Exclusive to American History Magazine
By Fred Dickey
Celebrated though he was, it was only on the day that he, Joshua Abraham Norton, dropped dead of a stroke on a busy street corner that officials first entered his home. It was a 50-cent per night room at the Eureka Lodging House, and it was where he lived for 17 years. The room was about ten feet by six feet. There they found a camp cot with crossed legs, one straight-back chair, and a pitcher and basin. Strewn about were proclamations, telegrams and pictures of other reigning monarchs, especially of his hoped-for consort, Queen Victoria. (If he had seen that dowager’s picture, his intent must have been only for purposes of power consolidation.) In his possession were $5.50 and mining stock certificates worthlessly proclaiming face value exceeding a million dollars. It was spectacularly downscale for a man who carried the weight of two nations on his shoulders.
Thus ended the reign of “Norton I, Dei Gratia, Emperor of the
Norton arrived in
Then he got greedy. In December of 1852, a rice shortage caused the price to escalate from four cents per pound to thirty-seven cents. When a ship loaded with rice came into the harbor, Norton bought the entire shipment for twelve cents per pound, trying to corner the market. He was on the verge of cashing in when at least one more ship sailed in with her hold full of rice. The price plummeted to three cents and Norton was ruined. Sketchy accounts attest that he tried to pay off his debts, but filed for bankruptcy in 1856. Then, after serving as a juror at a trial on Sept. 28, 1857, he abruptly disappeared. No one ever learned where.
In the next two years,
Then, on September 17, 1859, Norton reappeared and overshadowed them all. Dressed in an operetta-style uniform, he entered the office of the San Francisco Bulletin where he demanded publication of a proclamation which “…at the request of a large majority of the citizens of these
Norton issued proclamations, decrees, and imperiously gave his “patronage” in return for meals, uniforms, transportation, and free drinks (always in moderation). Merchants and bankers would redeem the fifty-cent “bonds” he had had printed. He was given a lifetime pass on the Central Pacific Railroad, and on those occasions when he visited the capital at
Herbert Asbury wrote in 1933: “He ate without paying at whatever restaurant, lunchroom, or saloon took his fancy; after he visited an establishment, the owners were permitted to post a sign: ‘By Appointment to the Emperor, Norton I.’ Invariably, these ‘appointments’ brought great business to the saloon or restaurant so graced.”
The effect his business failure had in creating his addled state is not known, but biographer
Psychiatrist Robert Solomon of
The emperor was a proud man who bore the royal mantle easily. On one occasion, concerned about the fraying of his uniform, he proclaimed, “We, etc., have heard serious complaints from our adherents and all around that our imperial wardrobe is a national disgrace; and even His majesty the King of Pain has had his sympathy excited so far as to offer us a suit of clothing, which we have had a delicacy in [not] accepting. Therefore, we warn those whose duty it is to attend to these affairs that their scalps are in danger if our said word is unheeded.”
The Board of Supervisors responded by buying him a new uniform and presented it to him in a city hall ceremony.
The emperor was arrested only once, in 1867 by a young deputy with more zeal than judgment who charged him with lunacy. However, the charge was quickly dropped by a judge with this explanation: “He had shed no blood, robbed no one, and despoiled no country, which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.”
Norton’s name endures mainly because of his frequent proclamations which still ring with pomp, authority and righteous indignation. His language was officious, his topics timely, and his reach grandiose. The
As evidenced by the endangered Ameer and Emperor Maximillian of
In 1872, he endeared himself to San Franciscans forever by decreeing, “Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word "Frisco," which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.”
Perhaps the main reason Norton was cut an extra length of slack by even the more sober-minded citizens was that he was a kindly man who threatened no one. In one account, he rose to the defense of an unpopular minority: "During one of the typical anti-Chinese demonstrations so common at the time… [he] sensing the dangerously heated tone of [the] meeting, Norton is reported to have stood up before the group, bowed his head and begun reciting the Lord's Prayer. Within a few minutes the agitators retreated in shame without putting any of their threats into cruel action." Norton also proved a seer by calling for a suspension bridge between
Despite all the bizarre characters running around the city, Norton’s preeminence among them was unchallenged until he had to share public attention with a couple of street curs. Bummer and Lazarus were a team of mutts who for a few years in the mid-‘60s also worked their way into the hearts of the city and formed an ad-hoc scrounging team with Norton.
Lane described Bummer as, “A small black mongrel with white spots. He had an unusually projecting lower jaw, and teeth too prominent for his lips to cover. The result was a permanent sardonic grin, whether awake or asleep. He had no owner and wanted none. He became the city’s champion rat killer.” Lazarus, Lane said, was smaller and subordinate to Bummer. “He was a “thin, mangy, yellowish-black cur.”
Although neither the dogs nor Norton made ownership claims on the other, the emperor and the canines became linked in the public perception as they made the rounds together seeking out free saloon lunches, and were content spending long hours patrolling the streets in each others’ company.
The Daily Alta California in 1861 explained that the dogs had teamed up when Bummer rescued Lazarus from a dog-fight mauling. “The poor cur had one of his legs half bitten through, and having limped upon the sidewalk, he proceeded to scrape an acquaintance with his deliverer, Bummer, who thenceforth took him under his special protection. Every night since, the two dogs have slept coiled up together, close to some doorway—Bummer always giving the lame cur the inside berth, and trying to keep him as warm as possible.”
The same newspaper the next year added to the dogs’ legend: “Yesterday afternoon, the notorious curs, Bummer and Lazarus, chased a runaway team up
An assistant dogcatcher once seized Lazarus, only to be mobbed by a crowd. Money was raised immediately for the dog’s release, and neither dog was ever arrested again. The Board of Supervisors exempted them from a strict ordinance that banned all dogs downtown without a leash or muzzle, and allowed them to run free, which the dogs had intended to do anyway.
Lazarus died of poison in 1863. Bummer was stomped to death by a drunk in 1865. Not everyone can get into the spirit.
They collected enough money to dignify Norton’s body with new clothes and a rosewood casket. His funeral cortege was two miles long, and crowd estimates ranged as high as 30,000. He was buried by the Masons, and without the traditional tallit burial shawl of his Judaism. In 1934, his body was moved to
If it had been Norton’s misfortune to sink into mental illness in about any other American city in the mid-nineteenth century, he probably would have been locked-up. Remember, this was the same period in which the Abraham Lincoln’s depressed widow was institutionalized briefly by court order. And if Norton wandered the streets of San Francisco today, he’d be lost in the crowd of thousands of homeless who’ve taken refuge in that tolerant city, many of them far crazier than the emperor, and none of them nearly as humorous.
Norton did not see himself a victim and the society he lived in didn’t either. If his delusions of grandeur represented the groping of his mind to recapture the public esteem he had known before his bankruptcy, then he succeeded by grace of the forbearance and sense of humor of
As a historical figure His Majesty is a winner. After all, other than the yearned-for