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Rev. Fitzgerald's Recollections

Did you know that Emperor Norton occasionally carried a Bologna sausage in his hip pocket?

That's the gospel truth, according to the Rev. Oscar Penn Fitzgerald (1829-1911):

Walking along the street behind the Emperor one day, my curiosity was a little excited by seeing him thrust his hand into the hip-pocket of his blue trousers with sudden energy. The hip-pocket, by the way, is a modern American stupidity, associated in the popular mind with rowdyism, pistol shooting, and murder. Hip-pockets should be abolished wherever there are courts of law and civilized men and women. But what was the Emperor after? Withdrawing his hand just as I overtook him, the mystery was revealed — it grasped a thick Bologna sausage, which he began to eat with unroyal relish. It gave me a shock, but he was not the first royal personage who has exhibited low tastes and carnal hankerings.
Detail of undated photograph of O.P. Fitzgerald. Source:  Caswell County (N.C.) Photograph Collection

Detail of undated photograph of O.P. Fitzgerald. Source: Caswell County (N.C.) Photograph Collection

According to The History of Southern Methodism on the Pacific Coast (1886), O.P. Fitzgerald, born in North Carolina, found his way to California in 1855 as a kind of "missionary" of the Methodist Episcopal Church South.

Fitzgerald was "stationed" for two years in Sonora and one year in San Jose, before moving to San Francisco in 1858 to take up the editorial reins of the Pacific Methodist, which had just been moved to San Francisco from Stockton. 

Toward the end of 1858, Fitzgerald established, in his newly adopted city, a Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. For most of 1859, this congregation met at a Presbyterian Chinese chapel at the corner of Stockton and Sacramento Streets.

Undated photograph of O.P. Fitzgerald. Source:   Caswell County (N.C.) Photograph Collection

Undated photograph of O.P. Fitzgerald. Source: Caswell County (N.C.) Photograph Collection

But in late 1859 — probably shortly after our Joshua Norton declared himself Emperor — the congregation began to rent a church on Pine Street, near Montgomery.

For the next several months, until a new minister could be formally assigned to the congregation, Fitzgerald helped to supply the pulpit. 

It seems that, during this period, the Pine Street church was on Emperor's Norton's Sunday rotation — and that this provided the occasion for Fitzgerald and the Emperor to become acquainted.

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Fitzgerald remained in San Francisco until 1878, so he would have had ample opportunity to observe Emperor Norton for nearly the duration of the Emperor's reign.

Fitzgerald's richly detailed memories and reflections on the Emperor — including the "Bologna incident" quoted above — feature in his second book of California Sketches, a "New Series" of reminiscences published in 1881 as a sequel to an original set published two years earlier.

You can read Fitzgerald's empathetic, fondly remembered and exceptionally well-observed account of "The Emperor Norton" here.

The most frequently cited excerpt from Fitzgerald's account is the one in which he relates the Emperor's views on attending church. Fitzgerald seems to misremember the year when his own congregation started meeting on Pine Street, but...

I saw him often in my congregation in the Pine-street church, along in 1858, and into the sixties. He was a respectful and attentive listener to preaching. On the occasion of one of his first visits he spoke to me after the service, saying, in a kind and patronizing tone:

’I think it my duty to encourage religion and morality by showing myself at church, and to avoid jealousy I attend them all in turn.’

Fitzgerald opens with one of the most vivid and evocative descriptions that we have of Emperor Norton's physical presence:

The Emperor Norton. That was his title. He wore it with an air that was a strange mixture of the mock-heroic and the pathetic. He was mad on this one point, and strangely shrewd and well-informed on almost every other. Arrayed in a faded-blue uniform, with brass buttons and epaulettes, wearing a cocked-hat with an eagle’s feather, and at times with a rusty sword at his side, he was a conspicuous figure in the streets of San Francisco, and a regular habitue of all its public places. In person he was stout, full-chested, though slightly stooped, with a large head heavily coated with bushy black hair, an aquiline nose, and dark gray eyes, whose mild expression added to the benignity of his face. On the end of his nose grew a tuft of long hairs, which he seemed to prize as a natural mark of royalty, or chieftainship.

But some of Fitzgerald's most affecting passages are those that speak to the Emperor's quality of mind. For example:

He was seldom made sport of or treated rudely. I saw him on one occasion when a couple of passing hoodlums jeered at him. He turned and gave them a look so full of mingled dignity, pain, and surprise, that the low fellows were abashed, and uttering a forced laugh, with averted faces they hurried on. The presence that can bring shame to a San Francisco hoodlum must indeed be kingly, or in some way impressive.

And this elegant summary from Fitzgerald's introduction:

[T]here was a popular legend afloat that he was of true royal blood — a stray Bourbon, or something of the sort. His speech was singularly fluent and elegant. The Emperor was one of the celebrities that no visitor failed to see. It is said that his mind was unhinged by a sudden loss of fortune in the early days, by the treachery of a partner in trade. The sudden blow was deadly, and the quiet, thrifty, affable man of business became a wreck. By nothing is the inmost quality of a man made more manifest than by the manner in which he meets misfortune. One, when the sky darkens, having strong impulse and weak will, rushes into suicide; another, with a large vein of cowardice, seeks to drown the sense of disaster in strong drink; yet another, tortured in every fiber of a sensitive organization, flees from the scene of his troubles and the faces of those that know him, preferring exile to shame. The truest man, when assailed by sudden calamity, rallies all the reserved forces of a splendid manhood to meet the shock, and, like a good ship, lifting itself from the trough of the swelling sea, mounts the wave and rides on. It was a curious idiosyncrasy that led this man, when fortune and reason were swept away at a stroke, to fall back upon this imaginary imperialism. The nature that could thus, when the real fabric of life was wrecked, construct such another by the exercise of a disordered imagination, must have been originally of a gentle and magnanimous type. The broken fragments of mind, like those of a statue, reveal the quality of the original creation.

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On 3 September 1880, in the wake of Emperor Norton's death the preceding January, Mark Twain wrote to Atlantic Monthly editor William Dean Howells, who was both his (Twain's) own editor and his good friend.  In the letter, Twain wrote:

What an odd thing it is, that neither Frank Soulé, nor Charley Warren Stoddard, nor I, nor Bret Harte the Immortal Bilk, nor any other professionally literary person of S. F., has ever ‘written up’ the Emperor Norton. Nobody has ever written him up who was able to see any but his grotesque side; but I think that with all his dirt & unsavoriness there was a pathetic side to him. Anybody who said so in print would be laughed at in S. F., doubtless, but no matter, I have seen the Emperor when his dignity was wounded; and when he was both hurt & indignant at the dishonoring of an imperial draft; & when he was full of trouble & bodings on account of the presence of the Russian fleet, he connecting it with his refusal to ally himself with the Romanoffs by marriage, & believing these ships were come to take advantage of his entanglements with Peru & Bolivia; I have seen him in all his various moods & tenses, & there was always more room for pity than laughter.

The "pity," too, is that Twain himself seems never to have acted on his lamentation — not directly, anyway.

Thankfully, O.P Fitzgerald did — and in short order, while the memories remained fresh.

Fitzgerald's is a wonderful portrait. Read the whole thing.

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