Richard Potter is considered by most historians to be the first Black magician and the first to find fame in America. Renewed interest in the enigmatic and mysterious figure has been aroused as a result of a new book by a former dean of Princeton University that examines Potter’s life.
Potter was born in 1783 reportedly to an Englishman and a Black mother. However, some accounts say his father was enslaved and he was raised by the Englishman in Hopinkton, New Hampshire. In his late 20’s after serving as an assistant to a Scottish magician and ventriloquist, Potter became a full-time entertainer in 1811.
That same year, Potter joined African Lodge No. 459, the founding lodge of Prince Hall Freemasonry. According to Richard Potter: America’s First Black Celebrity author John A. Hodgson, Potter may have been the top star of his era. He drew large crowds across New England, commanding a full dollar for admission which doubled and tripled the earnings of many other workers at the time. Potter even traveled south to Alabama and faced racism, but earned an astounding $4,000 for his performance – a huge payment worth around $55,000 in modern times.
Because American audiences associated magic with the exotic, Asian and East Indian magicians flourished. Potter seized on the drawing power of his skin tone and stature, doing tricks such as walking on egg shells without cracking them, crawling through logs, and throwing his voice. Because of this, Potter is also considered America’s first famous ventriloquist.
Potter worked from 1811 to his passing in 1834 at the age of 52. Before he passed, he purchased a huge plot of land in Andover, New Hampshire that has been renamed Potter Place in his honor.
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