A Sham Performer

You have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the unfortunate fate that befell Andrew Stewart, who was described by one newspaper as being a “poverty-stricken looking old man, who carried with him a few rings, plates and other articles such as are sometimes used in sleight of hand tricks.”

In short, Andrew Stewart was a conman, who, in May, 1888, decided to try his luck in Granton, a district in the north of Edinburgh.

HE CHOSE THE WRONG VICTIMS

Unfortunately for him, he chose the wrong audience to try and con, by offering to perform his show before the schoolchildren of Granton – for, to paraphrase W. C. Fields’s famous quote never try and con children or animals!

Any performer will tell you that an audience of children can make the harshest critics, and they will not hold back if they feel that your act is below par, as Andrew Stewart – or, to use the name he appeared under, “Signor Beltola, of the Loadstone Mountains,” – was to find out.

The Gloucestershire Echo took up the story of his sad fate in its edition of Friday, 18th May, 1888:-

A SHAM CONJURER SENT TO PRISON

“At Edinburgh, on Wednesday, a seedy-looking elderly man, giving the name of Andrew Stewart, was charged with having obtained about twelve shillings from a number of school children at Granton by false pretences.

It appeared that the accused issued tickets for an entertainment to take place in the playground of the school, styling himself “Signor Beltola, of the Loadstone Mountains,” and promising, among other things, a representation of a “celestial palace,” a “grand bonas genus of the Babes in the Wood,” and a “laughable extravaganza.”

The entertainment had come to an early conclusion by the accused refusing to proceed because the children were laughing at him.

Sheriff Rutherford said that he could not doubt, from the evidence, that the affair was a cheat altogether, and sentenced “Signor Beltola, of the Loadstone Mountains,” ┬áto ten days’ imprisonment.”

A NEW PRETENDER

The Sheffield Evening Telegraph gave a slightly more tongue-in-cheek account of what befell Signor Beltola in its edition of Monday 21st May, 1888, by comparing him to his historical namesake Charles Edward Stewart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the “Young Pretender”:-

“Another Stuart pretender has appeared on the scene. Andrew Stewart is his name and his career has been even more brief, and quite as unsuccessful, as that of his famous forerunner Charles.

Less lucky than “Bonnie Prince Charlie” – whom the girls all helped – Andrew Stewart has been arrested in Edinburgh for having obtained money on false pretences.

From the evidence led, it seems that the prisoner obtained leave to give an entertainment in the playground of Granton Public School on Monday, and that he, during the earlier part of the day, distributed among the children tickets announcing that “Signor Beltola, of the Loadstone Mountains,” would give “one of his grand entertainments.”

MAGIC AND PRIZES

Signor Beltola was also to introduce his “celestial palace of Japanese and Indian magic,” to show the “grand bonas genus of the Babes in the Wood,” to tell the fortunes of all the boys and girls, and to bestow a “beautiful present” upon each of the “best boy and girl singers.”

That was the spice for the children; for the teachers an air of decorous morality was given to the affair by the sauce of Shakesperian recitations.

With their imaginations inflamed to the utmost pitch, children to the number of 150, flocked into the play-ground at the appointed hour, each paying “Signor Beltola, of the Loadstone Mountains,” the sum of one penny.

SHORT-CHANGED CHILDREN

But, alas for their childish hopes, “Signor Beltola’s” grand magic entertainment was of the sorriest description, and lasted only a quarter of an hour.

At the end of it “Signor Beltola ” coolly pocketed the cash and strolled off, surrounded, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, by a throng of agitated infants.

TEN DAYS IN PRISON

It was the clamour created by their childish throats as they demanded back their coppers that first drew the attention of the police to’ the fraud which “Signor Beltola, of the Loadstone Mountains,” alias plain Andrew Stewart, has to expiate ten days in prison.”

A TRAUMATIC ORDEAL

I wonder what became of “Signor Beltola, of the Loadstone Mountains”? Did he serve out his sentence and then head off to try his luck in another city, town or village? Did he take his experience as a lesson, and abandon his career as a sham conjurer? Or, did he do the sensible thing and stick to conning more gullible adults, as opposed to vociferous and over-critical schoolchildren?

One thing, however, is certain.

I just wish I could have been a fly on the wall on that long-ago May day when Andrew Stewart stood up before his juvenile audience and learnt, to his cost, that this audience was one that would demand the highest standard of performance.