Two hundred years ago, Richard Potter was one of the nation’s most famous entertainers, but he’s all but vanished from public memory. So has his extravagant house.
The only thing left of Potter's home in Andover, N.H., is a cellar hole that the Andover Historical Society converted into a garden. The house was highly unusual - like Potter himself. It had arches over the windows and doors, festoons of carved flowers and vines, and life-sized wooden figures. Potter built the elegant house with the money he earned from his magic career.
Few people remember Potter.
But John Hodgson, a former dean at Princeton, hopes to change that with his book, Richard Potter: America’s First Black Celebrity.
“An amazing number of strikingly important trends and features of American culture at this time were all coming to intersect in this one man,” explains Hodgson. He was the most famous performer- we didn't know that then- but we can say that now. He was the first American ventriloquist. He was one of the very early practitioners of this new artform that was taking the country by storm in the early 19th century.
Richard Potter was born in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, in 1783. He had a white father and a black mother. Dinah, Potter’s mother, was captured as a teenager on the coast of Guinea and brought to Massachusetts.
She was emancipated after the Massachusetts Constitution abolished slavery. Potter was a "free black" man decades before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Potter didn’t know his scandal-prone father, George Simmons.
John Hodgson describes Potter as a light complexioned black man. But if you didn't know he was black, he was just as easily described as a dark complexioned white man. Some thought he was West Indian.
Potter is believed to have traveled to Europe as a cabin-boy when he was only 10 years old. He fell in with a circus and learned to be a rope dancer and acrobat. He returned to America at 21 and became an apprentice under the Scottish magician and renowned ventriloquist, James Rannie. Once he had mastered the craft, Potter set off on his own.
At the time, most magicians were European and white. Richard Potter was American and black. Potter didn’t advertise his coloration because it would limit venues and drive away certain audiences. But he never pretended not to be black.
“There was clearly this widespread tacit mutual agreement that people just weren't going to make an issue about his race. We weren't going to call attention to it. We weren't going to allude to it because we all gained so much more that way. You think of blacks getting a seat at the table. And that's what this was all working towards,” says Hodgson.
Hodgson isn’t the only person working to shine a light back on Richard Potter. Magical reenactor John Olson (yes, that’s a thing) who is white, has spent 40 years recreating Potter’s act. Well, some of it.
“He did a trick- it sounds gross,” says Olson. “He would take a chicken have it on a table. And then with a sharp knife remove the chicken’s head. And as the chicken is laying on the table and the head is in his hand. And then he makes the head disappear. He picks up the chicken, and the chicken walks away. The chicken is not harmed at all. And I wanted to do this- but thought no one would sit for that.”
Olson uses ancient and rare magic books to learn the illusions he recreates. These books have been used by magicians for centuries.
Olson performs in a fine period suit with a collared vest, a black tailcoat, a high collar on the shirt and a black cravat. The one thing he doesn’t have that Potter wore is a dark blue robe with astrological symbols.
Ventriloquism was a big part of Potter’s act. But it isn’t probably what you are thinking.
Today, we think of a performer with a dummy sitting on his knee. But the early performances were far more sophisticated. One of Potter’s few surviving ads reads:
“Mr. P. will display his wonderful but laborious powers of Ventriloquism. He throws his voice into many different parts of the room, and into the gentlemen’s hats, trunks, etc.. Imitates all kinds of Birds and Beasts, so that few or none will be able to distinguish his imitations from the reality.”
Potter could do a voice in a teapot. He threw his voice to a pie safe in the backroom. He talked to somebody upstairs who wasn’t there.
You have to remember, this was all completely new. People were so freaked out that some fainted. Potter’s skills were acclaimed in newspapers and even poems.
For 25 years the one man in America who more Americans had seen than anyone else was a black man.
He was a black man who performed widely in the south at the height of his career. He performed three straight years south of the Mason Dixon line on his amazing national tour in the early 1820s.
Potter took his astonishing show on the road for a four year long grand tour. He traveled all over the country.
But his skill and fame didn’t save him from scorn and danger because of the color of his skin.
“Here is a man from a black background traveling through the southern United States and still making a living at here. But here are some of the instances of him being shunned. He performed in one tavern but he could not stay there at the hotel, at the tavern, because of a black background. And yet he left that town with a lot of money,” says Olson.
On the last leg of his tour, Potter canceled performances in Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. Rumors had spread of an insurrection of 9000 slaves. History is sketchy if the news was true, but it resulted in widespread panic and at least 35 blacks were lynched in 1822.
Potter didn’t just face discrimination in the south. At a New Haven hotel, Potter was denied entry into the dining room. Potter didn’t protest but instead played a trick on the people in the dining room. Dinner that night was roast pig and when the host went to carve the roast, Potter threw his voice and the pig squealed.
The success of Potter’s national tour allowed him to buy the land and build his grand house in New Hampshire. Potter kept performing until nearly the end of his life.
After I packed up my gear, I walked over to read Richard Potter’s headstone. “In memory of Richard Potter, the celebrated ventriloquist. (1783-1835)” Decades after his death, newspapers claimed that “Potter, a most eccentric living character,” made “a dying request that his remains should be interred- upright- in a standing position.” It’s not true but it’s just the type of story you might expect of a performer like Potter.