Who Was the 1st Black Ventriloquist?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Meet the original magical character named Potter.

A broadside of one of Richard Potter's shows in Boston in 1811
A broadside of one of Richard Potter's shows in Boston in 1811 Public Domain

In 1800, Rannie and Potter sailed to North America and, for the next decade, performed together, increasingly on the dramatic stage. In fact, Haskins and Benson write, “Rannie and Potter presented the first known professional theatrical performance in English west of the Allegheny Mountains.” Returning to Boston in 1807, Potter met his future wife, Sarah, among the performers Rannie was casting for their shows (Penobscot Indians, according to legend). It was Potter who helped Sarah learn her lines for the play “The Provoked Husband.” One of them, I guess, was “I do,” for the two were married March 25, 1808. They had two sons and a daughter; their first child, Henry, was killed in a wagon accident in 1816. 

When on tour, Rannie and Potter ventured into the South, including to Charleston and Savannah. Unlike Solomon Northup later, however, Potter was never kidnapped because it was perceived that he already was Rannie’s “servant,” according to Haskins and Benson. When at home in Boston in those early years, Potter boarded with the family of the Rev. Daniel Oliver, and he worked on his craft by entertaining the children around the fire.

 A Solo Act Emerges

In 1810, Rannie decided it was time to “hang up his cloak” and return to Europe. By doing so, he left his former apprentice with a virtual lock on the U.S. market. (According to Haskins and Benson, Potter already had performed one solo show in 1809, at “Ben Thompson’s tavern” in Andover, N.H., where he would eventually settle.) Potter wasted little time staking out his claim. Thankfully, an advertisement for one of his Boston engagements was preserved; it is reprinted in Schindler’s book.

Adorned with the Masonic symbol (more on that in a bit) and a woodcut of a man communing with birds, the 1811 ad previewed the show Potter would perform at “Mr. Ball Room” in Boston. His stated purpose: “to give an Evening’s Brush to Sweep away care.” The first part of Potter’s act would feature his magic, with “100 curious but mysterious experiments with cards, eggs, money, &c.” In the second part of the show, the ad stated, “Mr. P. will display his wonderful but laborious powers of Ventriloquism. He throws his voice into many different parts of the room, and into the gentlemen’s hats, trunks, &c. Imitates all kinds of Birds and Beasts, so that few or none will be able to distinguish his imitations from the reality. This part of the performance has never failed of exciting the surprise of the learned and well informed, as the conveyance of sounds is allowed to be one of the greatest curiosities of nature.”

Another of Potter’s “curious” ads, this one for a show at the Boston Columbian Museum in 1818, is cited by Haskins and Benson:

Mr. Potter will perform the part of the anti-combustible Man Salamander [a mythical combination of human and reptile] and will pass a red hot bar of iron over his tongue, draw it through his hands repeatedly, and afterwards bend it into various shapes with his naked feet, as a smith would on an anvil. He will also immerse his hands and feet in molten lead, and pass his naked feet and arms over a large body of fire. He will also perform a variety of pleasing magical deceptions; which, to give a minute detail of, would fill a volume. The performer, not being willing to anticipate the pleasure the audience may receive from his performance, flatters himself that he is so well known in different parts of this country, as not to require the aid of a pompous advertisement. In addition to his magical and ventriloquial talents, he will introduce a number of songs and recitations.

Other examples of Potter’s tricks, according to Haskins and Benson, included: “frying eggs in a beaver hat; thrusting a sword down his throat and drawing out yards of multicolored ribbons, then spitting out sparks and flames; appearing to swallow molten lead, using a special mixture of lead, bismuth, and block tin.”

Richard Potter, ‘Furrener’

What is interesting, as John Hodgson, dean of Forbes College at Princeton University, points out in his November 1999 essay, “An Other Voice: Ventriloquism in the Romantic Period” (in Romanticism on the Net, No. 16), is that in this still-formative period of ventriloquism, the ventriloquist had yet to feature a sidekick doll, which, to our modern eyes and ears, is the real star of the act (think of this guy!). “The introduction of the ventriloquist’s doll is, in hindsight, surely the most remarkable single development in the dramatic history of ventriloquism,” Hodgson writes. “But one of the most remarkable things about it is how terribly little attention it received at the time. For in fact this development is almost invisible in the records. Neither Rannie ever mentioned it in their years of often quite lengthy and descriptive advertisements. Neither did Richard Potter, the first American ventriloquist, ever mention it in his twenty-seven years of performing and advertising, although he, too, at least occasionally used ‘a wooden doll, with which we have seen him hold spirited conversations’ in his ventriloquial act, as we know from an 1819 account.”