The Story Of America's First Celebrity: Richard Potter
Celebrity, as we know it today, is a relatively recent phenomenon, not having really been created until 1883, when Buffalo Bill Cody used his “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show to transform himself from someone best known as a dime novel character to a national icon. Before Buffalo Bill, there were individual celebrities of varying degrees of regional or national fame. But Buffalo Bill, using the nationally distributed mass media of the dime novels, became the second truly national celebrity in the United States.
The first? Richard A. Potter (1783-1835), the foremost American entertainer of his lifetime, someone without celebrity peers, someone as well known in Norfolk (VA), New Orleans, St. Louis, and Québec as he was in his native Massachusetts. His tours took him across the length and breadth of the United States, and at the height of his career, he was a national icon, more famous than presidents, the Tom Poston of the 1820s.
That he was the son of a Black freedwoman from Africa’s Guinea Coast and a white yeoman farmer/Revolutionary War veteran/sleazy womanizer from Massachusetts is undoubtedly strongly responsible for his posthumous obscurity and currently forgotten status. (Potter does have a brief Wikipedia entry, but in 2021 that’s no mark of distinction, it’s simply a statement that you existed at one point, like Marocco the counting horse and the Pokémon Cursola).
As a teenager, Potter left home, toured Europe as a gentleman’s gentleman, and in Italy began training as an entertainer. When he performed in London as part of a group of tightrope dancers and tumblers, he was advertised as “the London Little Devil.” The original Little Devil was Paulo Redigé, “le petit Diable,” a famous tightrope dancer in France who set off a tightrope dancing craze in the 1780s and who toured England through 1792 and the US for a few years after that. There were a number of imitators and rivals to Redigé during his heyday; Potter being advertised as the “London Little Devil” gives some idea of how good he was.
Potter really was that talented at tightrope dancing—he was good enough to draw notice from the otherwise jaded London crowds in 1801. Quoting one newspaper on Potter’s tightrope performance:
He balances, while on the wire, 100 full wine glasses; will also pass seven times through a small hope, and, what is still more astonishing, he balances seven common chairs at one time … He balances on his face a common wine glass, on the edge of which is a small sword. He tosses up oranges and eggs, while on the wire, plays on the violin, and goes to his knees.
Potter and a more experienced tightrope dancer named Signor Manfredi toured France and England, performing in Paris during the 1802-1803 Peace of Amiens and then making their way to America. Potter eventually teamed up with and trained under John Rannie, one of a pair of traveling Scottish ventriloquist-magicians, and then teamed up with and trained under Charles Durang, the oldest son of John Durang. (Spending his youth being trained by masters in various fields—Richard Potter sounds like Batman).
Potter married a freedwoman, Sally Harris, in 1808. In some ways, it was a dream match for him: she was beautiful and from a well-to-do family of freemen. He wasn’t famous yet as a performer. But he knew people—important people—and they ensured that the marriage was mentioned in the matrimonial notices of several Boston newspapers, a recognition almost unheard of, possibly unprecedented, for blacks in the city at that time.
Boston, at this time, was a center for protest and reform activities affecting Blacks, especially the antislavery movement. Potter never played a public role in the movement, in part because he was touring so often, in part because he was in personality a private, reserved man, and in part, because he didn’t want to alienate any of his potential audience. But Potter was a member of the African Lodge of Boston, which eventually became known as the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, the first Black Masonic lodge in America. The members of the Lodge were prominent members of the Black community in Boston. The Potter marriage newspaper notices may have been a favor done by these men for a junior member.
For Potter, being a member of the Masons was important, and he not only emphasized it in his performances, he even had it advertised on his broadsides:
Potter began touring and broadened the act to emphasize songs and recitations, making the entire act a review or “olio,” a genre of entertainment that contemporary audiences knew and liked. Potter even brought his pregnant wife into the act as a singer, dancer, and member of one-act theatricals. (Her thoughts on being made to sing and dance while eight and nine months pregnant are unrecorded).
By 1811 his career began to take off, and during his tours, which were often two-to-four week runs in large cities, he was able to charge a dollar for admission. (A day’s wage at the time for an artisan was roughly $1.72, so that dollar he was charging was actually a lot of money—it cost $100 to build a house in 1811).
Potter knew better than to spend his earnings on drinking, gambling, womanizing, or carousing in general—he was very level-headed that way. So, by 1814 he was able to buy around 175 acres of land in Andover, New Hampshire, and build a large house on his estate. (He left Boston because of scandals in the city caused by his wife’s alcoholism).
By 1819 Potter was famous enough and skilled enough to throw the dice on his own career by launching a grand North American tour:
The tour was the apex of Potter’s professional life, a commercial and critical success virtually from start to finish. He toured the North and the South, the cities and the towns and the villages, the populous places and the smaller hamlets, and he took in loads of money and made a name for himself everywhere he performed. He was fêted in nearly every city and even had laudatory poems written about him, including a notable one written by “Croaker,” a.k.a. Joseph Rodman Drake, a very famous literary critic, and poet. Getting a praise-filled poem written about you by Croaker was roughly the equivalent of Beyonce writing a song about you. That is the level of fame that Richard Potter had.
Potter’s fame and success are even more remarkable considering that his best skill, ventriloquism, was viewed with great suspicion. In 1820 ventriloquism was seen as a serious threat to modern politics—the idea of a ventriloquist ruling people by controlling debate was considered to be a danger by politicians, and the ruling classes had to be aware of it at all times. Ventriloquism had been seen as a political danger by the Classical Greeks and Romans, and Enlightenment figures viewed ventriloquism as threatening people’s “liberty of the mind” through distorting the perception of truth and the distinctness of ideas. In all, ventriloquism was seen in 1820 as morally and politically dangerous, a nearly superhuman power that allowed the ventriloquist to psychologically manipulate their victims.
Potter, though, was never suspected of being either subversive or frivolous (the other manner in which ventriloquism was regarded). His personal manner—reserved, with enormous gravitas—was such that no one would ever have dared accuse him of being frivolous. At the same time, his stage persona—lighthearted, joking, very family-friendly—and his resolute refusal to say anything that might be seen as political or revolutionary or even pro-abolition spoke strongly against him being seen as subversive. Too, his ambiguous ethnicity—outside of Boston, he represented himself as a Creole, Asian Indian, Caribbean, or as a dark-skinned white man--allayed the suspicions of the white racists who, then as now, saw the very act of being Black as an anti-white political statement. (In the 1830 census, Potter is listed as “white”).
Unfortunately for Potter, the USA, though never not racist, took a turn towards a particularly cruel and venomous type of racism in the 1820s and 1830s, leading to stage performers--comedians, comic actors, ventriloquists, magicians, and wandering pranksters (yes, that was a more-or-less official job one could hold back then)—targeting Blacks with racist jokes and racist, mean-spirited ventriloquial tricks. Boston, which had been a racially harmonious place pre-1825, became toxically racist afterward. Potter continued to have professional success through the 1820s and 1830s, but he acquired a new set of persistent and troublesome problems.
In the new environment of racist cruelty, local officials who would never have presumed to trifle with Potter beforehand started charging him with “performing without a license.” His wife’s drinking became so severe that Potter was forced to post legal announcements that he would no longer pay her debts. (How humiliating for both Sally Potter and for Richard, as private a man as he was). Potter made some investments in land that didn’t pay off; he was unwise in his choice of family members and friends to lend large amounts of money to; and most notably, racist newspaper coverage, petty lawsuits driven by racist animus, and mounting fines from racist officials drained a large amount of money from Potter as well as burdened him emotionally and mentally.
Potter’s last years were unhappy ones, and his fame dwindled so that, although his funeral in 1835 was well-attended and covered by the regional press, it was ignored nationally, and he was quickly forgotten outside of eastern Massachusetts. Today he is almost completely obscure.
But Potter was America’s first Black celebrity; he was America’s first national celebrity; he was America’s first celebrity magician; his stage act essentially invented American sketch comedy (take that, Dave Chappelle); and his skillfully deployed racial ambiguity allowed white audiences to ignore his Blackness and cheer him on—no small accomplishment for his time!
Though Potter didn’t live the sort of life that gave rise to amusing anecdotes, there is one true story about him that has survived:
In or near New Haven, Connecticut, in the last months of 1823, Potter went to the town’s best hotel and, a little while before dinner, entered the office.
When dinner was served, Mr. Potter started to enter the dining room with the other guests, but the landlord stopped him, saying that his guests would not care to sit at the table with a not lily-white man. Mr. Potter gave no reply but quietly went back to the office and seated himself where he could command a good view of the table. At the time, it was customary for the landlord to carve. A fine roasted pig was set before him. At the first stroke of the carving knife, a grunt issued from the pig. Everyone started and looked at the pig. At the next incision, such a piercing squeal was heard from the pig that some of the ladies became terror-stricken and left the table. The landlord became pale in the face, and began to tremble, and shouted in a loud voice, “My goodness, this pig ain’t dead.”
After quiet had been restored, a man present, who had met Mr. Potter, said to the landlord, “I think if you should ask that gentleman there to dine with us, you could carve your pig.”
Which is what happened. Richard Potter, comrades!