New Book: Richard Potter, America’s First Black Celebrity
by John A. Hodgson
foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
available February 2018, University of Virginia Press
Hardcover, 336 pages, 6×9.25inches, 9 black & white illustrations, 1 map
$29.95 ISBN 9780813941042
Ebook, ISBN 9780813941059, $29.95, Feb 2018
[The following is excerpted from a SeacoastOnline news article by J. Dennis Robinson.]
The first full-length biography of formerly famous ventriloquist Richard Potter will be published in February 2018. Author John A. Hodgson offers a deeply researched study of the nation’s first professional magician and “America’s First Black Celebrity” who owned land at “Potter’s Place” in New Hampshire and frequently performed in Portsmouth.
Legend says that Richard Potter (1783-1835), America’s first native-born stage magician, could climb into one end of a solid log and exit from the other end. He once made a rooster pull a heavy load of hay up a steep hill. According to a man from Andover, New Hampshire, where Potter once owned a farm, dozens of witnesses standing in an open field saw Potter toss a ball of yarn into the air, then he and his wife, Sally, climbed up the dangling string into the sky and disappeared.
Those miraculous events never happened. They were promoted by the man from Andover, in an effort to impress the escape artist Harry Houdini, who was searching for stories about the evolution of popular magic in America. Potter was also not the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin and his African servant. Such are the myths that, until now, have been swirling around the hazy history of Mr. Potter, whose sleight of hand and ventriloquism skills wowed audiences in Portsmouth and across the globe in the early 1800s.
The facts, finally, are contained in an exhaustively researched new book by John A. Hodgson titled “Richard Potter: America’s First Black Celebrity” (February 2018) due out soon from the University of Virginia Press. Potter was born in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, to an enslaved woman from Guinea who had been sold at auction on a Boston pier. But his mother, known as “Black Dinah,” had served in the household of Sir Charles Henry Frankland (not Franklin). His father was a white man, repeatedly in trouble, who was banned from his church for “making attempts on the chastity” of at least six women.