A Pretty Good Citizen for an Emperor

Today marks the 161st anniversary of the ascension to power of the first and only emperor of the United States. On September 17, 1859, San Francisco newspapers carried the declaration of Joshua Abraham Norton that “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States,” he was officially declaring himself emperor.

Today it’s probably fairly obvious, as it was then, that this “Emperor Norton” was most likely dealing with a mental health crisis, but the declaration captured the attention of the boom-or-bust, gold-crazed city for a couple of reasons. First, prior to an investment three years earlier that hadn’t panned out, Norton had been a somebody of importance in San Francisco.

I mean, he kind of looks like someone with authority. Unknown author / Public domain

London-born, he’d spent most of his early life in South Africa where his father operated a highly successful shipping business. Joshua Norton made and lost a good deal of money himself in that part of the world before moving to San Francisco in 1849 after suffering the deaths of both parents and two siblings.

Despite these setbacks, Norton didn’t seem to have any trouble building up his fortune once he reached California where he became an influential presence among influential people. So, when he went bust, then quiet, then reemerged as the Emperor of the United States, people were interested in the story.

Newspapers certainly were. They continued to print Norton’s imperial proclamations including a series which abolished the Congress, by force of the Army, because in its actions he saw that “fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled.”

This after Congress had failed to respond to his summons to convene in San Francisco in order to “make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.”

The United States of Emperor Norton’s day was one of great political upheaval, with a rapidly expanding western frontier and a war between states that pitted cousin against cousin and brother against brother.

If Emperor Norton could have had a Facebook account, I’m betting this would have been his profile picture. Beinecke Library / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

And that brings me to the second reason I think the proclamations got play in the media. Because I think the reading public sort of got what he was saying.

If he’d had a Facebook feed, I have no doubt it would have been filled with people he loved and respected screaming at each other over their differing political ideologies. That’s enough to threaten the stability of anyone’s mental health. And I mean, really, who of us hasn’t, at one time or another, thought it might just be easier to declare ourselves emperor, abolish Congress, and start from scratch?

Not that I want the job. Just to be perfectly clear. But the sentiment? Well, there are days.

Emperor Norton’s reign extended beyond the immediate violence of the American Civil War and his proclamations, penned at the Mechanic’s Institute Library on Post Street in San Francisco, continued to find their way into print.

Oakland Bay Bridge. All thanks to Emperor Norton. Kind of.

Over the years he called for public school and public transportation access for African Americans, fair treatment of Chinese workers in American courts, and the extension of numerous rights to Native Americans. He even proclaimed the need for a bridge to be constructed between Oakland and San Francisco, of the variety that definitely exists today.

He regularly participated in political meetings, attended lectures, and spent time getting to know his community while attending the theater and frequenting local saloons. For an emperor, Joshua Norton was a pretty good citizen. When he died, penniless, in January of 1880, his funeral was allegedly attended by more than ten thousand people, and San Francisco’s business community made sure Norton was buried in style.

Because that’s what you do for an emperor.

One Super Hip Aunt and The Brownie Express

When gold was discovered there in 1848, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the area that would a couple years later become state of California. Some struck it rich right away. For some it took a little longer. Still others became wait staff and went to endless auditions only to get a few bit parts in a commercial here or there.

There can be little doubt that this is when the California dream began to become a reality. And man, what a dream. Except that there was one glaring problem: brownies.

Because if you happened to be the super hip aunt of a couple of bright young gold miners on the adventures of their lives, pursuing bright futures, it was hard to send said youngsters care packages full of homemade brownies all the way from Missouri to California.

Most mail to the state traveled by boat, taking about two months to make the trek. The only other option for sending care packages was by a southern stagecoach route, which took somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-four days. I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten brownies that were made from scratch twenty-four days ago, but I’m pretty sure if you have, it was a mistake.

pony express
Not brownies, but still probably important to the receiver. By Pony Express [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Enter 1860, with a relatively new state, more or less disconnected from a country on the brink of civil war. Communication was an issue and luckily three men in the freighter business had a solution. William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell introduced the Pony Express, a relay system in which swift and brave young horsemen carried mail between Missouri and California, making the trek in a previously unheard of ten days.

The first delivery arrived in Sacramento on April 14, 1860, having started out in St. Joseph, Missouri on the 3rd. Changing horses every 10 to 15 miles, and riders every 75 to 100, this first trip transported 49 letters, 5 telegrams, and a handful of papers bound for intermediate destinations.

But still no brownies. Because even ten days is a long time to ask fresh brownies to say, well, fresh. And because the nature of the Express was such that weight was a huge consideration, a bulky box of brownies still had no good way to travel from here to there. Not to mention, the brave young horsemen probably got hungry.

Which brings me to my dilemma. You see, I am a super hip aunt of a couple of bright young people on the adventures of their lives, pursuing bright futures away from home at college. And for the past several years, I have been pretty good about sending care packages to each of them at least once a semester.

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Just need some brownies now.

 

As my own children keep reminding me, this semester is nearly over. Soon the last projects and papers will be turned in, finals will be taken, grades will be calculated, and if I don’t get on it pretty quickly, no homemade brownies from super hip Aunt Sarah will have arrived.

And the trouble is I don’t have a good excuse. Because even if I were sending a care package to a niece or nephew mining for gold thousands of miles away in California, through the magic of the modern US Postal Service, I could get them their brownies in a couple of days. They’d probably even be relatively fresh.

It’s not that I haven’t thought about getting it done. I figured out when their respective spring breaks were so they wouldn’t receive goodies when they weren’t around to eat them. I’ve set aside appropriate sized boxes. I’ve made several batches of brownies (that were delicious).  And now it would seem I’ve even taken the time to blog about the fact that I haven’t yet put together packages and actually taken them to the post office.

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And now a few swift and brave young horsemen and I can be a super hip aunt.

 

So today I’m going to get it done.

Though the Pony Express was never financially successful and was halted after only about 18 months at the of the completion of the transcontinental telegraph (which was even less useful for shipping brownies), it did manage to transport more than 35,000 letters  across the nation. And if a bunch of guys on horseback can accomplish that, I can probably box up some brownies and drive across town to the post office. Because I’m a super hip aunt.