Black Herman (1832-1934) - Militant Magician
Black Herman was an African-American magician who combined magic with a strong separatist and militant political message, and became one of the most important Black magicians in history. His mission was to promote his view of Black power by attracting attention and support using stage magic, occult magic and superstition.
Born in Amherst, Virginia, Benjamin Rucker learned the art of illusions from a huckster named Prince Herman. The two ran a medicine show, performing magic tricks to attract customers for their "Secret African Remedy", a tonic that was mostly alcohol with some common spices added for good measure. When Prince Herman died in 1909, Rucker, then only 17 years old, continued to travel with the show, focusing on the magic and dropping the medicine show.
Creating his own stage persona, Rucker took the name "Black Herman", partially in honor of Prince Herman, and partly as an homage to Alonzo Moore, the famous African-American magician who was known as the "Black Herrmann".
After 1910, Black Herman made Harlem, New York his home base. He was exposed to, and greatly influenced by, the radical racial philosophies of Marcus Garvey and others who were fighting to improve the lives of African Americans. He began to incorporate a political message into his shows, playing to all-Black audiences in the South, but to mixed crowds in the North, a very unusual and great achievement for his time.
Black Herman was an ethnic nationalist, a contemporary of activists Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington. Increasingly throughout his career, his shows promoted the message of Black pride. Garvey, Washington and Black Herman all offered talismans for sale to ward off racism.
Black Herman claimed that he was immortal and that he was directly descended from Moses. He suggested that blacks could elude Klansmen and their descendants by escaping the limitations of mortality and simply outliving them.
The truly unique aspect of Black Herman's act was that he played to his African heritage, shared by most of his audience. His tricks were "secrets taught by Zulu witch doctors". He did imitations of bird sounds heard in the rural South and in Africa. A number of magic tricks were compared to miracles from the Bible. He even narrated his rope escape routine by explaining that he used the methods that Africans used to escape the slave traders.
Black Herman also capitalized on his audience's superstitions. At times, he would use his brother, Andrew Rucker, and his assistant, Washington Reeves, as confederates in the audience. Either man would suddenly jump up, seemingly possessed by demons. Black Herman would cast out the demon (usually represented by a small snake or lizard which was released into the crowd to cause great commotion), then give the man some special tonic (which was, of course, for sale after the show), and also offer a private psychic reading to the man to further uncover the man's "problems". Reading were also available to any audience member who wanted to pay for one.
For a time, Black Herman employed a mind reader, Madame Debora Sapphirra, as part of the act. Using the usual spirit medium tricks, Herman was able to obtain information secretly about audience members, then reveal that information during his show as proof of his "powers". Though he was arrested several times for fortune telling, Black Herman turned that to his advantage, proclaiming that the arrests were simply proof of the oppression of the African American in society, and that his power was so strong that no jail could hold him.
Black Herman's most famous act was Buried Alive. He would be interred in an outdoor area called "Black Herman's Private Graveyard", in full view of his audience. He would slow his pulse by applying pressure under his arm, and would be proclaimed "dead" by a local doctor (someone in on the secret). As the coffin was lowered into the ground, Herman would slip out unnoticed. For days, sometimes a week, people would pay to look at the grave, buidling the suspense over the fate of Black Herman. When the time was up, the coffin was exhumed with great drama and fanfare, and out walked Herman to lead his audience into the nearest theater, where he performed the rest of his show. Of course, during the time of the interment, Black Herman was free to travel to another town to set up the same trick, returning in time to slip back into the coffin for the amazing revival.
He published a book, ghosted by a man named Young (some sources state that Black Herman could not read or write), called Secrets of Magic, Mystery, and Legerdemain in 1925. The book contains his semi-fictionalized autobiography, directions for simple illusions suitable to the novice stage magician, advice on astrology and lucky numbers, a sampling of African American hoodoo folk magic customs and practices. An announcement on the book's title page ? "Black Herman Comes Through Every Seven Years" ? referred to Black Herman's pattern of returning to venues on a regular basis. The book was sold at his performances, and was even sold for years after his death.
Black Herman died in Louisville, Kentucky after collapsing on stage, the result of a heart attack. The Buried Alive trick was so effective and Black Herman's mystical message was so strong that many people in the audience refused to believe he was really dead. So many people clamored to view the body that the city insisted that his remains be moved to the railway station. His assistant, Washington Reeves, took full advantage of this, and charged a dime admission to view Black Herman's corpse. Several thousand people took advantage of the chance to see Black Herman for the last time- and even to poke him with a pin to see if he was really dead.
A number of other African American magicians subsequently performed as "Black Herman", including Washington Reeves, who billed himself as "The Original Black Herman".
The famous jazz musician Sun Ra (Herman Blount) was named after Black Herman.