|Black Herman | The World's Greatest Magician|
Benjamin “Black Herman” Rucker was one of the greatest Magician/Mentalist/Author/ Entertainers to ever grace the face of this planet however he has become an obscure figure buried in the back pages of American history. I first heard about Black Herman listening to Bobby Hemmitt lectures. He talked about a powerful black magician from Harlem with mystical abilities who could just walk through walls. Hemmitt said that
Black Herman was imprisoned several times and he easily walked out of the jail on so many occurrences that they gave up trying to arrest him.
Black Herman’s contributions to magic and entertainment were unparalleled at his time. He performed for sold out, multiracial audiences during a time when segregation was legal. A tall black man with a commanding presence, Black Herman enjoyed a prosperous career for 20 years and left behind a legend. He created a larger-than-life, almost superhuman persona of himself.
Black Herman learned the art of staged illusions from a performer called Prince Herman, who was first his teacher and later his partner. Prince Herman took on the young Benjamin, only 16 at the time as an assistant and later business partner. The two sold patent medicine as well as performing prestidigitation, making their act as much a medicine show as a stage show. He died only one year after working with young Benjamin.
When Prince Herman died, in 1909, Rucker, only 17 years old, took the name Black Herman and continued to tour, focusing on the stage act and dropping the medicine show aspects of his performance. Black Herman named himself after his two mentors, Prince Herman and a magician he respected, Alonzo Moore (ca. 1870-1914), considered by many to be the greatest African American magician of his day. Alonzo Moore was dubbed the Black Herrmann, after the famous Herrmann family of magicians.
Although Black Herman used a lot of magic tricks he was not simply a magician. He presented himself as a genuine Voodoo Witch Doctor, competent enough to heal the sick and raise the dead. Black Herman was able to stop the pulse in his arm and suspend his breathing long enough to be perceived as dead by audiences, an act that would inspire later magicians such as David Blaine. He did many conjuring tricks and mind-reading, and sold a full product line of tonics, powders, elixirs and hexes.
Eventually, Herman made Harlem his home base. Jim Crow policies were in effect at that time, so in the Northern states he could perform before racially-mixed audiences, but when he travelled through the South, often with his own tent show, segregation laws kept his audiences primarily Black. His specialities included the “Asrah levitation,” the production of rabbits, release from knots tied by audience members, and a “buried alive” act which began with his interment in an outdoor area called “Black Herman’s Private Graveyard” and continued three days later with his exhumation, revival and a walk to the stage venue, where he performed the rest of his show.
Black Herman | No Jail Could Hold Him
Black Herman often picked the three strongest-appearing men out of the crowd to come on stage and bind him with rope. As he freed himself Black Herman would tell the crowd that this was how his people freed themselves from slave traders in Africa. This leads up to another VERY INTERESTING talent of Black Herman’s. He believed that no binds, or no jail could hold him.
As Black Herman grew in popularity he took on more elaborate illusions such as sawing a lady in half, a sword cabinet, and employing a mind reader, Madame Debora Sapphirra. The mind reading parts of his act lead to Herman’s arrest several times for fortune telling. Incredibly Black Herman was able to turn these arrests to his advantage. Herman would claim that the arrests were based on fraud and racism and that he simply walked out of the jail because no jail had the power to hold him!
Black Herman | World’s Greatest Magician
Black Herman was the alleged author of “Secrets of Magic, Mystery, andLegerdemain,” a book published in 1925 that contains his semi-fictionalized autobiography, directions for simple illusions suitable to the novice stage magician, advice on astrology and lucky numbers, and 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 Herman’s pattern of returning to venues on a regular basis; the book was sold at his performances, although it has been said that he was not the author. (His book can be found in botanicas all over America.)
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Despite the devastating effects the Great Depression had on Americans, especially in the black community Black Herman prospered greatly. He owned a fleet of automobiles and lived in a lavish home. Herman performed in sold out venues of capacities of more than three thousand people. Black Herman was able to ingeniously blend Eastern and Western Magic such as hoodoo and roots work, Christian theological concepts, along with secular magical methods that rung well with his audiences.
Black Herman really came into his own in the African American mecca of Harlem, New York during the Harlem Renaissance. During this time Harlem was a cosmopolitan center of an amazing art, music, and literature industry where great fame and fortune could be achieved. The whole world was mesmerized by the culture produced by African Americans stemming from Harlem. It was here that Black Herman mass-marketed the act for which he became best known, a combination of comedy, vaudeville theater, stage craft, religious oratory, and mind-reading tricks.
His greatest feat was a headlining show at Marcus Garvey’s four-thousand-seat Liberty Hall in 1923. Herman sold out the hall for a month at a venue that had previously housed rallies of Harlem’s favorite race heroes and pan-African radicals. His shows were hugely appealing to an emerging urban audience, a highly mixed demographic that included blacks, whites, society members and other elites, and men and women of the working classes.
Black Herman died in Louisville, Kentucky in April 1934 after collapsing on stage, presumably the result of a heart attack. Due to the fame of his “buried alive” act, many people in the audience refused to believe he was really dead, and thus it came about that his assistant, Washington Reeves, charged admission to view Rucker’s corpse in the funeral home, bringing a dramatic close to a life spent in showmanship. He was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.
When he passed away his assistant Washington Reese carried on his act and billed himself as the Original Black Herman. This later spawned into several black magicians adopting the name “Black Herman”, for example using names such as, “Black Herman Jr" or “Black Herman The Second”.
For more info about Black Herman check out this book by his nephew, George Patton. It includes a close up account of Black Herman's life as recounted by Patton's 111 year old aunt, Black Herman's wife and widow, Miss Eva.