June 6, 1889
|Died||April 17, 1934 (age 44) |
|Resting place||Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York|
Black Herman (1889-1934), born Benjamin Rucker in Amherst, Virginia, was an American stage magician. He was one of the most prominent African American magicians of his time.
According to popular, fictionalized accounts, Black Herman learned the art of staged illusions from a performer called Prince Herman, who was first his teacher and later his partner. The two sold patent medicine as well as performing prestidigitation, making their act as much a medicine show as a stage show. When Prince Herman died, in 1909, Rucker, then only 17 years old, took the name Black Herman in his friend's honor and continued to tour, focusing on the stage act and dropping the medicine show aspects of his performance.
Newspapers accounts from Rucker's life tell a different story. Prior to becoming a magician, Rucker is said to have worked a number of jobs including but not limited to a farm hand and a cook on a passenger train. After leaving Amherst, for Wheeling, West Virginia, Rucker worked for and trained under a number of magicians including Harry Kellar. Rucker's Prince Herman did exist and may have been one of the magicians Rucker trained under but it did not happen the way the story is told.
In 1914, five years after Rucker was have supposed to have taken the name Black Herman, he was actually performing church shows in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area under the name the "great B. Rucker". The first known reference to a African American magician actually performing under the name "Black Herman" occurred, according to The Chicago Defender, in Februrary of 1916 when "Little Black Herman" performed a show at a school in MacKenzie, Tennessee. There are reports of a black magician, using the name "Prince Herman" performing at churches in the Baltimore area in the spring of 1916 but there is nothing to show whether this was the original Prince Herman or Rucker using the name. The advertisement for one of the shows lists a levitation effect as onne of the tricks to be shown. If this was Rucker, then he must have had a run of bad luck because that ended his career for at least a short time. According to his World War I draft registration card, which was filled out in Jefferson County, Alabama, Rucker listed his occupation as a brick mason.
Eventually, Herman returned to magic and made his way to Detroit and from there to Harlem which became 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 traveled through the South, often with his own tent show, segregation laws kept his audiences primarily Black. His specialties 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.
His famous advertising statement was: "Be sure to see the show, Black Herman comes thru only once every seven years!", referring to Herman's pattern of returning to venues on a regular basis
Herman was the author of "Secrets of Magic, Mystery, and Legerdemain," a book published in 1925 and sold at his performances. It 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" However, Herman was not the actual author of this work; rather, internal evidence establishes that it was ghost-written by a Mr. Young, who is also thought to be the author of books on occultism published under the pseudonym Henri Gamache and, possibly, Lewis de Claremont. The book is most likely reason for Herman being better remembered than other African American magicians of the time due to the fact that it was reprinted until at least 1961.
In October 1929, when the stock market crashed which ushered in the Great Depression, Herman's career and businesses were largely unaffected. In such a time of hardships, the people needed the help that only a fortune-teller could offer.
Black Herman died in Louisville, Kentucky on April 17, 1934. He did not collapse on stage as the legends tell but rather in a home on West Walnut Street. The cause of death was recorded as cardiac failure resulting from a viral inflammation of the heart (chronic myocarditis). 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.
A number of other African American magicians subsequently performed as "Black Herman", including Washington Reeves, who billed himself as "The Original Black Herman".
- "Secrets of Magic, Mystery, and Legerdemain"(1925)
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- Black Herman (Benjamin Rucker). "Secrets of Magic, Mystery, and Legerdemain". 1925. Republished in 1938 first by Empire Publishing, then by Dorene Publishing. This book was ghost-written by Mr. Young, who is also presumed to be the author pseudonymously known as Henri Gamache.
- Success Book Volume Two By Frances and Jay Marshall, 1974
- A History of Blacks in Magic BY JIM MAGUS, Linking Ring, February 1984
- Vaudeville, old & new: an encyclopedia of variety performers in ..., Volume 1 By Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman, Donald McNeilly (2007)
- "Black Jack: A Drama of Magic, Mystery, and Legerdermain" by George Patton (2009)
- Conjure Times : Black Magicians in America by Jim Haskins, Kathleen Benson (2001)
- "Hold Funeral Here For Benj. Rucker, Magician Known Countrywide as 'Black Herman', New York Age, April 28. 1934, pg 1
- "Grand Rapids, Michigan", The Chicago Defender, May 23, 1914, pg 2
- The Baltimore Afro American, April 8, 1916
- Horowitz, Mitch, "Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation", Random House, pg 267