PERSPECTIVES Series :: Perspective No. 3
An Appreciation of Emperor Norton, Madness and Bridges
By Steve Bartholomew
In the year 1872, Norton I, Dei gratia Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, issued a proclamation. He decreed construction of a bridge from San Francisco, his home city, to Oakland by way of Goat Island, which is known today as Yerba Buena. Most people at the time thought him mad. He was.
Joshua Abraham Norton had chosen a good time to go crazy, as good as any. The world he lived in was going in that direction. A judge had assassinated a senator in a fake duel at Lake Merced, and got away with it. California was torn between forces of North and South as the nation approached civil war. Rampant corruption ruled the city as the Committee of Vigilance was born. Mary Ellen Pleasant staged the first sit-in to integrate the street cars. Back east, they hanged John Brown. In short, the times were nearly as turbulent as they are today.
It was a good time to go mad. Joshua had arrived during the Gold Rush, made and lost a fortune in the rice business, and discovered the thin line between sanity and chaos. Perhaps he chose to stand upon that line. He was once arrested by an overzealous officer of the law and made to appear before the Commissioner of Lunacy. The verdict of that official: “He had shed no blood, robbed no one, and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.”
He was a good emperor, in that he did no harm. He zealously performed his Imperial duties of inspecting streetlights and sidewalks. He bought candy for poor children, charging the cost to his Imperial line of credit at the candy stores. He once stopped an anti-Chinese riot by reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over before the crowd.
One of Joshua’s biographers notes that he was once refused free passage on a river boat to Sacramento. You can’t insult the Emperor that way. In retaliation, Joshua ordered the revenue cutter Schubrick to blockade the Sacramento River. The biographer notes that since there is no record of such a blockade, we must assume the dispute was settled by compromise in a peaceful manner. Would that more such conflicts might be so resolved.
It might seem strange to some that we look to a madman for inspiration. And yet there is more than one kind of madness. There is the insanity of those who believe they may abuse and exploit their fellow humans with impunity. There exists the lunacy of those who would conquer others, or would condemn people different in any way from themselves. There is the madness of destruction, but there is also a divine madness of creation.
Emperor Norton created his own world, a place where he might banish the misery of the nation by decree and proclamation. His palace consisted of a room on Commercial Street where he paid fifty cents a day for rent, and never fell behind. He dined sumptuously at the finest free lunch counters in town. He delivered public lectures while dressed in his royal raiment of Army surplus uniforms. He was a role model for other leaders of the World, few of whom will ever rise to his standards of merit.
We should note the Emperor decreed not only a bridge across the Bay, but a tunnel beneath it, a project finally completed by construction of the Transbay Tube. His was a vision of the future, seeing far beyond the range of his generation. In our own time we may not see the peaceable kingdom he decreed, but his vision lives on.
I have written a book, The Imaginary Emperor, based on Joshua's career. It is meant as a celebration of his life, being no more historically accurate than most history books. If you should choose to read it, please peruse it with the object in mind of having Fun. I think that is what Joshua would have wanted: Have fun, and cross your bridges.
Steve Bartholomew was born a long time ago. He spent three years in the U.S. Army, where he learned how to use a soldering iron and screwdriver, as well as how to make the bed, mop the floor and wash dishes. He grew up and spent most of his life in San Francisco. After obtaining a liberal arts degree, he became a social worker and did more than 20 years in the mean streets of New York City, San Francisco and rural California. Steve now is devoted to writing books, which he should have been doing in the first place. He currently is working on a novel about Old San Francisco. Steve resides in Lakeport, California, a town that time forgot.
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