Campaign Discovers Newspaper Record of Emperor Norton’s Famous Stand-Off with an Anti-Chinese Crowd
No Lord’s Prayer and No Silencing of Bigotry — But a Courageous, Heroic Emperor All the Same
Several of the most oft-recited legends about Emperor Norton — including the undocumented claims that he penned a Proclamation against the use of the word “Frisco” and that he called for the raising of a great Christmas tree in Union Square — can be traced to a little booklet, San Francisco’s Emperor Norton, self-published in 1939 by David Warren Ryder.
Another tale that appears to have its origins in this volume envisions a dramatic encounter in which the Emperor interrupted an anti-Chinese gathering and recited the Lord’s Prayer until the crowd, shamed into quietude, dispersed.
Here’s how Ryder tells it:
One evening Emperor Norton was out taking his customary after-supper stroll, accompanied by his two faithful dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, when at the corner of Kearny and California Streets he came upon a typical sand-lot anti-Chinese meeting. At the moment the Emperor arrived, the speaker was at the height of his passionate harangue, and the young hoodlums who made up a large part of his audience were cheering him on and voicing their own imprecations of the Chinese.
The Emperor took in the situation immediately, and immediately went into action. Shouldering his way through the crowd, up to the big packing-case which was serving as a rostrum, he held up his hand for silence.
The speaker, whether momentarily nonplussed by such an unprecedented interruption, or because he thought that a bit of drollery might not go amiss with the audience, stopped his harangue, and announcing that “we will now have a few words from his Imperial Majesty Norton I, Emperor of America,” invited the Emperor to mount the packing-case.
There was a roar of laughter from the crowd as Emperor Norton, with some difficulty, got up on the big box. But the laughter was short-lived. The Emperor, steadying himself with his heavy cane, closed his eyes and commenced reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Even the hoodlums were silent, and when he asked the audience to repeat the Prayer with him, some of them joined in. For a moment or two after the final “Amen,” the Emperor stood silent before a hushed audience. Then he made a little speech of his own — about the virtue of brotherly love; and the necessity of men living amicably together.
Meantime, the sand-lot orator, sensing the changed temper of the crowd, had come down from his rostrum and slipped away. And when the Emperor ended with the declaration that “we are all God’s children,” and requested the crowd to disperse, it did so quickly, and without dissent.
There were no windows broken in San Francisco’s Chinatown that night.
Subsequent generations have embellished Ryder’s tale. In later versions — which have become the standard tellings — the Emperor goes so far as to place himself bodily between a violent mob and its Chinese targets, quelling a riot-in-progress with his prayer.
Neither Ryder nor those who, for generations, have repeated and built upon Ryder’s legend provide a date or documentation for their claims.
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THE Emperor’s Bridge Campaign ‘s research into this legend finally has borne “evidentiary fruit.” Indeed, we believe we have found the first document that stands to lift key elements of the Lord’s Prayer story out of the realm of legend and into the realm of history. We are pleased to share it below.
If, as seems likely, an incident reported in the San Francisco Examiner on Tuesday 30 April 1878 is the basis for Ryder’s romanticized account, then what actually happened is both less and — in certain respects — more heroic than has been understood.
The incident involving Emperor Norton is detailed towards the top of an article about a three-and-a-half-hour speech-filled meeting that took place on Monday 29 April 1878 at the “Sand-Lot,” a site across from the Old City Hall — at the southwest corner of Eighth and Market, across Grove Street from the current Main Library — that, in the 1870s, became a well-known public venue for anti-Chinese gatherings.
The meeting had been called in an effort to iron out differences between the factions of the Workingmen’s Party of California. This group was co-founded by Denis Kearney (1947–1907), the demagogic Irish-born orator who for a time used the party as a power base — and whose vitriolic speeches inciting prejudice, racism, hatred and violence against the Chinese always ended with the exclamation: “The Chinese must go!”
Kearney is the other protagonist in the incident, described here:
THE HARE STILL TO BE CAUGHT
Disregarding the Counsel of Mrs. Glasse —
The Kearneyites Quarrel Over Anticipated Spoils
Yesterday, at the sand lots, there was a very large attendance, as it was anticipated that the feud between the leaders, which had burst out on Saturday night at the meeting of the State Central Committee, would be reopened and the meeting called upon to decide between the contestants. The expectation was verified, and Kearney came off victor. The scene yesterday was somewhat more inviting than usual. The handsome American flag presented by the ladies was unfurled, and floated gaily over the speaker’s stand, while in the front seated a considerable number of ladies.
The fun commenced by Emperor Norton I mounting a bench and by virtue of his sovereign authority commanding the dispersion of the assemblage. He was ordered by [Denis] Kearney to step down, but declined to do so, denying the authority of the General to direct his movements. The authority of the General, being sustained by the assemblage, the Emperor subsided. Then Kearney described the differences existing between him and some of the members of the Committee, and, after asking the meeting to decide between them, promised to abide by that decision whatever it might be.
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As the Examiner reports it, Emperor Norton did not happen upon a riot. He did not say the Lord’s Prayer. And, ultimately, he did not prevail.
But, here’s where the history is even better than the legend:
The Emperor had his ear to the ground and his eye on the papers well enough to know when and where the party meeting was to take place; to get there early; and to try to prevent anti-Chinese rhetoric and organizing before it ever started.
The Emperor personally and directly challenged the authority of ringleader, Denis Kearney, to his face — and in front of probably hundreds of Kearney’s supporters.
This is a big deal!
One reason that the Lord’s Prayer legend has received little scrutiny may be that Emperor Norton’s other efforts on behalf of the Chinese are well-documented and well-known.
By 1878, the Emperor had been publishing Proclamations recognizing the basic human rights of the Chinese — decrying violence against them; advocating fair treatment of them; promoting legal equality for them — for a decade.
This goes to a larger point about those undocumented stories about Emperor Norton that are best understood as legends.
Those of us who take the Emperor’s legacy seriously do have an obligation to “look under the hood” of these legends — to research them in an effort to determine their veracity, and to be honest with ourselves and the public about what is known and what isn’t. We shouldn’t be in the business of passing off known or possible legends as empirical history.
At the same time, “veracity” can mean at least a couple of different things.
Sometimes, a legend turns out to be nothing more than a tall tale — a yarn.
But, sometimes a legend — even an elaborately concocted story like the ones crafted by David Warren Ryder 60 years after the Emperor’s death — rises to level of a myth.
A myth is not empirically true in its particulars. But, it’s a story that illustrates a larger Truth — and thus it is, in a different sense…True.
Did Emperor Norton inveigh against the use of the word “Frisco” and exact a $25 penalty for transgressions? Evidently not. But, he did love his adopted city and was eulogized in the papers as someone who, like others of his time, called San Francisco “the Queen of the Pacific.”
Did the Emperor call for a great Christmas tree in Union Square? Evidently not. But, he did love children and was known and remembered as something of a Santa Claus figure.
So, it’s not necessarily that one has to choose between the legends about Emperor Norton and the history — between folklore and facts. But, it is important to keep the line between the two bright and clear — so as to be able to maintain the focus not on the legends themselves but on what the legends reveal about the history.
Being a good steward of the Emperor’s legacy requires that one position the legends correctly within the larger Norton narrative, enabling them to say what they say — but not more than they say.
Sometimes, the real meaning and power of these stories is not literal but figurative — not above the text but below.
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UPDATE, 4 January 2019
Further exploration reveals that the April 1878 sand-lot incident is mentioned briefly in Allen Stanley Lane’s 1939 biography, Emperor Norton: The Mad Monarch of America, as part of a lengthier passage about the Emperor’s advocacy for Chinese equality and his antipathy for Denis Kearny.
But, Lane presents the incident in a breezy style — as if passing along oral tradition — and with no date or proper sourcing. So, it still is accurate to regard the incident as having been undocumented and the Campaign’s own find as a discovery that sheds light where previously there has been none for some generations.
In fact, the Emperor’s later biographer, William Drury — whose book, Norton I: Emperor of the United States, is regarded as the standard treatment — does not mention Kearny or the Emperor’s numerous Proclamations on behalf of the Chinese at all. Given that Drury was writing with the benefit of Lane’s earlier work, this total omission has to be regarded as an editorial choice that doesn’t reflect well on Drury.
Lane notes that the Daily Alta California newspaper commented on the sand-lot incident. In fact, the paper published its own report of the incident on 29 April 1878 — which suggests that the incident took place on the 28th, not the 29th, as the Examiner reported. This makes sense, since the 28th was a Sunday, and it was on Sundays that the anti-Chinese sand-lot meetings always took place.
Precisely at half-past two o’clock — there being present on the stand (besides Kearney,) Knight, Rooney, and others — Kearney called the meeting to order, but was astonished to observe the apparition of Emperor Norton standing on a box a few feet from the stand, his head and shoulders elevated above the crowd, haranguing them in a voice almost inaudible at the stand.
“Emperor!” said Kearney, hailing; but Norton did not recognize him, and kept on.
“Emperor, will you please take a seat?” said Kearney; an inquiry which, seeing there were no seats save the sand, must fairly be construed as an Irish bull.
In a moment, however, amidst laughter and “Put him out,” the Imperial person was dethroned, and his stalwart form and fancy feather were soon after observed on the outskirts of the crowd, and Kearney made his
The Emperor had given fair warning. Three weeks earlier, on 9 April 1878, Emperor Norton issued a Proclamation prohibiting all the Sunday afternoon sand-lot meetings as a disgrace to his city. He dispatched the Proclamation via telegraph to the Sacramento Daily Union newspaper, which published it the next day. Note the Emperor’s term of endearment for San Francisco.
Kearneyism Effectually Squelched — An Edict from the Emperor — Assessment.
SAN FRANCISCO, April 9th. — The Kearney movement is at last effectually squelched. Emperor Norton issued the following proclamation to-day:
PROCLAMATION. — Whereas, The Sunday afternoon sand-lot meetings are a disgrace to this Queen City of the Pacific, they are hereby prohibited, under penalty of banishment of the leaders, etc.
Imperial to-day levied an assessment of 20 cents.
UPDATE, 9 July 2019
The San Francisco Chronicle covered this incident on Monday 29 April 1878. The “Lieutenant-General” is Denis Kearney.
The fun opened before the Lieutenant-General got ready to open the skirmish. Emperor Norton I mounted a bench and by virtue of his sovereign authority commanded the dispersion of the assemblage. He was ordered by the Lieutenant-General to step down and out, but declined to do so, denying the authority of the General to direct his movements. This clash of authority led to a slight exchange of diplomatic courtesies between the contending potentates, but the authority of the General, being sustained by the assemblage, prevailed and the Emperor subsided.
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