America's first Black magician, Richard Potter
Richard & Sally Potters Tombstones
The birth of Richard Potter in 1783 is celebrated on this date. He was a magician, one of the first Black illusionist in America.
Potter was born in New Hampshire, the son of an English baronet and an African servant woman. He was educated in Europe before beginning his 25-year career as a performer in post-Revolutionary America. He lived with his father in Hopkinton, NH, until he married his wife, Sally, and had three children.
Potter has been credited as America’s first successful stage magician, hypnotist, and ventriloquist. 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.
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 lived on a 175-acre farm in Andover that he purchased in 1814, 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 was very successful and it is said that he made $4800 for a 20-day engagement in Alabama in the early 1800s. Potter’s prestidigitation with eggs, money, and cards was considered of scientific interest, and he often performed at the Columbia Museum in Boston. He could throw knives and touch a hot iron to his tongue, walk on flames, and dance on eggs without breaking them. He performed in New York and all over New England. Charles Brewster, in his history of Portsmouth, NH, refers to Potter as living on what is now State Street. Potter apparently had a son of the same name who performed magic like his father. 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. His story intrigued Harry Houdini, who included Potter in his popular magazine of magic.
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.
PO Box 7158,
Portsmouth, New Hampshire 03802,
Today in American History