The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Rucker, “Black” Herman (1892—April 1934)
Witchcraft Hall of Fame
Herman Rucker was an African-American author, conjurer, illusionist (stage-magician), occultist, Freemason, fortune-teller, and herbalist. Like the old Italian mountebanks, he offered a combination of entertainment, occult, and healing services at his medicine shows. He possessed a rare combination of personal charisma and financial acuity to be one of the few occultists to achieve lasting financial success and stability.
He dubbed himself “Black Herman” to make his ancestry very clear. He wished to avoid trouble and cancellations in the Jim Crow South. Magicians would be hired and would travel at their own expense to distant locations where, when it was discovered that they were of African ancestry, they would be refused work and reimbursement for their expenses, or worse. Other African-American magicians (or anyone remotely dark-skinned) took to wearing turbans and pretending to be Hindu magicians from India, which at that time was very stylish. Rucker took a different, direct, and very brave approach.
Benjamin Rucker was born in Amherst, Virginia. In his youth, he met a traveling magician, Prince Herman, also an African-American, who sold health tonics and did card tricks. Young Benjamin was fascinated with the tricks and asked to become a student. The two became friends. On Benjamin’s 16th birthday, Prince Herman offered him a position as his apprentice.
Benjamin hit the road with Prince Herman serving as chauffeur, valet, ticket seller, and general all-around assistant. He learned the tricks of the trade and the tricks of the stage. Rucker learned the art of concocting the health tonics sold at medicine shows as “Herman’s Wonderful Body Tonic.”
Brewing the tonic was part of the show: a cauldron was set up over a bonfire and the potion brewed on the spot. He himself was an excellent testimonial for his brew: tall, handsome, charismatic, and expensively dressed. He encouraged spectators to toss silver dimes into the pot for extra power and luck.
Prince Herman died in 1909. Apparently at that time, Rucker assumed the name “Black Herman.” He became a solo act and moved to Harlem, then in the midst of what is now known as the “Harlem Renaissance.” When not on the road, Rucker held salons in his home.
His repertoire included divination and faith healing rooted in Christianity but also incorporating various occult traditions. Illusionist tricks were incorporated including classics like the Sword Cabinet or sawing a pretty lady in half. Rucker also wrote various books that were sold at his shows. The greatest demand was for fortune-telling and so eventually that was emphasized. Rucker got around anti-fortunetelling laws by not charging for them. Readings were included as a free bonus with purchase of the health tonic.
Because Rucker was also an illusionist, the assumption now tends to be that his occult and divination interests and skills were fraudulent or also an illusion, however he was a knowledgeable and skillful occultist.
He bought a three-storey townhouse at 119 West 136th Street. It was expensively furnished with a telephone on each floor, a comparative rarity at that time. He conducted his fortunetelling business from his home where he offered private consultations. He was sufficiently in demand to employ two secretaries to handle his scheduling and appointments.
One room in his home served as an altar room, painted black and hung with African masks. The altar is described as “Voodooinspired” although which tradition, whether Haitian or New Orleans or other, is unclear. A human skull was surrounded by candles, and African drums were rigged to play by themselves.
A garden behind the house supplied the ingredients for his tonics and spells as well as the beauty products his family also marketed. It was a family business with his wife and brother overseeing various aspects.
A fairly high percentage of his business focused on selecting numbers for local lottery games. Rucker had a reputation for selecting winning numbers for people. He was arrested in New York on charges of fortune-telling and was incarcerated briefly in Sing Sing prison in Ossining New York.
By 1923, Rucker had incorporated the stunt, “Woman Buried Alive” into his repertoire. He would first hypnotize a woman, then bury her alive (six feet under) for almost six hours. In 1933, searching for a new angle, he adapted this stunt and began burying himself. Eventually he himself began to star in “Buried Alive.”
Rucker would pretend to be dead. The audience was invited to feel his wrist for a pulse and find none. (His trick involved a balled-up handkerchief in his armpit to artificially stop his pulse.) The coffin was nailed shut and buried. The crowd would then come back days later for a resurrection. Rucker’s trick involved a secret passage by which he could leave the coffin and travel disguised to another town. Eventually he’d return and slip back into the coffin to emerge triumphantly alive.
In April 1934, while performing in Louisville, Kentucky, Rucker collapsed. A doctor in the house was unable to revive him. (Cause of death was listed as “acute indigestion.”) The audience, however, used to his tricks, expected a resurrection. His body was brought to a local funeral parlor. People still believed it was a trick. Finally Herman’s assistant Washington Reeves began charging people for the opportunity to view the body because, in his words, it was what Herman would have done. Herman, genuinely dead, was shipped home by train and was buried, for good, in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Various other illusionists continued to use his name for years including his assistant, Washington Reeves, who performed under the name “The Original Black Herman.”