Saturday, July 10, 2010

Emperor Little Earl, Anyone?

I'd heard of the Gold Rush, the Barbary Coast, and the 1906 Earthquake, but only just now have I finally become acquainted with Emperor Norton, the one and only "Emperor of the United States" and "Protector of Mexico":
Norton emigrated from South Africa to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving a bequest of $40,000 from his father's estate. He enjoyed a good deal of success in the real estate market and by the early 1850s had accumulated a fortune of $250,000. Norton thought he saw a business opportunity when China, facing a severe famine, placed a ban on the export of rice, causing the price of rice in San Francisco to skyrocket from four cents per pound to thirty-six cents per pound (9 cents/kg to 79 cents/kg). When he heard that the Glyde, which was returning from Peru, was carrying 200,000 pounds (91,000 kg) of rice, he bought the entire shipment for $25,000 (or twelve and a half cents per pound), hoping to corner the market.

Shortly after he signed the contract, several other shiploads of rice arrived from Peru causing the price of rice to plummet to three cents a pound. Norton tried to void the contract, stating that the dealer had misled him as to the quality of rice to expect. From 1853 to 1857, Norton and the rice dealers were involved in a protracted litigation. Although Norton prevailed in the lower courts, the case reached the Supreme Court of California, which ruled against Norton. Later on, the Lucas Turner and Company Bank foreclosed on his real estate holdings in North Beach to pay Norton's debt. Norton's mental state was severely affected by these financial setbacks. He declared bankruptcy in 1858 and left the city for a time. There are no known documents noting that Norton had an eccentric personality prior to the loss of his fortune, so it is not known whether his pronounced eccentricity was a permanent aspect of his character or arose as a result of the stressful financial straits he found himself in during the 1850s. Nonetheless, after his sudden loss of financial stability, Norton became (in the absence of a proper diagnosis) somewhat "odd", exhibiting the symptoms often referred to as "delusions of grandeur".
You don't say.
When Norton returned to San Francisco from his self-imposed exile, he had become completely disgruntled with what he considered the vicissitudes and inadequacies of the legal and political structures of the United States. On September 17, 1859, he took matters into his own hands and distributed letters to the various newspapers in the city, proclaiming himself "Emperor of these United States":

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 U. S.; 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.

NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.
This reminds me of the time our summer camp program director left me in charge for a day, and I declared myself "King" of the entire summer camp. Zrbo can vouch for me on this.
In accordance with his self-appointed role of emperor, Norton issued numerous decrees on matters of the state. After assuming absolute control over the country, he saw no further need for a legislature, and on October 12, 1859, he issued a decree that formally "dissolved" the United States Congress...Norton's orders obviously had no effect on the Army, and the Congress likewise continued in its activities unperturbed. Norton issued further decrees in 1860 that purported to dissolve the republic and to forbid the assembly of any members of the Congress. Norton's battle against the elected leaders of America was to persist throughout what he considered his reign, though it appears that Norton eventually, if somewhat grudgingly, accepted that Congress would continue to exist without his permission, although this did not change his feelings on the matter.

I'm surprised to learn that the much deprecated nickname "Frisco" existed even back in the 1870s, and that it was just as irritating to native San Franciscans then as it is to them now:
The failure to refer to Norton's adopted home city with appropriate respect was the subject of a particularly stern edict in 1872:

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.
I concur!
Norton spent his days as emperor inspecting the streets of San Francisco in an elaborate blue uniform with gold-plated epaulets, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco. He also wore a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. He frequently enhanced this regal posture with a cane or an umbrella. During his inspections, Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, and the appearance of police officers. Norton would also frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot at the time.
Perhaps we should refer to our current homeless people as "emperors"?
In 1867, a police officer named Armand Barbier arrested Norton for the purpose of committing him to involuntary treatment for a mental disorder. The arrest outraged the citizens of San Francisco and sparked a number of scathing editorials in the newspapers. Police Chief Patrick Crowley speedily rectified matters by ordering Norton released and issuing a formal apology on behalf of the police force. Chief Crowley observed of the self-styled monarch "that 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 was magnanimous enough to grant an "Imperial Pardon" to the errant young police officer. Possibly as a result of this scandal, all police officers of San Francisco thereafter saluted Norton as he passed in the street.
What a silly police officer! Some of the items found in Emperor Norton's room upon his death were "fake telegrams purporting to be from Emperor Alexander II of Russia, congratulating Norton on his forthcoming marriage to Queen Victoria, and from the President of France, predicting that such a union would be disastrous to world peace. Also found were his letters to Queen Victoria and 98 shares of stock in a defunct gold mine." Apparently his remains were transferred to Woodlawn Cemetary in Colma. Field trip, anybody?

4 comments:

Herr Zrbo said...

Emperor Norton appears in The Illuminatus! Trilogy, my all time favorite book.

Peter Matthew Reed said...

He had a fortune of $250,000 and went bankrupt because he lost c.$20,000 in a rice deal? Something else is going on there. I know there would be lawyers fees etc, but even those blood-sucking hellfiends wouldn't take THAT much money, would they?

Little Earl said...

Apparently Emperor Norton is "a patron saint in the religion of Discordianism," which appears to be the most amusingly bizarre religion I have ever come across:

"It was founded circa 1958–1959 by Malaclypse the Younger with the publication of its principal text, the Principia Discordia. There is some division as to whether it should be regarded as a parody religion, and if so to what degree.[1] It has been called "Zen for roundeyes", based on similarities with absurdist interpretations of the Rinzai school. Discordianism recognizes chaos, discord, and dissent as valid and desirable qualities, in contrast with most religions, which idealize harmony and order."

Zrbo I'm sure this is older than old news to you. Forgive me for quoting a little more:

"Discordians who do not form their own sects, whether they belong to someone else's sect or not, make up the Legion of Dynamic Discord, and may be referred to as Legionnaires. Would-be Discordians are told in the Principia Discordia:

If you want in on the Discordian Society

then declare yourself what you wish
do what you like
and tell us about it
or
if you prefer
don't.

There are no rules anywhere.
The Goddess Prevails.
—Malaclypse the Younger, Principia Discordia, Page 00032"

Well of course.

"The word Chao (pronounced similarly to "cow") was coined as the singular of chaos. In the Discordian religion the chao is a symbol of the 'pataphysical nature of reality; singular instances of chaos being at the center of 'pataphysical theory. The word is a pun that enables the following quatrain in the Principia Discordia:

To diverse gods
Do mortals bow;
Holy Cow, and
Wholly Chao."

This sounds like Vonnegut's Bokononism, except not as obviously a joke.

yoggoth said...

I'd say that Discordianism is even more obviously a joke as Bokononism is actually sort of what Vonnegut believed.