Sunday, 4 February 2018

Person of Interest: Benjamin Rucker, aka Black Herman (RPG all, especially Timewatch)

Professor Black Herman, the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Negro Magician, was born in a Zulu village, to hear him tell it, and spent his early life learning the mystic secrets of the Orient while dodging Chinese assassins, bent on revenge for his refusing to help them steal a priceless diamond from the head of a statue of Buddha. Seeing that the end was nigh, rather than deliver himself into the hands of his enemies, Black Herman drank poison and died. Many dignitaries, including the King of the Zulus, gathered to pay respects, only to gape in wonderment, as Black Herman stepped out of his coffin and back into the land of the living. Then, after a display of wonders to rival the best, Black Herman went across the seas, to try his luck at fame and fortune in the Americas.

Or, to be slightly more accurate, Benjamin Rucker was probably born in Amherst, Virginia, in 1892. He tried a number of different professions before taking up the magician's wand, but by 1906 he was well on his way. He's known to have worked with Harry Kellar, but it's his alleged association with huckster, herb doctor, and fellow Virginian Prince Herman that he's best known for. It's not entirely clear whether Rucker worked with Prince Herman or not, but Rucker said he did, and he took on Herman's stage name after Prince Herman died unexpectedly in 1909.

Rucker, then only 17, was set to conquer the world, but there was a problem: he was black, in a world where that mattered more than anything. When he worked with Prince Herman, he could perform in the South; now he was a solo act, segregation laws confined him to non-white audiences, unless he was performing in the North. So he set his sights on other audiences, and by 1918 was at the height of his talent. An absolute master of stage magic, he also mixed in a healthy dose of hoodoo and herbal remedies; for, as Rucker himself put it, he was a man who knew how to spend $1 twice over and still have change left, and fortunetelling with a healthy dose of herbal remedies were where the money was.

Hoodoo, for those unfamiliar with the term, is not voodoo. Hoodoo is an American variant on West African folklore, also known as conjure, root doctoring, or rootworking. It blends herbal remedies with Moses-as-conjuror; the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses are the core texts of this spiritualist movement. A hoodoo worker makes talismans, oils, candles and incense, to minister to every possible need or ailment. Though hoodoo has a strong element of ancestor worship, it lacks the loa that vaudon sanctifies, and also lacks the Catholic overtones of voodoo.

The man who not only can foretell the future, but also supply every possible remedy to human frailty, can make a great deal of money, which is exactly what Benjamin Rucker did.

Things went from good to better. He bought a brownstone in Harlem, NYC, where he saw all his clients. He performed across the country, and when the performances were over, he used his hoodoo skills to counsel his audience. He became a devoted friend and counselor to Marcus Garvey, leader of the Back to Africa movement, and Garvey was far from Burcker's only friend and confidante; Black Herman was probably the best-connected hoodoo man and performing magician of his day. He was an Elk, a Freemason, a Knight of Pythias. He donated to churches and worthy causes, funded scholarships, was a friend to poor man and intellectuals, politicians and power brokers. Everyone wanted to be on good terms with the man who knew how to twist the skein of fortune any way he wanted.

HIs signature performance piece was a living burial. He picked a spot, which he called his Private Graveyard, and lay in his coffin on display for all to see; it cost ten cents to check his pulse. Then he was buried, but when his coffin was disinterred a few days later he stepped out, none the worse. He used his miraculous recovery as a kick-off for his stage performance, emerging from the coffin to lead a parade to the stage. It was his boast that he returned to a venue once every seven years - a picturesque way of saying he was constantly on tour.

Things didn't always go his way. In 1927 he was arrested and sent to Sing Sing on charges of fortune telling and selling medicine without a license, but he only spent a brief time in jail. His supporters claimed a prison cell couldn't hold him; he'd walk out of there any time he liked. He wasn't in jail long in any event, and the 1929 stock market crash didn't hurt his fortune much; whatever financial losses he might have suffered were soon made back again, by telling more fortunes and selling more conjure medicine.

He died young. In 1934 he collapsed at a friend's home - some stories say it actually happened on stage - suffering massive cardiac failure. He was only 44 years old.

Even then, his admirers and well-wishers didn't believe it. Professor Black Herman, dead? The man who'd stepped out of the coffin more times than a man could count? No, never; thousands went to the funeral home to see his body, laid out in state. His assistant, Washington Reeves - later to take on Black Herman's stage name - charged money to view the corpse. But this time it didn't step out of the casket; Benjamin Rucker had enraptured his last audience.

From a gamificiation viewpoint, a hoodoo stage magician who performs throughout the 1920s and 30s, all across the United States, is a perfect NPC for Trail or Call of Cthulhu. However with that mysterious death, can he be anything other than a Timewatch agent? You can almost picture the funeral home, after everyone else is left, as Black Herman walks out of the grave one last time, and into Time itself.

With that in mind:

Recruitment Drive: TimeWatch intends to pick up Rucker at the funeral home in 1934 but, when the agents get there, he's not in the coffin any more. Instead, an aged and scarred Rucker appears at his brownstone in Harlem, witnessed by his employee and protégée Washington Reeves, who he tells to go to the funeral home and give a message to whoever he finds there. Clearly Rucker's been time travelling, but on whose dime? And was his reappearance an attempt to contact TimeWatch, knowing that TimeWatch agents would have to be in Harlem on that date? Or is this some elaborate trap?

That's it for now. Enjoy!

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