Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Nerd History: Richard Potter, America's First Magician

Right before Christmas, my wife and I with some friends went to Old Sturbridge Village in western-central Massachusetts for their Christmas by Candlelight program. Old Sturbridge Village is one of those "living history" parks where historical interpreters act and work as if they lived in the time frame the museum represents. They had all sorts of fun little things going on - a barn where people were learning the dance from A Christmas Carol, some carolers in the town square, carriage rides, etc.. It was a good time!

My wife and I, when seeing the program, got excited for one event in particular: a magic act. We enjoy magicians anyway, and seeing Victorian-era magic seemed like a fun way to get out from the cold for a little bit. The magician, Bob Olsen, was great with the kids in the audience and had a simple, engaging act, but he presented himself as someone I had never heard of: Richard Potter, America's First Native-Born Magician. It turns out that his story is actually pretty interesting, so read on if you'd like to hear about a pioneer of the arcane here in the United States.

One of the most interesting points about Potter's existence is the fact that he and his act existed in an era so close to the Puritan times and, as a black man, was able to perform nationally even during the very racially-charged times. Potter was born to a slave woman in 1783 and was moved to Europe where he went to school. He became active in magic in the United States around 1805, performing until his death thirty years later.

Potter, depending on who you read, was a strong ventriloquist and illusionist. He was known for a number of tricks that involved throwing his voice, and was known for being able to dance on eggs and throw knives with precision. Some even consider him to be America's first ventriloquist. As with anyone who worked with magic, the legend grows even stronger with age: my research lead me to claims that he was able to "climb a rope and disappear" even in open air venues as well as stick his hands in molten lead. One may assume that his ability kept him from running into much in the way of prejudice - the only story that is repeated throughout accounts of Potter's life was a situation in Alabama that still netted him over $4000 for his act.

Potter was able to buy land in New Hampshire, where he later died and was buried. The area he lived in Andover, NH, has a village named after him, Potter Place, which may have been the first American town named after an African American.

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