Hearing the name “Potter’s Place” and occasionally riding by it ( I say ‘by’ rather than ‘through’ because you are in and out quickly when driving) in my younger years my thoughts were probably imagining someone at some past time making pottery in that place. In reality the place is named after a man who had an entirely different and uncommon occupation, especially for the era in which he lived ( 1783 -1835).
Richard Potter was a magician and ventriloquist who put on shows in various locations in the early days of the United States of America. He is said to be the first professional in both of the skills named above to be born in America, so he does have a place in history both as a magician –ventriloquist and because of the honor bestowed on him by having his name attached to a location on the map of New Hampshire. Mr. Potter was born in Hopkinton, Massachusetts to a ‘slave’ or ‘servant’, depending on which source you read, named Dinah. She was a member of the estate of Sir Charles Henry Frankland who had been a British tax collector in the Port of Boston.
The identity of Potter’s father seems to be unknown, though several men have been named as suspects. Sir Frankland has been listed as the father, but he is said to have died fifteen years before Richard was born, ruling him out. Some think that Frankland’s son is the father. Church records from Hopkinton are said to name his father as George Simpson. Others have suggested it was a Henry Cromwell. Potter is reported to have claimed both Sir Frankland and Benjamin Franklin as his father, though facts seem to prove that neither could be true. I have found no source indicating where the name Potter came from, so maybe we can guess that that was his mother’s last name or that the father was actually an unknown man to us with the last name of Potter.
A young, ten year old Richard Potter sailed to Britain as a cabin boy with a Captain Skinner. While there he attended an English Fair and was apparently intrigued by the Scottish illusionist and ventriloquist John Rannie and somehow became his assistant, travelling with him throughout Europe for several years. Rannie and Potter came to the United States soon after the beginning of the nineteenth century where Rannie continued to perform as a professional magician with Potter as his assistant. When Rannie retired around the year 1811 Richard Potter began performing on his own, probably beginning his career in Boston, not only becoming the first American born professional illusionist and ventriloquist, but also entering a career as a black man that was previously dominated by white Europeans. Richard had married Sally Harris, who was a native American of the Penobscot tribe, and she served as an assistant at his shows which were presented mainly in New England, but extended to other states.
One billboard advertised Mr. Potter’s show as being divided into three sections. Part 1of the program said that “ Mr. Potter will bring forward 100 Curious but Mysterious Experiments with Eggs, Money, Fruit, Birds, Boxes, etc., Among which will be presented the Philosophical Paper…”. In Part 2 Mr. Potter gave a “Dissertation on Noses” during which he sang “ a number of comic songs”. Part 3 of the presentation was reserved for “Ventriloquism” when Mr. Potter demonstrated his skill in this fairly new form of entertainment by showing his skill in throwing his voice to different parts of the room, imitating the sounds of birds and beasts. He finished the program by singing “Barney, leave the Girls alone”.
Richard’s most famous tricks appear to have been the ones of dancing on eggs without breaking them, climbing up a rope or piece of yarn and disappearing into the sky, and crawling through a solid log as if it were hollow. Whether he ever actually performed the last two has been questioned, but they are, for whatever reason, true or legendary, illusions that are prominently associated with his name. There is no questioning the fact that Richard Potter was a very skilled entertainer and was paid well for his performances. He has gained the respect of other well-known illusionists and his fans are said to have included Harry Houdini. During the last few years of his life Potter concentrated on ventriloquism in his acts.
Potter and his wife Sally had three children. They bought 175 acres of land in Andover, New Hampshire where he built a “mansion” for their home in 1814. Richard Potter died on September 20, 1835 at the age of 52; his wife died a year later at the age of forty-nine. Their bodies were buried in the front yard of their house in Andover, but were later moved to a small lot nearby to make room for railroad tracks to be constructed. Potter reportedly requested that he be buried upright, but I don’t know whether or not his desires were granted. Two gravestones surrounded by a short picket fence in a quiet place stand as reminders of the man and wife team who entertained many in the early 1800’s and chose a small New Hampshire town as their domicile. The train depot that is nearby on the other side of the railroad tracks lets the traveler know that this is Potter Place, as does the sign on the building across the street that also says Post Office and a historic marker sign along the highway.
The mansion that Richard Potter built is no longer there, but the man and his wife, a son of a slave and a native American, are not forgotten as there are several reminders in the country village in Andover, New Hampshire, that this is indeed the Potter Place.