When Black Herman, a famous African-American magician in the 1900s died after collapsing on stage during a performance, his audience refused to believe he was really dead since he was used to faking his own death.
Real name Benjamin Rucker, this magician’s most famous trick was his “Buried Alive” act, where he would reportedly “hypnotize” a woman and then bury her six feet under for almost six hours as a publicity stunt or part of a carnival.
He would ultimately be “buried alive” as well, often a few days before a major performance. Rucker, before being buried alive, would sell tickets to the public and invite them to come and watch his “lifeless body” being placed in a coffin and buried near the venue of his upcoming show.
A member of the audience would even be asked to check for a pulse before the burial. On the day of the show, the coffin would be exhumed and Rucker would then emerge, amid drama and fanfare and would lead the audience to his theatre for the next show.
What his audience did not know was how Rucker slipped out of the coffin unnoticed while being buried and how he would even go to other town to set up the same trick during his supposed interment and return in time to the coffin.
Born in Amherst, Virginia, on June 6, 1889, Rucker learned the art of staged illusions from a performer called Prince Herman, who later became his partner. The two, together, started performing magic acts while selling patent medicine.
Rucker was 17 when Prince Herman died and in honour of his partner, he took the name “Black Herman.”
Herman moved to Harlem, New York, and was able to perform to racially-mixed audiences in the north. But he couldn’t do so when he came to the south due to segregation laws, making his audiences largely black.
After being influenced by radical black nationalists and philosophers like Marcus Garvey, Herman started incorporating political messages into his performances.
Herman, who was said to be a Freemason, had a lot of preachers, politicians and intellectuals as friends and would by 1926, be providing employment for several people in his community, as well as, loans to black businessmen and organisations.
His other best acts included the “Asrah levitation,” the production of rabbits and release from knots tied by audience members.
It is said that some of his tricks were “secrets taught by Zulu witch doctors,” even though a number of others were compared to miracles from the Bible.
Claiming that he was immortal and a direct descendant of Moses, Herman took advantage of his audience’s superstitions to perform his tricks.
He was arrested many times for fortune telling, but he often used 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.”
For building such a personality, it is not surprising that his death in April 1934, in Louisville, Kentucky after his collapse on stage caused by a heart attack, was thought to be a hoax.
When his body was moved to a funeral home, the audience followed with the assumption that everything was being staged and hoping that he would resurrect.
His assistant, Washington Reeves, took advantage of the situation and charged a dime admission to view Herman’s corpse in the funeral home, and that was when many believed that he was gone.
Herman’s death made headlines in Black newspapers all over the country.
Scores of other black magicians would later perform as “Black Herman”, including Washington Reeves, who billed himself as “The Original Black Herman.”
Before Herman’s death, historical accounts state that the wealthy magician also established scholarships, a monthly magazine, bought a printing plant and founded Black Herman’s Mail Order Course of Graduated Lessons in the Art of Magic.
He also gave personal consultations, acquired real estate and bought shares in two cotton plantations.
He also published a book, which, according to accounts, was ghosted by a man named Young.
The book, called Secrets of Magic, Mystery, and Legerdemain in 1925 “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.”