The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

to honor the life + advance the legacy of Emperor Norton

The Fourth of February of the San Francisco of 1865

We've been highlighting The Emperor's Bridge Campaign's research into the birthdate of Emperor Norton — one of the more elusive mysteries surrounding the Emperor.

Next Tuesday 3 February at 518 Valencia in San Francisco, we'll be presenting our recent findings at The Emperor's 197th Birthdayan "annotated birthday party" for Emperor Norton that also is a fundraiser for the Campaign. Please join us!

Much of our research has revolved around the following item that ran on the front page of the Daily Alta California on 4 February 1965:

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.


At the time this item ran, the Alta was published by Fred MacCrellish. According to the text, Emperor Norton "commences his forty-eighth year Saturday, February 4th, 1865," meaning that he was turning 47 and that he was born on 4 February 1818.

But, commenting on the item in his 1986 book Norton I: Emperor of the United States,  the Emperor's biographer, William Drury, maintains that "February 4th" had nothing at all to do with "His Majesty's Birthday." 

Drury explains [emphasis added]:

Nobody knew the Emperor's age or the date of his birth. February 4 was significant for quite another reason. It was the fourth anniversary of the signing of a declaration of independence in 1861 by the first seven cotton states to secede: Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas. Every year, on February 4, Southerners in San Francisco hung out rebel flags to celebrate the birthday of the Confederated States of America. The Alta, a staunch Union paper, was simply thumbing its nose at that display of Southern pride by pretending that the flags were flown to celebrate the birthday of a lunatic.

Such leg-pulling was commonly practiced by both sides. Southerners often tried to plant propaganda, thinly disguised, in Fred MacCrellish's paper. He once received a seemingly innocuous scrap of verse, seventeen lines in length, and might have published it exactly as it was written had he not noticed that the initial letter in every line, reading from top to bottom, spelled out "HURRAH FOR THE SOUTH." Before putting it in the Alta he made a couple of minor adjustments, changing only the first words in the thirteenth and fifteenth lines so that the acrostic now read: "HURRAH FOR THE NORTH."

Then he scribbled under it, "Sorry, Johnny Reb."

The Maximilian referred to in the Emperor's "birthday announcement" was the Austrian archduke recently installed as Emperor of Mexico by Napoleon Ill. "El Duque de Gwino" was a sneering reference to William McKendree Gwin, a former United States senator for California and the chief political foe of David Broderick. Gwin, a Mississippian, briefly imprisoned by the North for his loyalty to the South, was now in Mexico, where, it was falsely rumored, Maximilian had made him a duke.

That February 4, it so happened, was the Confederacy's last birthday. On April 9, at Appomattox, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his sword to General Ulysses S. Grant, and the war was over. And then, just one week later, in a theater in Washington, John Wilkes Booth fired his Derringer and Lincoln belonged to the ages.


Drury asks us to treat the Civil War-era political associations with 4 February and the Alta's taste for pranks as grounds for throwing out the entire Alta item as a "hoax" (Drury's word).

But, surely, it is possible that the Emperor's birthday and the Rebels' "Independence Day" really did happen to fall on the same day, providing the pro-Union Alta with a convenient synchronicity that was too good to pass up.

Perhaps the first sentence of the Alta item is a factual statement and only in the second part is the Alta "taking the Mickey" out of the Rebels.


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


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