Setting the Record Straight on the Famous Emperor Norton Obit(s)
Emperor Norton died on Thursday 8 January 1880.
Time and time again, one reads that the San Francisco Chronicle was up the next morning with a dramatic front-page headline, "Le Roi Est Mort" ("The King Is Dead"), over a brief obituary whose signature passage began "On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night under the dripping rain...."
It's a good story — but, it's not quite true.
In his 1939 book Emperor Norton: The Mad Monarch of America — a book that held sway for nearly 50 years as the authoritative biography of the Emperor — Allen Stanley Lane put the famous headline on the front page of the 9 January 1880 edition of the Chronicle.
And the Chronicle did run the headline — but not until January 11th, over the paper's coverage of the Emperor's funeral the day before. And on page 8 — not page 1.
Click the following image for a PDF of the original full page where the article appeared.
The oft-quoted "reeking pavement" text did appear the day after Emperor Norton's death. But — again — not on the front page. And not in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Rather, the passage appeared as part of a much-longer obituary that ran on page 3 of the San Francisco Morning Call — Mark Twain's old paper. (A frequently cited and linked online item posted in 1999 by Joel Sax may be the source of the mistaken assumption that the famous headline and text appeared together on the front page of the Chronicle on 9 January 1880.)
Click the following image for a PDF of the original full page where the obituary appeared.
Note that the quoted version of this passage that invariably appears in contemporary articles about Emperor Norton includes errors, in addition to punctuation, that are not faithful to the original.
- Whereas the quoted version renders the Emperor's name as "Norton I," the Morning Call has it as the somewhat idiosyncratic "Norton First."
- The phrase, in the last sentence, misquoted as "innate gentleness of heat" is "innate gentleness of heart" in the original.
- The phrase, toward the end of the passage, misquoted as "bitterful living princes" actually is "powerful living princes."
The "bitterful" misquote appears in David Warren Ryder's self-published San Francisco's Emperor Norton (1939) — a "book" that is rife with errors and undocumented claims. Joel Sax may have gotten his version of the text from this unreliable source.
Here's the passage, as it appeared in the Morning Call:
On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night, under the dripping rain, and surrounded by a hastily-gathered crowd of wondering strangers, Norton First, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life. Other sovereigns have died with no more of kindly care; other sovereigns have died as they have lived, in all the pomp of earthly majesty; but death having touched them, Norton First rises up the exact peer of the haughtiest King or Kaiser that ever wore a crown. Perhaps he will rise more than the peer of most of them. He had a better claim to kindly consideration than that his lot "forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne, and shut the gates of mercy on mankind." Through his harmless proclamations can always be traced an innate gentleness of heart, a desire to effect uses and a courtesy, the possession of which would materially improve powerful living princes, whose names will naturally suggest themselves.
Did any of the major San Francisco newspapers of the day give Emperor Norton the respect of a front-page obituary on 9 January 1880?
It appears that only one did. Ironically, it was the paper that led the way in publishing fake decrees and generally making a joke of Emperor Norton during his lifetime: the Daily Alta California. (Click here for the Alta obit.)
And now you know.
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