August 9, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 52
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Boston-born Potter was country’s first magician

Mario Valdes

Some said he rode in “a fancy cart pulled by a pair of ganders.”

|Others claimed to have seen him “crawl through a solid log,” while there were those who whispered that he could “take a rooster from his pocket, hitch it to a wagon and pull a load that would have strained a team of horses.”

During the first part of the 19th century, according to Milbourne Christopher, author of “The Illustrated History of Magic,” such tales were circulated around a dark complexioned young man from Massachusetts whose prowess as a conjurer and a ventriloquist had, for well over three decades, amazed and dumbfounded the young Republic.

The first American to receive such widespread acclaim in his own country, even the facts surrounding Richard Potter’s family background are almost as fantastic.

Richard’s father was Sir Charles Henry Frankland, the royal customs collector stationed in Boston whose open affair with the barmaid Agnes Surridge had scandalized local colonial society. He met her in Marblehead while there to oversee the reconstruction of Fort Sewall. Richard’s mother was Sir Charles’s slave, Dinah. Dinah was brought directly from Guinea; caught, as she herself claimed, with a lump of sugar soaked in rum, which had deprived her of both her strength and her reason.

According to descriptions of her, Dinah had been branded with three parallel lines on the cheek and forehead. Because her master was a descendant of Oliver Cromwell, another of the sons she bore Sir Charles was named Cromwell or, as he was more commonly called, Crum.

In the biographical sketch included in his “History of the Town of Andover, N.H.,” John Eastman relates that Richard Potter grew up in his father’s manor in Hopkinton and was schooled there. Upon coming of age, he was sent off on his “European Tour,” an educational prerequisite for young men of his father’s class.

Somewhere on his travels, he joined a British circus. This was apparently how he met the magician John Ramie. Richard returned home when he accompanied the veteran showman to New England as his assistant.

Ramie retired in January of 1811. It is quite likely the dark visage of the young man who succeeded Ramie in November of that year added to the sense of mystery associated with what, at the time, some sinisterly referred to as the “Black Arts,” and helped to make him an immediate success. Although he would say nothing on the subject, the public attributed his complexion to his East Indian or American Indian ancestry, both of which would only have contributed to the exoticism of his stage persona.

A chronological history of magic in Boston, commissioned by the great Harry Houdini about a century later, includes a number of Potter’s playbills. These yield a few details of the various acts he performed.

A popular program was his “Evening’s Brush to Sweep Care Away” or “A Medley To Please,” which included such titles as “The Magnetic Egg that Dances a Hornpipe,” “The Coffer of Mahomet or a Lady’s Glove Turned into a Live Bird” and “The Wonderful Factory,” from which Potter produced an array of objects impossible to contain in such a vessel.

Another act, “100 Curious but Mysterious Experiments with Cards, Eggs, Money, Etc.,” along with his ventriloquism and bird call imitations, was enormously popular, as was his apparent ability to pass a chosen card into an egg “without breaking its yolk or loosing its white,” and frying pancakes in a borrowed hat.

Perhaps the most sensational piece in his repertoire was the part he played as the “Anti-Combustible Man Salamander,” whom he advertised would “pass a red hot bar of iron over his tongue, draw it through his hand repeatedly, and afterwards bend it into various shapes with his naked feet, as a smith would on an anvil. He will also immerse his hands and feet in molten lead and pass his naked feet and arms over a large body of fire.”

True, all of this is a lot tamer and a great deal more primitive than anything that Harry Potter, a child of this high-tech age of ours, would have conjured up, but for the first two or three decades of the 19th century, this was exciting stuff, indeed.

Potter played to packed houses up and down the Eastern Seaboard, all the way from Quebec to Alabama. According to Milbourne Christopher, the only city in which he faced any racial problems was Mobile.

“Despite this he was able to make almost five thousand dollars during a twelve day engagement,” Christopher wrote.

In Boston, on March 26, 1808, Potter married a young “cld” (colored) woman from Roxbury named Sally Harris, who was also of Penobscot Indian background. Sally performed in the show as a singer, starred in a pantomime entitled, “The Wonderful Little Giant,” and partnered with her husband in the dance finale.

In an interview with the press at the time, Potter explained that as a result of his success and hoping to provide his family with the amenities of a country life, he’d bought up “about two hundred acres of nearly wild land in New Hampshire and laid out a plan of improvement … My purchases and improvements have cost me more than ten thousand dollars … I have found it necessary to build a house and I thought I might as well have a genteel one …”

With its landscaped grounds, the Potter mansion near Andover was a showplace. He did all the designs himself and contracted Esq. Graves, the local wealthy gentleman, to carry them out. Records show that even Rev. Edward Rollins, a once-notorious firebrand of the region, had as a young man just returned from the War of 1812 been employed by Potter to carry mortar for the construction. Potter not only farmed his extensive property but bred horses and raised cattle and pigs. As a result, his estate became the anchor, or hub, for a quickly growing development. Eventually, a bank was opened.

Everyone was impressed by the elegant décor and furnishings of the house and Sally’s exquisite gowns, not to mention the lavishness with which they entertained. According to Christopher, “A favorite ventriloquist stunt was reserved for the dinner table. A roast suckling pig was placed before him. Potter sharpened his knife and began to carve. As he cut the first slice, the repast let out a loud squeal and continued thereafter to protest each incision of the blade, the cries gradually becoming weaker.”

Richard Potter died on September 20, 1835. His wife, who was a few years younger, died the following year. When the government opened a post office for the community in 1871, the residents commemorated the great magician by postmarking their mail with the name of his estate, the only one by which they had ever identified their locale.

Today, driving along Route 4 between Concord and Connecticut Highway 11, one passes through Potter Place, where the first professional American-born magician lies buried. It is also a stop on the Amtrak line. Both his and his wife’s gravestones can still be seen there.

Mario Valdes is a PBS Frontline researcher and has produced a number of documentaries on African American history for WGBH.

Richard Potter, shown here in this portrait, was a sensation in Boston due to his amazing illusions. (Image courtesy of Mario Valdes)

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