The Madness of Joshua Norton

Part Three

by Joel GAzis-SAx

Copyright 1997 by Joel GAzis-SAx

Back Into the Womb

If Joshua Norton could have reversed history by a few carefully chosen words and a few quick movements of his fingers over a keyboard, he would undoubtably cause the titles to his land to fly out of the hands of the scrupulous Gold Rush banker William Tecumseh Sherman. The Masons would take him back. And one by one, a series of ships would sail out of the harbor. All except one, called the Glyde. Upon this ship's cargo of Peruvian rice, he'd pinned his hopes. The blow that fell upon him from that speculation began his ruin, a process compounded by the collapse of California's Gold Rush boom in the mid-1850s.

Sherman saw many men ruined by the last years of the Gold Rush. The placer gold had disappeared and the miners had not yet recognized that the blue clay they scraped off the gold held silver. In the absence of certainties, men speculated in new ventures that held only a slim hope of realizing a profit:

A great many extensive enterprises by joint stock companies had been begun, in the way of water-ditches, to bring water from the head of the mountain streams down to the richer alluvial deposits, and nearly all of these companies became embarassed or bankrupt. Foreign capital, also, which had been attracted to California by reason of the high rates of interest, was being withdrawn, or was tied up in property which could not be sold...the community itself was shaken, and loans of money were risky in the extreme. A great many merchants, of the highest name, availed themselves of the extremely liberal bankrupt law to get discharged of their old debts, without sacrificing much, if any, of their stocks of goods on hand...thus realizing Martin Burke's saying that "many a clever fellow had been ruined by paying his debts."(1)

Clever men did manage to make fortunes. James Lick and Sam Brannan were just two of the self-made millionaires who bought land when it was cheap. To control land was to control commerce, agriculture, and homelife. Lick, who was Norton's first landlord and who sold Sherman the lot for his bank, parlayed the money he'd made selling pianos in South America into an empire. This and penurious living made him one of the state's wealthiest individuals.

The land in which Lick, Brannan, and Norton invested belonged to the Pueblo of San Francisco. Spain had given the town this property under the terms of the 1785 Laws of the Indies which entitled each settlement to four square leagues of land, to be measured "in a square or prolonged form according to the character of the land."(2) In 1839, the Pueblo hired French surveyor Jean Jacques Vioget to mark off lots in the area now bounded by Pacific and Sacramento streets on the north and south and Grant Avenue (formerly known as Dupont) and the bay. Pueblo officials, including the alcalde, prefects, and justices of the peace could issue deeds. Settlers bought out the lots. Alcade Washington A. Bartlett commissioned another surveyor, Jasper O'Farrell, with the task of conducting a new survey. O'Farrell's task was to revise and extend the Vioget survey. San Frasnciscans owe to O'Farrell the unique downtown grid bisected by Market Street. O'Farrell reconciled the north-south orientation of the Vioget lots with the northeast-southwest orientation of some new lots to the south by running San Francisco's principal thoroughfare in a diagonal between the two sections. The 1847 Bartlett Map guided the sale of land through the early years of the Gold Rush. The influx of Americans and other gold-seekers caused the quick sale of city-held properties and the depletion of community chest as the city struggled to meet the boomtown's infrastructural and law enforcement needs. To meet the demand and fatten its coffers, the city sold more land. William Eddy conducted the 1851 survey. He checked the results of the earlier surveys and incorporated new lands. His Red-Line Map, approved by the 1851 state legislature, included tracts of tideland whose owners bought them and fenced them off, even though the sun seldom shone on the rippled mud flats beneath the waters.(3)

Young Joshua NortonJoshua Norton bought five plots. Three of them, at the corner of Sansome and Jackson, stood directly in the center of the district later known as the Barbary Coast. After the 1851 survey, he purchased two water lots near Rincon Point. The scuttled Genesee stood in the middle of one of these plots. Norton removed her masts, put a roof over the deck, and used her as a warehouse. He established himself as a commission agent and auctioneer who bought and sold cargoes. As he grew wealthier, Norton opened a cigar factory on one of his Jackson Street lots, an office building on another, and a mule-powered rice mill on the third. The value of his water lots increased when the Pacific Mail Steamship Company chose Rincon Point as the location of their passenger and cargo terminals. It was at this time that Norton could eat in the town's finest restaurants and sleep in its finest hotels. He could afford these treats. He had an office at the prestigious 110 Battery Street and was a charter member of Occidental Lodge No. 22, of the Freemasons.

The 1850s brought many strange developments. Sherman deplored that investors focused exclusively on the mining industry, to the detriment of agriculture and other sectors which the state would need to establish its permanent economy. Trade in land was brisk. But not everyone bothered to buy the parcels they wanted. What W.W. Robinson called "an active horde whose tools often were the blanket and the gun" descended on the heretofore unsurveyed pueblo lands to the west of Larkin and southwest of Ninth.(4) These professional landgrabbers built fortresses on the lots they coveted. One fellow fenced off Union Square and defended it until the city constable disarmed him and pulled down the barricades he'd set up. Squatters who'd settled themselves on federal lands at Rincon Point found themselves marched out of their tents and shanties by soldiers despatched from the Presidio. In 1853, settlers foreshadowed the fate of San Francisco's cemeteries by swarming over the land which Sam Brannan had deeded the Odd Fellows for their burial ground. The same year saw two men killed and five wounded when a war erupted over a parcel at the corner of Mission and Third Streets. Landowners who came by their titles legitimately hired special police to protect their claims.(5) Under the Van Ness Ordinance, the city granted the Western Addition land to any man who could prove he occupied it. By doing nothing more than declaring himself to be master of the land and then defending it against all comers, a man could make his word the law.

San Franciscans made law by fiat on other occasions, too. Between 1849 and 1851, the city burned six times. The fires didn't hurt the merchants. Commission brokers who couldn't return the goods to their Eastern suppliers without taking a loss in shipping costs found that the conflagrations did for them what the market wouldn't: it cleared out their warehouses and allowed them to collect on the insurance, leaving them with clear balance sheets. The Committee of Vigilance which Sam Brannan organized blamed the blazes on the Sidney Ducks, a gang of convicts escaped or released from the Australian penal colony. But as John Myers Myers observed: "Thieves cannot flourish by destroying property; they can't fence off ashes or pawn cinders." The only ones who could profit from such disaster were those who had property and obligations they needed to lose.(6)

Joshua Norton joined this First Committee of Vigilance because most of his peers did. The Committee's rush to hang its prisoners must have disturbed him because he is recorded as moving that the Committee allow those it captured to defend themselves before they could be hung. The Vigilantes hung four men. We don't know exactly why they hanged Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie: no charges are recorded against them. When Sheriff Hays arrived to take custody of the men, he made the Vigilantes promise that they would let the law take its course. When Sheriff Hays let his guard drop, the Vigilantes raided the jailhouse and, within seventeen minutes, had the two men dangling from the rafters of the Monumental Engine Company. What Whittaker and McKenzie knew about the fires remains an interesting question.

After the First Committee stopped lynching people, Norton prospered until a famine in China idled his rice mill for want of grain. Two friends of his told him about a ship, the Glyde, which lay in the harbor filled with rice from Peru. The Glyde's broker, Willy Sillem who was acting on behalf of the Ruiz Brothers of Lima, Peru, convinced Norton that he was letting him in on valuable inside information. Norton sensed a windfall and agreed to buy its cargo at a rate of twelve and a half cents a pound -- eight and a half cents more than the asking price when rice had come from China. As his man cleared the decks of the Genesee for the shipment, another ship named the Syren sailed into the Bay. Then the Merceditas and the Dragon arrived. All these ships carried cargoes of Peruvian rice. More followed. The price of rice fell to three cents a pound.

Twenty-five thousand dollars was the stake Norton put into the speculation. He tried to duck the bargain by claiming that the Glyde's rice was inferior to the samples which Sillem had shown him. A long court battle ensued. The Ruiz Brothers attached his property. Norton fought as best he could, but in May 1855, after numerous appeals and counter-appeals, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs: twenty thousand dollars plus costs. The legal battle tied up much of Norton's working capital and he was unable to make payments on two lots he acquired at Meigg's Wharf. His old friends at Godeffroy and Sillem had gone bankrupt, selling his mortgages to Sherman's bank. Sherman foreclosed and the Masons kicked him out for failing to pay his dues.

Around the time of Norton's legal defeat, an alderman named Henry Meigg's (aka "Honest Harry") secretly departed town for South America. Meiggs had used the access his office afforded him to forge city warrants which he used to finance a wharf and North Beach developments. Gullible bankers and real estate brokers found themselves wiped out. Norton, too, had put money into Meigg's project. The subsequent run on the banks destroyed the careers of many financiers, including James King of William who se assassination would spark the organization of a Second Committee of Vigilance.

Norton did not enlist with the Vigilantes this time around. He was busy trying to make ends meet. Unable to sell the cargoes he bought, so making his living through trading, he worked for a time as a stock broker and as a realtor. The Panic of 1855 gave the edge to the buyers and Norton could not raise enough capital to save his Jackson Street interests. The mill, the mule, the office building, and the cigars all sold at a loss. Then Norman Bugbee, an architect who had entrusted Norton with power of attorney over his California financial affairs while he spent three years visiting family in the East, came home and demanded an accounting. Norton stalled, perhaps hoping to realize a profit from a pending transaction using Bugbee's money. Bugbee sued and the papers called Norton an embezeller. Norton sought relief from Sherman, offering his water lots as security for a loan. Sherman took them, but only gave Norton enough money to satisfy Bugbee. The frantic Norton sought the job of County Tax Collector from Judge Ned McGowan; as an English Jew, however, he found himself unwelcome among Irish Catholics and did not receive the patronage.

During 1856, Norton made his living as a commission broker. This year brought a curious decision by the Board of Land Commissioners in favor of one Jose Y. Limantour. Limantour produced documents, purportedly bearing the signature of Mexican Governor Micheltorena, giving him most of the city, the adjacent islands, and a substantial piece of Marin County. Landowners and squatters stampeded Limantour with quitclaims until the U.S. District Court looked into the matter and found Limantour's grants to have been forged and the testimony given in support of his claim perjured.

By August of the same year, the same day that six thousand Vigilantes marched in their last parade, he filed for insolvency, declaring assets of $15,000 against liabilities of $55,000.(7) Soon thereafter, Sherman foreclosed on Norton's water lots and sold them to the San Francisco Gas Lighting Company, the ancestor of today's Pacific Gas and Electric Company. From 1857 through 1859, he made his living as a commodities merchant as before, placing ads for coffee, cocoa, and other cargoes in the city's papers. He made fewer and fewer deals. In 1858, his banker, Sherman, decided to close the San Francisco bank and return to the saner investment world of St. Louis, Missouri.

Norton must have been crushed by his financial failures. He'd tried to make his living honestly. All the same, he'd come to his ruin. Other men made instant fortunes from mining gold and quicksilver. Many returned home prosperous. From 1853 on, Norton failed in nearly everything he attempted and lost everything he had. Looking at the successes of other men, he must have wondered: if men can go to a piece of land, occupy it, and call it theirs; if they can decide a punishment and enforce it by force of arms; if a newspaper can make a man an embezzeller just by calling him one; if an alderman can raise capital by simply inventing municipal bonds and if a charlatan can almost become the largest landholder in the state by inventing grants to himself: why couldn't a man declare himself to be an Emperor and expect it to be so?

And so Joshua Norton put on an old army uniform, climbed the stairs to the Bulletin office, and convinced its editor, George Kenyon Fitch, to print his first proclamation. For the next twenty one years, the city laughed at Norton and called him a madman. But Norton had a secret: his imposture, though certainly driven by mental illness, was the child of all that he'd seen happen in San Francisco during the 1850s. All the fraud and all the petty righteousness embodied themselves in this shabby man. San Franciscans would amuse themselves with tales of Norton's eccentricities never quite getting that the joke was on them.

Our perverse engine of history has driven forward through this time period. Now, let it go back to 1849, where it boards the German vessel Franzeska, just come from Rio de Janeiro. Follow this ship because it carries Joshua Norton. He gets off at Rio and boards another brig, this one come from Cape Town. It leaves him standing with his bags on Norden's Wharf, at the foot of Table Mountain. Here Norton lives for awhile with a Jewish sailor named Nathon Peisner who, many years later, would confide to the Vallejo Chronicle that he'd lived in Joshua's family home after a shipwreck and had seen the young man shockingly disrupt a Jewish prayer meeting. The nature of the offense will never be described, but it marks the earliest recorded instance of Joshua's desire for attention that would culminate in his exercise of imperial authority over all Americans.

Here, too, we meet Isaac Moses:
Joshua must often have seen him grumpily stomping through the Heerengracht in his wide-brimmed hat, his faded army uniform, and his cloak of camel hair and silk, puffing on his Meerschaum pipe and glaring balefully at the shopkeepers who called "Good day, mijnheer" as he passed. The cantankerous old German, a former captain of the 60th Regiment, now living on an army pension, still occupied a room in the castle barracks and dined in the officers' mess. When he was retired from duty so long ago that nobody could remember him, he had simply refused to move out....Despite his disposition, which was as foul as his pipe, he became the castle's mascot, regarded with affection and treated with respect. The sentries at the gate presented arms when he approached -- "Gawd! Here comes his bloomin' lordship!" -- and any soldier who failed to salute could expect a tongue-lashing. Old Moses would accept no excuse for insubordination. "Homboggery!" he would growl. "Alles flaussen and homboggery!"(8)

For the rest of his life, Joshua Norton would deny his family, his religion, and his inspiration for his elaborate charade. No one in San Francisco would hear him speak of Isaac Moses. Now, he spins through past history, back through his first business adventure running a ship's chandlery in Algoa Bay. He sees his mother rise up from the dead and his father return from a quest to bring the Torah to Cape Colony. He sees his brother, Louis, return from the cemetery and watches the letter containing the news of the death of his brother, Phillip, return to the farm at Albany where he'd moved with a Scottish wife. The family picks up and moves to a frontier farm. A neighbor's son pulls out a Xhosa spear and resumes his chores. The learning we take back from him is distinctly English: Joshua Norton, a Jewish boy growing up among Christians, doesn't learn the Torah because there is no rabbi to teach him. What little cultural legacy he receives from his father and mother dwindles as he grows small. His parents carry him off again, this time to London, where they return to the London borough of Deptford. For two years, Joshua shrinks at an astonishing rate until, refastening the umbilical cord to his navel, he slides back up his mother's birth canal, reconnects himself to her placenta, and begins the degeneration to a single cell which disappears as its constituent parts separate. And should you, dear reader want to know more about how this came about, let me refer you to the first chapter of Laurence Sterne's wonderfully absurd Tristam Shandy. Read it from the beginning.

(1)Sherman, Memoirs, p. 151. [Return]
(2)Quoted in Robinson, Land in California, p. 34. The city acquired final title over the land in 1864 when a District Court upheld its claims to ownership based on the four square leagues grant. In 1866, the U.S. Congress confirmed the city's ownership of the land. [Return]
(3)Robinson, Land in California, p. 234. [Return]
(4)Robinson, Land in California, p. 235. [Return]
(5)Robinson, Land in California, p. 113. [Return]
(6)Myers, San Francisco's Reign of Terror, p. 53. [Return]
(7)Drury, p. 53. [Return]
(8)Drury, p. 24. [Return]

Return to the Second Part: Emperor of the United States
Consult the Bibliography
View a Collection of Imperial Proclamations
Consider a Diagnosis of Joshua Norton
Read about San Francisco Eccentrics
Return to Tales from Colma

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