Benjamin Rucker was an American stage magician who was best known by his stage name “Black Herman.” He was the most prominent African-American magician of his time.
His most famous trick was his “Private Graveyard,” during which he would sell tickets three days before the performance and invite people to watch his “lifeless body” be placed in a coffin and buried near the venue of his next show. A member of the audience would be asked to check for a pulse. The day of the show, the audience would witness the coffin being lifted from the ground. Herman would then emerge and lead the audience to the theater for his performance.
Rucker was born in Amherst, Virginia, on June 6, 1889. However, very little else is known about his childhood. Rucker learned the art of staged illusions from a performer called Prince Herman, who later became his partner. Together, the two men sold patent medicine as well as performed magic acts. When Prince Herman died, Rucker was 17 years old. He took the name “Black Herman” in honor of his partner.
He eventually moved to Harlem, New York, and made the city his home. Living up north, he was able to perform to racially-mixed audiences, but when he traveled down south, his shows were limited. Because of the segregation laws, his audiences were primarily black. He was exposed to, and greatly influenced by, the radical racial philosophies of Marcus Garvey and others who were fighting to improve the lives of African Americans. He began to incorporate political messages into his shows.
Some of Black Herman’s other best acts included the “Asrah levitation,” the production of rabbits and release from knots tied by audience members. Some of his tricks were considered to be “secrets taught by Zulu witch doctors.” He also did imitations of bird sounds heard in the rural South and in Africa.
A number of magic tricks were compared to miracles from the Bible. He even narrated his rope escape routine by explaining that he used the methods that Africans used to escape the slave traders.
In April 1934, Rucker died in Louisville, Kentucky, after collapsing on stage, probably the result of a heart attack. Due to the fame of his “buried alive” act, many people in the audience refused to believe he was really dead. 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.