STEAMFUNK ENCHANTERS: Black Magicians, Conjurers and Soothsayers in the Age of Steam!
We return to our League of Extraordinary Black People series with a look at the great men and women whose lives were bolstered, or broken, by the arts of legerdemain, divination and prestidigitation. These virtuosos of voodoo, stage magic, fortune-telling and mesmerism all came to fame through the workings of the arcane.
Previously, we explored Dandies, Adventurers, Activists, Tinkerers and the Black Dispatches. Join us now, as we examine the lives and amazing abilities of more extraordinary Black people from the Age of Steam(funk)!
Richard Potter (1783 – 1835)
Potter was born in New Hampshire, the son of an English baronet and an African servant woman. He was educated in Europe before beginning his 25-year career as a performer in post-Revolutionary America. He lived with his father in Hopkinton, NH, until he married his wife, Sally, and had three children.
Potter is also credited as America’s first successful hypnotist and ventriloquist. One of the earliest records of his stage shows is November 2, 1811, in Boston at the Columbian Museum. The performance featured ventriloquism and magic. Potter is believed to be the first to use a ventriloquist’s dummy and could skillfully throw his voice, using human speech and sounds that perfectly imitated the chirping, cooing and caws of birds.
Potter performed in Boston, throughout New England, and Canada. Witnesses of Potter’s shows say he was able to walk through a log. The crowd that watched him do this assumed the log was hollow. But when they checked out the log for themselves they discovered it was completely solid! Another of Potter’s amazing tricks was his ability to take a ball of yarn and toss it high into the air, where it would slowly unravel. Potter would then climb up the yarn and vanish into the clouds to vanish before hundreds of spectators.
His shows also regularly included prestidigitation with eggs, money, and cards; throwing knives at assistants; touching a hot iron to his tongue; walking on flames; and dancing on eggs without breaking them.
Potter was very successful and it is said that he made $4800 for 20-day engagements in the early 1800s, allowing him to buy a 175-acre farm in Andover, New Hampshire, in the village now known as Potter’s Place. His story intrigued Harry Houdini, who became a huge fan.
JK Rowling, author of the mega-successful Harry Potter series of novels, explains the supposed origin of Harry Potter’s name: “Harry’ has always been my favourite boy’s name, so if my daughter had been a son, he would have been Harry Rowling. Then I would have had to choose a different name for “Harry” in the books, because it would have been too cruel to name him after my own son. “Potter” was the surname of a family who used to live near me when I was seven years old and I always liked the name, so I borrowed it.” However, sources close to Rowling say that she named the popular teen magician after famed stage magician Harry Houdini and his idol – the first known stage magician in America – Richard Potter.
Potter died on September 20, 1835. Sometime after his death and the death of his wife, Sally, the couple was buried in the front yard of their estate. A few years afterward, however, the house burned down. Potter and his wife’s graves were moved to their present site in 1849. All that remains to this day is a small plot with the gravestones behind the railroad station at Potter’s Place.
Marie Laveau (1794 – 1881)
Marie Catherine Laveau was born in New Orleans on September 10, 1794, the daughter of two free Blacks – Marguerite Darcantel, a former Haitian slave and Charles Laveau, a wealthy, Black plantation owner of mixed race.
Raised by her mother and grandmother, both Voodoo priestesses, Marie Laveau spent most of her adult life in a world where Voodoo was neither alien nor uncommon. She was a very spiritual person who blended, in the Creole way, Voodoo with Catholicism, especially the saints. For Laveau, Voodoo was an extension of Catholic practices and Catholicism, a focus toward the same Bon Dieu (God), natural and familiar, to Voodoo.
Laveau married a Jacques Paris in 1819 and went to live in New Orleans’ French Quarter. For whatever reason, Charles Paris soon died, however, and she was left with two children to care for.
After Jacques’ passing, the “Widow Paris” worked as a hairdresser and as a nurse, even performing minor surgery when necessary. Her nursing duties included ministering to prisoners on death row as well as taking in the sick to be nursed in her home. During the worst breakouts of Yellow Fever and Cholera, Laveau was a saint who saved many, and helped make the transition to death a comfortable one. She was there, in the worst hospital wards, using her knowledge of herbal medicines and Voodoo prayers to save the dying. This was frowned on by the local church, but nobody could stop her.
Being a free woman of color meant that “Mam’zelle Laveau” was free to own slaves. She took advantage of this…not to make life easier on herself, but to put herself in a position to free her enslaved people.
She entered into a common-law marriage with Christophe Glapion, a member of a prominent local family, and they had five children together – only two of whom survived to adulthood. Although Marie never abandoned her Catholic roots, she became increasingly interested in her traditional African beliefs and quickly developed a reputation as New Orleans’ leading voodoo queen.
While voodoo was commonly practiced in New Orleans, it had a fearsome reputation and a history of fueling revolution and slave revolts and was actually banned at different times in Louisiana history. Marie Laveau’s marriage of voodoo beliefs to Catholic traditions helped make voodoo more acceptable to upper-class New Orleans society. She regularly presided over public voodoo ceremonies in Congo Square – one of the few locations in rigidly segregated New Orleans where people of different races could mix freely – and made a good income selling charms, curses, and blessings to people of all social classes. The fact that many of her clients were servants in upper-class homes also gave her a spy network which helped reinforce her supernatural reputation to the wealthy patrons who asked for her services.
The dark consultation of Marie Laveau was sought by the many great men and women of New Orleans. They would visit with Laveau at her St. Ann cottage, sit with her and discuss business matters and affairs of the heart. After fully understanding the situation, Marie would give them advice on how to proceed and insight into their past, present and future…and she was always right.
Marie disappeared for a time. It is said that she went off to train with a famous Voodoo priest named Doctor John, who was believed to be a free Black man with so much experience in dark magic, that he has never been discovered because of this power.
In 1830, several years after her disappearance, Marie returned as Voodoo Queen, now armed with the most potent rituals, a pet snake named Li Grande Zombi, and, it seemed, eternal youth.
Marie Laveau had an extremely complex reputation in later life, both feared for her power as a voodoo queen – with numerous stories about the things that “happened” to anyone who offended her – and admired as a living saint due to her humanitarian work.
At the time of her death in 1881, eminent writer Lafcadio Hearn referred to her as “one of the kindest women who ever lived”. Her fame also guaranteed prominent obituaries in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New York Times.
After the announcement of her death, however, many witnessed Marie Laveau walking the streets of the French Quarter as she always did and to this very day people claim to see Marie Laveau walking about on her beloved St. Ann Street.
Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814 – 1904)
Called “the Mother of Civil Rights in California” from work she initiated in the 1860s, Mary Ellen Pleasant’s achievements in the struggle for the rights of Black people and women went unsurpassed until the 1960s.
Pleasant was once the most talked-about woman in San Francisco. When other African Americans were rarely mentioned, she claimed full-page articles in the press. She helped shape early San Francisco, and covertly amassed a joint fortune once assessed at $30,000,000.
Pleasant was born a slave near Augusta, Georgia in 1814, the daughter of Virginia governor John H. Pleasants’ son, John H. Pleasants, Jr. and an enslaved Haitian Vodoun priestess.
After witnessing the death of her mother at the cruel hands of a plantation overseer, Mary Pleasant had to make her way through life largely on her own.
Pleasant dropped the ‘s’ in her last name, changing it to ‘Pleasant’ and fled to New Orleans, where she found employment as a linen worker at the Ursaline Convent. A short time later, she went to work as a free servant for a Louis Alexander Williams, a merchant in Cincinnati. Williams promised that, after Mary served the Williams family for some time without pay, she would be freed legally. However, Williams, in debt and ultimately jealous of his wife Ellen’s affection for young Mary Pleasant, eventually placed her into nine years of indentured servitude with an aging Quaker merchant known only as Grandma Hussey. Indentured servants could be of any race, and Pleasant, a child of mixed parentage, who in her earlier years was of a very light complexion, was told not to reveal her race – a heavy burden for a girl of about eleven.
Pleasant adopted Ellen Williams’ name, becoming “Mary Ellen Williams” and she learned business as a clerk in Grandma Hussey’s general store. Although she could not read or write then, she said in her final memoir, “I could recall the accounts of a whole day, and she [Grandma Hussey] would set them down and they would be right as I remembered ‘em.”
Pleasant grew smart and witty, and adopted abolitionist beliefs and the principles of equality that those beliefs taught her.
Later in the 1840’s, when her indentured service had ended, the Husseys helped the brilliant and talented twenty-something, young woman, become a tailor’s assistant in Boston. She also became a paid church soloist there.
Mary Ellen Williams soon met and married James W. Smith, a wealthy free Black who passed for white, so as to serve as a Southern contributor to William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Soon both Smiths served on that Railroad, helping slaves escape to freedom in Canada, Nova Scotia, and Mexico.
James Smith owned a plantation near Harper’s Ferry, left to him by his white father. Smith staffed it with freed slaves, whose freedom he helped secure. Smith died suddenly in 1844, leaving Mary Ellen a wealthy woman. She eventually remarried, but she continued her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad between New Bedford, MA, and Ohio out of her own inner calling. She soon became a much-hunted slave rescuer.
Finally, in 1851, with slavers hot on her trail, she fled West.
According to ships records and confirming testimony, she arrived in San Francisco in April, 1852 to escape persecution under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, for helping hundreds of slaves escape.
Before her arrival in what would become her permanent home, however, Mary Ellen stayed a year in New Orleans, continuing her studies of Vodoun she originally began with her mother with the Voodoo Queen, Mam’zelle Marie Laveau. From Mam’zelle Laveau Mary not only learned the herbal remedies and rituals of Vodoun, but also how to mentor her people and to manipulate the secrets of the rich to gain aid for the poor – a ‘model’ that would serve her well in San Francisco. After her intensive training was complete, Mary Ellen fled to San Francisco, assisted by Marie Laveau.
San Francisco was a rough and tumble, fast-paced place, inhabited by 40,000 people, and home to 700 drinking and gambling establishments, and 5 murders every 6 days.
In addition to those staggering statistics for that time, there were six men to every woman. San Francisco was not a safe place, but Mary Ellen Pleasant was up to the challenge. She was forced to use two identities to thwart capture under California’s Fugitive Slave Act. Under this law anyone without freedom papers could be captured and sent into slavery. Pleasant had no papers, So she lived as both “Mrs. Ellen Smith”, a white boardinghouse steward / cook and as “Mrs. Pleasants”, an abolitionist / entrepreneur). As Mrs. Smith, she served the wealthiest and most influential men in San Francisco and using their regard for her as well as the “Laveau model” of leveraging their secrets for favors, she was able to get jobs and privileges for “colored” people in San Francisco. It is this work that earned her the nickname “The Black City Hall”.
In the “colored” community, in her true identity as Mrs. Pleasants, she used her money to help ex-slaves fight unfair laws and to get lawyers or businesses in California. She became an expert capitalist, owning every kind of business imaginable, and she prospered. However, her people suffered as European immigrations took the menial jobs once held for them and as anti-black sentiment and national depression mounted. So, in 1858 Mary decided to return East – not to live, but – as she once said in a letter – to help her former brother in law gain release from slavery and to help abolitionist John Brown end slavery forever.
In Canada, she bought land on Campbell Street, near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia to help John Brown house the slaves that he planned to free. John Brown’s plan was to capture the Federal arsenal there with only 21 men. He would set up a maroon-like militia, made up of runaway slaves throughout the Virginia Mountains, as the Haitians had done. Then, he would shuttle some slaves from there to Canada. Mary gave Brown money for arms and came back the following fall to ride – in disguise as a jockey – in advance of Brown to alert slaves near Harper’s Ferry of his coming. It was a good, but risky, plan, but, unlike some other Black leaders, Pleasant, believing that slavery had to be ended by force, was willing to help. “I’d rather be a corpse than a coward,” was always her motto.
Of course, Brown acted too soon and was hanged, and Pleasant narrowly escaped with her life. On her return to California, however, she continued to fight, and after the Emancipation Proclamation and the California Right-of-Testimony of 1863 law, she declared her race openly.
She orchestrated court battles to test the right of testimony, and in 1868 her battle for the right of Blacks to ride the San Francisco trolleys without fear of discrimination set precedent in the California Supreme Court.
Mary Pleasant went on to become celebrated as a philanthropist and business woman and to amass a $30,000,000 fortune with her secret partner, Scotsman, Thomas Bell and today, the Voodoo Queen of California’s legacy of love and courage lives on.
Gbêhanzin (Béhanzin) Hossu Bowelle (1844 – 1906)
Gbêhanzin Hossu Bowelle or the ‘King Shark‘ was one the most powerful kings in West Africa at the turn of the 19th Century. He was the eleventh king of Dahomey, and the last independent ruler of Abomey before French colonization.
Gbehanzin was also reputed to be a fierce and powerful Vodou Priest, famously noted for hanging a witch or sorcerer alive from a pole as a warning to all who would dare to cross spiritual forces with him. He was never found without his trademark pipe and according to legend emerged from the womb smoking. Gbehanzin controlled a private army of female soldiers, the Dahomey Amazons, who were said to have fought more fiercely than men, sharpening their teeth into points to tear at their opponents’ carotid arteries.
In 1882, France declared a protectorate over Porto Novo, a vassal state of Abomey, without consulting with the indigenous people. By 1885, the French occupied the entire coastal strip West of Porto Novo. In 1889, King Glèlè and his son Gbehanzin, who considered these coastal areas to be part of the kingdom of Dahomey, declared that the Fon people could no longer tolerate France’s actions.
In February 1890, the French occupied Cotonou. Gbehanzin, now king after Glele’s sudden death, prepared for war. Gbehanzin’s forces attacked the French simultaneously on two fronts – militarily at Cotonou and economically by destroying the palm plantations at Porto Novo. The latter precipitated an early end to the hostilities. A treaty was signed, with the French continuing to occupy Cotonou, for which Gbehanzin exacted an annuity; he made France pay for the use of Cotonou port. The peace lasted for two years. However, France was determined to annex Dahomey before the British or Germans did. Gbehanzin, knowing that he would have to defend his sovereignty, continued upgrading his army in preparation for renewed war.
He declared a treaty made with France by his father, Glèlè, in1868 null and void. From this act, war began.
Gbehanzin led the final struggle against French colonial forces, but would ultimately succumb to Colonel Alfred-Amédée Dodds, a Senegalese warrior, who was sent to fight against Gbehanzin with powerful French armed forces under his command. Colonel Dodds’ division defeated Gbehanzin not by the French directly besting Dahomey in combat, but because part of Dodd’s campaign was the deforestation of sacred trees, areas of arbors believed to house the spirits of ancestors and to give strength to the Dahomey people (now you know where they got that scene in Avatar from). It was only after a significant number of the trees were cut that the French were able to break through the Dahomey forces and drive Gbehanzin into exile.
Gbehanzin died in 1906 in Algeria. In 1928, his son, Ouanilo (who was also France’s first African attorney in 1920) had his body moved to Dahomey.
Benjamin “Black Herman” Rucker (1892 – 1934)
Rucker came of age under the tutelage of an itinerant African-American showman and street peddler by the name of Alonzo Moore, who went by the name ‘Prince Herman’. Moore took in Rucker as an apprentice at the age of sixteen. By the time of Prince Herman’s death a few years later, Rucker had fine-tuned his own skills at reading cards, divining fortunes, and cooking up healing elixirs, so much that he was able to make his own way around the circuit of traveling faith healers who hustled material goods and spiritual assurances from town to town in Black Belt communities.
Eventually, poverty and racial discrimination pushed Rucker out of the South and toward Chicago, where in the late 1910s he launched an independent career. Assuming a new name borrowed from his old friend and mentor, Prince Herman, Rucker became known as ‘Black Herman’.
Black Herman was a master of conventional magic techniques and legerdemain, successfully crossing the boundaries between theater, folk religion, the black vernacular traditions and entrepreneurship and mixing them all up into a powerful and entertaining gumbo. Echoes of a mysterious, powerful constellation of folk supernaturalism, occult arts, and ancestral religiosity are what defined Black Herman’s performance style. This appropriation of worlds both distinctly African and African-American was as resonant with audiences as it was profitable for him.
Black Herman found his place as the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest magician” in Harlem, the African American Mecca during the Jazz Age.
It was in Harlem that Herman mass-marketed the act for which he became best known – a combination of stage craft, comedy, vaudeville theater, religious oratory, and mind-reading tricks.
Herman’s crowning achievement was a headlining show at Marcus Garvey’s four-thousand-seat Liberty Hall in 1923. Hugely appealing to an emerging urban audience – a highly mixed demographic that included Blacks, whites, members of high society and other elites, and men and women of the working classes – Herman sold out at Liberty Hall for a month and continued to sell out every time he performed.
Equally at home as a merchant of conjuring implements and as a storefront impresario, Herman set up shop as an authorized seller of mail order courses, lucky numbers, and health tonics until he was arrested in 1925 and sent to Sing-Sing on a charge of fraud.
Prison did not dissuade him from his true calling, however, and by the end of the decade Herman had returned to the stage and his extraordinarily lucrative career.
Black Herman’s public career came to an abrupt end when he collapsed onstage after a show at the Palace Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1934. Members of the audience could not determine whether Herman’s departure was part of the act or not. After all, one of his most famous tricks involved the staging of his own burial and resurrection. When Black Herman’s body was ultimately laid to rest at New York’s Woodlawn cemetery, newspapers reported that scores of visitors gathered in anticipation of his rising from the grave.
The author Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Then Steamfunk and Steampunk can be said to be magical. How does magic affect or influence you, Steampunks and Steamfunkateers? What has been magical about your life?