Who was America’s first successful stage magician?
He swallowed swords and molten lead. He danced on eggs without cracking their shells. He threw knives; he threw his voice. He was Richard Potter, the first American-born stage magician and ventriloquist, black or white. Prior to Potter’s career in the early 19th century, the performance of magic and ventriloquism had been the domain of white European men.
Born in Hopkinton, Mass., around 1783, the year the American Revolution ended, on the plantation of the slave owner Sir Charles Henry Frankland—who may or may not have been his father—Potter set sail for England as a cabin boy when he was just 10 years old. Once there, he met a Scottish magician and ventriloquist named John Rannie, and he was captivated. For years they performed in Europe, but in 1800 they traveled to America, joining a traveling circus and crisscrossing the North and South. (As Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson explain in their book Conjure Times, Potter was able to travel safely in the South because, in his assistant’s role, he was perceived as Rannie’s servant.)
In 1806 Rannie introduced live drama into their show, with Rannie and Potter performing most of the parts. The following year, Potter and Rannie took their act to Boston. In 1811 Rannie retired and Potter went solo. Self-promoted as “An Evening’s Brush to Sweep Dull Care Away” on broadsides that displayed the Masonic insignia (he was a member of the first African Masonic lodge in Boston), Potter’s shows were a huge hit, and he sometimes earned as much as $250 a performance (more than $3,000 in today’s money).
His illusions never ceased to amaze. In one trick he climbed up a rope or an unraveled ball of yarn—outdoors and in front of onlookers—and appeared to vanish into the heavens. In another he crawled through a log that appeared hollow; on closer inspection, spectators found that it was solid. Although Potter and his wife, the dancer Sally Harris, built a mansion on 175 acres of land for themselves and their three children (one of whom, in a happy coincidence, was named Harry, like that other famous Potter magician) in Andover, N.H., he was an itinerant performer.
From 1818 until 1831 he dazzled audiences up and down the East Coast. By the time he was 50 years old, in 1833, he had stopped performing magic, focusing on ventriloquism. He died shortly afterward, in 1835. Although his house no longer stands, Richard and Sally Potter’s graves remain in Andover, and the town maintains a commemorative plaque in a part of town still known as Potter Place.
African-American stage magicians were few and far between for nearly two centuries. Henry “Box” Brown, who in 1849 delivered himself from slavery to freedom in a wooden box, performed as a “mesmerizer” during the Civil War era, but his story is significant for reasons beyond magic. In 2014 the magician Kenrick “ICE” McDonald broke down a barrier when he was elected the first African-American president of the Society of American Magicians, an organization founded in 1902 by Harry Houdini, who, incidentally, was reportedly a big fan of Richard Potter’s.