When he was more than 90 years old, an African American businessman named Isaiah Prophet Hatch published the story of his life. Spanning from his birth in 1871 to the 1960s, An Autobiography of I.P. Hatch of New Bern, N.C. is fascinating in many ways, but I found one small part of the book especially unforgettable.
That chapter of his life tells the story of his days as a traveling showman in 1893 and 1894.
From New England to Florida, Hatch traveled to small towns, lumber camps and fishing villages. At every stop, he enthralled audiences with a device called a “stereopticon” that projected vivid, lifelike scenes of the world’s wonders onto a wall or screen by shining a powerful light through glass photographic plates.
Of course, stereopticons sound primitive to us today, but at that time they were a new and exciting technology.
They were really a new, more powerful version of a “magic lantern,” a device invented in the mid-1600s. Especially popular with scientists, illusionists and magicians, those earlier renditions of magic lanterns were simpler, often candle-powered devices.
But the invention of photography in the mid-19th century and the development of new ways to project light more powerfully revolutionized the magic lantern. Those technological innovations made it possible to build devices that could project images far more effectively and for much larger audiences than in the past.
By the late 1800s, stereopticon shows were among the most popular public entertainments in America. They were capable of drawing large crowds in towns and cities, but itinerant showmen like I. P. Hatch also carried stereopticons everywhere from mountain hollows to remote fishing villages that seemed like the end of the Earth.
To appreciate the public’s widespread interest in stereopticons, we have to remember that people did not yet have movies or television in those days, much less the internet.
In addition, many people had little or no access to books, except perhaps a Bible. Rates of illiteracy were high, too, and public libraries few and far between outside of large cities. It was no wonder that so many Americans hungered for the chance to see images of the world beyond their own experience.
The shows themselves ranged from the religious to the risqué. However, the most typical shows, including those of I. P. Hatch, featured scenes of the world’s natural wonders, distant lands, and far-off civilizations.
Some stereopticon shows also presented illustrated versions of literary works. One of most popular magic lantern shows ever created, for instance, was of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The best of the stereopticon showmen heightened the appeal of their “scenes” with dramatic narration, storytelling and even song. Given the gift for salesmanship that he later showed as a businessman, I would not be surprised if Hatch was one of those that made his shows into thrilling pieces of theater.
An Autobiography of I. P. Hatch
I first found a copy of An Autobiography of I. P. Hatch many years ago in the Kellenberger Room at the New Bern-Craven County Public Library in New Bern, N.C.
Hatch had a remarkable life. He was born in New Bern in 1871, only six years after the end of the Civil War. His parents, Isaac and Lanina “Winnie” Hatch, had been born in slavery and had been forced to be enslaved laborers for most of their lives.
Both his mother and father had been enslaved in Jones County, N.C., 10 or 15 miles from New Bern, until the Civil War.
Hatch’s Autobiography is a bit eclectic and sometimes jumps around a lot, but I still find it to be a rare and fascinating portrait of an African American businessman’s life in the Jim Crow South.
Over the years, Hatch did a bit of everything to make a living. He was a bootblack, a window washer, a barber, a cattle buyer, the proprietor of a wallpaper shop, an itinerant book salesman and more.
He had his greatest and most long-lasting success in the funeral home business, however. For more than 40 years, Hatch operated a prominent funeral home in New Bern, not far from the current site of the historic St. Peter A.M.E. Zion Church.
Many parts of Hatch’s life are interesting, but today I just want to focus on the pages of his Autobiography that tell the story of his brief life as a “scenery man.”
Despite the popularity of stereopticon shows, we have very few accounts of them written by the showmen. We also have very few from the American South, and even fewer that were written by an African American showman such as I. P. Hatch.
So today I’m going to take a closer look at I. P. Hatch’s Autobiography and see what it might tell us about the life and times of that unique kind of traveling showman at the end of the 19th century.
Albert T. Thompson, Stereopticon Maker
The story of I. P. Hatch’s days as a showman really began a decade before he hit the road with his stereopticon and glass slides. Born, as I said earlier, in 1871, he and his family lived in New Bern until he finished the eighth grade at the West Street Graded School.
As I have written about here previously, many of New Bern’s black residents relocated to Worcester, Mass., in the latter part of the 19th century. Hatch’s family was among them. In or about 1884, he and his family left New Bern and moved to Worcester.
In Worcester, he worked during the day and trained at a local high school to be a teacher at night.
Somewhere, presumably in Worcester, he must have attended a stereopticon show. Assuming he did, he was obviously impressed. In the spring of 1893, Hatch– still only 22 years old– took his savings and went to Boston to learn the trade of presenting stereopticon shows and to acquire a stereopticon and a collection of glass photography slides.
As he wrote in his Autobiography:
“I went to Boston then to enroll in A. T. Thompson’s on Fremont Road to study for the profession of presenting Stereoptical Views. I purchased pictures, machines and had slides made of various continents including Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and launched into the show business.”
Albert T. Thompson, who was white, had gone into business making stereopticons, lantern slides, arc lamps and other devices for projecting glass plate photographic images in 1871.
He had an office, showroom, and a small factory on the third and fourth floors of a building at 13 Tremont Row (not Fremont Road).
Thompson manufactured and sold stereopticons and other magic lanterns, produced glass slides, and trained lecturers, traveling showmen and others in their use.
He was also known for a variety of inventions that made the instruments more effective. In 1894, for instance, he invented a specialized kind of arc lamp that became a standard tool for using stereopticons in the field of commercial drawing.
Thompson’s business, the Boston Illuminated Advertising Co., was also a pioneer in using projected images in the advertising trade. To showcase the stereopticon’s potential on that front, he projected advertisements on the wall opposite his offices every night.
Beguiled by the novelty, crowds gathered on the street below to watch those advertisements. At one point, in 1887, local police even charged him with creating a public nuisance because the crowds had grown so large that they blocked the sidewalks. (Boston Globe, 11 Sept. 1887).
An 1889 account in a book called Illustrated Boston, the Metropolis of New England gives a good sense of how Thompson pitched the potential uses for stereopticons:
“There is probably not one among the many novel and ingenious devices combining the features of utility, instruction and amusement that have taken a firmer hold on popular favor than the stereopticon. And this is true alike as to its application as an effective advertising medium, in street display, as an adjunct to the lecture platform, or stage effects.”
With his new stereopticon and glass photographic slides in hand, Hatch returned to Worcester to present his first show at his family’s church, the John Street Baptist Church.
The John Street Baptist Church was founded by black men and women who had come to Worcester from New Bern and other parts of the North Carolina coast during and after the Civil War.
After trying out his show in Worcester, Hatch hit the road: he presented stereopticon shows at the Harlem AME Zion Church (often called “Little Zion”) in New York City, as well as in Fall River, Attleboro and New Bedford, Massachusetts.
He then moved on to Providence, Rhode Island, and then to towns and cities in other parts of New England.
The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893
By the summer of 1893, Hatch had acquired glass photographic slides of the Chicago World’s Fair (a.k.a. the World’s Columbian Exposition). An incredibly high-profile event that was attended by more than 27 million people, the Fair was held to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.
Public interest in the World’s Fair among people who could not go to Chicago and see it for themselves was intense. In his Autobiography, Hatch declared, “My scenes of the World’s Fair were the first to be shown on the screen in the New England states.”
The Chicago World’s Fair seemed to have everything: the world’s first Ferris wheel, the first commercial movie theater, and life-size replicas of Columbus’s ships the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, as well as a full-scale replica of a Viking ship from Norway, just for starters.
Innovation and new products abounded. Among much else, the Chicago World’s Fair was the place where the American public was first introduced to such iconic brands as Juicy-Fruit Gum, Crackerjacks, and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, among much else.
Widely criticized even at that time for its focus on white racial superiority and its cringe-worthy “exhibits” featuring African Americans, Native Americans and people of color from distant lands, the Chicago World’s Fair presented a vision of America’s place in the world at that time.
Forty-six countries, 34 U.S. states and four U.S. territories had pavilions at the Chicago World’s Fair. At those sites, performers introduce the country to everything from hula dancing to the hootchy-kootchy.
From Louis Comfort Tiffany’s breathtaking chapel to Kirkland Cutter’s log-built Idaho Building, the World’s Fair also had a profound influence on American architecture for years to come.
There was, in short, an incredible abundance of buildings, new technology, peoples and other sights at the World’s Fair that could be photographed and then put onto stereopticon slides.
In a way, the Chicago World’s Fair was a once-in-a-lifetime window into America’s future. And whether they came to ooh and ah at its promise or rage against its heartlessness, the crowds that came to I. P. Hatch’s shows were wildly curious to see that vision of the future for themselves.
The Battle for James City
Leaving New England and New York behind, Hatch next traveled to southeastern Virginia, where he estimated that he held stereopticon shows in 18 different towns.
In his Autobiography, he only mentioned four of those towns by name, however: Norfolk, Berkley, Portsmouth, and Suffolk.
The only specific venue that Hatch mentions in Virginia was a Baptist church on High Street in Portsmouth, just across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk. The Rev. Jeremiah Edlow was the pastor there.
When he left Virginia, Hatch continued south, skirting the Great Dismal Swamp and entering his home state of North Carolina. Presumably traveling by coach or rail at that point, he stopped first in Elizabeth City, where, he wrote, “I presented my scenes in all the Negro churches.”
That presumably included Mt. Lebanon AME Zion Church, the oldest African American congregation on that part of the North Carolina coast. Organized ca. 1850, the church was originally located on African Street (now Culpepper Street) and had the largest membership of any church in Elizabeth City at the time of the Civil War.
Continuing south on the North Carolina coast, Hatch began to show his stereopticon slides at African American churches near where he had grown up in New Bern.
He started at Jones Chapel AME Zion Church in James City, a bustling settlement located across the Trent River from New Bern. Established during the Civil War, the community was originally a refugee camp for fugitive slaves who had escaped into Union lines.
Founded in 1863, Jones Chapel AME Zion Church had been the refugee community’s first house of worship.
Hatch was there at a propitious moment in James City’s history. The wealthy antebellum owner of the land on which the ex-slaves had built their town had been fighting to evict the settlement from that land and re-gain ownership since the end of the Civil War.
Earlier that spring of 1893, just before Hatch’s visit, things had come to a head. The county sheriff and his deputies had tried to issue a writ of eviction to James City’s approximately 1,000 residents, but they proved unwilling to surrender their land.
In his excellent history of James City, Joe Mobley quotes the sheriff:
“Upon my arrival, I found all the buildings [roughly 500 in all] closed and locked and the entire population assembled in the streets, and was plainly and emphatically told that… if we valued our lives we had better not attempt to break and enter any buildings.”
The community’s people had effectively fought eviction for almost 30 years, but the end of their time at that site was nigh. Not long before Hatch’s show at Jones Chapel, the state’s governor called out a state militia unit and threatened to attack James City if the residents did not relocate.
In a tense stand-off, the citizens of James City negotiated a temporary reprieve from eviction, but ultimately agreed to abandon their homes. Over the next several years, they relocated to a site nearby.
From Hickman Hill to Purvis Chapel
After his show at Jones Chapel, Hatch followed the railroad east through the remote pine forests and farmlands along the northern edge of what is now the Croatan National Forest.
In his Autobiography, he indicates that he presented “his scenes” at four rural communities that were located deep in the sandy, sparsely-settled pine woods east of James City. The names of the communities were Thurman, Riverdale, Hickman Hill, and Havelock.
Havelock was not untypical of the four. The community boomed during the Second World War and became a real town (my hometown, in fact) in the 1940s and 50s.
But in 1893, when Hatch was there, Havelock Station, as it was often called, had a population of perhaps a couple dozen. Around the depot, he would have discovered only a small cluster of homes, a general store and post office, and a pair of steam sawmills.
Hatch nonetheless did a stereopticon show there, perhaps at the general store or at someone’s house.
Hickman Hill, a little African American village a few miles to the west, at least had a church where Hatch could present a show. Formerly enslaved men and women had founded the Green Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Hickman Hill in the early 1860s.
After showing his stereopticon slides at Havelock Station, Hatch continued to follow the railroad 20 miles farther east to a seaside town called Morehead City. The railroad ended there.
Located on Bogue Sound, Morehead City had grown into a popular resort since the Civil War. In his Autobiography, Hatch says that he was the guest of the town’s African American postmaster, William H. Jones, while he was doing shows in the town.
Jones served as the Morehead City postmaster from February 25, 1890, to June 16, 1893. Working out of a small wooden building on the 900 block of Arendell Street, he was one of many African Americans who held federal posts on the North Carolina coast in the early 1890s.
After visiting Morehead City, Hatch caught a ride on a sail skiff across the Newport River to Beaufort. At that time, Beaufort was a maritime town, best known for its fisheries and boatyards and for being a popular trading place for the more remote fishing communities that were located along Core Sound and on the “C’ae Banks” to the south.
In Beaufort, Hatch produced one of his stereopticon shows at Purvis Chapel AME Zion Church, home to an African American congregation with roots dating to 1820. The bulk of the church’s members were fishermen and women, boatbuilders, seamen, oyster shuckers and fish hawkers.
In his Autobiography, Hatch wrote that 140 adults and 65 children attended his show at Purvis Chapel. He charged the adults 10 cents each, and the children half as much.
He wrote that the audience was not only the church’s members, however. In addition, he said, “There were many white people there to see the pictures of the world’s fair in Chicago.”
An interracial gathering such as the one at Purvis Chapel was still possible in 1893; it would not be possible much longer, however.
Four years later, in 1898, a massacre of black citizens in Wilmington, N.C., would signal the beginning of a more than 50-year period in which such gatherings would not be permitted in Beaufort or anywhere else in North Carolina.
That day had not yet come though, at least not when I. P. Hatch was touring the North Carolina coast.
A Journey Down East
In fact, after Hatch’s show at Purvis Chapel, white people from the more remote islands to the east of Beaufort approached him.
“They told me I would be welcome to go to the several islands around Beaufort such as Harkers Island,” Hatch wrote in his Autobiography.
“I told them when I would go and they sent a white man named John Washington Fulcher for me,” Hatch remembered.
That, too, would have been unimaginable after 1898: even when I was a small child, the fishing communities east of Beaufort were all considered “sundown towns” and the dangers of an African American individual staying in any of them for even a single night were proverbial.
John Washington Fulcher was from one of the most easterly villages on that stretch of Core Sound, a village that was known then as Hunting Quarters and is now known as Atlantic.
In his Autobiography, Hatch said that he first showed his stereopticon slides at Fulcher’s home. He then did two shows a few miles to the west, one at Lewis Creek on the west side of Nelson Bay, and the other at Nelson Neck, on the east side of Nelson Bay.
That world of fishing families and seagoing people had to have been a new experience for the young I.P. Hatch.
It was a world of fishing people, deeply attached to the sea and its ways, and where travel was inevitably by sailboat. Perhaps even more novel to Hatch was the racial makeup of the area. As he explained in his Autobiography, with one exception, he “didn’t see a Negro in three weeks.”
The exception was Davis Ridge, a marshy hammock on the east side of Jarrrett Bay, 12 miles southeast of Hunting Quarters (Atlantic). An independent, self-reliant community of African Americans had made their livings off the sea there since the Civil War
Hatch may also have visited other hamlets on that part of Core Sound, but he only mentions those four: Hunting Quarters, Lewis Creek, Nelson Neck, and Davis Ridge.
Piney Grove and Little Witness
After sailing back to Morehead City, Hatch headed toward his old home in New Bern, where he would soon settle for good. He did not go back the way he had come, however.
Instead of taking the railroad that ran between Morehead City and New Bern, he took an old stagecoach road that was a more northernly route. The road skirted several tidal creeks, some of which flow north into the Neuse River and others of which flow south into the Newport River. (That is roughly the path of NC 101 now).
Along the way, Hatch made two stops to do shows in African American communities that were located in the deep woods between Clubfoot Creek and Hancock Creek.
When passing through the community of Harlowe (where my family’s homeplace is), Hatch met up with an African American storekeeper and businessman named Jessie P. Godette, who took him in and invited him to do a show at his church.
That church was the Piney Grove AME Zion Church, which was established in 1864, during the Civil War. It was, and still is, located on the west side of Clubfoot Creek. Jessie P. Godette was one of the church’s trustees at the time that Hatch passed through the community.
Five and one-half miles to the west, Hatch also did a show at the Little Witness Baptist Church.
That church was in a remote village of formerly enslaved African Americans and their children who had purchased land there on the banks of Hancock Creek in the years after the Civil War. When I was younger, I sometimes heard its former residents refer to the village as Nelson Town and other times as Little Witness (after the church).
During the Second World War, the federal government confiscated the community’s land and buildings to make way for the construction of the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station.
On that route, Hatch must have been traveling either on foot or horse cart. A few miles on the other side of Little Witness however, he could catch the train to New Bern at Havelock Station.
He did eventually made his way back to New Bern, where he soon headed south toward South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
Along the way, Hatch stopped and did shows in Jacksonville and Wilmington, N.C. At that time, long before the construction of Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville was a small provincial town on the banks of the New River. Wilmington, on the other hand, was a bustling place: located on the Cape Fear River, it was North Carolina’s largest city at that time.
From Charleston to Savannah to St. Augustine
After leaving Wilmington, Hatch continued south, presumably by railroad, to Charleston, South Carolina. He did at least one show in Charleston, and then continued south to Georgia.
He seems to have found the people of Georgia especially receptive to his stereopticon shows.
“In Georgia,” he wrote, “I showed the scenes in forty-two towns, including Savannah.”
He singled out Jesup, Georgia, a lumber mill town southwest of Savannah, as the one town where the region’s African Americans did not welcome him.
Hatch explained: “In Jessup [sic], a Negro man by the name of Bob Brewer had killed half a dozen white men for whipping his dead sister’s daughter. People were afraid to hold any form of gatherings.”
The Racial Uprising in Jesup, Georgia, 1889
Reports of what happened in Jesup, Georgia, are far from clear. All agree that an African American man named Bob Brewer shot and killed at least two men and wounded two others on Christmas Day 1889. One of the killed was a deputy sheriff; one of the wounded was a marshal.
All reports also indicated that Brewer’staged his assault as an act of revenge for an incident of racial terror that was committed against his family.
In his Autobiography, I.P. Hatch recalled hearing that the act of racial terror that led to Brewer’s assault on white authorities was a brutal whipping of his niece. Other accounts refer to the lynching of his brother.
Following Brewer’s attack, a gunfight between whites and blacks broke out in a swamp outside of Jesup. Several newspapers reported that there were quite a few more casualties, black and white.
Marshall law was declared and violence spread throughout Jesup. Reports indicated that whites vigilantes killed at least 10 black men, including two prisoners in Jesup’s jail and one in his home.
In white accounts of the incident, Brewer was often called an outlaw and renegade. Among African Americans, he seems to have widely been considered a folk hero.
Continuing south, Hatch crossed into Florida. According to his Autobiography, he presented his show at 36 towns in the Sunshine State that winter of 1893-94.
The only two Florida towns that he mentions specifically are St. Augustine and Jacksonville.
Hatch mentioned St. Augustine because he was so deeply impressed by several of the grand resort hotels there. He especially remembered the Ponce de Leon, an opulent showcase of a hotel built by Standard Oil co-founder Henry Flagler in 1888.
Of course, Hatch did not acquire his knowledge of those hotels from staying or dining at them. Neither the managers of the Ponce de Leon nor the other hotels would have welcomed him or any other individual of color in that time period.
Hatch mentioned Jacksonville, Florida, for a different reason. He happened to be in Jacksonville on January 2, 1894, when “Gentleman Jim” Corbett knocked out Charley Mitchell in three rounds to become the world heavyweight boxing champion. Hatch was there for the fight.
By Hatch’s account, Florida was the last stop on his tour. He had been on the road for nearly a year. He had done a minimum of 120 shows. He had given stereopticon shows in at least eight states stretching from New England to Florida.
He had presented those shows in some of the leading African American churches in the U.S. But he had done far more of them in lumber camps, fishing villages, and people’s homes in out of the way and now largely forgotten parts of the American South.
When Hatch gave up show business, he was still only 23 years old, but he seems to have saved enough of his earnings that he could settle down and begin to think about a family. He returned to the North Carolina coast sometime early in 1894, and he married Amanda Odum from Beaufort in August 1895.
The couple made their home back in New Bern, the coastal town where he had been born and raised.
In New Bern, Hatch opened a subscription school for adults and traveled through the countryside selling books and charts. He also bought cattle on his travels to the rural communities in the neighborhood. He drove them into New Bern, where he sold them to butchers.
Sometime in or about 1917, he took up the undertaker’s trade. He pursued that profession in New Bern for 44 years. His Autobiography describes his funeral business and shows a professional’s somewhat macabre interest in the ways that people lost their lives.
I found all of Hatch’s Autobiography fascinating. Yet I still find his description of his youthful adventures as a showman of stereopticon scenes the most compelling part of his story.
After finishing An Autobiography of I. P. Hatch, I could not stop thinking of him as a young man, riding the rails and walking dirt roads, his stereopticon strapped to his back.
In his own way, he was discovering America: going from bustling seaports to lumber camps, old slave quarters to remote, wind-swept islands surrounded by endless sea and salt marsh.
I can see him in my mind’s eye: making friends with strangers. Eating at their dinner tables. Staying in their homes. Warming himself by their hearths. Telling them of the places that he had been and what he had seen. Listening to their stories.
Those were the days when even a visitor from the next island or nearest town would draw a crowd eager to learn the latest news. And Hatch had traveled a thousand miles, been everywhere, seen much.
As I reflect on his Autobiography now, I also think of the remote communities where crowds came to see his stereopticon views depicting other lands, distant peoples, and the marvels of the Chicago World’s Fair.
I wonder what it was like for them. In those days before movies, radio, television and all the rest, it must have been wondrous to get even a glimpse of the broader world after a long day in the fields or in the logwoods or spreading nets. I wonder what imaginations it lit, what fears it roused, what dreams it kindled.
7 thoughts on “The Magic Lantern Man”
What a remarkable story, and what excellent research and writing! Thank you!
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Thanks so much!
What an excellent article. What a remarkable man.
Thank you David. As always you bring us bits of history that tell information about our community that we probably never would know without your sharing these valuable tidbits of history.
Hello, I always look forward to your stories appearing in my inbox. I found the story of I P Hatch to be extra fascinating and delightful. I would love to read his entire autobiography. Thank you for bringing these people and their stories to life. History is so intriguing to me. Thank you for your research and sharing your knowledge. Sincerely, Kimberly West Wilmington, NC
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Great stuff as always. You may enjoy this related story I came across only hours later. Clearly the same idea of the itinerant showman evolving over a few generations of society and technology, where the local townspeople become the subject of the performance.
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I love it! thanks for sharing it!