More than two centuries before the fictional wizard Harry Potter captivated millions of readers worldwide, a real-life magic man named Potter was born in Hopkinton.
A slave named Dinah, who worked in Charles Frankland’s estate, gave birth to a mixed-race baby boy named Richard Potter in 1783. Over the decades historians would debate his father’s identity. Some have said that Frankland’s son was the father; others said it was George Simpson, another Hopkinton man. The reason for the surname “Potter” is a mystery, one of many that followed Potter wherever he went.
The boy would grow up to be the first U.S.-born magician and ventriloquist, enthralling audiences both in America and in Europe. Legend had it that he could throw a ball of yarn into the open air, climb up, disappear then re-appear down the road from astonished onlookers. Among his most popular tricks was the “enchanted egg,” in which Potter placed an egg on top of a hat and made it jump from one hat to another, then appear on his shoulder. Other popular tricks involved extreme heat: Potter would appear to pour hot lead down his throat, bend a hot iron bar with his feet, and roast himself in an oven unscathed.
His talents not only earned him enough money to buy his own estate in New Hampshire, but also helped him transcend the searing prejudice that was common during the 18th and early 19th centuries. He survived through his innate dignity, his talents, his wits and, at times, a puckish sense of humor. At one Alabama inn where the innkeeper refused to let him sit in the dining room, Potter got his revenge when the main course, a whole pig, was served. He used his ventriloquism skills to make the pig appear to be squealing. While he was refused a seat at the table, Potter earned nearly $4,800 – the equivalent of $55,000 today – during his stop in Alabama.
This remarkable talent spent his first 10 years in Hopkinton, where he lived on Frankland’s estate and attended the local school. At 10, ready to take on the world, Potter signed on as a cabin boy with a sea captain who was Frankland’s friend. But after just one journey, Potter realized that the life of a sailor was not for him, and bid farewell to his crewmates in Liverpool, England.
While traveling in England he became mesmerized watching John Rannie, a Scottish magician and ventriloquist who called himself “Rannie the Scot.” Potter asked Rannie if he could be his assistant, and Rannie, whose brother and former assistant had just decided to go his own way, agreed. Rannie, with Potter as his assistant, would travel around Europe, the West Indies and the U.S. Their tour in the U.S. would include southern cities like Charleston and Savannah, where prejudice was so strong that Potter was assumed to be Rannie’s servant.
One of Potter’s first jobs as Rannie’s apprentice was to assist with Rannie’s most popular trick: cutting off the head of a live chicken, then putting the head back on and “bringing it back to life.” Potter’s job was to find a second chicken that looked exactly like the dispatched creature.
During one 1807 tour in Boston, the duo watched a group of Penobscot Indian fur traders entertain in Roxbury. Potter saw a beautiful 20-year-old dancer, Sally Harris, and was immediately smitten. Harris would join up with Rannie and Potter and become part of the new dramatic performances that they had added to their repertoire of magic and ventriloquism. Potter and Harris were married a year later.
Over time, the seasoned magician and ventriloquist taught his apprentice everything he knew, and Potter was skilled enough to go out on his own by the time Rannie was ready to retire in 1811. Potter then did his own touring and earned his fortune, often accompanied by Sally as an assistant. Most of his local performances took place at the Columbian Museum, the Exchange Coffee House, Concert Hall and Julien Hall in Boston.
While his mixed race made him a subject of suspicion, and sometimes bitter treatment, he was able to overcome it. In fact, since many at the time believed that magic originated in exotic lands, Potter shrewdly indulged this misbelief, often wearing a turban and telling audiences that he was Hindu, West Indian or Asian. His wife, a real Native American, only added to the mystique.
Despite this prejudice, by 1814 the Potters had three children and enough money to build a comfortable home. They bought 200 acres of land in Andover, New Hampshire and built a large shingled house. The Potter family raised crops, cattle and pigs when they were not touring. They joined the Unitarian Church and Richard became one of the earliest black Freemasons.
While the Andover locals sometimes derided Potter as a “furrener,” they also took advantage of his hospitality by attending his many dinner parties. According to legend, four church elders at one party criticized Potter for serving alcohol. Potter told them, “If you are not tolerant of the spirits, the spirits will not be tolerant of you!” He then broke open a bottle; a baby chick emerged; and Potter used his ventriloquism to make the chick speak. The elders ran screaming from the house.
Richard Potter died in Andover in 1835, at age 52. His wife died a year later. Their son, Richard Jr., carried on his father’s tradition of magic and ventriloquism for a while, but faded into obscurity around 1840. But the senior Potter’s magical legend survives, and in 1965 the Manchester, New Hampshire chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians would officially name their group the “Black Richard Ring.”
Sources for this story included an article written by Gail Clifford in the Hopkinton Historical Society’s newsletter; “Conjure Times: Black Magicians in North America” by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson; and the web site of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.