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Did Influential Norton Biographer Robert Ernest Cowan Fudge the Emperor's Birth Date?

It looks like he did a lot worse.

We've been posting this week (here and here) about Joseph Amster's discovery of an item in the 4 February 1865 edition of the Daily Alta California newspaper, in which the Alta wished Emperor Norton a happy 47th birthday — indicating that the Emperor's date of birth was 4 February 1818.

Here's the item, followed by its text in full:

HIS MAJESTY'S BIRTHDAY.—His Imperial Majesty Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Mexico, commences his forty-eighth year Saturday, February 4th, 1865. Owing to the unsettled questions between His Majesty Maximilian I, El Duque de Gwino, the Tycoon, the King of the Mosquitos, the King of the Cannibal Islands et al., the usual display of bunting by the foreign shipping and public buildings will be omitted on this occasion.

It's clear that this is a third-person report written about Emperor Norton.

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Now comes my own discovery about someone else who found this same Alta California item more than 90 years ago, and what he did with it.

In October 1923, the influential librarian and bibliographer Robert Ernest Cowan wrote and published a brief biographical essay, "Norton I: Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico," in the new California Historical Society Quarterly, of which he was the editor.

Early in the essay, Cowan writes: "Joshua A. Norton was his real name. He was of Hebrew parentage, born February 4, 1819, probably in Scotland."

Although Cowan's testament to the Emperor's birth date is offered without documentation or explanation, that phrase — "born February 4, 1819" — has had outsized influence in shaping assumptions about exactly when Emperor Norton was born. There's little doubt that the birth year — 1819 — that was inscribed on the Emperor's headstone at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, Calif., in 1934 owes much to Cowan's 1923 essay.

An index of Cowan's influence at the time — and an explanation for why many who encountered his flatly stated claim about Emperor Norton's birth date probably accepted the claim without question — comes in the form of William Drury's comment (in his much-respected 1986 biography of the Emperor) on the fact that Cowan appears to have backed the authenticity of an 1869 "proclamation" — now widely accepted to be a fake — in which the Emperor called for a bridge from Oakland to Goat Island to Sausalito to the Farallones: the original bridge to nowhere.

Drury writes:

Cowan's willingness to accept the proclamation as the Emperor's handiwork gave it instant credibility, for "Sir Robert" — as he was known among bibliophiles — was not only a respected archivist but could even claim a passing acquaintance with His Majesty. He was eight years old in 1870 when he and his parents met the royal ragamuffin on the station platform in Oakland, where they had just disembarked from a train that had carried them from Canada. The Emperor, he fondly recalled in a conversation with his publisher, Ward Ritchie, had patted his head and told him to be a good boy (after which, we may suppose, he turned to the lad's father, ink bottle in hand, to sell him a bond).

Upon learning of Joseph Amster's recent discovery, I immediately was struck by the similarity between the Alta's reference to 4 February 1818 and Cowan's claim of 4 February 1819. Surely this wasn't just a coincidence, I thought. Surely, Cowan had stumbled across the same 1865 newspaper item that Joseph had, but just had gotten the math wrong. Or there was a transcription or typing or typesetting hiccup. Human error, plain and simple.

In fact, Cowan had discovered the Alta item — and it makes a cameo appearance in his essay. But look what he does with it. Here's a photograph of the Alta item as it originally appeared in the California Historical Society's publication of Cowan's essay, showing how Cowan introduced and presented the item:


  • Redacts the entire first portion of the original item — including the pivotal phrase "commences his forty-eighth year."
  • Presents the truncated remainder of the item as though it were a stand-alone Proclamation from the Emperor himself.
  • Inserts the fabricated phrase "in commemoration of our 46th birthday" — which was not part of the original item.

The text that Cowan does use, plus the fact that Cowan "adds back" the date "Feb. 4, 1865" to the end of the "quote" — the date is part of the redacted portion — leaves little doubt that the Alta item is the source of his contrivance. 

Indeed, the upshot is that Cowan acknowledges that Emperor Norton was born on 4 February. 

But, by manipulating the original Alta item to make it appear that 1865 was the occasion of the Emperor's 46th birthday — rather than his 47th, as the Alta item indicated — Cowan is able to "retrofit" a source for his own claim of 1819, rather than 1818, as the Emperor's birth year.

As if to hammer home the point, Cowan references the number 46 twice in the same sentence, writing "forty-sixth birthday" in the introductory clause and inserting "46th birthday" into the quote itself.

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What are we to make of this? Why was Robert Ernest Cowan so invested in 1819 as Emperor Norton's birth year? Had Cowan staked some previous claim to 1819 — whether in a publication or a speech or a conversation? And had he done so with such certainty and to such a prestigious audience (whether in public or private) that now, in October 1923, it made sense for him to doctor a (possibly more authoritative) 60-year-old newspaper item in order to prop up his earlier story — even if it meant risking his own professional reputation?

Whatever is the case, it now appears that Cowan's claim of 1819 as the Emperor's birth year was the result not of human error — whether his own or someone else's — but, rather, of a conscious effort to conceal and to mislead.

For more on our Emperor's Birth Date Research Project, please visit the project page here

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