Emperor Norton’s Bicentennial Birthday.
San Francisco has always been a haven for the eccentric. Emperor Norton wasn’t the first to wander the streets in bizarre clothes, but his reign of a little over twenty years made him the most durable and endearing character in San Francisco history. He made being a tourist attraction a profession. There have been annual gatherings at his gravesite in Colma, but this year the Emperor will get more attention on the occasion of his two hundredth birthday. City Hall and Coit Tower were lit in gold in his honor. There were other events planned around the City.
San Francisco has always been a great place for someone to reinvent one’s self. There was no shortage of busted fortunes after the Gold Rush ran its course. Most who saw the elephant didn’t profit financially from it. There were other characters working the streets of San Francisco back then. Oofty Goofty let people hit him with a pool cue for a small sum. Two mongrel dogs became the City’s unofficial mascots. There was George Washington II and The Great Unknown.
Fisherman’s Wharf is the main stage for “street performers.” The circus is in town every day at the Wharf and Pier 39. Over the years there have been jugglers, musicians, magicians, card sharks, mimes, break dancers, people painted silver. They compete for the tourist dollar. Those with more talent get more contributions.
There’s been a Human Jukebox, a Pirate, The Space Lady, Bushman and so many others that I know I’m leaving someone out. Frank Chu will walk through, carrying his sign warning us of extraterrestrial invasion. Sinister clowns blow up balloons for children. Norbert Yancey played guitar and made silly rhymes outside of Ghirardelli Square.
One of my favorites was a hardened looking middle aged guy with slicked back hair. He looked like an Okie who had fled the Dust Bowl. He preached fire and brimstone during the day, pounding on his Bible. We were all sinners in this Sodom and Gomorrah! He used a small speaker, but it really threw his voice. At night he switched to singing Sinatra and Dean Martin songs! He probably got more contributions then, “Thank you very much.”
Among the Emperor’s Bicentennial birthday events was a lecture by John Lumea: “Will the Real Emperor Norton Please Stand Up?” Lumea is a writer and activist. He’s the founder and president of The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign. The organization tried to get the Bay Bridge named after Emperor Norton. It may have been as quixotic as any cause. The powers that be opted for Willie Brown.
I’ve had a strange fascination with my fellow potentate. Here’s a guy who cracked up after trying to corner the market on rice. He was ruined, but reinvented himself. He became a symbol of the City. Lumea says, “He’s the patron saint of San Francisco.”
About forty history buffs gathered at the California Historical Society on Mission Street in downtown San Francisco. The building looked like it was an old retail space.
Of course Emperor Norton was there! Joseph Amster dresses as Emperor Norton and leads Time Machine Tours. He has become the new Emperor Norton. Amster’s uniform certainly looks authentic. He wears a military style jacket and a hat that is crowned with pigeon feathers. People posed for pictures with him.
Amster is not the first to adopt the persona of the Emperor. Rick Saber, of E Clampus Vitus has channeled Norton for years at ceremonies and events. “In the spirit of the Emperor” the two get along well. There’s no rivalry between the two. Saber rarely appears as the Emperor now.
Some special Emperor Norton artifacts were displayed in glass cases in the back of the museum. There were imperial promissory notes, telegrams, post cards and some of the Emperor’s own currency that he gave to worthy subjects. The most impressive piece was an ornate walking stick that was used by the Emperor. Most Emperor memorabilia was lost in the Fire of ’06.
John Lumea is an expert on all things “Nortonian.” He’s a respected academic with articles in many respected publications. He tells us that Emperor Norton I is surrounded in myth and apocrypha. Lumea starts his lecture by asking, “ Will the Real Emperor Norton Please Stand Up?” Amster rises from his seat in the center of the room, but Lumea isn’t going for it. “Nice try.”
There are two Emperor Nortons. There is the historical Emperor Norton. We do know much about his life. There is also the mythical, folklore Emperor Norton. Maybe more than any other figure in San Francisco’s history, Emperor Norton’s life was embellished by stories, especially newspaper stories printed during his time.
Reporters, including Robert Louis Stevenson, loved to write about Norton. Mark Twain portrayed him as “The King” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Unfortunately some reporters created their own stories and even proclamations that they passed off as coming from the Emperor. This sold newspapers, but it created much confusion.
One of the more popular acts on the Wharf was Bushman. His act was primitive and ingenious. About twenty years ago a middle aged black man set himself up on a sidewalk on Bay Street. He hid himself behind bushes that he had brought with him. Bushman was patient. He preyed on fear. He was a hunter. Tourists had plenty to distract them. Bushman usually picked someone who looked distracted and off in their own world for a minute. They were usually looking around or talking when Bushman would shake the bushes and give a low guttural shout. Sometimes just shaking the bushes worked. People jumped and cried out in surprise.
Then came the real fun. People who had been scared would go across the street and wait for the next victim. Sometimes there were twenty five or thirty people watching the show. Bushman had learned to make them wait across the street. Too many people standing around the bushes would blow his cover.
People would be startled, but after the initial fright most laughed. A few were not amused. I saw one guy screaming right in Bushman’s face. Bushman faced some legal scrutiny after Wharf merchants complained. The City was afraid someone would drop dead of a heart attack.
There is a surprising amount of controversy and debate around the Emperor’s correct birth date. His gravestone in Colma says 1819. Lumea says that research into circumcision records says the date is 1818. A quote in an old newspaper article about his birthday says it’s 1818. It’s believed the date on the gravestone is in error. Maybe there should just be another celebration next year.
Lumea recaps the biographical facts that we know for sure. Joshua Norton arrived in San Francisco in 1849. He was what was called a man of means back then. He had $40,000 when he landed, and he invested in the wild real estate market of Gold Rush San Francisco. Soon his fortune rose to $250,000, a very considerable sum for the time, but Norton wanted more. He tried to corner the supply of rice in San Francisco. When ships loaded with rice unexpectedly arrived in the Bay, he was ruined.
A year and a half later Joshua Norton entered the offices the San Francisco Evening Bulletin and declared that the people of San Francisco had made him Emperor of the United States. He demanded his proclamation be printed. It’s thought that the editor printed it as a joke on a slow news day. Readers loved it.
The Emperor fit right in. It’s hard to imagine what those first days of his reign were like. Why were the people of San Francisco so ready to adopt him? San Francisco has always been a boom and bust town. Maybe that generated more sympathy for those down on their luck. Those that had succeeded in their new world realized that if fate had been slightly different, they might not have been so lucky.
It’s interesting that someone who had schemed to create a monopoly became so popular. He must have had some charm. The Emperor was welcome to dine in the best restaurants for free. He was adopted and cared for by the people of San Francisco. The Emperor appeared at important civic events and was treated as a local dignitary. He was invited to the parties of high society. His proclamations were closely followed by newspaper readers. San Francisco loved Emperor Norton I.
Did he leave San Francisco for a year and a half, or did he stay in San Francisco and just kept a low profile? We don’t know for sure, Lumea thinks he stayed in the City. We also don’t know what he did in South America before he came to San Francisco.
Many of his proclamations were created by newspaper editors. Emperor Norton stories sold newspapers. There is debate now over what proclamations were real. An enraged Emperor chose an abolitionist newspaper, The Pacific Appeal, to be his official mouthpiece. It was owned and operated by African-Americans.
Lumea says that Norton was probably better off and more respected than we think. Early pictures of him show a gaunt figure. We can see he was well fed. As the years went by we can see his girth grow in pictures of him. The Emperor was not a teetotaler, but there’s not much evidence of his drinking. He was a member of all the “right clubs” and “knew the right people.” The Masons paid the rent on his small boarding house room.
An over zealous police officer arrested the Emperor and tried to have him committed. The City quickly rose to Norton’s defense. Police officers then had to salute the Emperor. It must have been a comic sight.
Interest in The Emperor has come in waves. Lumea says that in the Twenties and Thirties there were still locals around who had seen or at least heard about him. There was a resurgence of interest when he was reinterred in 1934. Newspapers told his story again when his remains were moved from San Francisco’s Masonic Cemetery and reburied in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Colma.
Lumea uses a paperback published in 1939 as an example of the misinformation spread about The Emperor. “San Francisco’s Emperor Norton. The Story of Norton I, Emperor of America, and Protector of Mexico” was written by David Warren Ryder. Lumea is a disciplined historian, “There is no attribution. There are no footnotes!” He recounts one story from the small book as an example. The Emperor is credited with starting the tradition of having a large Christmas tree in Union Square. Despite his curmudgeonly appearance he loved kids, and apparently they were drawn to him too. He came up with the idea of putting up a Christmas tree.
Some merchants thought it was a good idea. They bankrolled the installation of “the largest fir tree in San Francisco.” Ryder describes Emperor Norton beaming at the happiness he’s brought to the local ragamuffins. To most it would be a heart warming story. Emperor Norton as Santa Claus.
The problem is that it’s probably not true. There is a date for the ceremony in the book. An event like this would have been covered in the competing newspapers of the time. There is no article in any newspaper about it. Emperor Norton was getting a lot of attention in the daily newspapers. Lumea says there should be a verifying article somewhere.
When I first visited San Francisco someone told me about The Human Jukebox: “You’ve got to see this guy!” On the lawn near Aquatic Park there was a large hand painted box. Arrows pointed to a brightly colored slot calling for donations. When money went into the slot a door on top of the box opened and The Human Jukebox played. The quality of the performance depended on the amount of the donation. Spare change got you a short toot on a kazoo. I did see someone put in a twenty dollar bill once and The Human Jukebox did deliver quite a performance. The Human Jukebox did take requests. I never saw him get stumped.
The Human Jukebox was pretty intense. He tried to stay hidden in the box. Always on the edge, he ran afoul of the authorities when he was caught selling marijuana. This was a different era. It became a big story. Youth had been corrupted at a popular tourist destination. The Human Jukebox did return to the Wharf area, but it never seemed the same. He was mentally ill and wound up in a homeless encampment.
Even in the early days of the Internet there were references and web sites mentioning Emperor Norton. It was an oddly popular subject on the early Internet. There was another spike in interest in 2005.
Was the Bay Bridge the Emperor’s idea? Lumea says there are newspaper references to building a bridge across the Bay to Oakland before his proclamation, but the Emperor did have an idea for an underground tube under the Bay!
Lumea says that even full biographies of the Emperor have misinformation in them. Even “the Drury book” has errors. (Norton I. Emperor of the United States. A Biography of One of America’s Most Colorful Eccentrics by William Drury. Dodd, Mead. 1986.) Another imperial biography is Allan Stanley Lane’s “Emperor Norton. Mad Monarch of America.”
Lumea was doing such a great job of debunking some of the myths surrounding Emperor Norton that I started to wonder if he was a loyal subject. The historian tells us that an accurate portrayal of the Emperor gives us a better idea of his greatness.
The Emperor had egalitarian, progressive beliefs and views that were very unpopular at the time. He wanted Chinese people to be able to sue in court at a time when they weren’t accepted as witnesses. There is a story that he disrupted one of Dennis Kearney’s anti-Chinese demonstrations. The story is doubtful, but it is known that he spoke out against Kearney. He had chosen an abolitionist newspaper to be his official mouthpiece. He proclaimed that land should be given back to Native Americans.
Maybe it was just safer to have these ideas expressed by someone who was considered mad or at least a bit goofy. The progressive ideas could be laughed off as comic, but they were being said.
There is a Q&A.
What about his currency? Did merchants really honor them? The Emperor did have his own currency and even bonds. Most of them were in the denomination of fifty cents. The California Historical Society collection has a rare five dollar denomination. Lumea says merchants had them printed and they gave them to Norton I to hand out as a form of advertisement. Merchants would honor the Emperor’s notes, but the currency was rarely cashed in.
Lumea points out that the Emperor, and other San Francisco street characters were tourist attractions. They were a big part of the mystique of San Francisco. People did want to see them when they were in San Francisco. Most of the tourists that got the Emperor’s currency took them home as souvenirs. Now they go for nine or ten thousand dollars on EBay. Someone near the front cracks that Emperor Norton foreshadowed Bitcoin!
Was he mentally ill? Lumea says that Norton was never diagnosed. Psychiatry was in its infancy. We do know that he suffered from depression. Lumea says that there really is a “historic personality disorder.” It gave us the old stereotype of the mental patient that thought he was Napoleon.
Did he really have money when he landed in San Francisco? Lumea says that Norton’s father was nearly bankrupt when he passed away. Norton went to South America after leaving South Africa. He did have money when he arrived in San Francisco. Whatever he did in South America is still a mystery. Lumea says that we do know that the rice debacle did happen. It was documented in a court case.
“This isn’t really a question, but a comment.” The Emperor’s proclamation to disband Congress may be needed now more than ever. There’s no argument from this crowd.
Lumea says that we know that Norton sometimes stayed in Berkeley and Oakland. Proclamations were sent out from Brooklyn, California. Brooklyn was a separate town near Lake Merritt in Oakland. He visited the University of Berkeley often and was popular with the students.
Was there really a Proclamation against using the word Frisco? The man in the Emperor’s uniform, Joseph Amster, rises from his chair and recites the Proclamation in his loud, stentorian voice. Use the word Frisco and you will be fined! It is still debated if Norton I made the “Frisco proclamation.” Lumea mentions that during his campaign to eradicate the word Frisco, Herb Caen never mentioned Emperor Norton.
Lumea introduces Katzu and his wife. They are a couple who came from Japan for the Emperor’s Bicentennial events in San Francisco. He wrote a biography of Emperor Norton in Japanese. The friendly couple take a bow. They certainly win the prize for traveling the farthest!
A member of the staff at the museum passes on a question. She says the first thing some people ask her is: What happened to the dogs? Where are they buried? Bummer and Lazarus were a couple of mutts who became as famous as The Emperor. They were not the Emperor’s dogs. They became mascots of San Francisco.
After they died their bodies were displayed in a couple of bars. It was assumed they were lost in the Fire of ’06, but “New information surfaced!” It was learned that the bodies had been sent to the DeYoung Museum for repairs. Unfortunately they became infested with bugs and the bodies had to be destroyed.
It’s a reminder that so much of the history of San Francisco was lost in the Fire of ’06. Most of the City and its history were wiped out. Is this one of the reasons we’re so fascinated by the history of the City?
What was the best depiction of the real Emperor in the media? Someone immediately yells out, “Bonanza!” (A later Google search shows that there was an episode of Bonanza where Sam Jaffe played a very similar character.) Lumea mentions the Sandman comic book created by Neal Gaiman. The Emperor plays a big role in the story. It created another spike of interest in the Emperor.
There will be other events honoring the Bicentennial including a free lunch at the Comstock Saloon on Saturday. “It’s at the border of Chinatown and North Beach.” The Comstock has quite a history. In the old days there really was a free lunch in San Francisco saloons. The price of a drink got you access to a buffet of meat and cheeses. It will take two drinks to get the free lunch on Saturday. “Inflation.” Lumea says that the owners of the Comstock Saloon are big Emperor Norton fans.
There will be an “Emperor Norton’s 200th Birthday Bash” at the Mechanics Library. Unfortunately it is sold out. Lumea says there was a post about it on Facebook.com, and tickets quickly sold out. The Mechanics Library was one of the Emperor’s favorite spots. He wrote many of his proclamations and played chess there.
He may have been better off and saner than we thought, but we know he did have humble lodgings. After his death reporters converged on his small room in a boarding house near today’s Transamerica Building. The reporters confirmed his living conditions. There were nails on the wall for him to hang up his military coats. His funeral was a huge civic affair. Newspaper accounts say thirty thousand lined the route of his last procession.
Carl Nolte paid tribute to the Emperor In his column “Native Son” in Sunday’s Chronicle. He says that the Board of Supervisors paid for the Emperor’s new uniforms when his got shabby. Nolte says that the fake proclamations created by newspaper reporters were “an early example of fake news.”
Nolte mentions some of the other characters who have been lost in the mists of time. At one time San Francisco had been graced by George Washington II, the Money King and Oofty Goofty, among others. Only the Emperor is really remembered today. He embodied the spirit of San Francisco.
There are still traces of the Emperor’s reign in San Francisco. There’s an Emperor Norton Inn on Post Street. Emperor Norton’s Boozeland honors his excellency with a mural. There is a plaque at Empire Park near the site of his old boarding house. The Bay Bridge should have been named after him.
The tech boom has been transforming the City. San Francisco has always changed, but the recent transformation is more ominous. Artists and eccentrics have been leaving. What made San Francisco different from the rest of the universe is being lost. The legacy of Emperor Norton is still celebrated, but will San Francisco lose its identity? The lunatic fringe was always a big part of San Francisco’s unique character. How would Emperor Norton advise us? What would he proclaim?
Details of Bicentennial Norton events and much more on Emperor Norton I are at: www.EmperorNortonat200.org.