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Emperor Norton’s Early Engagement With an African-American Editor Reveals the Essence of the Emperor’s Mission — And Foreshadows a Key Relationship

In 1860, a Curious but Meaningful Epistolary Encounter Between Emperor Norton and African-American Newspaper Editor and Civil Rights Activist Philip Bell

Philip Alexander Bell.  Collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Source:  African American Lives .

Philip Alexander Bell. Collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Source: African American Lives.

By the time he arrived in San Francisco in May 1860, the African-American newspaper editor, writer and activist Philip Alexander Bell (c.1808–1889) was well-established and -respected, within the country’s black intellectual and political life, as a fierce advocate against slavery and for African-American equality under the law.

Born in New York City, Bell had gotten his journalistic start in 1831 as a New York correspondent for The Liberator, the Boston-based abolitionist paper co-founded by William Lloyd Garrison and Isaac Knapp. In January 1837, Bell helped to launched a New York paper, The Weekly Advocate — quickly renamed The Colored American. Bell remained with this paper until sometime in 1939; the paper closed at the end of 1841.

Throughout the 1840s, Bell continued to write and also became increasingly visible as an organizer of conventions and other meetings to advance the African-American cause. These activities brought Bell to the attention of Frederick Douglass. In the early 1850s, Bell started writing for the recently formed weekly known simply as Frederick Douglass’ Paper.

He used the pen name “Cosmopolite.”

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Philip Bell moved west in 1860 to take up the editorial chair of the San Francisco Mirror of the Times.

The weekly Mirror had been set in motion at the First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California, held in Sacramento in 1855 — the first of four such California state conventions held in 1855, 1856, 1857 and 1865.

With the motto “Truth, Crushed to Earth, Will Rise Again.” flying on its banner — the motto was adapted from a line in a poem by the American Romantic poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) — the Mirror published its first issue in September 1856.

Shortly after Bell arrived in San Francisco four springs later, one of the first columns he published — as Cosmopolite, on 20 August 1860 — was about the Emperor Norton.

We have our friend Robert Chandler, the longtime research historian at Wells Fargo and the author of numerous books and articles on early California, to thank for making us aware of this. Bob’s recent book, San Francisco Lithographer: African American Artist Grafton Tyler Brown (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014), includes many insightful observations about the African-American press in San Francisco during this period.

Bob shares the following item. We believe this is the first publication of it.

“A Word for the Emperor,”  editorial column by Cosmopolite (Philip A. Bell), San Francisco  Mirror of the Times , 20 August 1860, p. 8. column 1. Courtesy of Robert Chandler.

“A Word for the Emperor,” editorial column by Cosmopolite (Philip A. Bell), San Francisco Mirror of the Times, 20 August 1860, p. 8. column 1. Courtesy of Robert Chandler.

A Word for the Emperor

EDITOR’S MIRROR: — There is in this city an unfortunate man who fancies himself a king, or emperor, or something of the kind. He glides harmlessly, inoffensively along, apparently proud of his faded uniform, which he fondly imagines are the trappings of royalty. He is not hopelessly insane, or the authorities would take care of him; he is not a pauper, for he begs not, neither does he receive alms; he has, I suppose, friends who support him, and suffer him to indulge in his innocent vagaries.

Among savages imbecility is viewed as a Divine inspiration, and the unfortunate subjects of a demented mind are considered as being the peculiar care of the Great Spirit, and are respected and pitied. How differently are they treated in this enlightened community.

Some heartless wretches, who, in their outward form, bear the semblance — “all are not men who bear the human form” — but inwardly have reptile hearts, often perpetrate what they call practical jokes on this poor man, by presenting him with spurious letters from royal personages, swords, epaulettes, &c. He receives them with becoming dignity, and they serve but to confirm him in his hallucinations. If his mind is too imbecile, and his brain too weak, to understand the cruelty of the deception, it must be fearful to his friends to witness such things.

A morning paper, which has many attributes of respectability, and which, from its manly course on many subjects of great interest, wherein the rights of community are concerned: opposing monopolies, characterizing oppression and injustice by their right names, and advocating the interests of the poor man, has won a merited title of honor, indulges, in this morning’s issue, in what I suppose, a good joke at the expense of the unfortunate individual alluded to. I hope, for the sake of consistency, the paper in question will in future refrain from the exhibition of such low witticisms. It is unworthy the mission of that sheet to hold up to ridicule that which should excite sympathy.

I am a stranger here, and know nothing of the history of Mr. N. Can you give me any information?

San Francisco, Aug. 18., 1860.

To be sure, it can be argued that Philip Bell was patronizing at points. In general, though, his tone was one of empathy. He was defending Emperor Norton and shaming the newspaper that had used the Emperor for its own amusement.

The Emperor responded immediately — at turns prickly and enigmatic on the way to delivering his concluding message.

Bell seems to have interpreted this message as the point of the note. He titled the note “A Pacific Proclamation” — “Pacific,” as in peaceable — and published it in the next day’s edition, a fact that strongly suggests that Emperor Norton hand-delivered his response to the Mirror’s offices. Did he hand the note to Bell himself, as he had handed Evening Bulletin editor George Fitch his original Proclamation eleven months earlier?

This too, we believe, enjoys its first publication here and comes to us courtesy of Bob Chandler.

“A Pacific Proclamation,”  by Norton I, San Francisco  Mirror of the Times , 21 August 1860, p. 4. column 1. Courtesy of Robert Chandler.

“A Pacific Proclamation,” by Norton I, San Francisco Mirror of the Times, 21 August 1860, p. 4. column 1. Courtesy of Robert Chandler.

A Pacific Proclamation

EDITOR’S MIRROR: — We have noticed your letter signed “Cosmopolite,” “A Word for the Emperor;” but he is laboring under an hallucination — rather a double entendre. Can the gentleman solve the mystery of our birth and parentage? He pretends to know everything, but still seeks information. He may not choose to acknowledge that he is aware of frequent conspiracies against our person, rights and dignity, and that which appears strange to outsiders is part and parcel of those conspiracies; and also that politically we have had to contend with a powerful faction, whose policy hitherto has been to encourage dishonesty and drive out virtue. To all such we say, to be happy you must be virtuous. ‘Tis not the plumed troop, nor gold, but virtue, that should be King. The American nation is now composed of all nations and almost all religions: it may be difficult to please all.

San Francisco, August 21, 1860.

“[T]o be happy you must be virtuous….’Tis…virtue that should be King.”

That is, in effect, a mission statement for the Emperor’s entire 20-year reign.

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The long coda to this episode is fascinating on its own, as it pulls together several threads that are more familiar to careful students of the Norton story.

The Mirror of the Times ceased publication in early 1862. In fact, the paper basically was converted into a new weekly newspaper called The Pacific Appeal.

The Mirror had been co-founded by Peter Anderson, an African-American who had distinguished himself as a civil rights activist and organizer on the West Coast as Philip Bell had on the East. The new venture was co-founded by Anderson and Bell, with Anderson as “proprietor” and Bell as editor.

The Appeal published its first issue on 5 April 1862. Alas, Anderson and Bell soon discovered that they had strong differences of opinion about the the editorial direction of the paper. These differences proved irreconcilable, and on 2 August 1862, the front-page banner of the Appeal was lighter by one name. Peter Anderson now was proprietor and editor, both.

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In April 1865, Philip Bell launched a new weekly newspaper, the San Francisco Elevator, and continued as editor of the Elevator for twenty years, until ill health forced him to retire in 1885. Sources differ, but it appears that the Elevator continued to be published until sometime around the turn of the twentieth century.

Early in the Elevator’s run — on 20 March 1868 — Bell published the following editorial item, which suggests that, by this time, he had adopted a more cynical view of Emperor Norton than he demonstrated in August 1860.

“The Editorial Clown,”  editorial item, San Francisco  Elevator , 20 March 1868, p. 2, col. 1. Source:  California Digital Newspaper Collection .

“The Editorial Clown,” editorial item, San Francisco Elevator, 20 March 1868, p. 2, col. 1. Source: California Digital Newspaper Collection.

THE EDITORIAL CLOWN. — Every profession has its buffoons and pretenders — men who think they are au fait in the mysteries of the profession they disgrace. Thus, medicine has its quacks, the law its pettifoggers, the clergy of all denominations its journeyman preachers; monarchy has its Emperor Norton, and the press has its Brick Pomeroy.

This may help to explain why, when Emperor Norton in late 1870 was looking for a newspaper to serve as his imperial gazette — he’d grown weary of fake “proclamations” published in his name by Albert Evans of the Daily Alta and other editors; he wanted a paper that could be relied upon to publish his words as written — he sought out Peter Anderson of The Pacific Appeal and not Philip Bell of The Elevator. (By this time, the Appeal had reappropriated, for its own banner, the motto that originally appeared on the front page of the Mirror: “Truth, Crushed to Earth, Will Rise Again.”)

The arrangement that the Emperor and Anderson struck was an extraordinarily successful one. Over the course of four-and-a-half years, between January 1871 and May 1875, the Appeal published some 250 Proclamations by Emperor Norton — typically on the front page and often at two or three Proclamations an issue.

Alas, on 8 May 1875, a curious unsigned item somewhat in the form of a Proclamation — referencing “Norton I” and “the Emperor” and, crucially, attacking a real estate developer, Charles Peters — made its way onto page 2 of the Appeal.

Emperor Norton’s authorship of the item was never proven. But, Peters threatened suit unless the Appeal severed ties with the Emperor, and that was that for the Emperor’s “publishing deal” with the Appeal.

Did Emperor Norton consider a pivot to the Elevator? Probably not. By 1876, Philips Bell’s view of the Emperor had hardened even further.

Following the break between Anderson and Bell in 1862, the relationship between the two men became increasingly acrimonious — including in public and in their respective pages.

On 2 September 1876, Anderson responded in the Appeal to a published harangue by Bell, in which Bell had sought to smear Anderson by invoking Anderson’s relationship with the Emperor.

Anderson quoted Bell at length, including a passage in which Bell referenced

the nonsensical proclamations of that old impostor, Emperor Norton, who is more knave than fool….

Perhaps Philip Bell had missed the Emperor’s Proclamations in the Appeal a few years earlier insisting on the right of African-Americans to attend public schools and ride public streetcars.

Even allowing for the business with Charles Peters, it’s hard to imagine Peter Anderson saying something this mean.

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A couple of lingering questions…

The first should be easy enough to answer, with a minimum of digging: To which “morning paper” was Philip Bell referring to in 1860, and what “joke” did the paper try to play “at the expense of” Emperor Norton?

The second may be more challenging: How, in August 1860, did Emperor Norton come to see and respond so quickly to Philip Bell’s item in the Mirror of the Times?

At this early stage — less than a year into his reign — it seems unlikely that the Emperor would have had disposable finds to buy the paper.

  • Did he find the Mirror in the one-room “free library” of the What Cheer House, on Sacramento Street? At the Mercantile Library, in Portsmouth Square? At the Mechanics’ Institute, on Montgomery Street? At some other reading room?

  • Did the place the Emperor was living — probably either a boarding house at 255 Kearny Street or the Metropolitan Hotel, at Bush and Sansome — take the paper?

  • Did a subscriber or other reader of the paper — black or white; fellow resident or friend — see the Mirror item and bring it to the Emperor’s attention?

The answer to these questions would tell us a lot about Emperor Norton’s social network in the earliest days of his reign.

Equally important: The Mirror of the Times was the official paper of the executive committee behind the California “colored conventions” of 1855, ‘56 and ‘57 — and thus was the de facto newsletter of the emerging movement for African-American equality in the state.

The fact that Emperor Norton found it important to write and a send a prompt and “pacific” response to this paper and its editor tells us a lot about the Emperor himself.

Good to know on this Martin Luther King Day.

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