When it comes to early magicians, it can feel like a nigh impossible task to separate fact from fiction. In the case of Richard Potter, though, we’re pretty sure he didn’t actually throw a ball of yarn into the air, then climb up the tail end of string and disappear into thin air as the legends once claimed.
Author John A. Hodgson is pretty sure it didn’t happen either. Hodgson has written a new biography about the performer titled Richard Potter: America’s First Black Celebrity. The fantastical rumors about the country’s first native-born magician are certainly wild, but his real life was pretty dang compelling too.
He lived from 1783 to 1835, the son of a white man and an enslaved black woman. Potter spent time in Europe as a teenager where he apprenticed in some circus arts before returning to the States. After his return, Potter built up an act that blended sleight of hand with acrobatic balancing and ventriloquism. His unique skill set led him to become “the most famous and beloved entertainer in all of America,” according to Potter. His achievements and success are all the more impressive for happening in the decades leading up to the American Civil War.
The biography is due out in February 2018 from the University of Virginia Press. It’s available on Amazon for pre-order.