This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.
There was a lot of Black Her(r)man(n) action going on back in the day — there are several of them, and we’ll explain the parentheses in a minute.
The first one to be concerned with is Alonzo Moore (ca. 1870-1914), considered by many to be the greatest African American magician of his day, thus dubbed the Black Herrmann, after the famous Herrmann family of magicians. He apprenticed as an assistant to Maro as a boy, and performed with a long succession of black minstrel shows starting in the 1890s, and was touring the far east with Hugo Brothers minstrels when he passed away in 1914.
The second Black Herman is Benjamin Rucker (1892-1934). As a teenager he became the assistant to one Prince Herman, an itinerant medicine man and con artist. Prince Herman died about a year after Rucker joined him, so Rucker inherited his tricks…and expanded them into a sort of empire, calling himself Black Herman. This Black Herman was not just a magician (although he used lots of magic tricks), but presented himself as a genuine Voodoo Witch Doctor, capable of healing the sick and raising the dead. (The “dead” was primarily himself. After rigging one arm to briefly stop his pulse he would have himself buried in a coffin and then re-emerge David Blaine like). He did many conjuring tricks and mind-reading, and of course sold a full product line of tonics, powders, elixirs and hexes.
Naturally, when he passed away, one of his assistants, Washington Reese, passed himself off as the Original Black Herman. But he had lots of competition in the form of several performers named “Black Herman the Second”, and “Black Herman, Jr.”
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.