Have you ever heard of Black Herman? Born in Virginia in 1892, the stage magician, entertainer and hoodoo dabbler, whose original name was Benjamin Rucker, was one of the most prominent of his time. Learning his skills from Prince Herman (Alonzo Moore), Rucker took Herman’s name in honor of him after he died in 1909, and became popular in Harlem.
In 1925, Rucker published “Secrets of Magic, Mystery, and Legerdemain,” which contained semi-autobiographical account, instructions for simple illusions for amateur magicians, 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 determined that he was not the author.
Rucker died in 1934 while doing a stage act in Louisville, Kentucky. Known for his “buried alive” act, audience members refused to believe he died. His assistant, Washington Reeves charged admission to view Rucker’s corpse in the funeral home, bringing a dramatic end to the entertainer’s life. Rucker lived on through musician Sun Ra, who was named after him because Ra’s mother liked Rucker’s performances, and as the detective-sidekick in Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel “Mumbo Jumbo.”
Cabinet Magazine article on Black Herman
Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition
Conjure Times: The History of Black Magicians in America
One thought on “Modern Griots: Do You Believe in Magic?”
There is a clever tale about Black Herman and gangster Dutch Schultz from the history books:
It seems that Black Herman was giving out so many winning numbers in the illegal numbers racket that it was cutting into profits in NYC. Dutch Schultz decided to have a couple of hoods pay Black Herman a visit.
Ushered into his office the pair of thugs were unaware they’re being observed by the big magician from a secret panel. Finally he entered the room. “Mr. Schultz ain’t too happy with all these winners; says you better cut it out if yu know what’s good for you.” says Carlo Rossi, the lead henchman.
Herman ponders, then: “Gentlemen, we may be of service to each other.” He moves quickly to an open desk drawer. The two men reach nervously into suit jackets.
“Relax gentlemen, Black Herman has no need of firearms. I only wanted to give you something.” He presented a straw figurine to Carlo Rossi, pressing it into his hands. “At midnight.” Herman instructed. “Take this doll and stab it thrice with pins. Know in your heart that it is dead and bring it back tomorrow evening.”
The two men returned the next evening with Mr. Rossi’s partner very nervous. “What are we doin’ back here Carlo? I don’t like it.”
“If we don’t get this guy told Mr. Schultz will plant us.” Carlo informed.
The evening paper had just arrived an hour earlier and Herman was prepared. He burst into the room. “Good evening gentlemen, Mr. Rossi did you do as I requested?”
“Then may I have the doll?”
As the doll disappeared into Herman’s large hands he instructed the two men to open the evening paper on the desk. There marked in red was the name Harry Tomalisson who had died that very day. Suddenly Herman tore apart the doll and reached inside, a piece of paper with the dead man’s name was revealed.
“You killed that man Carlo Rossi!” indicted the tall magician.
The story concludes with Herman placing the Blood Curse of Dembollah on the man and ordering him to leave. The next day Herman’s assistant sneaked into the hotel where the gangsters lived, seems he knew one of the maids who let him into Carlo Rossi’s room where he placed red dye into the shower head of the unfortunate gun sill.
When Carlo Rossi showered next he was covered in red “blood”. Certain that this was the ‘Curse’ he lost his mind and spent the rest of his days in Bellevue Sanitarium, so the story goes. The mobs never bothered Black Herman again.
[BLACK JACK – A DRAMA OF MAGIC Amazon/Kindle]