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Zanies: The World’s Greatest Eccentrics
Episode 2: The Emperor’s Journey
“I am the Emperor of the United States, Pain. I am content to be what I am. What more than that could any man desire?”
Neil Gaiman: The Sandman #31 – Three Septembers and a January
Today we share the true story of Norton I, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico.
The Emperor’s story has been told before; by Neil Gaiman, Robert Anton Wilson, Christopher Moore, Robert Louis Stevenson and many others.
In typical Infinite Loops fashion, we think that the mythological significance the story has adopted in popular culture since the Emperor’s death in 1880 is indicative of a profound underlying truth. We’ll get to that later.
But first, the story…
Part 1: Emperor of the United States
Death of a Founder
Our story begins in November 1849, with the arrival of English-born Joshua Norton in San Francisco in pursuit of the gold rush fortunes that were transforming California.
Norton steadily amassed a fortune, buying up cheap land and selling it at high rates, operating as a business agent and broker for several other operations, and dealing in high demand goods such as coffee and rice.
It was during this period that the moniker ‘emperor’ was born – an affectionate term used by fellow San Franciscans in acknowledgment of Norton’s business acumen. Norton would amiably reject the title of emperor – the warm glow of his financial success was sufficient to dispel any need for grandiose titles.
Then came the fall.
Norton’s dramatic decline was triggered by the most mundane of causes: rice prices.
Seeking to capitalise on a rice shortage driven by an export ban in China, Norton attempted to corner the market. Alas, an unexpected influx of Peruvian rice flooded San Francisco. Norton tried to buy up the incoming rice, but the arrival of several more shipments crashed the price and left him on the hook to a rice dealer for a huge payment. After lengthy litigation, Norton was forced to pay the triumphant dealer. He was ruined.
Birth of an Emperor
$50,000 in debt, Norton disappeared from the public eye. Until:
“On September 16, 1854, a curious-looking gentleman entered the editorial offices of the San Francisco Call. He was dressed in a comic-opera uniform, a dark blue army officer’s uniform with golden epaulets, a red sash and a tarnished sword dangling from his short, squat frame. The man’s face was darkly and heavily bearded and on his head sat a tall beaver hat with a brass clip which held three bright feathers. The visitor’s pants were blue with yellow stripes down the outside seams, pants such as an admiral might wear. (The costume, it was later learned had been donated by the commanding general at the Presidio.)
This strangely attired creature quietly placed a formal-looking document upon the desk of the Call’s editor. In a low voice the visitor stated: “It is my request that you print this decree in your next edition.” He then turned on his 268 heel and marched from the newspaper office.”
The following day, the San Francisco Call ran the following statement:
“At the preemptory 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 nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, 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 February 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 and Protector of Mexico”
The Emperor was born.
Reign of an Emperor
Over the next 26 years, the Emperor become a figure of legend on the streets of San Francisco.
He was fed, bed and watered for free by the establishments of the city and presented with gifts by the citizenry. He was granted free travel. He was paid tax “on account” by financial leaders, usually $1. He was, after an unfortunate run in with an uninformed police officer, personally escorted out of his cell by an apologetic chief of police.
These acts of respect for the self-appointed sovereign were not unreciprocated. The Emperor took his role gravely seriously. He issued numerous decrees voicing his “concern for the public welfare and integrity of the United States.” His attempts to abolish congress, together with the Democrat and Republican parties, never gathered momentum, however he was invited to social events and political gatherings throughout the city and the state capital, Sacramento.
The Emperor’s numerous interventions were consistently public spirited:
“When mob violence erupted against Orientals in the city, Norton came to the rescue of “these poor downtrodden Chinese people.” Hoodlums attempted to take over one meeting concerned with a rash of lynchings in San Francisco. A free-for-all broke out, but the mob was hammered into silence by Norton I who pounded the podium with his grapevine cane. First the rioters laughed at the absurd-looking man, but their chuckles gave way to silence as the emperor led the entire group in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The rioters filed from the hall in solemn silence.”
The Emperor had the common touch. It was his idea to erect an enormous Christmas tree in Union Square, a tradition which continues to exist today. It was also he who first suggested the construction of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and it was “the emperor’s overall blueprint that was subsequently adopted when the bridge was built decades later.”
Death of an Emperor
On 8 January 1880, the Emperor died on his way to a civic meeting. He was 62.
“Norton lay in state for several days, dressed in a new uniform purchased by the city fathers. More than 30,000 citizens filed past his funeral bier to pay their respects before the emperor was buried in the Masonic Cemetery. In 1934 the expanding city overran the old cemetery and the bodies there were removed to Woodlawn Cemetery, including the remains of the long dead monarch. The people of San Francisco, however, had not forgotten him. A new granite monument was erected over his majesty’s final resting place. It read, without quotes around the inscription:
NORTON I, EMPEROR OF THE UNITED STATES, PROTECTOR OF MEXICO, JOSHUA A. NORTON, 1819-1880”
Part 2: The Monomythical Emperor
The Emperor Lives
The Emperor’s story is used in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. He is the inspiration for the character ‘the King’ in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He appears in Robert Louis Stevenson’s the Wrecker, and across the Robert Anton Wilson canon.
He has also permeated the mythology of San Francisco. Official impersonators roam the streets. Visitors and residents can enjoy a 2-hour Emperor Norton walking tour. February 2018 was designated as ‘Emperor Norton month’ by the board of supervisors. To this day, a campaign exists to name the Bay Bridge for Norton.
Why? What about this story resonates with us? The easy answer is that it is just a damn entertaining story. That is certainly true. But, as ever, we think that there is something more interesting going on beneath the surface.
Hidden within the humour and eccentricity of the Emperor’s rise and reign lie the contours of something eternal, something permanent.
The Hero’s Journey
The monomyth, or the hero’s journey, is a narrative pattern that recurs throughout the great myths and stories of civilisation.
It is an eternal process of stasis, followed by tension, followed by synthesis. Or, in our recent guest Brett Andersen’s words “order, descend into chaos, re-emergence into a higher form of order.”
Our hero, starting from a position of inaction, will experience a call to adventure. Along this journey our hero will experience and overcome great hardship, before returning with a more integrated and enlightened view of the world (try think of a blockbuster that doesn’t have some form of this arc).
(There is a whole lot more we could say about the hero’s journey and how it relates to consciousness and complexification. This piece is long enough as it is, so we will defer to our friends Tom Morgan and Brett Andersen who recently appeared on Infinite Loops to discuss this very subject).
The Emperor’s Journey
Let’s review our Emperor’s story through the lens of the hero’s journey.
Stasis: At the beginning of our narrative, Norton has arrived in San Francisco as a nobody. Very little is known about his upbringing or his activities.
Call to Adventure: Norton wants to become rich. He builds a hugely successful business operation. He gets everything his heart desired.
Tension / Chaos: The rice disaster. Norton loses everything. He disappears from the public eye.
Rebirth: The Emperor is born
Synthesis: The Emperor returns to the streets of San Francisco, but this time as an adopted symbol of its spirit – eccentric, public-spirited, artistic. He is no longer one man, but an embodiment of San Francisco.
Under this reading, the Emperor’s story resonates with us as it maps neatly onto the narrative that we are all familiar with, and that our previous guest Tom Morgan argues “is a staggeringly precise instruction for how societies and individuals evolve and grow”.
A Sceptic’s Take
I can already sense our more discerning readers’ eyebrows beginning to arch at our attempt to cast a moral significance on what could otherwise be deemed to be a fairly sad descent into madness and self-delusion.
Extracts from Norton’s obituaries hint at a rather more pathetic story, one of a destitute character who was patronisingly tolerated by the city’s elites.
“His dementia was of a mild and harmless type, his ruling idea being that he was Emperor of the world. Clad in semi-military toggery, much the worse for wear, and bedizened with tarnished gold lace, “Emperor Norton” was one of the noted characters of San Francisco.”
[Norton was] “tolerated because he was a public character of whose antecedents almost nothing was known and whose harmless delusion it pleased the popular whim to tolerate and encourage.”
Can the Emperor’s apparent descent into ridicule really be seen as a “re-emergence into a higher form of order”?
An Eternal Truth
The simple but uninteresting response to the sceptical take is to dismiss it: why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Our previous guest Erik Hoel offers a more nuanced perspective. He argues the following:
“Inundated with crafted stories, our desires and goals take just as much from the fictional as from the real. And that can be a good thing. There is a sense in which something like the hero myth is actually more true than reality, since it offers a generalizability impossible for any true narrative to possess.”
In other words, the truth of the Emperor’s story is a symbolic one. What matters is not whether the Emperor was loved or humoured by the San Francisco population, or whether he was an object of admiration or ridicule. What matters is what the generalisable pattern represents, and how the adoption of the Emperor’s story speaks to the desires and goals that we aspire to integrate and embody in our own lives.
In the good-humoured use of the Emperor’s story across popular culture, we can see the green shoots of a process we could all do with participating in. A process that will take us from conformity to eccentricity, from self-interest to social consciousness, and from hostility to kindness.
Perhaps the resonance of the Emperor’s story symbolises an innate human desire to re-emerge into something more gentle, more playful, more fun.
We all have something to learn from the story of the Emperor.
But it’s probably best that we leave our cloaks hung up for now.
 Nash, Jay Robert. Zanies . M. Evans & Company. Kindle Edition.
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