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  • The Emperor of the United States December 14, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing heard today some sad news from Perugia (central Italy) where Compagno Paolo, a Perugian eccentric and perpetual member of the Communist Party (twenty years after the Soviet Union was found out) has just passed away. Paolo was, certainly, a legend in the modest Umbrian capital where he was loved by many and known to all. A local tour guide (the Little Blue) gives an idea of what he was like – though the present tense is clearly now inappropriate:

    ‘Paolo is a died-hard Communist who went as a journalist to document American terrorism in Nicaragua in the 1980s, where a bomb allegedly exploded near him. Paolo gives a daily [public] ‘declamation’, a sort of free verse political poem… He’s tall, wears glasses, is balding and wears button-up shirts with his tie(s) draped around his neck (untied usually), and walks with a noticeable limp. I asked him why he wears two ties sometimes and he replied: ‘everybody has one’. He also samizdat publishes three different broadsides, for which he writes most of the articles under various  versions of the name Paolo. He’s very sweet, speaks several different language and will salute you with the phrase ‘good day comrade!’ in your language.’

    Beachcombing thought that, in way of tribute to Paolo, who he once had the pleasure of meeting, he would today play at Plutarch and write a parallel life, that of the Emperor Joshua Norton, aka Norton the First (obit 1880).

    Beachcombing should start by saying that there was nothing in Joshua Norton’s background that suggested the dizzy heights to which he would later climb. He was born into relative poverty in England, lived much of his early years in South Africa and came to San Francisco aged about thirty – dates from the first half of Norton’s life are vague. Then, for a while, JN prospered on the west coast. Indeed, from 1849 to 1853,  he multiplied his initial capital becoming ‘someone’ in the local business community. However, a bad investment in Peruvian rice brought him to ruin. Isn’t Peru always at the bottom of the world’s woes?

    In 1858, after years of legal wrangling, he was declared bankrupt and he disappeared from his adopted city or at least became invisible there. What happened in the next months no one has been able to establish: it was presumably a time of enormous emotional turmoil. But when Norton reappeared he sported a blue uniform with golden epaulettes and referred to himself as ‘the Emperor of the United States’.

    Even the maddest among us know to keep our delusions of grandeur to ourselves or, in the cases of the more hardened, our immediate circle. Norton entirely lacked though this sense of modesty and – oh happy day! – 17 September 1859, he prepared a decree.

    At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.

    Beachcombing has tried over the years to answer, to his own satisfaction, two questions about JN.

    First, where was Norton in those missing pre-imperial months between bankruptcy and self coronation? Beachcombing, perhaps taking the first sentence of his decree too seriously, wonders if he didn’t wander around the US on the nineteenth-century equivalent of a road trip. Or did he simply hide out in SF waiting for inspiration?

    Two, Beachcombing would also love to know whether Norton was a trainee eccentric before the traumas of bankruptcy or whether bankruptcy fundamentally changed him: we have though no early records that give us any insight into JN’s character.

    What is certain is that his decree would have sunk without a trace if the then editor of the San Francisco Bulletin had not published it for cheap laughs. That act of publication was what confirmed Norton’s imperial destiny in the city, and likely in Norton’s mind too.

    From 1859-1880 Norton ruled as Emperor of the United States. If he had travelled to Los Angeles or New York his acts – at least before he became nationally famous – would have got him in the lock up for a night. But in San Francisco the local population came to adore him. His various deeds were celebrated, his own specially printed currency was accepted in many shops (see above), and he released decree on decree against an illegal Congress, even ordering at one time, ‘his’ armed forces in to get rid of that illegitimate house!

    As always with figures of Norton’s calibre it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.

    Damn it! It is even difficult to separate fiction from his lifetime from more modern fiction about ‘the Emperor’.

    Did JN really, for example, interpose himself between SF rioters and ethnic Chinese preventing a pogrom of his oriental subjects? It all sounds a little too pat and modern – though we know that Norton had strong views on racial discrimination. Perhaps the detail that JN broke up the rioters with the Lord’s prayer is authentically nineteenth century?

    Beachcombing can, however, quote with approval the words of one San Francisco newspaper when the Emperor was  accidentally arrested: ‘The Emperor Norton has never shed blood. He has robbed no one, and despoiled no country. And that, gentlemen, is a hell of a lot more than can be said for anyone else in the king line’!

    No question about that.

    For Beachcombing two facts stand out about Norton, bookends for his Imperial phase and perhaps a more general lesson in living. In 1870 Norton was described as ‘Emporer’ (sic) and insane in the US census and, yet, when he died penniless in 1880, ten thousand came to see him lying ‘in state’.

    Beachcombing is always on the look out for royal eccentrics and forgotten kingdoms. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com