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A biography well done - Richard Potter: America's First Black Celebrity

by John A. Hodgson

Because I am a stalled biographer I have become a voracious reader of biographies. I read and read and read - to learn about the lives of the subjects but mainly to glean writing technique. I want to learn how to present history when the chronology isn't perfect, when the facts don't line up, and when the subject seems to have deliberately obfuscated the part of his life most tantalizing.

One recent book has astounded me, John A. Hodgson's masterpiece, Richard Potter: America's First Black Celebrity. This affectionate work details the shadowy life of Richard Potter (1783-1835), a celebrated magician, ventriloquist, and extraordinarily popular performer who dazzled audiences young and old, and just happened to be black.

The son of Guinea born slave Dinah Swain and a white father, Potter grew up in the Boston area on the estate of a British colonial official. As a teenager he traveled to Europe with a gentleman and became entranced by magic and tightrope walking. Upon his return to America he apprenticed himself to the celebrated Scottish brother magicians and ventriloquists, John and James Rannie, who taught Potter their secrets. Potter would eventually describe himself as the “Emperor of Conjurors,” and for many years he was the foremost ventriloquist and magician in America.

Hodgson brings Potter's fascinating life to light, using a variety of source material including Masonic Lodge records (Potter was an active Mason in the "first Lodge of blacks in America") and an impressive collection of broadsides that advertised Potter's numerous performances. As Potter lived a public, chaotic, and mythical life, Hodgson helps the reader make sense of it all by providing a meticulous chronology, notes on the illustrations, and extensive discussion about Potter anecdotes and claims that have flourished since his death 183 years ago.

While the book is dense, the prose moves swiftly. In the introduction, Hodgson declared his mission "to discover, as far as I possibly could the essential facts of Richard Potter's life… and my deepest scholarly obligation is to do this right and get it right and ideally to tell Richard Potter's compelling and moving life story in a compelling and engaging way."  I found Hodgson's style to be very readable and his skill at weaving his suppositions unobtrusively within the narrative to be revelatory.

Richard Potter: America's First Black Celebrity will please scholars of black history and that of the mystic arts and performance in America. Tortured historians like me who are seeking guidance on how to present material cogently when there are gaps in the historical record will find the book a welcome gift; one full of lessons on writing and on honoring one's subject. Hodgson clearly admires Richard Potter and provides a clear discussion of a lost chapter of American history and a distinct portrait of "the most wonderful man in the world".

Posted on Apr. 14, 2018 by Taryn Edwards

Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

March 11, 2018 marked the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s ground breaking novel Frankenstein: Or, Modern Prometheus. Described as the first and arguably most influential science-fiction story ever written, Shelley’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein and his monster, has permeated “our everyday culture from cartoons to Halloween costumes. Even the name ‘Frankenstein’ has become a byword for evil scientists and dangerous experiments.”

Written in a jaunty style that is hard to put down, Kathryn Harkup’s Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a curious and successful amalgam of literary criticism, biography, and exploration of post-Enlightenment scientific history. It attempts to explain how the teenaged, home-schooled Mary Shelley could write a story that has terrified generations of readers but also tortured their minds with worrying questions such as what it means to be human, what are the origins of life, can or should humans play “God”, what if the pursuit of knowledge goes wrong?  

Harkup organizes her text into parts that represent the “life cycle” of Victor Frankenstein’s monster (Conception, Creation, Birth) with chapters delineating the individual steps that resulted in his “existence”. These chapters are peppered with fascinating tidbits of Mary Shelley’s life and the people and modes of thinking that influenced her intellect; and biographical sketches of scientific pioneers such as Humphrey Davy, Allesandro Volta, Luigi Galvani, and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) who gave their lives to the pursuit of scientific knowledge. These superstars of science created, discovered, and pursued the technologies such as organ and skin transplants, artificial life, and the act of bringing people back from the dead; that sparked Mary Shelley’s creativity and enabled Victor Frankenstein to give life to his monster.  What’s remarkable is that two hundred years later we still striving to understand and master these technologies and are still not confident that their pursuit is for the greater good.

All in all I was monstrously pleased with Making the Monster and I look forward to more by Kathryn Harkup. We also have her first book, A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie in our collection.

Posted on Mar. 27, 2018 by Taryn Edwards

New activities for writers coming this summer!

The Mechanics' Institute has always been a magnet for writers – indeed several of our earliest members wielded a pen more often than a hammer to earn their living. Today, I'd hazard a guess that a third of our membership claim to be writing something. To serve this population, the Library has hosted writers groups for twelve years, collected an admirable assortment of books to help its members learn to write their best, and gradually increased its activities that focus on the craft of writing. The interest in these activities has been growing so well that, I am thrilled to announce a new partnership with the organizers of the San Francisco Writers' Conference. This partnership will involve the joint hosting of writing classes taught by professionals involved with the Conference. Look forward to hands-on experiences that will impart "useful knowledge" about the craft and help you progress with your writing projects.

Our first date, July 29, will be a complete exploration of the blogging platform WordPress with two classes in one day that cover the fundamentals of an "author website" and how to create a website with WordPress. Future classes will cover topics relevant to all genres and writer needs including crafting a memoir, writing perfect pitches and query letters, and the art of storytelling. The classes will be competitively priced with Mechanics' members enjoying a discount over the public rate.

In order to kick off this partnership in fine style, join us the evening of August 2 for a grand celebration! Meet the writing professionals who will be teaching the classes, the San Francisco Writers' Conference organizers including founder Michael Larsen, and fellow writers from the local community. 

Meanwhile, please take advantage of some of the other writers' services offered at MI.

Indie Publishing Working Group has a long history, dating back to 2007. After a hiatus, the group resumed meetings in 2016 and has since enjoyed a robust following, hosting speakers, discussion, and topics of interest to independent publishers and writers.

  • Third Thursday of each month
  • 4:00 – 6:00 pm
  • Library 3rd floor classrooms
  • Open to drop-ins
  • More information: www.milibrary.org/events


Writers’ Lunch arose from the desire of member writers to interact on a more casual basis. During these monthly brown-bag BYO lunch events, member authors and guests with expertise in the field speak on topics – from sustaining a fledgling practice to monetizing your writing. You’ll hear from a mix of established and emerging writers, enjoy coffee, tea, and snacks provided by the Mechanics’ Institute, and mingle with fellow Mechanics’ Institute writers.

  • Third Friday of each month
  • 12:00 – 1:00 pm
  • 4th floor Meeting Room
  • Open to drop-ins
  • More information: www.milibrary.org/events

Members of individual writers’ groups are governed autonomously by their members, and have the option to meet in Library classrooms or the 4th floor board room. Members decide on the protocol for reading and critiquing one another’s work at each meeting; the operation of these groups is entirely under the leadership of the member writers who belong to each group. We currently host seven active writers’ groups each month. If you would like to be considered for vacancies in existing groups, or to start your own, you can contact Taryn Edwards or Heather Terrell with your inquiry.

The aim of the Mechanics' Institute is to provide its members with the tools to grow intellectually and creatively. The aim of our writers' programs is to help you learn to write better! Happy scribbling!


Posted on Jul. 3, 2017 by Taryn Edwards

Giving Back to the Community

The Mechanics' Institute is partnering with the San Francisco - Marin Food Bank by sponsoring a food drive and raising funds this season. Most needed foods include peanut butter, low sugar cereals, whole grain rice, pasta and oats, low sodium soups and stews, tuna and canned meats, and canned fruits and vegetables. A donation barrel is located on the 3rd floor of the library. Every box, can, or bag of food is very much appreciated.

Did you know there's another way to contribute as well? Go to our fundraising page and give to the SF - Marin Food Bank to help Bay Area families this holiday season and beyond. For every $1 you donate, the SF - Marin Food Bank can distribute $5 worth of food -- enough for 3 meals! Thank you for your generous participation.

If you have questions, you may contact me at [email protected], or 415.393.0103.

Posted on Oct. 29, 2016 by Taryn Edwards

Reinvention: Thriving in the 21st Century

The Mechanics' Institute will be quite busy this November! We are proud to be hosting the fourth Independent Libraries and Mechanics’ Institutes Worldwide Conference over November 4-6, and the annual Membership Libraries Group meeting on November 7.

Reinvention: Thriving in the 21st Century, as the conference is entitled, is a conference designed for practitioners of independent and subscription Libraries, Mechanics' Institutes, Athenaeums and membership based non-profits world wide. The conference’s program will present practical skills to aid these organizations with planning for the future.  Thus far our guests include folks from Australia, the UK, Canada, and the U.S!

Fear not, the Institute as a whole, and the Library will remain open as usual and services will not be disrupted except for:

•     On Friday, November 4 the 2nd Floor Reading Room will close at 4:00 pm

•     The classrooms on the 3rd floor will be closed Friday November 4 through

Sunday November 6.

•     The 4th floor meeting room will be closed from Thursday November 3

through Monday, November 7.

Thank you for your patience in regards to these closures. Should you know someone who may be interested in attending, conference registration is still open until November 1! Please refer to this link for more information. https://www.milibrary.org/reinvention/registration

Posted on Oct. 14, 2016 by Taryn Edwards

Do you want to be a better writer?

Are you a writer? At our last Writers' Lunch on August 19, our special guest Michael Larsen, codirector of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference, stated with conviction that "The Bay Area is America’s second largest writing and publishing community. It’s the best place in the world to be a writer. The Mechanics Institute is one reason why." I estimate that about 10-20% of MI’s members are actively engaged in writing something. Therefore I am delighted to announce a few formal partnerships that should excite our writers’ community.

1) Litquake, our tenant, and the city’s only literary festival, will be offering MI Members 10% off their classes. Check out their recently unveiled festival calendar – several days worth of festival activity will be right here @ MI.

2) The Writers’ Studio (yes ANOTHER tenant) will be hosting a mixer and reading of work by students on Saturday, September 17 from 2:00-4:00 pm. If you are curious about upping your game as a writer, this introduction to The Writers Studio SF and its students' work, will help you decide whether to invest in one of their classes. Students in the San Francisco workshops have been exceptionally successful, with over 50 publications in the last few years, and several Pushcart Prize nominations.

3) The San Francisco Writers’ Conference, ground zero for literary activity in the Bay Area, has recently agreed to partner with us. Look forward to some craft related events and classes featuring the best and the brightest of SFWC presenters.

4) The National Writers’ Union, San Francisco Chapter, has already contributed two speakers towards our monthly Writers’ Lunch. Taxes for Writers with Therese Francis and How to Write and Use a One-Sheet with Elle Febbo were both well attended. Keep your eyes peeled for a future talk on copyright in the Spring.

Meanwhile, we have a very busy fall planned. Look forward to classes, Writers’ Lunches, and a survey so that we can help you be a better writer. Grab a copy of the Writers’ Activities Fall flyer in the racks on the 2nd and 3rd floors.


Meanwhile, keep writing!


Posted on Aug. 30, 2016 by Taryn Edwards

Libraries on the Barbary Coast

Have you heard that Mel Gibson is preparing to write a television series set in San Francisco? In a recent article on Hoodline, the series “Barbary Coast” will reportedly be set in the Financial District, Chinatown and North Beach, and based upon the book by Herbert Asbury with the same name.

This book is indeed a page turner - filled with the brothels, gambling dens, saloons, hoodlums and prostitutes that will make up a good show à la Deadwood. There’s nothing about libraries in Asbury’s book however, which is irritating to this librarian/historian, because their role in San Francisco’s early days was fraught with politics, intrigue, and sometimes a bit of danger! 

Reading rooms, stocked with newspapers and books brought from the east, started cropping up in the City almost immediately after gold was “discovered” in January, 1848. I use the term “reading room” rather than “library” because I consider a proper “library” to be an entity that has a staff, circulation policies, plans for collection development, and a system of organization.

The earliest “reading room” that has left a trace may have been in the Colonnade House on Kearny Street – “a genteel establishment a few doors down from Portsmouth Square”. An announcement of plans for the room was made in the Californian starting in mid March 1848. Weeks and weeks passed with no update however and it is unclear if the room ever came to fruition.

Then in June of 1849, above a store operated by Messrs. Jewett and Mulhado, the city’s first Merchants’ Exchange opened. It had ambitious plans to carry the principal American newspapers, bulletins and books, and host a daily meeting at 1:00 pm for the conduct of business. A year later, the Clay Street Reading Room opened claiming to keep a register of people in the mining districts, lists of passengers arriving from the states, and newspapers from all over the Union including foreign papers in German, French and Spanish.  

At least twelve more Reading Rooms would open between 1849 and 1854. Some were part of social clubs. One was in a hotel (the What Cheer House). One, linked with a bar, was dedicated to the intellectual and literary needs of the tiny African American population. The largest however, appears to have been the “General Library” operated by William Schleiden who claimed to have 18,000 volumes in multiple languages. Mechanics’ Institute wouldn’t have this many books until 1873!

These reading rooms went beyond collecting books and periodicals - they were intelligence offices and places to socialize outside of the dens of vice mentioned so prolifically in Asbury’s book. Those with an entrepreneurial bent would frequent them to keep tabs on the business climate back East, research potential products to import or hear about the latest gold strikes. Those looking for friends and family at large in the gold fields or to make connections with potential business partners would surely be there as well. To make the place feel like home and encourage hanging about, these rooms often had chess boards too – just like the Mechanics’ Institute would have when it opened its doors in 1855.

I look forward to Gibson’s interpretation of the Barbary Coast – and hope that he decides to set a few scenes, for reality’s sake, in one of San Francisco’s Reading Rooms because there was more going on here than whiskey, whores and hoodlums. For further – or less salacious - reading on early local history I suggest you check out:

Mud, blood, and gold : San Francisco in 1849 by Rand Richards

San Francisco, 1846-1856 : from hamlet to city by Roger W. Lotchin

Making San Francisco American : cultural frontiers in the urban West, 1846-1906 by Barbara Berglund.

The public city : the political construction of urban life in San Francisco, 1850-1900 by Philip J. Ethington

Posted on Apr. 28, 2016 by Taryn Edwards

New News is Good News!

The Mechanics' Institute Library is thrilled to unveil its new newspaper database provided by Newsbank. The California State Newspapers & News collection provides amazing coverage with over 450 titles including printed and online newspapers, blogs, journals, newswires, broadcast transcripts, and videos. Newsbank also provides us with access to the contemporary and historical San Francisco Chronicle. Look forward to crystal clear images that go back to 1869!

Find them all at www.milibrary.org/research/databases or ask a librarian!

Posted on Jan. 28, 2016 by Taryn Edwards

Mechanics’ Institute Food Drive

October – November 2016

The Mechanics’ Institute is partnering with the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank by sponsoring a food drive throughout October and November. Did you know that 25% of San Francisco and Marin residents struggle to make ends meet with low incomes, facing choices over whether to use limited incomes to pay rent, obtain needed medications, pay gas and electricity, or to eat adequate meals? Every dollar donated to the SF-Marin Food Bank allows the organization to distribute enough food for three meals for a resident in need of food assistance.

Mechanics’ Institute will be accepting food donations on behalf of the SF-Marin Food Bank to fill a barrel in our lobby. Most needed items include peanut butter, low-sugar cereal, whole grain rice, pasta and oats, low-sodium soups & stews, tuna & canned meats, canned fruits & vegetables. No glass or perishables, please!

Cash donations can be made via our Team Page at: https://fooddrives.sfmfoodbank.org/team/mechanics-institute

Donations are tax-deductible and support one of our community’s most essential needs. Mechanics’ Institute aims to provide at least 100 pounds of food and $1000 to the SF-Marin Food Bank over the next two months — let’s join together to exceed this goal! Thank you for your generous participation!

If you have further questions please contact Taryn Edwards at [email protected] or 415-393-0103.

Posted on Oct. 15, 2015 by Taryn Edwards

Review: Antebellum and Civil War San Francisco: a Western Theater for Northern & Southern Politics by Monika Trobits (History Press, 2014)

Monika Trobits’ tidy little book ends with a great quote from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, - “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players”. Indeed, after reading Antebellum and Civil War San Francisco: A Western Theater for Northern & Southern Politics, one wonders how Shakespeare could have been so prescient.

Antebellum and Civil War San Francisco consists of thirteen chapters that in a linear and concise fashion outline the political maneuverings and major events that lead up to and culminate with the Civil War. As even the phrase “political maneuverings” may elicit snores, let me assure you, this is not a dull book. Trobits’ humor leaps from the page and her experience as a walking tour leader shines as she ably makes even the trickiest of political situations, palpable, and relevant to the contemporary reader.

In her introduction, Trobits explains that the book developed out of her interest in politics and the Booth family and how the times affected them. The Booth clan, headed by the hot-blooded Junius Brutus Booth, produced some of the finest and most notorious actors of the era including Edwin, a foremost Shakespearean, and the less talented but now infamous John Wilkes – yes, the one who assassinated President Lincoln.

The chance to view contemporary politics “through the curtain” of theater, is an exciting premise; one that Trobits valiantly attempts to fulfill. While she adeptly folds into the narrative accounts of Booth productions and the travails of theater owners such as Tom Maguire - the proprietor of the Jenny Lind - the reader is left hungering for more in this vein.  

I wish she had provided richer examples of how San Francisco’s rambunctious political climate affected the popular culture and further analysis of how the theater, song, and literature of the day reflected life. I also wish she had explored more fully the growing role of the Daily Dramatic Chronicle. The Chronicle initially served as the critical organ of the contemporary theatre, but with its publication of the news surrounding the assassination of President Lincoln, found itself reporting the politics of the day. This sea change in mission may be fascinating or not – at any rate, Trobits has the writing chops to describe it and I think her book, if a second edition is possible, will be that much richer.

As a whole however, Antebellum and Civil War San Francisco compresses a great deal of material into a highly readable 144 pages which ultimately makes it a strong addition to anyone’s book shelf. It has marvelous illustrations and if read in concert with the companion walking tours Trobits has developed, Antebellum and Civil War San Francisco makes a marvelous, interactive and one-of-a-kind experience for the adventurous history buff.

For more information on the companion walking tours, visit www.sanfranciscojourneys.com.

Posted on Apr. 1, 2015 by Taryn Edwards