blooded cattle. The young men in town, hearing this, succeeded in selling him a red cow that they had colored black and white with dyes. In time the cow had a calf, and when the owner went to the barn and recognized the deception, he took his shotgun and shot the cow.

I learned many things from this doctor-genius-jack-of-everything, and pretty good at them all. “Take the U.S. secret service, for instance,” he would say. “If they want to find out anything about you, even if they tap your telephone, it will be done so perfectly and silently that you will wonder how they did it, and probably never know.”

This fact was proven during the World War, for to my knowledge the district attorney had the names and pedigrees of Pro-Germans, possible enemies of the U.S. that called at a certain English doctor’s office I knew. They even had me down because I belonged to a German club, and had belonged for years, like other pro-Allies.

One night I gave Cody his price, $5, to put his wife in a trance to tell me things. Taking Dr. Girdner’s son with me to his little flat, he hypnotized her in our presence. She went off into a dazed condition, but nothing astonishing was revealed. She spoke in her trance about houses and green fields moving past her vision. But as my companion could verify, this magician had a fund of riffraff information which it would be difficult to find anywhere else.

He casually mentioned one time a most wonderful singer on the vaudeville stage, Joe Norcross. For, as I have said, he was a public performer at this time, when he could get an engagement. He thought I ought to have heard of him, but I had not. I had reasons beside the love of music for wanting to meet him, for I had an idea that I might get my work going in some uncommon way.


I set out to find Joe Norcross, the pedal bass, as I afterward learned to call him. After a time – for it was some time before I found anyone who knew, or had ever heard of him – through Keith’s exchange at the Palace Theatre I located him as being in Philadelphia. (Afterward, it seemed as if everyone knew him.)

I lost no time when I was on the scent of something I wanted, and I had money in my pocket – none in the bank, but in my pocket. I phoned to Proctor’s Theatre in Philadelphia. He was there, the answer came back, and if I would hold the wire he would answer when he came off stage.

I waited. Soon a deep voice said, “Hello.” I said, “Joe Norcross?” He said, “Yes.” “When are you coming to New York?” “I’ll be in Newark tomorrow.” I said, “In what theatre?” He answered, “You find out.”

I got Cody and his wife, and the next day we went to Newark and got there just in time to hear Joe and his wife coming off the stage of Proctor’s amidst great applause. I asked Cody to introduce me, but he refused, saying he did not know him.

So the next day I went myself to his boarding house. His wife was home, a handsome old lady with white hair. She was 65, he 76. So I made the acquaintance of “The Oldest Actor on the Stage.”

It was a lasting friendship, and I became their physician till they died, ten years later. He often used to laugh over the way I became acquainted with them, although I did not tell him for some time. He never heard of Cody.

Through him, I had the entrance to many stages of many shows. And the most interesting experience I ever had was when, for the first time, I stood back of the curtain as the play went on, noting the different expressions, some smiling, others sober, old and young, and of all nationalities. I did not realize before I was told that the effect on the audience of his act could be marred or made good by the previous act.

Joe, as he made me call him, had always acted in vaudeville after he left the minstrel shows of which he was a pioneer, but which had had their day. Joe’s bass reached low C, and it was bass, pedal bass. He never took any lessons, and began in a circus when a boy of 16. Up to the last year of his life he was before the footlights.

One day he brought me some new songs his new manager had given him to learn, and said, “Doc, you learn them.” I only sing what I know, but I did learn one called “The Hermit.” Have never heard it sung in public, but it was a good one, went down to E flat. I know that song to this day.

One day I said, “Joe, when you are dead and gone, I would like to tell that I sang on the stage with you. So the next opportunity you get at rehearsal, let your wife be the audience, and you and I will sing a song.”

The chance came when he was at Union Hill, N.J. We learned “Larboard Watch,” which he knew, and separated into two parts. It worked well. But another slight opportunity came one night in Brooklyn at the Bushwick Theatre. One of the company becoming sick, Joe thought like lightning and came back and said, “You fill that in here, back of the curtain.”

It wasn’t much. I did, although there was a snake charmer back there, an Egyptian woman with the snake about her neck, trying to induce the performers to pat him on the head. I didn’t do that, though it was said the reptile had had its fangs removed. I was frightened just the same. Joe and his wife used to act in a sketch he originated with the song “Little Maggie May” in it, and it always brought down the house.

She came from a nervous, erratic family, and while he watched her closely latterly, she managed to cut her throat one day and died before his eyes in their home in Springfield, Mass. That broke the old man all up. He acted one year alone, and then passed away with the asthma which he had been fighting all his life.

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