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Discovering Melvin Riley Baldwin

DCN Correspondent

My first step for any story is always Google. I discovered the Web site http://bioguide.congress.gov that provides biographies about every congressman since the beginning of Congress. Since Melvin was a congressman, it was here that I found a general overview of his life.

Melvin Riley was born near Chester, Vt., on April 12, 1838. He moved with his parents to Oshkosh, Wis., in 1847, and attended the common schools. He entered Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., in 1855. He studied law but adopted civil engineering as a profession.

Melvin worked on the Chicago & North Western Railway until April 19, 1861, when he enlisted as a private in Company E, 2nd Regiment, Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, and was eventually commissioned captain of his company.

He was captured at Gettysburg and confined in Libby Prison for 18 months. After the war he engaged in operative railway work in Kansas, becoming general superintendent for four years.

He moved to Duluth, Minn., in 1885 and was elected as a Democrat to the 53rd Congress, serving from March 4, 1893, to March 3, 1895. Melvin then became an unsuccessful candidate for re-election in 1894 to the 54th Congress. He then moved on to become chairman of the Chippewa Indian Commission from 1894 to 1897.

He went to Alaska in November, 1897; died in Seattle, Wash., April 16, 1901; and was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Duluth, Minn.

I found this to be a substantial amount of information, but many holes still needed filling: Why was he in Alaska? Why was he in Seattle? How did he die? Why was he buried in Duluth? Did he have a wife or children? After thoroughly searching Google and failing to find anything more, it seemed nobody had dug deeper—I was determined to be the one to do so.

I immediately went to Pat Maus. As the only connection to historical documents I had heard of, she seemed the best option.

We found that Melvin was listed in the Duluth City Directory of 1900, which meant that he was still living in Duluth the year before he died. It was there that we also discovered a Harold R. Baldwin listed at the same address—711 W. Second St. We assumed this was his son, but continued looking at directories to find other family members.

We moved on to the 1901 directory. Here we found an Emma Baldwin listed as a widow to Melvin R. Baldwin living at 711 W. Second St. We had found his wife. Harold was still listed at this address as well, which raised even stronger suspicion that he was their son.

We continued to the 1910, 1913-1914, 1917, and 1918 directories to see if his wife or son ever left Duluth after Melvin's death and to see if there were any other Baldwin's living at that address. In each, both were still listed at the same address, and no other Baldwin's seemed connected to them.

In the 1910 directory we hit some confusion. It listed a Jeanette Baldwin as the widow of Melvin R. Baldwin and living with Harold R. Baldwin at 711 W. Second St. Every directory from this one on had her as Jeanette, but we were sure it was the same person as Emma. Pat said that sometimes they put people down by their middle name or nickname, so it could be that she did this.

I was overwhelmed with this additional information about his family, but still wanted to find the missing links in Melvin's own life. I took leave of Pat Maus and went up a floor of the library to search the microfilm newspapers for an obituary. I easily found the Duluth Herald issue from April of 1901, and on the front page of the April 17th issue, a headline ran: “Gen. M.R. Baldwin Takes His Own Life.?

The article was surprisingly long and gave me some interesting additions to information I already found. I discovered that, not only was he captured during the war, but he escaped and was recaptured, one of only 200 to survive the prison.

He was also severely wounded in the first and second Battles of Bull Run. He quickly became general through his courage and devotion.

The article said that he was involved in real estate when he first came to Duluth, which apparently brought him to there in the first place.

Baldwin spent time in Alaska doing mining work because he was part of the Alaska Gold Mining and Exploration Co. He was not successful there and frequently wrote home to his wife about his troubles.

While working in Alaska, he went to Cape Nome a couple of times. While there the second time, Melvin suddenly fell very ill. Doctors sent him to Seattle to undergo an operation, saying it was his only chance of survival.

However, before the operation, he was found at 7:30 on April 16th in his apartment, 2018 Fourth Ave., lying in a pool of his own blood in his bed with a bullet in his head.

They guessed he had shot himself about two hours before. Those who knew him well said that it must have been from the pain of his illness, for he would never take his life for any other reason.

I was hoping to solve the mystery of his wife's name by her mention in the article, but she was only referred to as “Mrs. Baldwin?.

I did learn that he had another son. I did not find him in the Duluth directories because he was older and had been living in Minneapolis—his name was George M. Baldwin. The article said he had another son as well: Harold R. Baldwin. My pieces all came together.

As far as his burial went, I found the reason of the location to be particularly interesting. A close friend of Milton's, Mr. Willcuts, said that he should be buried in Duluth because Milton's prospect was always to come back to his family in Duluth and make money. The decision for his final resting place was based on a letter to Mr. Willcuts from Milton himself. It read: “I want to get back to Duluth where the best lot of fellows on earth live.?

This biographical sketch was written for the Research for Reporters class at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Each student in the class went to a cemetery in Duluth, got a name from a grave marker, and then used a variety of primary and secondary sources to find out as much as possible about the person.