To zoom press CTRL + (PC) or COMMAND + (MAC)
Harry Potter and Itinerant Entertainment in Dundas
On May 21st 1858, there appeared in the Dundas True Banner and Wentworth Chronicle, an advertisement. This advertisement would be exciting for readers — especially young readers — today. Why? It announced that Harry Potter was coming to Dundas! And Harry Potter was a magician, known as the original American Wizard! The ad reported that Harry Potter would entertain audiences at the Town Hall the next night. Modern readers would be surprised — and delighted — to read of Harry Potter in a 19th century Dundas newspaper. While this appears to be a coincidence, we want to know more about this performer.
Who was Harry Potter, and why was he in Dundas?
To begin, we need to look at travelling performance in North America in the 1850s. Circuses were popular in this period, but not all rural towns and small urban centres were visited by these
groups. So, travelling performers staged shows in locales overlooked by circuses. These performers relied on curious audiences to keep them on the road. Often they used newspapers to announce their arrival in a new town. These advertisements captured the reader’s interest, while also highlighting the performer’s talents and skills. Harry Potter’s advertisement tells the reader to “look out for fun”. His performance would include “legerdemain (conjuring), sleight-of-hand, ventriloquism, and…Herculean feats.” It appears that Harry Potter wanted to further his professional reputation by visiting Dundas. But what about Harry Potter? Where did this magician learn his tricks?
Magic, or at least performance, appears to have run in the Potter family. Richard Potter was born in 1783 in Massachusetts to a slave named Dinah and Sir Charles Henry Frankland, the plantation owner. By the time he was 10, Potter was in England, working as a cabin boy for a Captain Skinner, who reportedly abandoned him soon after his arrival. Potter then joined a travelling circus, where he met a ventriloquist known as John Rannie. For over a decade, Potter and Rannie performed together throughout Europe and North America. They were known for their live drama, ventriloquism, and displays of magic. On one of their American tours, Potter met and married a free Black woman named Sally Harris. Sally also took part in the duo’s performances. Richard and Sally had three children – Henry, Jeanette, and Richard Jr., all born in the years from 1809 to 1816.
By 1811 Rannie retired, and Potter began his solo career. Potter was the first American-born stage magician and ventriloquist. Most of his performances were in the United States. One of the earliest records of Potter’s one-man show is an advertisement from an 1811 Boston newspaper.
As a result of his stage training and innate skill, Potter quickly achieved fame. By 1813 he charged twenty-five cents for admission, and could earn upwards of $4800 every two weeks. Potter accumulated enough wealth for his family to settle in Andover, and he retired from the touring circuit. Richard Potter passed away on September 20, 1835, leaving behind a professional legacy for one of his children.
It is believed that Richard Potter had a son who also pursued a career in entertainment. The eldest son of Richard and Sally Potter, named Henry, died in an accident at the age of 7. This leaves Richard Jr. as the most likely to have continued his father’s profession. Beyond the advertisement in The True Banner, there is little evidence for the life and career of Harry Potter. Unlike his literary counterpart, this Harry Potter does not seem to have achieved greater fame than his father.
Harry Potter, who visited Dundas in 1858, may have been the son of famed magician and ventriloquist Richard Potter. In the nineteenth-century travelling performers visited urban and rural centres alike, using advertisements to announce their arrival and their talents. Travelling performance defined entertainment in this period, and Dundas was no exception. We found no review of Harry Potter’s performance at Dundas’ Town Hall, but we hope that audiences enjoyed the work of the “original American wizard.”
This post was written by Emily Herron, our Archives Technician, a position made possible by a grant from Young Canada Works in 2015.
We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada (Youth Employment Strategy) through the Department of Canadian Heritage for the Young Canada Works Program. Nous reconnaissons l’appui financier du gouvernement du Canada (Stratégie emploi jeunesse) par l’entremise du ministère du Patrimoine canadien pour le programme Jeunesse Canada au travail.
Mark Sammons and Valerie Cunningham, Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage. New Hampshire: University of New Hampshire Press, 2004.
“America’s First Black Magician, Richard Potter,” African American Registry, http://www.aaregistry.org
Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Julie Wolf, “The 1st Successful American-Born Magician was a Black Man,” The Root, http://www.theroot.com
“Mr. Potter, the Ventriloquist.” Boston Newspaper, 1811.