Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 72: Who was the first American-born black person to draw crowds using sleight of hand—and voice?
Almost 200 years before J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard made the name “Potter” famous, Richard Potter emerged as the first (known) American-born magician and ventriloquist to tour the United States. Although audiences weren’t sure what to make of his background—was he black, Native American, West Indian or perhaps Hindu?—they marveled at his array of magic tricks, including an uncanny ability to throw his voice across a room. Before Richard Potter ever stepped onto a stage, however, his mother was “tricked” into a far crueler fate—slavery.
The Son of ‘Black Dinah’
Richard Potter was born in Hopkinton, Mass., in 1783, the last year of the American Revolution. Although the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would not officially outlaw the slave trade until 1788, emancipation was in the air and in the courts, with the slaves Mum Bett (Elizabeth Freeman) and Quok Walker suing for freedom under the state’s new constitution, which stated, “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.”
It must be remembered, though, that those rights didn’t magically appear. But they could be stolen—a reality that Potter’s mother, “Black Dinah,” knew firsthand. In Charlie Tomlinson’s entry on Potter in the African American National Biography, we learn that Dinah Swain was a slave who had been “kidnapped by Dutch slave traders during her childhood, sold at an auction, and taken to Boston as a slave by Sir Charles Henry Frankland, a tax collector for the Port of Boston.” A rare glimpse of Dinah is found in the poetry of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., a Harvard Medical School professor who visited the Frankland estate in later years and, in his 1861 ballad “Agnes,” wrote, “Black Dinah, stolen when a child/And sold on Boston pier/Grown up in service, petted, spoiled” (a tip I found in James Haskins and Kathleen Benson’s 2001 book, Conjure Times: The History of Black Magicians in America).
Whatever Holmes meant by this, we know that Richard Potter was born to Dinah 15 years after Frankland had died in England, leaving his wife—and later son Henry—to manage the family’s Massachusetts estate. In local church records, according to the Andover Historical Society, Richard’s father was actually listed as a white clergyman named George Simpson, leaving Potter’s surname a mystery, according to Tomlinson.
The Ventriloquist’s Apprentice
One of five children, Potter appears to have received some schooling in Hopkinton before sailing to Europe as a cabin boy at age 10. In Liverpool, England, according to Haskins and Benson, Potter was enthralled by Scottish magician and ventriloquist John Rannie and, expressing his enthusiasm, became Rannie’s apprentice after the Scotsman’s younger brother James struck out on his own. It was from “Rannie the Elder” that Potter learned the tricks of his trade.
(Rannie was not the inventor of the form, I should note. Indeed, according to George Schindler, author of the 2011 book Ventriloquism: Magic With Your Voice, the practice of throwing one’s voice dates to Egypt 2000 B.C., at least. And the term “ventriloquism” derives from the Latin words for “belly” (venter) and “speak” (loqui), with references in the Oxford English Dictionary as far back as 1584 C.E. The practice’s roots are religious, Schindler explains; as entertainment, it grew up alongside magic shows in 18th-century Europe.)
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.”
Instead, Hodgson writes:
[A]ll attention remained on the ventriloquist rather than the doll … because it was still the ventriloquist, and not the doll, that embodied the other. And his personal differentness only reinforced this judgment. The Rannies were foreigners in America, as both their accents and their acts testified, although James eventually became a naturalized American citizen. And the dark-skinned Richard Potter, although he hailed from Massachusetts, was the mulatto son of a Guinea slave. In the early part of his career he sought to ease the burden of this racial identity by advertising himself as a West Indian, in the middle part he passed as white while touring through the slave-holding states for some four years, but in the later part he was often recognized and identified by others as ‘colored.’ The lingering strangeness of ventriloquism was thus compounded by the perceived otherness of the ventriloquist.
Even neighbors in New Hampshire viewed Potter as a “furrener,” write Haskins and Benson, to which they add this humorous account: “The Potters often had large dinner parties. It is said that at one of them four church elders objected to the serving of liquor. Potter cried, ‘If you are not tolerant of spirits, then spirits will not be tolerant of you!’ whereupon he broke open the bottle to reveal a baby chick, which then looked at the elders and said ‘Boo!’ The frightened elders ran from the house, to the delight of the other guests.”
For this reason, it’s a wonder Potter avoided becoming too entangled in white America’s fears that black magic lurked behind various slave revolts. That didn’t mean, though, that his wife didn’t worry. But, according to Haskins and Benson, when Sarah urged him to cancel his next engagement after a ship fire set by a “black man” in Boston in 1817 triggered fears of a conspiracy, Potter allegedly replied, “I am not just a colored man. I am Richard Potter, the celebrated ventriloquist.” Potter was right, Haskins and Benson add. “He had no trouble in Boston.”
Richard Potter, ‘Yeoman’
This was still the era of the gentleman farmer, so as popular as Potter was in the city of Boston, he used his earnings to purchase 200 acres in Andover, N.H., and identified himself as a “Yeoman” farmer, according to Haskins and Benson. In his classic study The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855), Boston-based black historian William Cooper Nell profiled this Richard Potter, emphasizing his landed virtues at a time when many in the white community still thought the only solution to the free black ”problem” was colonization. Nell wrote:
On the Northern New Hampshire Railroad, some thirty miles from Concord, in the town of Andover, is a station called Potter's Place. This little village derives its name from RICHARD POTTER, the celebrated Ventriloquist and Professor of Legerdemain. Within twenty rods of the track stands a neat white, one-story building, with two projecting wings, all of Grecian architecture. From this extends, south-westerly, a fine expanse of level meadow. This house, and the adjacent two hundred acres, were owned by RICHARD POTTER. . . . This Potter owned in fee simple, unincumbered, the fruits of his successful illusions, optical and auricular.
Potter was a colored man, half-way between fair and black. He for a long time monopolized the market for such wares as sleight of hand, and ‘laborious speaking from the stomach…’
… Potter was temperate, steady, attentive to his business, and his business was his delight. He took as much pleasure in pleasing others, as others did in being pleased. I have never heard a lisp against his character for honesty and fair dealing. He was once the victim of persecution from a Mr. Fitch, who had him arrested as a juggler. Potter plead his own case, and secured an equittal.
Interestingly, Nell didn’t mention Potter’s slave mother in his posthumous account but nevertheless suggested that “when quite a boy, [Potter] was prevailed upon to engage himself in the service of Samuel Dillaway, Esq., of Boston,—a relative of the family being on a wedding tour to that pleasant town” and that “after being 'brought up' by Mr. Dillaway, he became a valued and esteemed servant in the family of Rev. Daniel Oliver.”
Memberships and Legacy
In adulthood, Potter’s official affiliations included the Universalist Church, according to Haskins and Benson, and membership in “the first African Masonic Lodge, the Prince Hall Lodge in Boston” (hence, the Masonic symbol in his ad!). Although Potter was a local favorite in Boston, he continued to tour the country, where he was anything but free from racial discrimination, especially when it came to lodging. But he took his audiences’ money anyway, Elliot Saxton writes in “Bro. Richard Potter: ‘The Great Magician’” (March-April 2011) on The Scottish Rite of Freemasonry website.
Wherever he was, whatever he appeared to be, Potter exploited his otherness to add a magical allure to his fame. In this way, he prefigured such black performers as fugitive slave Henry Box Brown and the great African American ventriloquist of the 20th century, John W. Cooper (1873-1966), whom Schindler calls the “Black Napoleon of Ventriloquism.”
Richard Potter died at age 52 on Sept. 20, 1835, exactly 145 years before the fictional Harry Potter was born (1980 if you do the math in the Rowling books), and 39 years before that other famous Harry—Houdini—was born in Budapest, Hungary. That Harry evidently knew of Potter, thanks to trade talk, according to Haskins and Benson. “What intrigued Houdini, and other magicians, was [G. Dana] Taylor’s report of Potter’s variation on the famous ‘Hindu Rope Trick.’ If true, it was the first record of an American version of the trick. The letter, published in Conjurer’s Magazine of December 15, 1906, stated: ‘Before a score of people and in the open air, free from trees, houses or mechanisms, he threw up a ball of yarn and he and his wife climbed up on it and vanished in the air. A person coming up the road asked what the people were gazing at, and being told, said he met them going down the road.’ ”
Potter’s son Richard Potter Jr. evidently carried on his father’s trade, according to Haskins and Benson. He performed under the stage name “Little Potter” before being lost to history after 1840. In 1871, the village of Potter Place, N.H., (in honor of Richard Potter’s homestead, described by Nell above) was made official by the Post Office, according to the Andover Historical Society website. And in 1965, Haskins and Benson note, a “ring” of musicians in Manchester, N.H., named themselves the Black Richard Ring. About the same time, Potter’s act also was recreated for audiences at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.
In recent works, Potter has been referred to as the first American-born magician. “Considering the barriers that blacks have faced throughout American history, the fact that a black man was probably the first American-born magician is quite amazing,” Haskins and Benson observe. “Richard Potter was the first known American magician to achieve success in the land of his birth,” Christopher Milbourne writes in his book Magic: A Picture History (1991). And John Hodgson refers to him as “the first American ventriloquist.”
Having learned that J.K. Rowling is co-producing a stage play prequel to her legendary “Harry Potter” series, I wonder whether there will be a role for Richard Potter, perhaps as a guest in the House of Gryffindor or as a ghost in the Great Hall, where he could toss his voice with Nearly Headless Nick. Whatever Rowling has up her sleeve, for now Potter’s earthly remains remain buried in Potter Place, N.H., under a headstone transcribed by Nell: “In Memory of/RICHARD POTTER,/THE CELEBRATED VENTRILOQUIST,/Who died/Sept. 20, 1835/Age 52 years.”
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.