Richard Potter was the first African-American magician and the first American-born magician to gain fame in his own country. Potter who called himself, the Emperor of all Conjurors, was the most famous American entertainer of his time and was also the most famous Black person in America. His tricks included dipping his hands into molten lead, crawling through solid logs, and causing men’s hats to speak. Perhaps one of his most famous feats was dancing on a pile of eggs without cracking a single shell. His fame was such that the town of Potter Place, New Hampshire, still carries his name.
Potter was born in New Hampshire in 1738. His mother was an African woman named Dinah enslaved by Sir Charles Frankland, a pre-Boston-Tea-Party tax collector of the Port of Boston. Richard Potter’s paternity was never established, but he was raised by Sir Charles. It is thought that Potter’s father was Frankland’s son.
At the age of ten, Potter traveled to Britain as a cabin boy with a friend of the family. While in England, he supposedly saw John Rannie, a magician and ventriloquist, perform at an English fair, and soon thereafter he began touring Britain and Europe with Rannie as his assistant. About 1800, Rannie and Potter came to the United States and joined a traveling circus.
On March 25, 1808, Richard married Sally Harris, a native American, and the next year their son was born. In early 1811 John Rannie returned home to Scotland, but left Potter with an amazing knowledge of magic and ventriloquism.
Photo: The only known ticket to one of Richard Potter’s performances.
One of the earliest records of Potter advertising his shows was on November 2, 1811, in Boston at the Columbian Museum. The performance featured ventriloquism and magic which was still considered a ground-breaking form of entertainment. His shows were labeled as “one hundred curious experiments with money, eggs, cards and the like.”
Because of his dark complexion, Potter was often thought to be an American Indian or Hindu, all of which added to his air of mystery. He was described in advertisements as a “Black Yankee”. He sometimes dressed in a turban and performed as an Asian or introduced his wife (accurately) as an American Indian. Potter took full advantage of his perceived exotic appearance and fueled the mystery over the origin of his birth by claiming to be the son of Benjamin Franklin.
Potter performed in Boston, throughout New England, and Canada. “Legend,” says Potter was able to climb a rope and disappear while performing outdoors surrounded by spectators. Officially, his best-known illusion was “crawling through a log” and Potter could skillfully throw his voice, especially using bird sounds. Whether he was the first to use a ventriloquist’s doll or dummy isn’t known.
Potter was very successful but still faced adversity throughout his life. In Mobile, Alabama, he was refused space at an inn because of racism. Despite this experience, he made $4,800 (about $55,500 today) for a 20-day engagement in the early 1800s! Not feeling safe with that much money, he left the city in the middle of the night in the opposite direction of his next venue.
In 1813, Potter’s success allowed him to buy a 175-acre farm in Andover, NH, in the village now known as Potter’s Place. The Potter estate consisted of several rooms on the first floor, the second floor was said to be one big room. The Potter’s would have lavish dinner parties at there home, where he would entertain.
Potter died on September 20, 1835. Sometime after his death and the death of his wife, Sally, the couple was buried in the front yard of their estate but the house burned down. Potter and his wife’s graves were moved to their present site in 1849 to make room for the railroad. All that remains to this day is a small plot with the gravestones (shown). Inscribed on Richard’s stone is “In Memory of Richard Potter, the celebrated Ventriloquist, Aged 52 years. Died Sept. 20 1835.”