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Emperor Norton, San Francisco’s Most Beloved 19th-Century Eccentric

Wikipedia // Public Domain
Wikipedia // Public Domain

Americans are famously testy about submitting to unelected rulers. But for a period in the 19th century, San Francisco boasted its own emperor. Residents are so proud of him, in fact, that he remains a symbol of the city even to this day.

Joshua Abraham Norton was mostly likely born in England in 1818. While he was still young, his parents moved the family to South Africa, where his father sold shipping supplies. By the time Norton was 29, he’d lost his parents and both brothers, but he’d gained a considerable inheritance. When he arrived in California in 1849 to capitalize on the gold rush, he was worth $40,000—more than $1.1 million today. 

Norton set out to become a tycoon, and for a time enjoyed a considerable fortune as well as a reputation as a member of the city’s elite. But his ambitions eventually became his undoing. In 1852, a famine in China had driven up the price of rice. With the price of the grain in the U.S. having increased 800%, Norton bought a 200,000-pound shipment of rice from Peru. Unfortunately for Norton, not only was the Peruvian rice of inferior quality, but within a week of that ship’s arrival several other ships bearing loads of Peruvian rice flooded the market. Norton might have recovered—he’d prospered in several different businesses before this scheme—except he sued the man who’d tipped him off about the shipment, leading to a drawn-out and costly court case that reached the California Supreme Court, which ruled against him. The bank foreclosed on many of his real estate holdings, and Norton declared bankruptcy.

We don’t know for sure whether what happened next was because Norton experienced a mental break or whether he simply decided to embrace an eccentric lifestyle. All that's certain is that on September 17, 1859, Norton delivered the following proclamation to the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin:

“At the pre-emptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the Emperor of These United States, and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall of this city, on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.

Norton I, Emperor of the United States."

These demands weren’t entirely unreasonable for the time, with secession in the air and abolitionists losing patience with inaction. The editor of the Bulletin, perhaps recognizing gold where he saw it, published the self-styled Emperor Norton I’s edict.

Readers, predictably, couldn’t get enough of him. Norton began appearing throughout town, dressed in cast-off military regalia (both Union and Confederate), including a beaver hat with ostrich feathers and a ceremonial saber. He dissolved the union, appointed himself “Protector of Mexico,” and issued statements about how to improve both the city and the nation. He spent his days walking through the streets, inspecting the realm and demanding taxes. Luckily for local institutions, he often accepted a hot meal as payment.

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In some ways, Norton’s proclamations were an early example of what we now call clickbait. While he continued to issue some proclamations (more on those below), editors would also write their own, knowing it would sell more papers. Theaters and restaurants reserved prime seats for Norton, knowing that his presence or endorsement would attract visitors. As early as the 1850s, he began appearing as a character in comic operas, novels and cartoons. Mark Twain, who worked as a reporter at the San Francisco Daily Morning Call at the time, reportedly found in him inspiration for “the king” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Wherever Norton appeared, audiences eagerly followed. The 1870 census lists his occupation as “emperor.” 

1870 Census via familysearch.org // Public Domain

Yet for all that businesses and publications exploited his image and his presence, Norton continued to live modestly. He sold imperial bank notes to tourists for income, and was described as an earnest, intelligent, and politically engaged man. An apocryphal story asserts that Norton, who was raised Jewish, despised certain types of racism when he saw it: During one anti-Chinese riot, he allegedly inserted himself between the two sides and recited the Lord’s Prayer until the rioters simply left.

Some of Norton’s acts seem remarkably prescient. One of his verified proclamations decrees that a bridge be built joining San Francisco to Oakland, which at the time residents thought could eclipse San Francisco as the major rail hub of the West. The Bay Bridge was completed in 1936, precisely where Norton recommended. And long before San Francisco became a mecca for hipsters, Norton could be seen riding through town on a fixed-gear bicycle. He was also a staunch defender of the city, instituting a $25 fine (about $500 today) on anyone who dared abbreviate its name to “Frisco.”

Whether he was acting under a delusion or just gaming the city, Norton lodged himself firmly in San Francisco’s mythology. When he died of a stroke in 1880, an estimated 10,000 people saw him laid out at the city morgue—though some claim as much as 13 percent of the city’s population, or 30,000 people, paid their respects before his burial. Today, Norton is a patron saint to Discordians, and several micronations honor him with a holiday on January 8, his death date. There are Emperor Norton tours in San Francisco, led by costumed interpreters; chocolatier Ghirardelli used to serve a special named sundae in his honor. He’s appeared in pop culture everywhere from jazz bands to the TV show Bonanza to comics (including both a brief starring turn in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and tributes from cartoonist Kate Beaton).

His only run-in with the law as emperor—an arrest for lunacy by a rookie patrolman—prompted such outrage that when the chief of police released Norton, he also issued an apology, ordering that all police salute Norton as he passed. "The Emperor Norton has never shed blood,” wrote the Daily Alta California. “He has robbed no one, and despoiled no country. And that, gentlemen, is a hell of a lot more than can be said for anyone else in the king line." In the end, Patricia Carr may have stated Norton’s relationship to his fans and with himself most elegantly of all: Though he is named as an emperor, she wrote in American History, “There are no quotation marks on his tombstone.”

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How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
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Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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Did Queen Victoria Really Save Prince Albert From Drowning in an Icy Lake?
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many British queens have also served as daring emergency rescuers. But when the moment arose, Queen Victoria was ready to save the day. In 1841, she saved her husband, Prince Albert, from an icy lake he had fallen into while skating.

The incident didn't need much dramatization when it was included in an episode of the PBS drama Victoria. It really was a life-or-death situation, and 21-year-old Victoria was the hero.

On a cold February day in 1841, Victoria and Albert, who had married almost exactly a year earlier, went for a walk around the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Albert, an avid sportsman who loved to skate and play hockey, strapped on his ice skates and headed out onto the lake. In a diary entry, Victoria wrote that the ice was smooth and hard that day—mostly. As he skated toward her, she noticed that the ice around a bridge looked a little thin.

"I, standing alone on the bank," she wrote in her journal that evening, "said, ‘it is unsafe here,' and no sooner had I said this, than the ice cracked, and Albert was in the water up to his head, even for a moment below." By her own telling, Victoria screamed and reached out her arm to him, holding onto her lady-in-waiting, the only attendant present.

Albert grabbed Victoria's arm and she was able to pull him to safety. He had cut his chin and was dripping wet, but returned home, took a hot bath and a nap, and was up a few hours later to socialize when their uncle Leopold (Victoria and Albert were first cousins) came to visit.

"Her Majesty manifested the greatest courage upon the occasion, and acted with the most intrepid coolness," an account of the event that appeared in The Times a few days later proclaimed. "As soon as the Prince was safe on dry land, the queen gave way to the natural emotions of joy and thankfulness at his providential escape."

Albert recounted his side of the experience in a letter to his step-grandmother, Duchess Caroline of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. "I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies," he described, when "I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out. Victoria was the only person with the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help." (Both the queen's diary entry and the newspaper account give the lady-in-waiting a little more credit, suggesting that she at least served as an anchor for the queen as she reached out to the prince.)

According to The Times, the problem was bird-related. That morning, the groundskeepers in charge of the various waterfowl that called the lake home had broken the ice around the edges of the water so that the birds could drink. By the time the queen and the prince arrived, those spots had frozen over with a deceptively thin layer of ice.

Thanks to Victoria, though, Albert emerged from the incident with little more than a bad cold and went on to live for another 20 years.

Had Albert died that day on the ice, it could have completely changed European history. Victoria and Albert had already had a daughter, and the future King Edward VII was conceived around this time. If Albert had died, seven of Victoria’s children wouldn’t have been born—children who were married to nobles and rulers across Europe (during World War I, seven of their direct descendants were on thrones as king or queen). And if the future Edward VII hadn’t been conceived, Albert died, and everything else remained the same, it’s possible Kaiser Wilhelm II may have become the ruler of both Germany and the United Kingdom.

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