Emperor Norton, Friend of Immigrants
Source and Original Documentation Found for Important — But Easily Overlooked — Proclamation
It was in the context of “the Chinese question” — as it was known — that Emperor Norton wrote most of his Proclamations about immigration and the rights of immigrants.
In the 1860s and ‘70s, San Francisco newspapers published at least ten Proclamations by the Emperor calling for an end to violence against the Chinese in California; for fair labor treatment of Chinese workers in the state; and for the Chinese to have equal standing — including the right to give testimony and to have proper representation and defense — in California and U.S. courts.
In April 1878, Emperor Norton put his own body on the line when he stood before a mass crowd gathered for a speech by the anti-Chinese racist demagogue Denis Kearney and told Kearney himself to desist and go home.
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So, it’s gratifying to be reminded of a wonderful Proclamation in which Emperor Norton demonstrated a more-general sympathy and care for all immigrants.
A “lesser” Proclamation is the “grace note” for the Proclamation that is our focus here.
On 8 May 1875, the Pacific Appeal — the African-American-owned and -operated abolitionist weekly that had been publishing nearly all of the Emperor’s decrees since late 1870 — ran the following:
The Emperor hereby orders the proper authorities to collect the fine imposed on Buckingham & Hecht for refusing to furnish the Emperor with boots, and to hand the same over to the Emigrant Aid Society.
To be sure, reprimanding a bootmaker for failing to provide the Emperor with…boots might seem to be a frivolous basis for a Proclamation.
But, the reference to the Emigrant Aid Society is the “tell” as to where Emperor Norton’s moral imagination was tending at this particular time.
For proof, one need look no further than a Proclamation published in the Pacific Appeal two weeks earlier, on 24 April 1875.
Here at The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign, we first encountered this April 1875 Proclamation some years ago. It features as part of a roundup of a half-dozen unsourced and mostly undated Proclamations that punctuate the end of “Personal Recollections of Norton I, Emperor of the United States,” an article-length memoir by Addie Ballou (1838–1916), published in the San Francisco Call of 27 September 1908.
Ballou — who was active as a lecturer and writer on women’s suffrage and spiritualism — first encountered Emperor Norton shortly after arriving in San Francisco in the mid 1870s. During this period, she took up painting and has the distinction of being one of the few artists — perhaps the only one — for whom Emperor Norton sat for a portrait. (Ballou’s portrait of the Emperor, completed in 1879, is in the collection of the Society of California Pioneers and also is included in the “flat works” gallery of The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign’s digital ARchive of Emperor Norton in Art, Music & Film (ARENA), here.)
In addition to inflicting some truly tortured and florid prose — you can see the original illustrated article here — Ballou’s account of the Emperor is similar to other published accounts by people who knew and interacted with Emperor then wrote up their recollections a few decades later. She presents a mix of detailed observation and “misty watercolor memories” but suffuses these in a folklorish, hagiographic tone that — coupled with an apparent obliviousness to the need to justify historical claims — can make it difficult to tell which bits are reliable and which aren’t.
Accounts like this one often include sample Proclamations published by papers whose editors were known to indulge in writing and publishing fake decrees over the Emperor’s signature.
All of this may help to explain why — with everything else the Campaign was trying to get done in its early days — we didn’t make a particular effort to verify the authenticity of the Proclamations in Addie Ballou’s piece.
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Fast forward to last September. On Empire Day — the anniversary of Joshua Norton’s original Proclamation declaring himself Emperor on 17 September 1859 — our friend Jonathan Robert Pamplin, in Florida, penned a reflection in which he observed that “[o]ne of [the Emperor’s] less known royal edicts called for the creation of a fund to pay stipends to new immigrants to ease their transition into their new homeland. “
This didn’t ring a bell. So, I made a mental note to ask Jonathan about it — which I finally did several weeks ago. Jonathan replied that he had seen the Proclamation on a website that makes reference to its being included in a 1964 book, The Forgotten Characters of Old San Francisco, that features a reprint of — yep — the Ballou essay.
This brought us full circle. But, the question remained: Was this an authentic Proclamation — and, if so, what was the original source? As a practical matter, the order of these two questions often is reversed — since the answer to the second question can determine the answer to the first.
This Proclamation is one of two in Ballou’s “concluding cluster” of six that comes with a publication date attached: 24 April 1875.
Happily, we know something now that we didn’t know when we first encountered the Proclamation: The Pacific Appeal — the source of some 250 Proclamations of Emperor Norton that Norton researchers regard as being authentic — started publishing these Proclamations in September 1870 and stopped in late May 1875.
If this 24 April 1875 Proclamation is authentic, it should be in the Appeal’s public record.
And so it is:
In view of the large number of emigrants arriving in this city, and being desirous that they should be assisted and protected, We, Norton I, Emperor, etc., do hereby order that the Mechanics' Pavilion building be immediately prepared for their reception, and for transacting their business, in order that they may not be fleeced through the rapacity of landlords. The State Treasurer is also directed to see that the emigrants are provided with sufficient money to proceed to their respective destinations, and charge the same to the emigration fund, and take bonds from said emigrants for the repayment of such moneys when able to do so.
Done at our City of San Francisco, this 21st day of April, 1875.
Read this Proclamation several times, slowly.
It’s thoughtful, clear, and morally on point, moving from a crisp analysis of the challenge to an equally crisp proposal of a concrete solution. And, everything flows from the first four lines:
“In view of the large number of emigrants arriving in this city, and being desirous that they should be assisted and protected….”
What a beauty!
One can’t help but wonder if word of Emperor Norton’s “order” ever made its way to the State Treasurer or, indeed, to the graybeards at the Mechanics’ Institute, where the Emperor was a member — and where, on one of his regular afternoon visits to the Institute, he may well have drafted this Proclamation on Mechanics’ Institute stationery.
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