Home -> Other California History Books -> California Sketches - Second Series -> The Emperor Norton

Previous Page Home
Up One Level
Next Page


The Emperor Norton.

That was his title. He wore it with an air that was a strange mixture of the mock-heroic and the pathetic. He was mad on this one point, and strangely shrewd and well-informed on almost every other. Arrayed in a faded-blue uniform, with brass buttons and epaulettes, wearing a cocked-hat with an eagle's feather, and at times with a rusty sword at his side, he was a conspicuous figure in the streets of San Francisco, and a regular habitue of all its public places. In person he was stout, full-chested, though slightly stooped, with a large head heavily coated with bushy black hair, an aquiline nose, and dark gray eyes, whose mild expression added to the benignity of his face. On the end of his nose grew a tuft of long hairs, which he seemed to prize as a natural mark of royalty, or chieftainship. Indeed, there was a popular legend afloat that he was of true royal blood - a stray Bourbon, or something of the sort. His speech was singularly fluent and elegant. The Emperor was one of the celebrities that no visitor failed to see. It is said that his mind was unhinged by a sudden loss of fortune in the early days, by the treachery of a partner in trade. The sudden blow was deadly, and the quiet, thrifty, affable man of business became a wreck. By nothing is the inmost quality of a man made more manifest than by the manner in which he meets misfortune. One, when the sky darkens, having strong impulse and weak will, rushes into suicide; another, with a large vein of cowardice, seeks to drown the sense of disaster in strong drink; yet another, tortured in every fiber of a sensitive organization, flees from the scene of his troubles and the faces of those that know him, preferring exile to shame. The truest man, when assailed by sudden calamity, rallies all the reserved forces of a splendid manhood to meet the shock, and, like a good ship, lifting itself from the trough of the swelling sea, mounts the wave and rides on. It was a curious idiosyncrasy that led this man, when fortune and reason were swept away at a stroke, to fall back upon this imaginary imperialism. The nature that could thus, when the real fabric of life was wrecked, construct such another by the exercise of a disordered imagination, must have been originally of a gentle and magnanimous type. The broken fragments of mind, like those of a statue, reveal the quality of the original creation. It may be that he was happier than many who have worn real crowns. Napoleon at Chiselhurst, or his greater uncle at St. Helena, might have been gainer by exchanging lots with this man, who had the inward joy of conscious greatness without its burden and its perils. To all public places he had free access, and no pageant was complete without his presence. From time to time he issued proclamations, signed "Norton I.," which the lively San Francisco dailies were always ready to print conspicuously in their columns. The style of these proclamations was stately, the royal first person plural being used by him with all gravity and dignity. Ever and anon, as his uniform became dilapidated or ragged, a reminder of the condition of the imperial wardrobe would be given in one or more of the newspapers, and then in a few days he would appear in a new suit. He had the entree of all the restaurants, and he lodged - nobody knew where. It was said that he was cared for by members of the Freemason Society to which he belonged at the time of his fall. I saw him often in my congregation in the Pine-street church, along in 1858, and into the sixties. He was a respectful and attentive listener to preaching. On the occasion of one of his first visits he spoke to me after the service, saying, in a kind and patronizing tone:

"I think it my duty to encourage religion and morality by showing myself at church, and to avoid jealousy I attend them all in turn."

He loved children, and would come into the Sunday-school, and sit delighted with their singing. When, in distributing the presents on a Christmas-tree, a necktie was handed him as the gift of the young ladies, he received it with much satisfaction, making a kingly bow of gracious acknowledgment. Meeting him one day, in the springtime, holding my little girl by the hand, he paused, looked at the child's bright face, and taking a rose-bud from his button-hole, he presented it to her with a manner so graceful, and a smile so benignant, as to show that under the dingy blue uniform there beat the heart of a gentleman. He kept a keen eye on current events, and sometimes expressed his views with great sagacity. One day he stopped me on the street, saying:

"I have just read the report of the political sermon of Dr. - (giving the name of a noted sensational preacher, who was in the habit, at times, of discussing politics from his pulpit). I disapprove political - preaching. What do you think?"

I expressed my cordial concurrence.

"I will put a stop to it. The preachers must stop preaching politics, or they must all come into one State Church. I will at once issue a decree to that effect."

For some unknown reason, that decree never was promulgated.

After the war, he took a deep interest in the reconstruction of the Southern States. I met him one day on Montgomery street, when he asked me in a tone and with a look of earnest solicitude:

"Do you hear any complaint or dissatisfaction concerning me from the South?"

I gravely answered in the negative.

"I was for keeping the country undivided, but I have the kindest feeling for the Southern people, and will see that they are protected in all their rights. Perhaps if I were to go among them in person, it might have a good effect. What do you think?"

I looked at him keenly as I made some suitable reply, but could see nothing in his expression but simple sincerity. He seemed to feel that he was indeed the father of his people. George Washington himself could not have adopted a more paternal tone.

Walking along the street behind the Emperor one day, my curiosity was a little excited by seeing him thrust his hand into the hip-pocket of his blue trousers with sudden energy. The hip-pocket, by the way, is a modern American stupidity, associated in the popular mind with rowdyism, pistol shooting, and murder. Hip-pockets should be abolished wherever there are courts of law and civilized men and women. But what was the Emperor after? Withdrawing his hand just as I overtook him, the mystery was revealed - it grasped a thick Bologna sausage, which he began to eat with unroyal relish. It gave me a shock, but he was not the first royal personage who has exhibited low tastes and carnal hankerings.

He was seldom made sport of or treated rudely. I saw him on one occasion when a couple of passing hoodlums jeered at him. He turned and gave them a look so full of mingled dignity, pain, and surprise, that the low fellows were abashed, and uttering a forced laugh, with averted faces they hurried on. The presence that can bring shame to a San Francisco hoodlum must indeed be kingly, or in some way impressive. In that genus the beastliness and devilishness of American city-life reach their lowest denomination when the brutality of the savage and the lowest forms of civilized vice are combined, human nature touches bottom.

The Emperor never spoke of his early life. The veil of mystery on this point increased the popular curiosity concerning him, and invested him with something of a romantic interest. There was one thing that excited his disgust and indignation. The Bohemians of the San Francisco press got into the practice of attaching his name to their satires and hits at current follies, knowing that the well-known "Norton I." at the end would insure a reading. This abuse of the liberty of the press he denounced with dignified severity, threatening extreme measures unless it were stopped. But nowhere on earth did the press exhibit more audacity, or take a wider range, and it would have required a sterner heart and a stronger hand than that of Norton I. to put a hook into its jaws.

The end of all human grandeur, real or imaginary, comes at last. The Emperor became thinner and more stooped as the years passed. The humor of his hallucination retired more and more into the background, and its pathetic side came out more strongly. His step was slow and feeble, and there was that look in his eyes so often seen in the old and sometimes in the young, just before the great change comes - a rapt, far-away look, suggesting that the invisible is coming into view, the shadows vanishing and the realities appearing. The familiar face and form were missed on the streets, and it was known that he was dead. He had gone to his lonely lodging, and quietly lain down and died. The newspapers spoke of him with pity and respect, and all San Francisco took time, in the midst of its roar-and-rush fever of perpetual excitement, to give a kind thought to the dead man who had passed over to the life where all delusions are laid aside, where the mystery of life shall be revealed, and where we shall see that through all its tangled web ran the golden thread of mercy. His life was an illusion, and the thousands who sleep with him in Lone Mountain waiting the judgment-day were his brothers.


Previous Page
Up One Level
Next Page