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Very little has been published about Richard Potter for whom the village of Potter Place, N. H., was named,” begins a 1942 letter to the editor of the Negro History Bulletin. “Yet his life was one replete with adventure, romance and mystery.”

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That might be an understatement. Richard Potter was a performer—the first American-born ventriloquist and stage magician. Being the first at anything is quite the accomplishment, but for Potter, the son of a white father and Black mother, it was even more remarkable. Between 1811 and his death in 1835, Potter toured the country with his “ventriloquism, comic songs, recitations, and sleight-of-hand,” writes historian Paul E. Johnson. And this was in an era “when almost no [B]lack performers appeared on stage before white audiences.”

Potter’s early years are somewhat mysterious. He was born in 1793 in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, and according to one version of his life story, when he was ten, his father sent him to work as a cabin boy for a family friend (a tale Johnson chalks up to “New England’s benign memory of its racial past”). Potter himself tells a different story. He was “stolen when a child, And sold on Boston pier” (as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. once wrote of Potter’s mother, Dinah) before being abandoned in London. In London, or shortly after returning to America, he became an assistant to John Rannie, a pioneering Scottish performer who brought ventriloquism and stage magic to the United States.

Ventriloquism and magic shows weren’t always the amusing distractions they are today. As religion scholar Leigh Eric Schmidt explains, until the eighteenth century, they were “deeply embedded in Christian discourses about demon possession, necromancy, and pagan idolatry,” but much of this discussion was largely confined to America. In Europe, and specifically in London where Potter wandered alone, magic was a part of daily life for some. The city was full of “displaced persons of many kinds,” Johnson writes, some of whom turned to magic performances on the streets and fairs to earn money. Others used those same techniques to pick pockets and cheat at cards. Some of the more industrious performers did both and “performed in the streets by day and robbed travelers by night.” Potter would have found a home with one of these groups, as he claims that he first learned magic while working at a circus.

On returning to the United States, Potter hit the stage. At this time, most US performers were from other countries, and Potter presented himself that way, too. Rather than advertise his American-ness, and by extension, his Blackness, he instead called himself a “trans Atlantic showman.” And as Schmidt notes, there’s some speculation that he may have presented himself “as ‘an East Indian,’ which would have been useful for selling his magic.”

His act was thrilling. He passed coins through glasses and plates, did card tricks, and “broke eggs into a gentleman’s hat and turned them into hot pancakes.” His ventriloquism saw him throwing his voice so that it appeared that he was speaking from “trunks, a lady’s coin purse, and a gentleman’s pocket,” Johnson writes.

Because of his race, Potter had to be careful in how he presented his act. Though magic and ventriloquism were once thought to be evil, the tide was turning. These tricks were now presented as a way to disprove religious beliefs and superstitions, Johnson explains. But to do this, performers had to affect a stage persona that had an air of self-importance—one English magician’s title, “Day Francis the Great, Emperor of the Conjurors, (Crowned from merit by universal approbation),” wasn’t out of the ordinary. Potter couldn’t embrace being so braggadocious, instead presenting his act “in modest, careful ways.” He also avoided tricks that had the illusion of danger or harm, and he didn’t use his ventriloquism to humiliate people. That last rule likely stemmed from one of the more dismal parts of ventriloquism history. As Johnson explains, “The most demeaning jokes were often played upon African Americans.”

Potter’s fame grew over the years, as he performed all over the country. In these shows, he began to relax a few of his earlier rules, doing more dangerous tricks and billing himself as “the Emperor of all Conjurors, crowned by universal approbation.” He became part of Boston’s Black elite, joining the city’s African Lodge No. 459, the first Black masonic lodge in the country. But after his last national tour in 1823, he moved to Andover, New Hampshire. His years in New Hampshire saw him returning to his older, gentler act. He lived out his life in Andover, where he died in 1835.

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Negro History Bulletin, Vol. 6, No. 1 (October 1942), pp. 22–23
Association for the Study of African American Life and History
The New England Quarterly, Vol. 89, No. 2 (June 2016), pp. 257–285
The New England Quarterly, Inc.
Church History, Vol. 67, No. 2 (June 1998), pp. 274–304
Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of Church History