Black Herman

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Black Herman with a human skull and a crystal ball

Black Herman, born Benjamin Rucker, (1889-1934) was an African American herb doctor, spiritual teacher, stage magician, and political activist. He was born on June 6, 1889 in Amherst, Virginia, and lived most of his adult like in the public eye. During the days of travelling medicine shows, Rucker grew up and entered the field of performance under the tutelage of an African American street busker known as Prince Herman. The two struck upon the idea of performing magic tricks to attract and entertain customers for their "Secret African Remedy,” an herbal preparation based in rural folkloric healing practices. Rucker became adept at sleight of hand, fortune-telling with a crystal ball, and mixing his own healing elixirs. After the death of Prince Herman in 1909, he began to work as a root doctor and entertainer at the young age of 17. By the late 1910s, calling himself Black Herman, he had his own stage show and had moved to New York City, where he joined he Harlem Renaissance, in which African Americans were creating a lively literary and performing arts community.

Black Herman’s stage feats included the Asrah levitation, the production of ducks and rabbits, and a "buried alive" act which began with his interment in an outdoor area called "Black Herman's Private Graveyard" where the audience could view his lifeless body and even check for a pulse. The audience would then see his corpse placed in a coffin, which was lowered into the ground and buried. Three days later came the exhumation, revival, and a processionary walk to the stage venue, often in a church, where Black Herman would perform the rest of his show. He always downplayed rumors of supernatural powers, saying that only one man ever rose from the dead, "That was Jesus Christ." Because of this, many consider Black Herman a pioneer in the field of Gospel Magic. He incorporated traditional black spirituality, occult legends, and folkloric beliefs into his Black Herman persona, presenting himself as a hoodoo mystic and conjure man. As an advocate of the political philosophies of his contemporaries, Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington, he also spoke passionately of Negro Rights, encouraging audiences to continually strive for independence from segregation, to support Black-owned businesses, to work together as a community, and to seek formal education on the path to personal power and financial betterment. Even while entertaining, Rucker sought to bring a message of uplift and empowerment. He would let audience members tie him up so he could demonstrate how “If the slave traders tried to take any of my people captive, we would release ourselves using our secret knowledge.”

Despite the glamour of his stage persona, Rucker neither forgot nor neglected his early training as an herbal medicine maker. With his wife Eva to manage the daily orders and shipping, he operated a nationwide business under the name Herman’s Herb Garden. The Herb Garden sold packaged medicinal herb compounds, raw herbs, and a wide assortment of root and mineral curios for use in hoodoo. Among these products was a spiritual bath and floorwash called Young’s Chinese Wash, manufactured in New York by the mysterious Mr. Young, a Jewish pharmacist’s son who worked in and served the urban Black spiritual community. The Ruckers purchased a townhouse on West 119th St, where they cultivated a demonstration herb garden and established themselves as prominent members of the community. They hosted a weekly study group at their home which was attended by preachers, intellectuals, and politicians. Rucker was an Elk, a Freemason, a Knight of Pythias, and a member of the A.M.E. Church. He acquired real estate and started herb and root gardens in over a dozen cities. According to the Black-owned Chicago Defender newspaper, between 1923 and 1926, he provided full-time employment to 20 people, and part-time work for 30. He used his success to make loans to local Black businessmen and organizations. He established scholarships and performed for free to help churches pay their bills. In the 1920s Rucker published “Black Herman’s Mail Order Course of Graduated Lessons in the Art of Magic” “Easy Pocket Tricks,” and “Secrets of Magic-Mystery and Legerdemain.” He also established a magazine, “The Spokesman.” According to Catherine Yronwode’s research, the second editor of this periodical was the folklorist, hoodoo practitioner, and author Zora Neale Hurston, who left her editorial position to travel to New Orleans and collect the spells that would later form the basis of her book “Genuine Black and White Magic of Marie Laveau.” Black Herman’s career came to an abrupt end on April 15, 1934, when he collapsed onstage at the Palace Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky. Due to the fame of his “Buried Alive” act, many people refused to believe he was really dead, and thus it came about that his assistant, Washington Reeves, charged admission to view Rucker's corpse at the funeral home, bringing a dramatic close to a life spent in showmanship and root doctoring. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.


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