As cigar smoke hangs heavy in Mark Twain's sitting room, the members of the Monday Evening Club eagerly await his presentation, which they think will be the reading of his paper The Decay of the Art of Lying. Instead, Twain changes his mind and enthralls his audience with the true tale of one man's unconventional and fascinating journey through life.
It is 1849 when a thirty-one-year-old Jewish South African immigrant sails into San Francisco Bay with forty thousand dollars in his pocket, coming to join the Gold Rush but eventually finding his fortune in real estate and commerce. Just a few short years after Joshua Norton finally realizes success, however, he fails beyond his darkest nightmares. Now delusional and nearly penniless, he proclaims himself the Emperor of the United States as he aimlessly wanders the streets of San Francisco. As Emperor Norton unintentionally becomes a vital part of the young city, the people afford him the respect of a true monarch as he issues proclamations that, under his fictional rule, bring a much-needed renaissance of civility to society.
An Emperor Among Us tells the intriguing tale of a remarkable eccentric who wove a unique, gentle, and civilized thread into the rough and tumble fabric of early San Francisco.
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AN EMPEROR AMONG USThe eccentric life and benevolent reign of Norton I, Emperor of the United States, as told by Mark Twain
By David St. John
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 David St. John
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe cigar smoke hung heavy in Mark Twain's sitting room. Large enough to accommodate all 20 members of the Monday Evening Club, it was not designed as a smoking room for such a large gathering. For a modicum of comfort, the windows were opened for ventilation, despite the cold winter air which wafted through the room, only partially abating the cloud of smoke.
The Monday Evening Club was a private club composed of invited members. Its purpose was to enjoy a fine dinner hosted by a member of the club followed by a presentation, or the reading of a paper by a fellow member of the club. This evening's gathering was hosted by Mr. Mark Twain, and featured a presentation by him as well. He, more than the others, liked the idea of killing two birds with one stone and meeting the two requirements concurrently.
Dinner having been finished, the members gathered in the sitting room, anxious to hear what Mr. Twain had to say. Once they were settled, the whiskey and brandy were poured. Mark Twain removed a cigar from the humidor, went to the front of the room, and stood before the large, crackling fireplace. He placed his glass of whiskey on the mantle, raised his hand, and waited for silence.
"The Trouble Will Begin at Eight." That's the clever slogan I employed when advertising my lectures many years ago in Nevada and California. It worked very well, creating interest in my upcoming appearances. I have resurrected it for the publicity used to promote this evening's festivities: "An Invitation to the Members of the Monday Evening Club. Dinner and a Lecture at the home of Mr. Mark Twain, Hartford, Connecticut. Monday, February 2, 1880. Dinner will be served at six o'clock. The Trouble Will Begin at Eight".
Now, the dinner portion of this proposition has been completed, and it's time for "the trouble" to begin. So sit back, relax, and prepare to be impressed!
Being among friends, and fellow members of the Monday Evening Club, I certainly don't need an introduction. However, I am reminded of the time when I first began giving lectures back in those early days. For one of my early appearances in a place called Red Dog, a mining community near Dutch Flat, I was introduced thusly ...
"... Ladies and gentlemen, I shall not waste any unnecessary time in the introduction. I don't know anything about this man; at least I know only two things about him; one is that he has never been in the penitentiary, and another is that I can't imagine why not."
While you laugh, permit me to pause a moment to light my cigar. You know, as an example to others, and not that I care for moderation, myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep and never to refrain when awake! So, bear with me ...
I would like to make a departure from what I had planned to say to you tonight. It was going to be a reading of my paper on The Decay of the Art of Lying. I'm sure you would have enjoyed it, especially since I am an expert in that subject. But you'll have to wait to hear it – perhaps for my next presentation to this exemplary group.
Tonight, I'm going to tell you a story – a true story – and, as most of you already know, I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.
Chapter TwoI was shocked and saddened when I picked up the January 10th issue of the New York Times and learned that my old friend, Emperor Norton, had dropped dead on a San Francisco street two nights before. First, let me tell you the details of his death, and, in doing so, I'll give you a brief overview of this fascinating man.
Joshua Norton died on Thursday, January 8, at 8:15 in the evening, near the corner of California Street and Dupont (now known as Grant Avenue), across from old St. Mary's Cathedral. The cause, they say, was sanguineous apoplexy – a stroke. Minutes earlier, he had been lumbering along the wet sidewalk, carefully avoiding puddles as he went, having only a few blocks to go to reach his destination – the 8:30 p.m. lecture at the Academy of Sciences. Suddenly he lurched and fell, and ten minutes later he was dead.
Although nearly penniless – a pauper dependent on the goodwill of others – he had proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States and had wandered the streets of San Francisco for 21 years. Had he been a mere mortal, his death would have gone by barely noticed. But as he was the Emperor, notices of his death, I am told, have received more ink and more space in newspapers across this country than any other death since the assassination of President Lincoln.
It was a moonless night, and the sky was dripping with an incessant rain. Although not particularly windy, occasional gusts of wind quickly grabbed ahold of his oversized bamboo umbrella, yanking him forward. The walking stick he held in his right hand was used not only for steadiness, but also as a brake to slow his forward motion as these small gusts showed themselves.
Suddenly, his steps halted as he froze for a moment. He moved a bit, froze again, and then pitched violently forward. The umbrella flew from his hands, skidding a distance along the street and his walking stick dropped and cracked as it hit the ground, bouncing into the gutter. He fell to the sidewalk, first to his knees, then to his side, and finally rolling to a prone position. His large beaver hat fell off his head and rolled along the wet pavement, into the gutter.
A gentleman, walking nearby, witnessed the old man's fall and came running to assist. He quickly saw that this was more than just a fall. The old man, whom he recognized, was convulsing, and his beard was covered with spittle. He hollered out to anyone who would hear, "Call for help! It's the Emperor! He's having an attack!" Other people gathered near, and a local policeman walking his beat responded by calling for a carriage to take the old man to the City Receiving Hospital.
The crowd had grown and the questions and theories had begun. "What happened? Is he alive? Who is it? Oh, my God! It's Emperor Norton!"
The Emperor was placed in a sitting posture with his back supported against the side of the building. One brave soul had removed his own coat and placed it behind the Emperor's head, and the group of onlookers huddled close so as to protect him as best they could from the wind and the rain.
Despite their best efforts, intentions and prayers, he died before the carriage arrived. It was the end of the reign of San Francisco's famous citizen, Emperor Norton I, the Emperor of the United States.
Of course, he wasn't an emperor. Joshua Norton had sailed into San Francisco Bay 31 years earlier, in 1849, at the age of 31, with $40,000 in his pocket. Within four years, he had increased his fortune to about a quarter million dollars. In another four years he was penniless. In a singular stroke of bad luck he had lost it all. He also appeared to lose his sanity and sense of reality – at least as far as his own person was concerned. He disappeared for a time, then reappeared – much the worse for wear, and still without funds – proclaiming himself to be the Emperor of the United States. For a short time, he even added the title, "Protector of Mexico", in deference to our southern neighbors. Norton spent the rest of his life wandering the streets of San Francisco, making and enforcing his proclamations, selling his own private currency, and looking out for the best interests of his adopted city.
From his youth, he suffered under the constant delusion that he was a displaced Bourbon prince. Convinced that he was of royal blood, he felt he deserved the respect that comes with it. Despite the fact that he was merely a common man – a Jewish merchant from South Africa – and despite the fact that he was truly a failure in business, the people of San Francisco generally entertained his notions and played along with his fantasy.
He had become a fixture in early San Francisco. From the day he sailed into the bay in the autumn of 1849, to the day he declared himself "Emperor of the United States" in 1859, until this cold, wet January evening in 1880, Joshua Norton's life was an important part of the life and growth of the city.
Although a pauper, the people of the city fawned over him. Bankers bowed to him. Politicians groveled. Business leaders gave him gifts. Later in his reign, even policemen saluted. He dined in some of the city's best restaurants for free. He always had complimentary seats at the theatre, and he travelled gratis on the railroads.
On the morning following his death, the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle said it all: "Le Roi Est Mort" – The King is Dead. It elaborated:
On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night under the dripping rain, and surrounded by a hastily gathered crowd of wondering strangers, Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.
His death was reported across the country. Newspapers in Seattle, Portland, Denver, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and New York devoted a great deal of space to his death.
A major newspaper in Ohio gave him one of the longest headlines ever. It read as follows:
LAID LOW: Emperor Norton Gives Up the Ghost and Surrenders His Scepter to the Man on the Pale Horse. The City by the Golden Gate Mourns Her Illustrious Dead. An Emperor Without Enemies, a King Without a Kingdom, Gone to Kingdom Come. Supported in Life by the Willing Tribute of a Free People, He Drops Dead at a Street Corner and Now Knows What Lies Beyond.
I like the part about "a king without a kingdom gone to Kingdom Come". It also says he now knows what lies beyond. As for me, I would find it difficult to make up my mind which way to go, as each place has its advantages: Heaven for climate, and Hell for company!
People described Joshua Norton in many ways, using many adjectives: He was proud, polite, fair, congenial, intelligent, noble, and wise. He was a visionary and a statesman, and under his fictional rule, San Francisco experienced a renaissance of civility.
Emperor Norton's death comes, ironically, at a time when I have been writing my next book, and basing one of the characters on this very man.
Most of you know that for my last book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I based the main character on a number of boys I knew when I was one among them back on the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri. Some of you also know that I gave him his name in honor of another old friend in San Francisco – the firefighter and hero, Tom Sawyer. I knew Tom when I was a reporter for the Daily Morning Call. Today, by the grace of God, he is still healthy and currently holds the appointed position of Inspector in the San Francisco Custom House.
But not so for Emperor Norton. He's dead. However, he will live on in my memory, in the memories of the good people of San Francisco, and after tonight, in your memories, as well.
My new book, tentatively titled The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade), is due for publication sometime within the next few years. It will feature a character, a grifter, known only as "The King". I have based him on Emperor Norton. He is not based on Norton's morality nor his generous spirit – as the character of the King is the antithesis of the Emperor's – but, rather, The King is based on the Emperor's dress and his demeanor.
So allow me to tell you about this fascinating man, whose society I enjoyed for a time, and whose life I have followed, with great interest, ever since.
Chapter ThreeIn June, 1849, Joshua Norton caught the fever. It wasn't the kind of fever that raises your body temperature and gives you a cough and a sniffle. This fever inflames your body in another way. It speeds up your heartbeat and blinds your eyes to almost everything but the dazzling prospects of finding your fortune buried in the ground. Like many other men from all seven continents, Joshua Norton caught the gold fever.
This discovery of gold occurred at Sutter's Mill in the hills of California in January, 1848. It created an excitement that spread not like a wildfire, but more as a simmer turning to a boil. News traveled slowly in those days. By late 1848 it had reached the East Coast of America, and by 1849 it reached South America and Europe and even all the way to South Africa, which Joshua Norton called home.
Joshua's life in that faraway place was not a fulfilling one. He did not have the happiest childhood, although his parents did their best to provide for their children. Joshua was born in London, in 1818, to Jewish parents. In 1820, when Joshua was only two, they answered a call to help the Jewish community in South Africa. They pulled up stakes and moved the family to Cape Town.
A major part of Joshua's unhappiness stemmed from his heartfelt, though unfounded, belief that he was actually a dispossessed Bourbon monarch from France, adopted by this well-meaning Jewish couple. Where it came from, no one knows, but this belief greatly affected his childhood in South Africa and it had a major impact upon his adult life in San Francisco.
Joshua was well loved by his parents. He was afforded a fairly good education, but one would have to consider him very much a self-educated individual. He developed a love for reading and studying. He spent many hours forgoing the activities of the other children in favor of a good history book, or one about science and invention. He had every reason to be grateful – and he was – but he was still haunted by the belief that he was a royal child under protection in this faraway corner of the world.
There was one other youthful influence that had a lasting effect on Joshua's life. One of the local characters in Cape Town during his childhood was a man named Isaac Moses whose antics delighted Joshua, and memories of whom would stay with him. Known as "Old Moses, the Moneychanger", he was a former soldier – a captain of the 60th Regiment. Moses had been an officer in the garrison. Even though long retired from service, he was still allowed to live in the barracks located in the Castle of Good Hope which was nestled on the beach at the base of Table Mountain. The castle, shaped like a five-pointed star, had been built in 1666 and was the oldest structure in all of South Africa.
Using the castle as his home base, Old Moses would parade up and down the Heerengracht (the "Gentlemen's Walk") in Cape Town, yelling, "Alles flaussen and homboggery!" – translated loosely as, "It's all meaningless". A town oddity, he was the butt of many jokes. He wore eccentric clothing; an old, faded army uniform, a camel hair cloak, a wide-brimmed hat, and a leather bag slung around his neck. He smoked from a long elaborately-carved Meerschaum pipe.
Old Moses had a soft spot for children, and Joshua often saw him grumpily moving down the street, shouting his message, only to suddenly smile and greet whatever young people he passed. Joshua would salute the old man, and was always delighted when the old, uniformed officer would salute him back. In spite of his usual cantankerous disposition, Old Moses commanded respect from the sentries at the gates of the castle barracks. Their practice was to present arms whenever he approached. If anyone failed to show proper respect, Moses would excoriate them. Joshua was impressed with the degree of affection and respect people had for the old man, and he never forgot it. This was probably the strongest and most enduring memory of his childhood.
For a number of years, as a young man, Joshua worked for his father in his general merchandise and ship's chandlery store in Cape Town. Later, he opened his own store in nearby Algoa Bay. Eventually, he was ready for a major change in his life. His business, Joshua Norton & Company, had failed within 18 months. His mother had already died, as had his two brothers – one from illness, the other by a fall from a horse. In 1848 his father died while on a trip back to England to find a rabbi for their synagogue in Cape Town. Ten days after his ship docked, he was dead, leaving Joshua, now alone in South Africa, with a $40,000 inheritance. At age 31, new dreams were forming in Joshua's mind, and when, in early 1849, he read accounts of the discovery of gold in California, he thought he knew where his future lay.
Excerpted from AN EMPEROR AMONG US by David St. John Copyright © 2012 by David St. John. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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