Emperor Norton Scrip in 1867?
So Said the Daily Alta California Newspaper. That Would Be Three Years Earlier Than Experts Say.
According to those who study the history and production of rare coins and currency — they’re called numismatists — particularly to those who, within that already specialized field, are experts in Western Americana…
The earliest extant example of Nortonian scrip — promissory notes, or bonds, sold by the “The Imperial Government of Norton I,” and signed by him — is dated 11 November 1870.
The 50-cent note was designed and printed — in red ink — by the firm of Cuddy & Hughes. It is in the collection of the California Historical Society.
In November 1870, the Emperor Norton had just started having his Proclamations published regularly in the Pacific Appeal, an African American-owned and -operated weekly newspaper which — as it happens — also was printed by Cuddy & Hughes. In fact, both the paper and the printer had their offices and operations in the same building: 511 Sansome Street, at the southwest corner of Sansome and Merchant (the latter of which now is called Mark Twain Street, at that location).
Six weeks after the Emperor sold his bond on 11 November 1870, he designated the Pacific Appeal as his official “weekly imperial organ.”
Western Americana specialists within numismatics seem generally to agree that the mutually beneficial relationships between both the Appeal and Cuddy & Hughes to Emperor Norton came together during this period — and that late 1870 is when the Emperor started selling his scrip.
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So, I long have been mystified by the claim of Emperor Norton’s biographer, William Drury — the author of Norton I: Emperor of the United States (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1986) — that the Emperor started selling scrip in June or July of 1869.
Drury argues that the Emperor’s scrip program was a plan he devised as a specific response to the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in May 1869.
Here’s how Drury tells it:
The Emperor was awaiting the arrival of the Iron Horse with keen anticipation, for he had already foreseen a splendid new way to raise funds for the sadly depleted Imperial Treasury. The number of businessmen who had supported him for the past ten years, former colleagues in commerce who paid his tax out of pity, could never have been many, to judge by his emaciated appearance, and must have dwindled to even fewer during the course of the decade, as some retired to hometowns back East with their fortunes, or drifted off to seek silver in Washoe, or were killed in the war, or died in San Francisco. But now his troubles would soon be over.
Despite his delusion that he was royalty, His Majesty possessed a most inventive mind, as will become quite evident the further this story progresses. The possibility of increasing his meager income by taking advantage of tourism occurred to him shortly after Leland Stanford's gold spike was driven, either in June or early July  at the latest, when he went to Cuddy & Hughes, the firm that was printing the picture postcards for Bradley & Rulofson, and ordered some "Imperial Treasury bond certificates," which he intended to sell to tourists.
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It’s true that Emperor Norton’s bonds turned out to be very popular with tourists, who bought them mainly for the signature.
But, William Drury’s undocumented claim that the Emperor gamed out the tourist-economic implications of the railroad so well that he marched himself over to Cuddy & Hughes to order bonds printed six (or fewer) weeks after the tapping of the Golden Spike in Utah…
That seems just a little too neat.
But, here’s a document we hadn’t seen: On the front page of its edition of 18 September 1867, the Daily Alta California newspaper reported the following:
IMPERIAL SCRIP. — His Majesty Norton I, Emp. U. S., etc., is issuing scrip of the denomination of fifty cents, convertible into seven per cent. Imperial Bonds at sight, or redeemable when the treasury is in funds. Fifty years hence, this scrip will be worth as much as that of any other Empire on earth, and even now it goes off like hot cakes, at par.
To be sure, the Alta — led by its editor, Albert Evans — pen name, Fitz Smythe — practically originated the habit of writing fake proclamations and otherwise making journalistic sport of Emperor Norton. The paper did this for years.
But, this item doesn’t read like a prank.
The details — bonds of “fifty cents, convertible into seven per cent” — line up with what the Emperor actually did.
What are we to make of this?
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For much more on Emperor Norton’s currency — seen through the lens of the Emperor’s printers — see our May 2017 article.
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