The Emperor of Brooklyn
Brooklyn, Calif., that is — but more about that in a moment.
On 30 December 1879, the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune newspaper ran the following item on page 2:
What became known as the Tom Collins cocktail had been around for a decade or two by 1879. But that name for the drink — Tom Collins — was relatively new. Most likely, the line here about Emperor Norton's having "caught sight of the famous Tom Collins" is a reference to "The Tom Collins Hoax of 1874," a prank of the time that many think is the source of the nom de drink.
Food historian Kimberly Voss explains:
The popular prank was based on a fictitious bar patron by the name of Tom Collins and would begin when a person would approach an acquaintance on the street and ask if he knew Tom Collins. That person would respond that he did not. The first person would explain to his friend that Collins was in a nearby bar spreading horrible rumors about the friend, who would then rush off to the bar to find the gossip-spreading mystery man. Once there, others who where in on the joke would say that Collins had just left for another bar. And so the chase would ensue.
As the prank spread across the nation, newspapers were even reporting sightings of the elusive rumormonger and songs were written about him. Legend has it that an enterprising bartender (or two), finally fed up with exasperated patrons rushing into his establishment demanding to find Tom Collins, concocted a drink of the same name. So, when a customer came in asking if the bartender had seen Tom Collins, that person was handed a drink.
Was the Emperor really savoring an egg nog at Becht's saloon in late December 1879? Sure, why not!
In addition, though, to the suggestion that one of the Emperor's regular haunts may have been an Oakland saloon called Becht's, the most important part of the Tribune item may have been the notice that Emperor Norton "visits [Oakland] every Monday" — a lead-in that is stated with such matter-of-fact nonchalance as to give the researcher of 2015 every reason to believe that it was true.
In fact: Although Emperor Norton often is pigeonholed as a creature of San Francisco, the truth is that he spent quite a bit of time visiting places — including Oakland and Berkeley — that were outside the seat of his Empire.
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The implication of the Tribune item is that the Emperor's junkets to Oakland were day trips. But there is evidence to suggest that he took up longer "residencies" as well. Writing in an essay that appeared in the July 1936 issue of California Highways and Public Works (the journal of the California Department of Public Works), Charles Purcell — the chief engineer of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which would open four months later — called Oakland Emperor Norton's "summer capital" (see page 147, here).
If the Emperor's "summer capital" was in Oakland, then perhaps — given that a number of his proclamations are datelined "Brooklyn" — the building itself was located in the part of modern-day Oakland that was, in fact, the separate town of Brooklyn, Calif., before being annexed to the city in 1872. Today, this area, just to the southeast of Lake Merritt, includes the East Oakland neighborhoods of Clinton and San Antonio.
More, shortly, about the proclamations that Emperor Norton evidently wrote and delivered while staying in Brooklyn. But, first, some geographical context. Here's a (mostly) topographical map of the area from 1857, two years before Joshua Norton declared himself Emperor. At this time, the large land mass to the south of Oakland and Brooklyn — modern-day Alameda Island — still was a peninsula. (Click the map for a larger view.)
This next map, from c. 1869 — used by the real estate agent E.C. Sessions to sell land in Oakland and Brooklyn — offers a more detailed perspective of the street plans of the adjacent communities. (Click the map for a larger view.)
Here's another real estate map. In this one — produced for Woodward and Taggart in 1877, nearer to the end of Emperor Norton's life — the lay of the land is becoming more familiar to modern eyes. Oakland has expanded to include the former town of Brooklyn. Alameda is labelled as such. And along the northeastern perimeter of Alameda, between Oakland Harbor (no longer called "San Antonio Creek") and San Leandro Bay is the "Line of Proposed Canal" that soon would make the peninsula and island. (See caption for the "large view" link.)
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As to the proclamations that Emperor Norton apparently wrote and dispatched while staying in Brooklyn...
In a proclamation dated 29 June 1872 and published two weeks later, on 13 July — in his "royal gazette," the weekly Pacific Appeal newspaper — the Emperor warned against potential abuses of railway ticketing practices.
The most important imperial proclamation to have emerged from Brooklyn — also to do with the rails — may have been the following edict, dated 12 May 1872 and published in the Pacific Appeal on 15 June, in which the Emperor called for the "survey" and construction of an underwater rail link between San Francisco and Oakland.
The Transbay Tube opened nearly a hundred years later, in September 1974.
Typically, when Emperor Norton was "in town," he hand-delivered his latest proclamation to the Pacific Appeal, which published the edict in its next issue, a day or two or three later.
But the 29 June 1872 proclamation about rail ticket abuses wasn't published for two weeks. And more than a month passed, before the 12 May 1872 proclamation calling for an underwater rail tunnel between San Francisco and Oakland made it to print.
There could be any number of explanations for the wide gaps between the dates of the writing and the publication of these "Brooklyn proclamations": The timing of the ferries. The unreliability of the mail.
Certainly, it stands to reason that Peter Anderson — the editor of the Pacific Appeal, which published once a week, on Saturdays — would have had less incentive to publish Emperor Norton's proclamations promptly, if he knew that the Emperor was "out of town" and thus unable to show up on his doorstep and call him to account on Sunday for not providing the imperial column inch or two the day before.
Perhaps what this tells us is that there were certain stretches of time when Emperor Norton was as much a fixture on the streets of Oakland and Brooklyn as he was on the streets of San Francisco.
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