Cover image for Conjure times : Black magicians in America
Conjure times : Black magicians in America
Haskins, James, 1941-2005.
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Publication Information:
New York : Walker & Company, 2001.
Physical Description:
174 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 8.5 6.0 53471.
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GV1545.A2 H37 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
GV1545.A2 H37 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Black History Non-Circ

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Throughout American history, black magicians have achieved great skill in both the magician's tricks of the trade as well as the psychology of entertaining an audience. However, because of slavery and, later, racial segregation and discrimination, few have been able to make their living as magicians. Those who have succeeded are rare indeed, and although some have left a mark on history, many exist only as names on old playbills or in newspaper advertisements. Jim Haskins delivers an illuminating portrait of these unheralded pioneers -- a tribute to African-Americans who paved the way for and will inspire future generations.

Author Notes

Author Jim Haskins was born in Demopolis, Alabama on September 19, 1941. He received a B.A. from Georgetown University in 1960, a B.S. from Alabama State University in 1962, and a M.A. from the University of New Mexico in 1963. After graduation, he became a special education teacher in a public school in Harlem. His first book, Diary of a Harlem School Teacher, was the result of his experience there. He taught at numerous colleges and universities before becoming an English professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville in 1977.

He wrote more than 100 books during his lifetime, ranging from counting books for children to biographies on Rosa Parks, Hank Aaron and Spike Lee. He won numerous awards for his work including the 1976 Coretta Scott King Award for The Story of Stevie Wonder, the 1984 Coretta Scott King Award for Lena Horne, the 1979 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Scott Joplin: The Man Who Made Ragtime; and the 1994 Washington Post Children's Book Guide Award. He also won the Carter G. Woodson Award for young adult non-fiction for Black Music in America; The March on Washington; and Carter G. Woodson: The Man Who Put "Black" in American History in 1989, 1994, and 2001, respectively. He died from complications of emphysema on July 6, 2005 at the age of 63.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Gr. 6-12. The evolution of theatrical magic owes much to African American performers, beginning with Richard Potter, the earliest known American-born magician and the son of a plantation owner and his household slave. As the authors explain, information about Potter and many of the other black magicians was difficult to come by; records and personal stories had to be culled from entertainment fliers and other obscure sources, leaving gaps in the accounts. But instead of being distracting, the occasional gaps give readers a sense of how much of the history has been lost, and how fortunate we are to have this as a resource. Each chapter highlights either a specific magician or performers who made their names in a specific kind of entertainment--the minstrel show, vaudeville, etc. Woodcuts, photographs, and posters add background and context, and descriptions of trademark tricks never give away how the magic is done. --Roger Leslie

School Library Journal Review

Gr 6-8-A lively, interesting, carefully researched look at a unique aspect of African-American history and culture that introduces the lives of black magicians, beginning with Richard Potter, "America's First Negro Magician," son of a plantation owner and a slave. Using black-and-white reproductions of playbills, advertisements, woodcuts, and period photographs, the history of the minstrel show and vaudeville is discussed as part of the development of theatrical magic shows. Slavery, racial discrimination, and segregation are discussed as part of the social history surrounding the lives of the performers profiled. The authors note that personal information on many performers was difficult to find, and the gaps help readers understand how much African-American history has been lost. Descriptions of popular trademark tricks are highlighted in boxes in each chapter. Budding magicians will find this book appealing, and it will be a great addition to African-American history collections.-Jennifer Ralston, Harford County Public Library, Belcamp, MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One   Richard Potter: The First American-born Magician              In the early years of European settlement in North America, there were not many public entertainments. Individuals and groups of people might get together to sing or dance, but traveling troupes that made their living by entertaining other people were rare. Towns were spread out, and there were few places with enough people to pay for amusements. In some areas, almost any form of recreation was considered a frivolous waste of time and money. In other places, it was regarded as immoral.     As the colonies grew, several early forms of entertainment became popular. By the late eighteenth century, a number of circuses were traveling about. They offered displays of horsemanship and menageries of exotic animals. They also included performances by magicians. Scholars of early American public entertainment suggest that there were at least two dozen magicians traveling around America at the time. These early magicians advertised their performances in different ways, depending on their audience. In places where pure entertainment was considered immoral, they billed their acts as educational. Where religion and morality had a looser hold on people, they promised exciting feats of trickery. The magicians who traveled around the North American colonies were from the British Isles, and the first black American magician on record was trained by a Scotsman.     Richard Potter, America's "First Negro Magician," may also have been the first American-born magician of any race. To date, no records of any earlier white American-born magicians have been discovered. Potter was born in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, in 1783, the same year the American Revolution ended.     Potter was born on the country estate of Sir Charles Henry Frankland, more commonly known as Sir Harry. Sir Harry was a wealthy Englishman who had come to the colonies as the Collector of the Port of Boston. Potter was one of five children born to Sir Harry's slave Dinah, who had been born in Africa, kidnapped as a child by Dutch slave traders, and purchased by Sir Harry at a slave auction in Boston. Dinah was apparently treated well. The American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, who knew Sir Harry, wrote of her: "Black Dinah, stolen when a child. And sold on Boston pier. Grown up in service, petted, spoiled." Some of Dinah's children were probably fathered by Sir Harry. All were of mixed race. By the time Richard was born, however, Sir Harry had returned to England. He had remained loyal to the British cause during the Revolutionary War and returned to his homeland when it was clear the American colonists would win their independence. According to church records, Richard's father was a local white man named George Simpson. How Richard acquired Potter for a last name is not known.     Young Richard attended the village school in Hopkinton. At age ten, old enough to learn a trade, he signed on as a cabin boy with a Captain Skinner, a friend of the Frankland family. He worked only one Atlantic crossing. Arriving at the British port of Liverpool, Richard accepted his pay from Captain Skinner but told the captain that a life at sea was not for him.     Not long afterward, Richard happened on an English fair. He had never seen such an event and was fascinated by the sights and sounds. He was particularly taken with the act of a Scottish ventriloquist and magician named John Rannie. After the act was over, he hung around, hoping to talk with the Scotsman. Rannie welcomed the interest of the young mulatto boy. Coincidentally, Rannie needed a new assistant. His younger brother, James Rannie, had been working with him but had decided to strike out on his own. Richard Potter was eager to take over James's duties.     One of Rannie's most popular tricks was to cut off a chicken's head and then appear to put it back on. Among Potter's jobs as Rannie's assistant was hiding a live chicken with markings similar to the one that had been decapitated and helping Rannie switch chickens. This trick never failed to awe the crowd.     Potter traveled with Rannie around the European continent until 1800. In that year, Rannie decided to try his fortune in America, and Potter returned to his native land. Rannie billed himself as the "European Ventriloquist," and he and Potter joined up with a traveling circus. Potter also traveled to the British West Indies with Rannie.     At the time, ventriloquism was as much a mystery as magic was to most people, and Rannie was immediately successful. His success was also due to his aggressive self-promotion. He would take out ads in the local newspapers promising to reveal the secret to one of his magic tricks at the end of his act. Since he considered himself primarily a ventriloquist, he did not mind revealing the tricks of what he considered his minor trade.     In 1801, John Rannie's brother James arrived in North America, promoting himself as the "King of Britain's Conjurers." Rather than regarding his brother as a competitor, John Rannie welcomed James as a fellow entertainer. He did, however, begin to use the stage name Rannie the Elder, to distinguish his act from that of his younger brother. At one point, Rannie the Elder and Richard Potter finished an engagement in New York City that James had begun, while James went on a tour of the South. John Rannie and Potter then went on their own tour of the South, playing Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, among other cities. Because Potter was regarded as Rannie's servant by the southern whites for whom they performed, and because he behaved with modesty, he had no trouble in these areas where free blacks were looked on with suspicion.     The two met James Rannie in Philadelphia later in the year. There, Richard Potter came into contact for the first time with a large educated and prosperous black population. He also encountered racism. Realizing that blacks were as interested in magic as were whites, he persuaded Rannie to offer a special performance for the city's blacks. Rannie placed a "Notice to Coloured People" in local newspapers advertising special Tuesday night performances. The owner of the hall where they were performing objected, however, and the special performances for blacks never took place.     Not long afterward, James Rannie returned to England, leaving his elder brother, John, as the major force in American magic for almost a decade.     By 1806, John Rannie had introduced English drama into his act. He and Potter played the major roles, and Rannie hired local amateurs to play the minor parts. Their productions were titled New Ways to Pay Old Debts, The Unfortunate Gentleman , and The Battle of the Nile . Rannie and Potter presented the first known professional theatrical performance in English west of the Allegheny Mountains. The programs included ventriloquism by Rannie.     In 1807, Rannie and Potter returned to the Northeast and secured a booking in Boston. According to legend, they heard about a group of local Penobscot Indian fur traders who often danced to entertain the citizens in nearby Roxbury. Rannie and Potter went to see them perform and were particularly struck by one of the Penobscot women. Twenty-year-old Sally Harris was beautiful and a graceful dancer, and she sang like a bird. Rannie needed someone to play the part of Megin in their play The Provoked Husband , and offered the part to Sally. Potter worked with Sally to learn her lines. She did so well that she was offered a permanent position in the show. Richard Potter and Sally Harris fell in love and were married in Boston on March 25, 1808. The following year, their first son was born.     Between tours, Potter did odd jobs for the Reverend Daniel Oliver, a resident of Boston, in exchange for room and board. Potter first tried out the magic tricks he had learned performing for the children of the household in front of the Olivers' kitchen fireplace. Later on, he gathered the courage to perform a solo show in Andover, New Hampshire, at Ben Thompson's tavern. However, he made no further attempt to strike out on his own and remained with Rannie's act.     Rannie understood, however, that one day Potter would have his own act. He had learned well and had the showmanship necessary to succeed. On March 7, 1810, on the stage of the City Assembly Room in New York City, Rannie made a surprise announcement. He told his audience that he had made enough money to return to his homeland and live comfortably. He would soon go back to Scotland. He also announced that it was time for Richard Potter to have his own career.     Rannie's last engagement was at the Exchange Coffee House in Boston between early December 1810 and mid-January 1811. He then returned to Europe, as planned. He left Potter with a store of knowledge of ventriloquism and magic tricks. These included burning a $100-dollar bill in a candle flame and then causing it to become whole again. One hundred dollars was a tremendous amount of money in 1811, so this trick was especially popular. In another trick, he appeared to cut off the finger of a member of the audience, then reunited it with its owner. He also cut hats and handkerchiefs into pieces and then made them whole again, filled an empty bottle with water and turned it into wine, and tossed a cat into the air and made it disappear.     On November 2, 1811, Richard Potter made his debut as an independent performer at the Exchange Coffee House. With his wife, Sally, as his assistant, he performed in and around Boston, featuring ventriloquism and "one hundred curious experiments with money, eggs, cards and the like." Although most of his performances took place at the Columbian Museum, he also performed at the Exchange Coffee House and at Concert Hall and Julien Hall in that city.     Later, Richard and Sally Potter began performing in New York. According to legend, they also performed in the South, although it is hard to imagine the couple being welcomed in a part of the country where free blacks were not wanted and sometimes even legally banned.     The story goes that in Mobile, Alabama, the Potters at first were allowed to stay at the same inn where they were performing. After patrons of the inn objected, the owner of the inn refused to let them remain. The Potters were forced to sleep in the barn. Fearing for their safety, the couple left town in the middle of the night and struck off in the opposite direction from where they had announced their next show would be.     By 1814, the Potters had saved enough money to buy land and build a home for themselves and their three children--two sons and a daughter. Richard Potter chose to settle in Andover, New Hampshire, where he had first performed publicly. He bought two hundred acres of deeply forested, nearly wild land and hired a twenty-mule pack team to bring in the first farming equipment and supplies. Over time, he built a large shingled house, which came to be called the Potter Place. The second floor was one large room just for entertaining. The kitchen and bedrooms were in another building at the back of the main house. It was said that the New Hampshire legislature copied the Potter home when designing the new statehouse in Concord, which was completed in 1819.     There was much talk among the townsfolk about Potter, whom all regarded as a "furrener." Some said he was a Hindu from the East; others that he was from the West Indies. While he was too different to be entirely accepted, he and his family were never threatened. The Potters often had large dinner parties. It is said that at one of them four church elders objected to the serving of liquor. Potter cried, "If you are not tolerant of spirits, then spirits will not be tolerant of you!" whereupon he broke open a bottle to reveal a baby chick, which then looked at the elders and said "Boo!" The frightened elders ran from the house, to the delight of the other guests.     Actually, Potter was a faithful churchgoer and was one of the earliest members of the new and radical Universalist denomination of the Protestant faith. Potter was also a member of the first African Masonic Lodge, the Prince Hall Lodge in Boston, established in 1778 by Prince Hall, the black patriot of the American Revolution.     Potter's Place was a working farm, and Potter proudly listed his occupation as "Yeoman" on legal papers. He raised crops and bred horses, cattle, and pigs. He and Sally kept a large garden and were proud of the vegetables and flowers it produced. When they had time to spend at the farm, they were at their happiest, but often they had to work and could not enjoy it. Sally continued to act as her husband's assistant in his magic show, and the two were frequently on the road, leaving the farm work to hired hands.     Few people go through life without experiencing tragedy. The Potters' greatest sorrow was the loss of their seven-year-old son, Henry, who was crushed under a wagon loaded with corn in October 1816. Sally Potter never fully recovered from her grief, but she continued to work with her husband, both on the stage and on the farm.     For years, Richard Potter was the chief, and often the only, magical attraction in Boston. He advertised his performance as An Evening's Brush to Sweep Dull Care Away and charged twenty-five cents admission. Although he emphasized ventriloquism and was famous for his ability to "throw his voice" into pigs, horses, and people, he was also well known for his sleight-of-hand.     Richard Potter remained popular even in times when there was widespread suspicion of blacks. Throughout the period of slavery in the United States, occasional slave revolts would cause whites to suspect that magic was behind slave resistance, and that put all blacks, enslaved and free, in danger. Sometimes these fears proved well grounded. In April 1712, an insurrection broke out in New York City. Twenty-seven armed slaves set fire to an outhouse and, when whites came to extinguish the fire, shot at them. Nine whites were killed before the militia was able to put down the revolt. The black men were quickly captured, tried, convicted, and executed in various ways. The plot, it was charged, had been brewed by West Africans, who "with the aid of a conjurer, believed that they had made themselves invulnerable." The Enchanted Egg Trick One of Richard Potter's most popular tricks was the "Enchanted Egg Trick." He placed an egg on top of a hat and made it jump to the top of another hat. He then made it jump inside one hat after the other. After that, the egg appeared on his shoulder. It rolled up and down his arms and body. Then, it suddenly disappeared.     In 1817, the ship Canton was set afire by a black man as it lay at anchor in Boston Harbor. Boston's white citizens suspected a plot. According to legend, Sally Potter, who apparently was not with him on this occasion, feared for her husband's safety in the city. She warned him that he might be run out of town, and suggested he cancel his next engagement. Potter reportedly replied, "I am not just a colored man. I am Richard Potter, the celebrated ventriloquist." Potter was right. He had no trouble in Boston.     On August 8, 1818, Potter advertised his performance at Boston's Columbian Museum as follows: Mr. Potter will perform the part of the anti-combustible Man Salamander [a mythical combination of human and reptile] and will pass a red hot bar of iron over his tongue, draw it through his hands 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. He will also perform a variety of pleasing magical deceptions; which, to give a minute detail of, would fill a volume. The performer, not being willing to anticipate the pleasure the audience may receive from his performance, flatters himself that he is so well known in different parts of this country, as not to require the aid of a pompous advertisement. In addition to his magical and ventriloquial talents, he will introduce a number of songs and recitations.     These are some of the tricks that Potter included in his act: frying eggs in a beaver hat; thrusting a sword down his throat and drawing out yards of multicolored ribbons, then spitting out sparks and flames; appearing to swallow molten lead, using a special mixture of lead, bismuth, and block tin. He would pour the mixture into his mouth and then spit out pieces of hardened lead. Asking a member of the audience to touch the lead, he would smile when the spectator attested that it was indeed too hot to touch. Potter also put peeping chickens in women's pockets and rabbits and bumblebees in men's hats. Some said he was the best American ventriloquist and magician of his time.     It is not known how long Richard Potter continued to perform or when he retired. Perhaps he had the opportunity to enjoy his farm and his family for a few years before he died. The words inscribed on his tombstone suggest that his fame as a ventriloquist had not faded when he died. They read, "In Memory of Richard Potter, the Celebrated Ventriloquist, who died Sept. 20, 1835, aged 52 years." Sally Potter survived her husband by a little over a year. She died on October 24, 1836, at the age of forty-nine and was buried next to him.     The Potters' daughter, Jeanette, had died in 1831. The remaining child, Richard, Jr., inherited the estate. He lived there for several years before he sold it and moved on. Continuing in his father's footsteps, he performed magic, ventriloquism, song, and dance as Little Potter in New Hampshire and New York. A Henry Hatton, writing in the May 1916 issue of the magic magazine MUM, recalled that Richard Potter, Jr., was the first magician he ever saw performing at the old Olympic Theater in New York: "Little Potter, he was called. He was a young colored man, slim and graceful, and he danced and sung. One verse of his song ran: `They call me a mulatto, And my name is Little Potter, And for cutting up the capers, I'm the dandy O.'"     There is no record of Richard, Jr., after 1840, when he last paid taxes in Troy, New York. According to some sources, he went West after that, and was never heard from again.     The name Richard Potter fell into obscurity. Then, in 1906, after seventy-one years, a G. Dana Taylor of Andover, New Hampshire, responded to an ad in Conjurer's Magazine , published by Harry Houdini. The ad requested information on "old time magicians," and Taylor, a magician who used the stage name Danar, wrote about Potter. Some of what he wrote was legend, not fact, such as that Potter was "part Hindoo." What intrigued Houdini, and other magicians, was Taylor's report of Potter's variation on the famous "Hindu Rope Trick." If true, it was the first record of an American version of the trick. The letter, published in Conjurer's Magazine of December 15, 1906, stated: "Before a score of people and in the open air, free from trees, houses or mechanisms, he threw up a ball of yarn and he and his wife climbed up on it and vanished in the air. A person coming up the road asked what the people were gazing at, and being told, said he met them going down the road."     In 1965, the Manchester, New Hampshire, chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians officially named their group, called a "ring," the Black Richard Ring in honor of America's first popular magician. Not long afterward, Old Sturbridge Village, a recreated 1830s village in Massachusetts, began to feature a magic show based on nineteenth-century magical entertainments. Robert Olson, a white engineer and maker of reproduction early American furniture from Putnam, Connecticut, researched and presented the shows. Among his most frequent historical alter-egos was Richard Potter. In 1969, he presented the act at the International Brotherhood of Magicians convention.     The 1978 Conjuror's Journal: Excerpts from the Journal of Joshua Medley , by Frances L. Shine, was also inspired by Potter's life.     Considering the barriers that blacks have faced throughout American history, the fact that a black man was probably the first American-born magician is quite amazing. Richard Potter was unique. And except for his son, no one lived to carry on his legacy. Not for half a century would another black American achieve fame as a magician. Excerpted from Conjure Times by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson. Copyright © 2001 by Jim Haskins. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.