Thank you, Pop Haydn, for reminding me about pathbreaking performer Richard Potter (1783-1835), whom I’d first encountered in books like Conjure Times: Black Magicians in America by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson, and Milbourne Christopher’s Illustrated History of Magic. Potter is widely hailed as both the first American magician and the first African American magician — you’d think he’d be better known and more widely hailed. In fact, he ought to be central and foundational to any narrative of American show business. So we have been remiss, but we redress it today.
Because Potter came along so early, it is difficult to separate legend from fact. His own claim was that he was the son of Sir Charles Henry Frankland, British tax collector for the port of Boston, and Dinah, an enslaved woman in his house. Frankland died decades before Potter was born, however. There are many different theories about his parentage, but it is recorded that he grew up in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, a little under 30 miles west of Boston.
Potter seems to have started out as a sailor, made his way to Britain, and returned to the States as apprentice and assistant to Scottish conjurer and ventriloquist John Rannie early in the 19th century. Rannie retired in 1811 and Potter took over the act, naturally embellishing and inventing his own material as he went along. His shows included ventriloquism, bird calls, hypnotism, and magic tricks with cards, eggs, cups-and-balls, etc. It was said he could fry pancakes in a borrowed hat. Some of his reputed feats beggar belief. Well, all magic tricks do, but many of Potter’s seem truly miraculous, as when he supposedly climbed to the top of a floating rope and vanished, or “passed through” a solid log, or harnessed domestic fowl and had them pull wagonloads that would challenge a team of oxen. A favorite dinner table prank was to throw his voice when carving a pig at a feast, making the departed squeal in fear every time he brought the knife down. “Mrs. Potter”, mentioned in the poster above, was his wife Sally Harris, reputedly a Penobscot Indian, whom he’d married in 1808.
Potter performed along the entire East Coast as far south and inland as Alabama, and made a fortune while doing it. He was especially big in Boston, his primary base of operations, making him the premier showman there, decades before Moses Kimball, Austin & Stone, Keith and Albee and others. He was sometimes taken for a Hindu or West Indian. This (and his obvious financial means) may be how he was able to get around the South relatively unperturbed during the time of slavery. By 1814 Potter was rich enough to purchase a 175 acre piece of land in Andover, New Hampshire an build an estate there. The area is still called Potter Place. He was a leading citizen in his town at the time of his death in 1835. His son Richard Potter, Jr, inherited both the estate and the act, which he performed for many years as “Little Potter”.
Books about Potter include Richard Potter: America’s First Black Celebrity (2018) by John A. Hodgson, and The Enchanting Story of Richard Potter: America’s First Famous Black American Magician an Ventriloquist (2019) by Mary Lyons West.
To learn more about the variety arts in general please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.