The Madness of Joshua Norton

Part Two

by Joel GAzis-SAx

Copyright 1997 by Joel GAzis-SAx

Emperor of the United States

The Emperor is naked and, for the moment, minus a skull cap and a brain. Dr. William A. Douglass examines the blood-clotted organ and concludes that the cause of death is "sanguineous apoplexy". He reads the measurement off his medical scale -- fifty one ounces -- a bit on the heavy side -- and then carefully removes the organ for replacement in the gaping cranial cavity. His magic saw heals the cuts through the skin and the bone. The disappearing seam sucks up all the blood. He stands back, savoring the moment that is to come: here at last he has on his table the derelict he has been waiting for, Joshua Norton, the man beloved by the City as the democratic nation's absolute monarch. Dr. Douglass plans to keep this brain.

Nineteenth century physicians pulled brains for study whenever they could, straining to explain madness or genius. Earlier in the century, phrenologists studied skulls, giving each bump a meaning. Sometimes they stole an especially coveted specimen.(1) Doctors could only rarely get their hands on a brain and then only if it belonged to a bummer or someone who died under suspect conditions. They weighed, calculated the volume, and evaluated the shape of each prized acquisition. Sloppy thinkers equated brain size and intelligence. Honest souls looked for obvious cracks across the wrinkles or wild growths sprouting from the grey matter. These explained speech impediments, tics, uncontrolled rages, and other behaviors collectively called "madness".

Dr. Douglass, an honest man, would search in vain for clues about why Joshua Norton thought he was an benevolent despot.

In the absence of pathological evidence (this being before the days of electron microscopes, biochemistry, and personality psychology), some would conclude that Norton's madness had been an act. One day, these reasoned, the man decided to pull a little prank and thanks to the gullibility of the populace, got away with it for many years. Norton, they said, found a way to support himself in luxury. USENET Discordians made him a saint for this. Others scorned him as a parasite.

The Emperor Norton died a poor man's death. He'd collapsed at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant Avenue), dropping his favorite bamboo umbrella into the gutter. He expired on the spot. The date was January 8, 1880. The Saint Mary's clock, just across the street, said eight fifteen. Beneath the dial was the legend "Observe the time and fly away from evil." And so Joshua Norton fled the world.

When the coroners stripped his body of the wrinkled uniform and emptied the pockets, they discovered some telegrams, a coin purse, a two and half dollar gold piece, three dollars in silver, an 1828 French Franc, and a handful of the Imperial bonds he used to sell to tourists at a fictitious 7% interest. The telegrams purported to be from Czar Alexander II, who congratulated him on his forthcoming marriage to Queen Victoria, and from the President of France, who told him that such a union would be disastrous to world peace.

The reporters who sacked his room found several frayed uniforms and hats hanging from tenpenny nails. Lithographs of other royalty, including Queen Victoria, the Empress Eugenie, and Queen Emma of the Sandwich Isles (Hawaii) watched the rape of the Emperor's privacy. The reporters observed his sabre with its silk sash and tassels swinging pendulously from another nail. His Majesty's collection of walking sticks, twisted or carved into fantastic shapes, stood in a corner. The iron cot creaked under them as they sat on it to make notes. Doubtless one smudged his nose as he poked it against the filthy window to gawk at the pedestrians passing below. They rifled through his bedstand, finding letters, telegrams and newspaper clippings. The minutia of the Emperor's secret life was public knowledge once the journalists were finished. They gave the city a last laugh before it sobbed.

The City liked to watch Norton, but few truly knew him. Mark Twain suspected Norton to be deeper than the caricatures of him which appeared in lithographs and postcards. He pitied the man and excoriated Colonel Mustard for ridiculing the Emperor in his syndicated columns. Some who took the time to talk to him discovered him extremely well-read, knowledgeable, and sane, except in the matter of his identity. Most, though, saw him as Amelia Neville, a society woman who never went near the Emperor's fifty-cents a night lodging or the local public libraries, did:

'Emperor' Norton was a favored ward of the town who could dine in any restaurant and imperially ignore the cost, buy theater tickets in any box office with no more than an imperial nod of thanks, and draw checks on San Francisco banks, although he owned not a dollar on earth. By common consent in the banking fraternity, his checks were honored, and he never drew one for more than twenty-five cents through some canny sense of restraint that preserved the imperial privilege. During shopping hours one saw him in Kearney or Montgomery Street, walking toward some destination which I fancy was never reached, his old army uniform and military cap with its rakish feather worn with an air. A sword hung from his sword-belt and he sometimes carried a short, knotted stick which might have been a scepter. The whole town knew him.(2)

Legends about the pauper emperor abound. Chief among these is one repeated by sentimental San Francisco historians: the acceptance of Norton I shows a long history of toleration in the Misty City.

Emperor Norton was just one of the enchanting madmen let to entertain the masses. Professor Willie Coombs, the King of Pain, the Great Unknown, and the Little Drummer Boy all attracted the attention of journalists, cartoonists, and diarists during his lifetime. The people preferred to love rather than incarcerate these crackpots. Once, when the police did detain Norton for lunacy, the whole city rebelled and it was only the Emperor's quick release by Chief Patrick Crowley that quieted the public ire.(3)

What optimistic San Franciscan historians say about the metropolis' legacy of sufferance is nearly true as far as harmless male lunatics are concerned. The same public had no trouble putting away Sarah Althea Hill, who'd claimed she'd secretly married Senator William Sharon and then married her quick-tempered lawyer, David S. Terry(4). Nor did it refrain from speaking ill of African-American businesswoman Mary Pleasants. ("Colonel Mustard" once tried to defame Mark Twain by saying that he'd been seen walking arm in arm with Peter Anderson, a prominent African American newspaperman.) San Francisco was a place where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews lived without religious strife from the time of the Civil War to World War II. And in the infamous Barbary Coast, you could get it just about any way you wanted it, free of petty interruptions by civic authorities. But as Robert W. Cherny observes, its record of attacks against the Chinese and the Japanese and its ruthless suppression of the Workingman's Party, the Communists, and maritime unions, do not make for a city founded on brotherly love and allowance for differences.(5) To his list, we should also add the activities of the 1856 Vigilantes against Irish-American politicians.

Norton, himself, was not universally privileged. He petitioned the city's fine hotels for suitable accomodations. They ignored him. He lived in a rudely furnished room that cost him fifty cents a night which he paid for out of the proceeds from his begging. Railroads, steamships, and cable cars gave him free passage, but tailors refused his commands to make him a wardrobe and banks would not give him money. You could hardly expect to find him at High Society functions, though cultured ladies might giggle about him behind their fans and gentlemen might banter about his latest proclamation. A few clubs allowed him use of their reading rooms and some saloons let him eat at their free lunch counters. The city made money off him as a tourist attraction, but gave him very little in return. His lot was little better than those of any other derelict.

People laughed at the Emperor Norton. His later life in the city reads like one long joke punctuated by champagne-choked laughter. Much of the town was in on the jest and played along with Norton's madness as long as it did not indebt them. Cheap gifts like the day-old carnation boutinierre he received from a flower vendor each morning bought the givers the right to mirthful indulgence and a little extra business.(6)

The stories people still tell about him emphasize his unpredictableness. While his proclamations betray a complex, analytical man (though still mad), Norton's biographers (who often merely string together anecdotes -- William Drury is the notable exception) make pointed efforts to make us smile at him. For some, like David Warren Ryder, he is at once the model of far-sighted tolerance and comic intolerance, a predecessor of the USENET "anti-politically correct" hero who nevertheless loves all humanity. These stories confound the search for truth about the Emperor, creating a life story for the man based mostly on jokes and other bits of folk lore. When we look at Norton, we must recall the role that journalists had in creating the myth. His proclamations were published in newspapers. Newspapermen made up some of the stories and rumors about him. A caricaturist gave him a pair of dogs which he depised in real life. Sometimes, they made him say things he had never intended. Looking back at his literary achievements -- the proclamations -- we sometimes suspect that a hand other than that of Joshua Norton of using the mad King for his own purposes. To this day, his champions are the puppetmasters and Norton the marionette.

Mark Twain hated those -- especially "Colonel Mustard" (Arthur Evans) -- who belittled Norton. Twain worked next door to Norton's pathetic flophouse and saw the man nearly every day. Later in life, Twain hinted to others something of the torment that Joshua Norton suffered Bummer and Lazarusand the cruelty others showed him. Upon hearing of the Emperor's death, Twain wrote to his editor, William Howells, suggesting that the Emperor would make a fine subject for a book. And a fit of writer's block removed itself and Twain was able to complete two novels: Huckleberry Finn which featured a lost Dauphin and The Prince and the Pauper, a story of confused identities. Through these, he paid homage to the man he'd known.

But most who remember and love the Emperor post-mortemly, love a myth.

Ryder shares two stories illustrating two popularly fashioned poles of Norton's character. In the first, Norton comes across a meeting of Sand-Lotters while walking "his dogs" near Chinatown. The speaker breaks his racist tirade against the Chinese to allow a bit of comic relief: he lets the Emperor say a few words:

There was a roar of laughter from the crowd as Emperor Norton, with some difficulty, got up on the big box. But the laughter was short-lived. The Emperor, steadying himself with his heavy cane, closed his eyes and commenced reciting the Lord's Prayer. Even the hoodlums were silent, and when he asked the audience to repeat the Prayer with him, some of them joined in. For a moment or two after the final "Amen," the Emperor stood silent before a hushed audience. Then he made a little speech of his own -- about the virtue of brotherly love; and the necessity of men living amicably together. Meantime, the sand-lot orator, sensing the changed temper of the crowd, had...slipped away. And when the Emperor ended with the declaration that "we are all God's children," and requested the crowd to disperse, it did so quickly and without dissent.(7)

Ryder's parable leaves out what motivated the Sand-Lotters. During the 1850s and 1860s, San Francisco had been a working man's paradise. Everyone enjoyed a good wage. Then as the labor pool increased, wages fell and robber barons like Leland Stanford (whom Ambrose Bierce called Stealin' Landford or £eland $tanford) and his three partners found cheaper sources of labor in China. The Sandlotters displaced their hatred of the Big Four onto the Chinese. The Chinese suffered doubly from white racism: they died, maimed themselves, or broke their health in the capitalists' tunnels and were beaten by white rowdies who wanted their jobs at a better wage. In their defense, the Sandlotters turned on the Chinese only after it proved impossible to dislodge their employers. Racism was a tool the Sand-Lotters exploited to advance the aim of bringing back the workingman's paradise that had once existed. As told by Ryder, Norton's call for brotherly love omits the need for the Nabobs -- those who hire others -- to show a little brotherly love themselves and to give their employees a fair share of the profits which will allow them, white, yellow or black, to realize their dreams.

The other story shows the Emperor as a guardian of the sexual social order and a foil to progressives. Ryder has Norton invited by the chairman of a meeting on Women's Suffrage to speak on the topic of the day. The Emperor proceeds to deliver a three-minute oration against women's suffrage. Ryder, prefiguring anti-political correctness, pokes male chauvinist fun at the speaker (who he names "Miss Bland from Boston") and invents a predictable scene of wild havoc in which the chairman is humiliated, the speaker is not amused, and the audience hostile because she does not respect the Emperor.(8)

Undoubtably, the Emperor was capable of innocent disruption. Many details, however, sound as if they came out of the minds of bored reporters or men who'd had a few drinks. Norton's written legacy can also set us to wondering what is the work of the Emperor and what was written for him.

Let us go back to the beginning of Norton's lunacy and reverse the wheels of our consideration. The date is September 17, 1859, a day of mourning in the City. The town has hung black crepe and gathered in Portsmouth Square to listen to E.D. Baker's eulogy of Senator David Broderick, felled by the bullet of David S. Terry. Slavery and states rights have led to bloodshed. The odd man who many have seen walking the streets mounts the stairs of the Bulletin and announces to the reporter he finds there that he has a solution for the nation's troubles: he will be its Emperor. How very simple! Just say the words and it is done! Many wished for the power to right the nation's wrongs and set it back on the course of peace again. The reporter knows that it is not so easy, but Lord knows this town -- battered as it was through the 1850s by the fires, the riots, the lynchings, and now this assassination -- needs a laugh. The next day the Bulletin prints the Emperor's first proclamation under the question "Have We an Emperor Among Us?"

The Emperor proceeds to abolish Congress, call on the Army to enforce his edicts, and assert his absolute authority over the country. In 1862, after the Fredericksburg disaster and the Emancipation Proclamation, he fires Abraham Lincoln.(9) It is easy to imagine other men, themselves frustrated by events in the east where men are slaughtering men in the cornfields, who dream their own dreams of peace and resolution of the nation's impasses. Joshua Norton empitomizes a desire to set things right during the nation's most violent period. He thinks that somehow we have to come up with a way for both the free North and the slaveholding South to be right. The idea is lunacy because, as Lincoln observed, a house divided against itself cannot stand and a nation in which some states use free labor and some use slaves, free men could not rest easy as long as a leisure class "earned" its living through coerced, wageless labor. Oblivious to the political reality and the necessity of ending slavery for the sake of free commerce and a clear democratic conscience, the Emperor makes a point of alternatively wearing Union blue and rebel gray, to symbolize his reconciling dominion over all Americans.

African-Americans win the franchise in 1865, so Norton accepts their citizenship. He designates Peter Anderson's Pacific Appeal, an African-American owned weekly, as his royal gazette. Norton spends the post Civil War years hawking his bonds, railing against forgers, demanding the treatment due to a man of his rank, proposing technical innovations, championing a national religion, and bludgeoning titans of California commerce and politics like Leland Stanford. Not all the proclamations that appear in his name come from the Emperor's pen. He complains about this, but the power to stop it eludes him. His name and his image are in the public domain. Some use him as a butt of jokes. Others employ him to advance their own ideas. We cannot be sure, for example, which of the many Bay Bridge proclamations he authored. One has the clear interests of the City of Oakland at heart: he evinces the wish that the cities of San Francisco and Oakland "shall be neighborly, but view each other afar off." This proposes a landfill halfway across the Bay, keeping Oakland in the chips as the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. Another is sheer lunacy: Norton wants bridges to Goat Island, Sausalito and the Farallons! Both these 1869 proclamations, which appeared in Oakland papers, may have been the work of Oakland boosters, expropriating the cherished pen of San Francisco's leading derelict for a little civic hazing. In 1872, a new command calls for a bridge linking Goat Island to Oakland and to Telegraph Hill. (10) After he libels a land developer, Anderson drops him from the pages of the Appeal and he is reduced to badgering tourists to buy his bonds until he suffers a stroke in Chinatown.

Having arrived again at the figure of the Emperor collapsing on the sidewalk, our historical engine squeals to a stop and beats a hasty retreat back to the beginning of Emperor Norton's story, when a ruined businessman decides his is royal blood and proceeds to solve the nation's problems. If Emperor Norton ever regains his sanity during our third passage over this ground; if he's sane and the thought ever occurs to him to give him his Imperial charade, doubtless he finds he cannot! The town accepts him only as a madman and a dupe. It would not take him back as a Mason, allow him to run for office, or conduct business. Mad or not, Joshua Norton finds himself the prisoner of the town. The pauper king can do nothing in life to prevent himself from being used without profit to himself any more than he can prevent Dr. Douglass from stealing his brain in death.


(1)Josef Haydn's head was separated from his body by an eager gravedigger and remained so until 1954. The expert declared that the "bumps of music" were especially well-developed on the composer's skull. [Return]
(2)Neville, Amelia Ransome, The Fantastic City,1932, p.155. [Return]
(3)Drury, p. 125. Norton I ran afoul of a hotel bouncer at an early version of the Palace where he naturally presumed he was entitled to service. A local police officer (one paid by neighborhood property owners to keep the peace, not a civic authority) arrested the Emperor and hauled him down to Portsmouth Square on charges of vagrancy. The booking officer pointed out that Norton I lived in a lodging house and had $4.75 in his pocket: technically, he was not a vagrant. The special, one Armand Barbier, scratched his cheek and then resounding declared a new reason for arresting his Imperial Majesty: the Emperor was of unsound mind and therefore a danger to himself and to others. Officer William Martin had no reply to this. He booked Norton pending examination by the Commissioner of Lunacy. Chief Patrick Crowley saw to it that the hearing was never held. [Return]
(4)The same David S. Terry who shot Senator David Broderick in 1859. [Return]
(5)Cherny, Robert W., "Patterns of Toleration and Discrimination in San Francisco", California History, Summer 1994, p. 133. [Return]
(6)Not everyone went along with the joke. Norton's Chinese laundryman refused to do his Imperial Highness' wash for free. (A friend secretly paid for it.) And the great hotels even had the effrontery to throw him out of their dining rooms and refuse him lodging. Norton did not have his way with everything. [Return]
(7)David Warren Ryder, Emperor Norton, pp. 28-29. Incidentally, the sand lot riots did not take place until 1877. Bummer, the last of the two mutts to have passed to the great beyond, died in 1865. [Return]
(8)Ryder, pp. 31-2. Ryder does not footnote either of his stories. [Return]
(9)Drury, p. 89 thinks that this particular proclamation may have been a hoax "perpetrated not by Albert Evans, who stoutly supported Lincoln, but by a Democrat...or a Southerner who thought that a Democrat in the White House might be more sympathetic to the South's economic needs." Drury forgets, however, Norton's proclamation scolding Governor Wise for hanging John Brown. Norton's beef is that Wise made Brown a martyr instead of a lunatic. And when he announces Wise's retirement, he chooses John Breckenridge, the 1860 Whig alternative to Abraham Lincoln as Wise's replacement. [Return]
(10)Norton's most sympathetic boosters want this to be the one and only genuine article. If so, they run into the problem that the credit for the Bay Bridge idea belongs to some unknown poet in Oakland. [Return]

Proceed to the Third Part: Back into the Womb
Return to the First Part: Remembering Norton
Consult the Bibliography

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