The Celebrated Ventriloquist and Professor of Legerdemain & Namesake of Potter Place, New Hampshire: Richard Potter (1783-1835)

Graphic from "Crisis" (1910) by William E.B. Du Bois, NY, page 126

Graphic from “Crisis” (1910) by William E.B. Du Bois, NY, page 126 on the Internet Archive.

I was reading a 1968 article in the Nashua Telegraph about how Potter Place, New Hampshire is reportedly haunted.  I suppose anywhere mankind has lived and died is haunted–Potter Place not less so.

Besides, the official New Hampshire state marker #54 unequivocally states that Richard Potter was a “19th Century master of the Black Arts.”  Does this mean he really performed black magic, or was he, instead, a black man who performed regular magic?  I believe the latter. It just goes to show you that you can’t trust those state markers.

Notice in the New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette of 29 December 1823 announcing "Mr. Potter."

Notice in the New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette of 29 December 1823 announcing “Mr. Potter.”

Much has been written about Potter Place’s most intriguing resident, Richard Potter.  [Editor’s note: I do not endorse the Andover Historical Society’s version of his ancestry, as it is not proven.]  He was an eccentric and talented magician, ventriloquist, reputed necromancer and performer. He was born in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, and was no doubt related to Cromwell and Phebe Potter who also came from Hopkinton MA and lived in Andover, New Hampshire.  Richard and his wife Sally moved there about 1811 and built a house, sometimes referred to as a mansion, only because the other homes in the area were so much more rustic.

I have read many stories about Mr. Potter, however, rarely do I see a list of actual tricks, magic, or actions that he included in his performance.  My focus will be to  write  about them.

Richard Potter died 131 years ago this past September 20th, and at his request, he (inside a casket) was buried in an upright position. His grave was later moved, and so it is unknown whether he still lies in that position today. His memory lingers on as a talented “mulatto” with an intriguing (but unproven) parentage, who was considered wondrous in his ability to charm his audiences, and who was honest to the ninth degree.  The village of Potter Place is only a railroad stop in the town of Andover, New Hampshire. His story is told best in these newspaper reports that were printed closer to the days when he lived.

“POTTER, the celebrated ventriloquist and master of necromancy, lately died at his residence in New Hampshire. “Few men,” says the Dunstable Telegraph, “have done more to brush away ‘dull care’ than he; and few have passed through the world, following his profession, whose characters have been so unblemished.”
–Obituary of Richard Potter from Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro VT) Page 3, 16 October 1835

From: The Weekly Union, published by The Union Democrat, November 26, 1851, page 1–RICHARD POTTER.
On the Northern (N.H.) Railroad,

Part 2 of the 1823 announcement of a show in Concord NH. See Part 1 above.

Part 2 of the 1823 announcement of a show in Concord NH. See Part 1 above.

some thirty miles from Concord, is a station called Potter Place. It lies in Andover, a farming town of perhaps twelve hundred inhabitants. This little village derives its name from Potter, the celebrated ventriloquist and professor of legerdemain. As the cars stop their five minutes here, the gaping passengers will observe on the one hand a tavern inscribed Kearsarge House, together with a rude, ragged range of mountains beyond, called as they should be, Ragged Mountains; on the other hand the aforesaid gaping passenger will see within twenty rods of his car a neat white one story building, with two projecting wings, all of Grecian architecture. From this extends westerly, a fine expanse of level meadow land; now mostly laid down to grass. This house, the adjacent hundred acres of meadow, were owned by Richard Potter.– There once stood on pillars before the house two graven images, taken from Lord Timothy Dexter’s place in Newburyport. Potter built the house and cultivated the farm, which in their integrity–which means sum total–were estimated in the days of Potter, and log before the railroad was built, to be worth $5,000. This Potter owned in fee simple, unencumbered, the fruits of his successful illusion, optical and oricular. Close by the house the aforesaid passenger will see a small enclosure, protecting two funeral monuments, slabs of white marble of ordinary size. But as the cars will not stop long enough for the passenger to read, without anxiety the transcriptions, we obligingly transcribe them for him.

In memory of
RICHARD POTTER,
The
Celebrated
VENTRILOQUIST,
Who died
September 20th, 1835,
Aged 52 years.
On the other hand–
In memory of
SALLY H.,
Wife of
Richard Potter
Who died
October 24, 1836
Aged 49 years.

modern-magic

Modern magic:A practical treatise on the art of conjuring by Professor Hoffmann. From the Internet Archive.

Potter was a colored man, half way between fair and black, and of the same hue was his wife. He for a long time monopolized the market for such wares as sleight of hand and ‘laborious speaking from the stomach.’ We well remember as who does not, how our astonished eyes first beheld his debut from the stage, a portentous looking magician from India, wearing a black silk robe covered with all emblems, sun, moon, and stares, serpents, dragons, and ‘chimeras dire.’ And then to see him perform! cat tow; spit fire, and draw from his mouth yards and yards of ribbon! all made of tow, far down in his crop; to hear him to command an egg to roll all over him from head to foot, from foot to head! what went into his hat a handkerchief came out a live pigeon! And then his comic song! Doffing his magician’s robe, and donning another attire, he would hobble around the stage an old woman would tell over her various troubles in successive stanzas, always concluding with the cheerful refrain, –‘How s’ever, I keep a pretty good heart.’ Oh, the wonder and delight which Potter caused to all the boys, both young and old!

But like other players, both greater and smaller than himself, his predecessors, he played his last play, and here he lies. He did not work his farm with his own hands to any great extent, but hired his labor done, he himself going on excursions to perform. Consequently he did not carry on his farm to so good advantage; for though naturally very shrewd, it proved that he knew more about sleight of-hand, than dexterity of farming, and so suffered bad bargains and unsuccessful plans. But he kept his stuff and land together, and bequeathed it intact to his only child, his son Richard. Richard proved a spend-thrift and dissipated, and soon alienated the whole; and he is now, as we are informed, a vagabond. Potter was temperate, steady, attentive to his business, and his business was his delight. He took as much pleasure in pleasing others, as others did in being pleased. We have never heard a lisp against his character for honesty and fair dealing. Whether he was religious, according to any persuasion, we do not know. Worse men may easily be found.

Magician's devil head prop used for card tricks. From Modern magic:A practical treatise on the art of conjuring by Professor Hoffmann

Magician’s devil head prop used for card tricks. From Modern magic:A practical treatise on the art of conjuring by Professor Hoffmann

In our boyish days,–eyes sticking out with wonder–we supposed he was a veritable son of Brahma Ramshandapoota, from the banks of the sacred Ganges, or perhaps, cousin germane to that black African who persecuted Aladdin; just as some now think Herr Driesbach is a German and not a real native New Hampshire Yankee. But we have since learned that Potter, in his younger days, was a valued and esteemed servant in the family of Rev. Daniel Oliver, of Boston;–that in his kitchen he studied out the theory and began the practice of legerdemain. Mr. Oliver’s son, Gen. Oliver of Lawrence, informed the writer that many a winter’s evening, children and servants of the family were edified and unspeakable regaled by the tricks and pranks of Dick. He who was so successful in these his first efforts, and so able to set up business on his own account, could not long be retained as a servant. He followed his vocation ever after, till death, the great conjurer, arrested him in his court. And now his earthly remains lie in this once sequestered spot, the frowning Kearsarge, loftier than Snowdon, on the one side, and the Ragged range on the other. His grave is but a few feet from the iron track, his name gives notoriety to this place, causes his name to be spoken, and his memory to be cherished, more than that of many who have been greater benefactors to the world. But Potter was not without his good points; and his vocation, if it was but a pleasing foolery, was more innocent than many that make higher claims. Had he been born in 1835 instead of 1783, he might have found a better field for his talents, and been the instrument of a far greater good.–

Once instance we have known, where ventriloquism and legerdemain have been subservient to a higher and worth object. In this case the actor was no other than MN. Vattemere, the projector of the Institute for the National Exchanges of books and specimens. When he could not gain the ear of the great and their patronage, by his legitimate errand, he accomplished the object by an appeal to the love of the ludicrous and the wonderful. What he could not do as M. Vattemere, the collector of the Libraries and Specimens, he did as M. Alexander the Magician.

If any traveller wishes to spend a day or two in the vicinity of Potter place, he will find much to interest him. Kearsarge is one of the great landmarks of New Hampshire. It is of easy access, the prospect from its summit is grand, and the summit but four miles from this place. There are six ponds in Andover, of which Chance Pond and Loon Pond are large, picturesque, and of purse water, and the saunterer may perchance catch a fish or shoot a loon. — Traveller.

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The Magic Picture Frame, a prop used by magicians, from Modern magic:A practical treatise on the art of conjuring by Professor Hoffmann, at the Internet Archive.

The Magic Picture Frame, a prop used by magicians, from Modern magic:A practical treatise on the art of conjuring by Professor Hoffmann, at the Internet Archive.

Daily Graphic, NY, New York, August 11, 1874, page 6
A “Domestic” MAGICIAN.–A correspondent of the Boston Journal, who says that Richard Potter, the famed magician and ventriloquist, was once a domestic in his father’s family adds: When living with us–and he was a most excellent and faithful man in his work, always good-tempered and genial–he occasionally invited us children to the kitchen to see his tricks and hearken to his ventriloquism. He was a light mulatto, of sight figure and very agreeable features, a constant smile seeming to illuminate his face. Many were the tricks we saw him perform, and I specially remember the dancing of an egg along and about an old fashioned set of shelves called a ‘dresser,’ upon which the kitchen plates, many of them of pewter, and other utensils were kept, as well as the dropping of eggs into his hat and their coming out as pancakes or flapjacks. So, too, I recall the marvellous voice that came down the chimney in response to his inquiries, rather frightening at first, but vastly amusing us afterward. We understood from him that he had learned his art from an expert in Italy, while on attendance as a traveling servant with a gentleman there. He had several large books filled with directions upon the presigiatory (!) art, keeping up his study and practice till he went before the public. He was a most worthy and excellent man, and on retiring he bought the place in Andover, N.H., now known as the Potter place, and which is near a railroad station. When I used to pass it in old stage times, on my way to Dartmouth College, I spent the last two years of my undergraduateship, there stood on pillars in front of his house two figures carved in wood, of life size, which once stood with a multitude of others in front of the old Lord Timothy Dexter’s mansion in Newburyport. I suppose by this date old Time has rotted them to rubbish.”

——————————————-

A magician with his prop box, from Modern magic:A practical treatise on the art of conjuring by Professor Hoffmann on the Internet Archive.

A magician with his prop box, from Modern magic:A practical treatise on the art of conjuring by Professor Hoffmann on the Internet Archive.

Boston Herald (Boston MA) 11 February 1906, page 52
RICHARD POTTER, WHO ALIGHTED FROM A STAGE COACH TO ASTOUND ANDOVER, N.H. OVER A CENTURY AGO
CONCORD, N.H. Feb 10, 1906 [From Our Regular Correspondent]
OVER a century ago a slight, dark-skinned man stepped from the stage coach at Andover, N.H., shouldered a canvas bag such as sailors carry, and strode into the tavern at this sleepy country village. He threw down his bag and ordered some toddy. After drinking this he sat down and lighted a long pipe. A dozen men studied him curiously. In the first place it was a bit unusual for a perfect strange to stop there. In the second place it was still more unusual for one of such a swarthy skin, almost mulatto in appearance, to come so far north. The stranger smoked in silence, his eye upon his mysterious canvas bag.
Suddenly the group was astonished to hear the wailing of a child. The tiny voice came from somewhere in the room, but sounded as though muffled. The child seemed to be in pain. Every one in the room listened and wondered. The quaintly dressed stranger was the only one who appeared undisturbed. The wailing grew louder. The men looked without the house and within the closets. Suspicion grew. There was much whispering and many surly shaking of the head. It was undeniable that the cries of the infant appeared to come from the canvas bag of the stranger. He smoked on, indifferent to the confusion. Finally some one approached him with a question as to whether he could explain aught of the mystery. He looked up and answered that he was of the kind who minded their own business.
For a few moments the crying ceased. Then it broke out again piteously. The crowd which had gathered was convinced that a child was concealed in the bag.
Men were quick to act in those days. Some one peremptorily bade the stranger to open the bag. He refused. As the crying grew louder, a hardy young man seized the bundle and ripped it open. Within he found only a few garments and personal belongings. The crying ceased. Then the stranger laughed loud and long and demanded that toddy be brought forth steaming hot, and that the gallant young man who was looking very foolish, be allowed to settle the score.
And this was the way that one of New Hampshire’s quaintest and most mysterious characters, Richard Potter, made his appearance at Andover, N.H. The little village was destined to see a great deal of this man who made a name for himself as a ventriloquist and magician in two hemispheres. This was at a time when such tricks were less common than today. He was looked upon as a bit askance for his talent. But many a jest of this nature did he play upon the village folk.
At one time he caused a farmer to pitch off, with frantic haste, a whole load of hay in search of this same mysterious child, who apparently was being smothered beneath the load. When, at last, he had removed the last forkful and found nothing, he stood a moment staring with wet brow at the stranger and then turning on his heel ran as fast as his legs could carry him, to his home.

–Relics of a Man of Fame–
Mr. and Mrs. Alexander McKee of Concord, N.H. in their home on South Street, have about the only two relics extant of this famous character. One is an oil portrait of King Philip of Macedon and the other is an old table. The oil portrait which is enclosed in a very old wooden frame, in its appearance bears evidence of being very old, so old, indeed, that the hand of time has effaced the name of the artist and made considerable progress in peeling the paint from the canvas. Nothing has been lost as yet, however, that cannot be easily restored by the proper application of colors.
The table, which in appearance justifies its claim to having been constructed more than a century ago, is of solid mahogany and very heavy. It is of the Sheraton pattern, between three and four feet across the top. It has drop leaves, which, when raised, make complete a circular, four-legged article of furniture. There is no ornamentation, except in the legs, where the twisted work was evidently wrought by hand.
When travelling about the country with his wife, giving exhibitions, it was Mr. Potter’s custom to leave his children at the home of Harrison Colby in Andover, a grand-daughter of whom is Mrs. Alexander McKee. Upon Potter’s death the portrait, the table and some other pictures, among which latter was one of Washington, came into Mrs. McKee’s possession.
“Old Potter,” as the magician was familiarly called, went to Andover, where he died and was buried, at a date not known, but probably between 70 and 80 years ago. Because of his fame, the name of Potter Place was bestowed upon a village in the town. Where he came from was always an unsolved mystery. It was said by some that he was a native of the East Indies, and by other that he was a mulatto slave, escaped from some southern state. His dark skin was enough to give color to either story.
Going to Andover in the early part of the century he became possessed of quite a tract of land, which extended from above where the railway station at Potter Place now stands across the highway almost to the point of the hill on the west. The house in which he lived, and which he embellished in his own peculiar fashion, was a comfortable story-and-a-half cottage. When the present owner came into possession of the property the house had undergone but little alteration since its occupancy by the Potter family. The house, which is now practically entirely changed in appearance, stands just across the railroad from and near to the station. Mr. Downs, the owner of the place, has left some traces of the old magician’s handiwork of the house. Over the front door is a queer festooning of leaf work in raised carving, while a cupboard in the sitting room remains unaltered. The residence for some years was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Colby, who made their home there. Added to his skill as a magician, Potter’s powers as a ventriloquist and mesmerist were wonderful.

–Tales of Wondrous Magic–
During his life in Andover, Potter made two trips to England, and once went to India in the practice of his profession. Even to this day anecdotes of his work, in what was then the darkest mystery, are among the folklore of the countryside about the Andovers.
Mrs. Sally H. Potter, wife of the ventriloquist, was small in stature, quiet and aristocratic in her ways, and of gentle disposition. It is related of her that she was so diminutive in size that, in one of his feats of magic, her husband placed her in a pasteboard vehicle constructed in the form of a swan which moved about by unseen mechanism.
Richard Potter was devotedly attached to his wife, and instances of his kindly regard are preserved by tradition. They had two children, a girl and a boy. [Editor’s note: in fact they had 3 children, 1 girl and 2 boys]. The girl, Julia, died at the age of 20, casting despondency upon her mother, from which she never recovered. It is said that Mrs. Potter possessed valuable gems and curiously wrought articles of jewelry, brought from foreign lands, and that is was her custom, after her affliction, to visit the grave at night and place the gems upon the mound.

Upon the question of the magician’s wealth opinions vary; by some he is thought to have possessed considerable means, while others believe that the farm and cottage represented all of his fortune. One authority affirms that a number of servants were kept, and that they lived in a small house nearby. It is certain, however, that for the time and place where he lived, there is abundant comfort.

****ADDITIONAL READING****

Modern magic:A practical treatise on the art of conjuring by Professor Hoffmann, 1885; from the Internet Archive.

Maccabe’s Art of Ventriloquism, by Frederic Mccabe, New York, 1875; from the Internet Archive.

 

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