Mr. Hutchinson's Mementos
What were the most basic characteristics of an Emperor Norton proclamation? If one were to set out a shortlist, it might include things like:
- A proclamation was the words themselves, and the ideas conveyed by the words.
- A proclamation was an artifact. The Emperor committed his words to paper — often Mechanics' Institute stationery — and affixed his own seal. Indeed, he often concluded his written proclamations with some variant of the phrase "Given under our hand and Seal" — as if to reinforce the point that any "proclamation" that was not written in his own hand and that did not carry his seal was not, in fact, his words.
- A proclamation was intended for publication in a daily or weekly newspaper. And, if the Emperor was in the city, he delivered the artifact personally to his chosen gazette.
So it was intriguing this week to stumble upon the following record, included in the Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of the Odd Fellows' Library Association of the City and County of San Francisco, for 1879-80. The President's, Librarian's and Finance Committee letters in the report all are dated 5 June 1880 — so, presumably, the report was published sometime that summer.
Emperor Norton had died just a few months earlier, in January 1880.
Notice the second listing, which indicates that an "Original Proclamation of Emperor Norton I," together with the "Seal Stamp of same," was contributed — donated — to the library of the Odd Fellows of San Francisco by a David Hutchinson.
Those who are up on the finer points of their Norton history will recall that Hutchinson and his wife, Eva, were the Emperor's landlord and landlady for the last ten of his 17 years at the Eureka Lodgings, on Commercial Street.
How did David Hutchinson come by these items? Had Hutchinson donated to the Odd Fellows' library only an "Original Proclamation of Emperor Norton I," one could have made any number of guesses as to which proclamation it was and how he came to be in possession of it. But his donation included, as a separately listed item, the "Seal Stamp of same" — "same," of course, being "Emperor Norton I"; and "Stamp," being the physical tool the Emperor used to place his seal on his proclamations.
Hutchinson's having both a written proclamation and the seal stamp — together with the timing of his donation — suggests that, almost certainly, he got the two items from the same place at the same time: Emperor Norton's room at the Eureka, just after the Emperor's death.
It also may be telling that a written proclamation and the seal stamp are not included in the contemporaneous reports of the personal effects that were found in the Emperor's room in the hours after his death. Eva Hutchinson, in particular, would have known better than anyone exactly what was in Emperor Norton's room, and where. And both she and her husband, David, would have been in the best position to access the room before police, the coroner, reporters or anyone else arrived.
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Was the document that David Hutchinson donated to the Odd Fellows' library in early 1880 Emperor Norton's final proclamation — written and sealed, but not yet delivered and published — something that would have offered a clue as to what the Emperor was thinking about on the last day of his life?
It seems more than possible. But let's assume that it was the actual case. Why wouldn't David Hutchinson simply have delivered the proclamation to the paper, so that Emperor Norton's last word could see the light of day? The truth is: It may not have been possible to know where the Emperor intended the proclamation to be published. In about 1876, according to Norton's biographer, William Drury, the Emperor and Peter Anderson — the editor of the Emperor's longtime "imperial organ," the Pacific Appeal — fell out over a misunderstanding about a fake proclamation that Anderson had published. After that, it appears that the Emperor never settled on another "go to" gazette.
As to the artifacts themselves — the written proclamation and the seal stamp — those probably are lost to time and events.
The Odd Fellows Temple building (1884), which housed the library that received David Hutchinson's donation, was lost in the earthquake and fire of 1906. In his written response to my query about the Hutchinson items, Peter V. Sellars, an historian of the Odd Fellows in California who has written two books on the subject, noted that the only parts of the library's collection that had any chance of surviving were books that had been checked out and were not in the building.
Sellars went on to say that many Odd Fellows members are quite fond of the Emperor Norton story. Certainly, this seems to have been true of David Hutchinson. The fact that he seems to have had the presence of mind to save the Emperor's proclamation and seal stamp — and that he went further in trying to ensure the preservation of these items by giving them to the Odd Fellows' library — says much about the nobility of his own character.
It also suggests that Emperor Norton meant much more to the landlord of the Eureka Lodgings than 50 cents a night.
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