Peoria’s Own Philosopher

The founder of both the Peoria Journal and the Peoria Star, the legendary Eugene F. Baldwin left an indelible mark on central Illinois.

I often write about Peorians that I knew personally during my eight decades of living here, so writing about Eugene Baldwin seemed natural to me. I never met the man, but being a local historian and researcher has brought me into contact with his writings so often that I always felt like I knew him.

After his death, his daughter Sidney continued to write for local newspapers and magazines for another 50 years. She often spoke of her beloved father, his opinions and philosophy of life, and the impact he had on this area. So as long as she lived, the memory of Eugene F. Baldwin was alive and playing in Peoria. Let me take you back in time when Mr. Baldwin was busy carving a place for himself in Peoria’s memorable history.

“Gene” was born into a religious family in Watertown, Connecticut, on December 1, 1840, and ended up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he enlisted in the Twelfth Indiana Volunteer Regiment in 1861. During the war, he was captured by the Confederacy and finally made his way to Chillicothe, Illinois, where he took a principal’s job in the local school. He married Sarah Gove of Peoria and accepted the job of principal of Peoria’s First Ward School, beginning his life here in Peoria in 1864. It was during that time he accepted a position as the editor of the Peoria Daily Transcript, which he held for four years.

Remembering “The Fighting Editor”
On the night Eugene Baldwin passed away, his daughter Sidney took her “typewriter to a basement room of [the] house and wrote, hardly able to see the keys because of the tears.” For two years, she had taken dictation for “The Philosopher,” her father’s weekly column and favorite project by far. A weekly collection of his musings, “The Philosopher” often “started on a modern subject, and got switched to quite another topic, as he followed the thread of suggestion in his mind,” she recalled that day.

Sidney would go on to continue her father’s legacy, writing her own weekly column, “In My Opinion,” for some four decades on. In her November 22, 1914 column, her first for the Peoria Star, she offers an insightful glimpse into the life of Eugene Baldwin—the man remembered today as “Peoria’s Philosopher.”

  • “He never gave advice, either in his speeches or in his writing, that he did not know was good by personal trial.”
  • “He had a gift of sizing up a man’s faults and vices to perfection, and many a man has winced under the keen cut of his pen.”
  • “He was a fluent talker but a ready listener, and when he met a man who knew something he wished to learn, he never rested until he had drawn from him all the knowledge he possessed.”
  • “He loved books, not only for their contents, but for their covers…It was almost impossible to read anything aloud to him, for he had read so much that his eyes had formed a habit of skipping the unimportant details and fastening on facts, and he read with lightning speed.” 
  • “Money never was his god. It was something to be used for the benefit of those around him, and right royally did he use it in this way, as dozens of Peorians can testify.”
  • “He fought many fights, but he fought in the open, and he never fought until he knew he was right.”

After that, his permanent footprint on Peoria grew to legendary proportions. Sidney Baldwin said of her father, “He knew history better than most people knew their multiplication tables.” One of my favorite quotes came from the great man himself. “Never bother with history,” he said. “Read the lives of the men who made it.” I allowed that advice to guide me as I delved into local history, and I think it served me well. The list of brilliant men and women who have left their mark on the little town of Peoria, Illinois, is long and illustrious.

A Life’s Work is Launched
The first issue of The Peoria Journal, founded by J.B. Barnes and Eugene Baldwin, hit the busy streets of Peoria on December 3, 1877. The circulation was initially 1,700, and within a month, it had soared to 4,100 copies. Mr. Baldwin, the editor, vowed to his readers that he would deliver to them a newspaper that was independent of politics and religion for just ten cents a week. Baldwin and Barnes added to their success by printing The Weekly Journal, which was touted as a family newspaper with local news for just one dollar a year.

So Baldwin was happily in the newspaper business until he made a major mistake by going into the patent medicine business with a partner. That proved to be nearly fatal for him financially, and he returned to the newspaper business by founding The Peoria Star on September 27, 1897. When his new press arrived, Baldwin was so broke that he had to borrow $21 to pay the freight charges. He later joked, “We started on hope and a bucket of ink.” The paper went on to become one of the most influential newspapers in the state of Illinois. For 50 years, he was a dominant, passionate voice in central Illinois; as an editor and writer, he left a marked impression on all that knew him or read his articles.

Baldwin also wrote several books, including a novel and a work on hypnotism. His essays entitled “The Philosopher” appeared regularly in the Sunday newspaper from 1906 until 1913, consistently voted an outstanding literary work. Thank goodness that his works are all available here at the Peoria Public Library and in Bradley University’s Special Collections. The work of his daughter Sidney, a well-known popular writer in her own right, can also be found here in Peoria.

An Untimely Death
Eugene Baldwin had his enemies, and over the years, grudges built up between his newspaper and the other papers in town. His hard-hitting editorials ruffled an awful lot of feathers. On October 3, 1914, a local attorney whom Baldwin had written about took great umbrage to the editor’s articles against him. He attacked the 74-year old man, allegedly knocking him to the ground. It was a major story here in Peoria, with different versions printed based on which newspaper you read. At any rate, seven weeks after the attack, on November 19, 1914, Eugene F. Baldwin was dead.

Baldwin’s friends and family wanted the attorney indicted for murder, and the controversy reached a fever pitch the day of the coroner’s inquest. Four physicians sat in on the autopsy, and when the verdict from the coroner’s jury was read, the swirling controversy over Baldwin’s death escalated. The autopsy revealed internal damage, but the cause of death was listed as uremic poisoning from a diseased kidney. “Death by natural causes,” the jury said.

Eugene Baldwin proudly called Peoria his home, and throughout his long career, he managed to stay above petty controversies and maintain his courage and philosophical approach to life. “What people need in this life is a philosophy to sustain them and enable them in hours of calamity to bear the ‘whips and stings of outrageous fortune.’ Most people fancy that they are possessed of philosophy, but when trouble comes, they shrink under it and give way to vain lamentations.” Eugene Baldwin was a remarkable, well-read man who let his readers know by what rules he lived his daily life: “Do the day’s work today, attend to the most important thing first, and see that your own work is well done, never mind what anybody else does.”

Mr. Baldwin had a profound effect on Peoria and certainly helped shape its future through his editorials and lifelong passion for this city. The fact that he founded the two newspapers that merged into one, and guided them and this city with his wit, wisdom and philosophy should never be forgotten. Eugene F. Baldwin, one of Peoria’s truly historical figures. iBi

Norm V. Kelly is a local author and Peoria historian. He welcomes your comments at norman.kelly@sbcglobal.net.

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