Historical Partners and Members Long Gone | Mechanics' Institute

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Historical Partners and Members Long Gone

During this shelter-in-place, I’ve noticed that several deceased members of Mechanics’ Institute (MI) are busier than ever. A number of recent events and new research has shed more light on the several former members’ past activities.

Wednesday (4/29) was Adolph Sutro’s 190th birthday. Sutro was not a consistent MI member, likely because he was wealthy enough to have his own gigantic library. But he was a supporter and turned to MI when he was trying to find sponsors for the tunnel he hoped to build in the Comstock region of Nevada. In April 1867, a special committee of the Institute reported publicly that Sutro’s idea was “intelligent” and respectfully solicited Congress to “give liberal aid to the work.”

Every year, the Sutro branch of the California State Library has commemorated his birthday with cheeky photos of the man on social media. This year's celebration includes a fascinating blog post about the S.S. Adolph Sutro, a “liberty ship” that was built in Richmond, CA to aid the war effort in 1943.

Meanwhile, our fair Emperor has not been quiet. One of MI’s earliest members was Joshua Norton, a failed rice merchant who suffered a mental breakdown and one day declared himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States. Emperor Norton was a frequent MI user, enjoying both the library’s resources and the chess room. An astute social observer, Norton considered himself a leader in the City’s socio-political whirl. The Emperor was often found in places where important decisions were made, as shown in this interactive map.

In a recent article penned by MI member John Lumea of the Emperor Norton Trust, we learn that on July 13, 1875, the Emperor took the floor during a public forum held at the Mercantile Library (with whom MI merged in 1906) on the notion of “no party” political participation.

According to Lumea, Norton had “long cast a wary eye at political parties in general” and true to form, at the meeting, Norton was impassioned in his argument and declared “the Americans (involved in the current politics) [to be] in rank disrepute.” Norton was called to order when “his sentiments seemed to encourage a discrimination in the selection of “no party” candidates unfavorable to a number present who were Americans….”

In 1875 a public forum such as this was exactly the type of event MI would have hosted. Did it shy away from hosting this particular gathering because of its political nature? Or, was it because MI President Andrew Hallidie was soon to be nominated for Mayor by the newly forming Independent party? Can it be possible that Emperor Norton knew this information about Hallidie? Did he pick up a scrap of gossip at the Institute while playing a game of chess or sketching out the text of his next proclamation on Institute stationery? At the Mercantile’s meeting, was he advocating for the "independent party" as it was shaping up or merely suggesting that formal parties were irrelevant and inappropriate? Shades of today, am I right? And what about the reference to the Americans [in the political scene] being “in rank disrepute”?

We'll probably never know. However, It is delicious to wonder if our Emperor Norton, was a shadow supporter of Andrew Hallidie’s 1875 bid for Mayor – a failed effort by the way. Hallidie’s deep seated principles made him an effective leader but unsuited for politicking.

What I love about all these vignettes is how they illustrate a community in action. Comrades, adversaries, and those who are just plain weird helping each other, hashing out what it means to coexist, and how to make the future better. At the center of it all is the Mechanics’ Institute and places like it that encourage these connections. I don’t know about you, but I’m eager to get back to it! See you as soon as the shelter-in-place is lifted – we’ve got work to do!

Posted on May. 4, 2020 by Taryn Edwards