September 17, 1859
It was a fine morning in the city of Saint Francis, with a biting cold blowing in off the bay and the sun beginning to chase the chill away.
Through the window of a boarding house that had seen better days, a brick wall watched the birth of America’s greatest and strangest saint. Oh, the country has produced it’s heroes and villains over time; but none have been as genuinely noble as Joshua Norton, the South African who became San Francisco’s own Quixote. Born in war, this stout fellow had been drawn, as so many had, to the golden shores; and he was broken, as so many were, his dreams shattered around him.
To use another’s words, you could say that “here’s a story you can hardly believe, but it’s true, and it’s funny and it’s beautiful. […] how can such courage be, and such faith in their own species? Very few things would teach such faith. The people in flight from the terror behind - strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever.”
Today, he is the patron saint of a religion that could only have been born in the bay. His story is told in the great literature of our time, as a pawn in the battle between Dream and Desire. All that is far in the future, though.
For now, he draws himself up in his finest rags, admiring the regality of his demeanour, seeing each wrinkle as a sign of great wars won, and each gray hair as a victory against time.
Two weeks ago, the heavens had reached down to touched the Earth. The sun had grown spotted, and sent great jets of light across the empty space to bathe the world in a new light. From Baltimore to Mexico, from Africa to Australia, a great hand had swept across the globe, washing aside telegraph and radio transmission, shocking operators and reminding the world that there are higher powers.
His eyes watered a little, but that was only from the brightness of his vision, however dingy and spider-ridden his hovel was. No matter. It was a palace in his eyes, for how else would one describe the home of his imperial majesty?
It is a humble place, as befits one of such noble birth and ignoble fate. His masonic brothers had been very generous, for all the baseless aspersion on his character cast by the contemptible Crocker and his coterie of criminality.
Thinking of the villain reminded Joshua once again of the rightness of his cause. Crocker was the very image of the modern American man, concerned only with his own success, with a fortune built on other’s ruin. He had already seen one country torn apart by greed and warfare, and he loved this place too much to let it descend into the same horror.
He had a destiny, given to him to fight against the dark spirit of men like Crocker. It had come to him seven years earlier, when he had more money than he knew what to do with. It might have been a joke at the time, but today he looked in all seriousness into the mirror, facing the eyes of the Emperor of the United States.
Behind him, he heard his friend Horace pad in.
Without turning, he spoke. “It is time. I see that you agree, Horace, as I knew you would. You are merely the first to recognize my imperial nature, but you shall not be the last. I must present my imperial claim, so that that all know we live in a new era. And you, Horace, shall be my grand vizier, ensuring that my subjects know of me.”
Horace looked away, sparking a moment of sympathy from the soon-to-be-emperor. “Oh, Horace, I do not mean to offend. If imperial power is not your desire, then I shall be happy to simply have you stand by me, providing quiet support, as you have always done.”
Norton smiled, clapping his friend on the back. “Not at all. This age has turned the world upside down; the kings are all fools, and it is only right that a fool become king. Come! We must draft my proclamation.”
Horace looked at Joshua, then again at Horace. He knew that Joshua was a madman, crazed by a life of chaos and failure, but his madness was shining, revealing a deeper truth.
“I cannot appear before my noble subjects without my badges of office. Come, my squire, and gird me with my honour.”
Horace looked around at the bare room. On the table, taking pride of place, were Joshua’s hat and sword, along with a military jacket of entirely unknown provenance. Like Joshua himself, they were bedraggled and worn, but exuded a quiet nobility.
They strode out together, into the glowing light of a new reality.
Meanwhile, the same old reality was beginning to get to Michael de Young. It wasn’t just the slow news day, but the succession of them, for week after week, After the rush and excitement of the vigilance committees and terrible deeds, the 1850s was coming to a dull end. Even the stories of striking it rich or poor didn’t have the same gloss they used to.
He was bored, which wasn’t a terrible problem. The terrible problem was the risk of his brother Charles also getting bored. Charles was charming, energetic, and an absolute nightmare. His boredom was a dangerous option at the best of times.
. Looking out of his window, his brow furrowed. He may not have been as personable as his brother, but there was a reason he kept things rolling. A memory for faces that would shame an elephant was among his more useful traits.
Marching across the grass was a figure that stirred vague memories. He was obviously down on his luck, like so many that had come to the new world in search of their fortune. The sabre he carried at his side seemed almost as large as he was, and the idea of him using it was ridiculous.
“Norton, that was it, terrible affair with the supreme court a few years back...”
Behind him, a door slammed open, and Charlie rushed in, knocking over a teacup. “Finally something to break the boredom! And this is a good one, must have been dropped off this morning.”
Without turning, Michael drawled. “To do with Joshua Norton, I imagine. He’s been quiet since his case. What’s he up to now?”
Annoyed about being pre-empted, Charlie came to the window. For a moment, they both watched the bedraggled figure making his way down the street. Drawing a deep breath, and cherishing the moment of surprising Michael, he announced “I present to you… the new emperor of the United States. He says he’s going to the courthouse to take his throne. Come on, we’ve got to see this.”
Michael and Charlie had their disagreements, but on one thing they always stood together. Their readers were Californians. No, more than that; they were but San Fransicans, and those around the country who felt the magic of the place, even when they faced another ocean.
Hard news about the affairs of the day rarely grabbed their reader’s interest, but a story about some lunatic proclaiming himself emperor would sell a good stack of extra copies. Pausing only to grab his hat and coat, he followed Charlie out into the street.
As they hurried down the stairs, he wondered at the energy his brother always seemed to have. Charlie had somehow convinced him that it was a good idea to start a newspaper, one that concentrated not on the weighty and important matters of the day but rather the absurdity and irreverent joy that filled so many of their fellow citizens. It was ridiculous, and Michael found both his complicity and their success equally astonishing.
Though some of the readers had Charlie’s bubbling love of the world, mostly they just wanted to see the freaks. The man they were following was a sign of the times. There was a good story here, for a day or two, but what drew most to it was the darkness below the joy that Charlie never saw, because he never felt it. Joshua Norton was a good man brought low, and the world is always avid for such tales.
He just doesn’t see it, Michael though. It’s a good thing he’s got me by his side. He’d never make it on his own.
It never occurred to Michael that, at that exact moment, his brother was having the same thought, though phrased rather differently. What a mug, Charlie thought to himself, as he leaped down the bannisters from their tiny office. Whole word full’a strangeness and charm, everything changing all the time, and all he wants to do is worry about the facts and figures. Damn the truth! We’ve all had our fill of hard-bitten tales. What we need is to revel in this town, where the violence and despair have a soft underbelly that was mostly painted in luminous colour.
It is telling that, even to himself, Charlie sounded like a carnival barker. Not for him were the carefully considered statements and thoughtful prose of his brother; no, his energy was one of excitement and adventure, and an unusual love of the absurd.
It had served them well, as they became the first teenage newspaper owners in San Francisco.
They slowed to a gentle trot as they saw more people filtering out of shops and streets, drawn by a herding instinct older than speech.
By the time they reached the courthouse, a crowd had gathered with them. People like a show, particularly on nice days, and there was something blessed about this, a golden haze in the air from the mist roiling in the bay.
A soft murmur of disbelief rose. No-one was quite sure what was happening, but whatever it was, it was unusual.
From another window, another rather less chirpy Charles watched in mounting rage. His bank had been influential in destroying Norton, and his influence over the supreme court had made the man poor while filling Crocker’s pockets very nicely. The fact that his brothers at the lodge had shown Norton kindness set his teeth on edge. He had ruined the man. The least his peers could do is respect his victory. Frankly, he suspected that they liked Norton more than they did him, despite his clear superiority.
San Francisco was his town, and he’s be damned if such foolishness would be spread in his city. Not that he particularly cared for the place. Crocker was the kind of man who didn’t care for anything but himself, and money. If he had cared for anything else, it would probably have been a white cat that he stroked while coming up with evil plans to ruin and enslave men for profit.
Not for nothing would history remember Charles Cocker as a robber baron with the gaudiest taste in San Francisco (which, even in 1859, was a high bar). As one would expect, he was a petty man, and often given to rivalries with those who felt no need to compete with him.
In the absence of a cat, he rubbed his hands together, enjoying the sensation of wheels turning in his mind and ignoring the occasional clench of horror his fingers made.
Suddenly, his hands stopped. A man was walking across the square, slowly gathering a crowd, and it looked like… no, it couldn’t be… yes! It was Joshua Norton, the man he had taken great delight in ruining, marching regally to the courthouse!
“Damn if I let that fool start wandering round my city again. “Jack!”
It says a great deal about Crocker that he always called his manservant Jack, regardless of their actual name or disposition. At the moment, it was a soft-spoken Amerindian youth he had forced into servitude. As it happened, he didn’t particularly mind being called Jack. Having been taken from his family while still a child, he had few to no memories of his days with his people instead having lived as a slave of one description or another for most of his young life. The country was up in arms about the Africans, and the Chinese who were flooding in were being treated as subhuman. In all the tumult, his people lived as they always did after the coming of the white man, ground between the mills of great powers and men who thought themselves great because they measured glory in gold and blood.
The treaties they used these days were subtler, but spoke with no less of a forked tongue. Slavery was outlawed for all free people in this brave new world, but not for his kin; instead, they were traded as chattel, enslaved for four months at a time for their ‘protection’.
Still, it was a life not already ended by disease or massacre. He’d had the luck to be male, and to find his slavery in town instead of the fields. That was more mercy than the sun gave most, these days.
. There were less than one of his people for every five in the time of his grandfather, theirs numbers swamped by people of Crocker’s calibre.
Jack didn’t bother to hide his sneer. Crocker barely saw people who he considered beneath him, which was of course everybody. The man both considered his servants to be incapable of genuine thought and enjoyed their hatred, so it never occurred to him that their principal feeling towards him was one of avuncular contempt.
Jack and Crocker were very unlike each other, except in the depth of their contempt for one another. This contempt often helped Jack cope with the man who, in a few years time, would be known the nation over as a robber baron, and die leaving a monument gaudy and ridiculous even by California’s lofty standards.
“What is this, Jack? Why is Norton back in town, and what’s he doing in that ridiculous getup? He’s bringing down the whole tone of the place. I won’t have it, I tell you.” He harrumphed, loudly, which he enjoyed so much that he did it again. “Harrumph!”
After leaving a moment of respectful slice, Jack handed over a card. “He went round the newspaper offices this morning, sir, giving out this notice. As it happens, one of the editors sent it along.”
This wasn’t what had happened, of course. Jack had left standing orders concerning Norton, as well as several others, with various contacts around town. He hadn’t been Crocker’s manservant for long, but his predecessor had made sure to leave careful notes about the various people Crocker had wronged over time, which was a surprisingly useful network.
“He is a broken man, no concern to you.”
Crocker read over the note and smiled the happy smile of a truly awful person seeing the further tragedy of an old victim. “Good, good.”
Horace and Joshua ambled slowly down the street, knowing that their destiny was waiting, and willing to enjoy the accession. Norton’s gaze fixed upon a child in rags and tags, sitting despondently by the side of the street.
Horace gestured forward, eager to be on with the day’s business, but Norton stopped him, drawing himself up into his imperial demeanour. One of his chins receded, and his pot belly drew in a fraction.
“No, Horace. Our day’s business is important, but let it never be said that we passed one of our citizens in distress and did not reach out a hand to help. What is wrong, child?”
Meanwhile, the child had stopped looking despondent, and was now assessing Norton with a gaze that with a few too many years in it. However, her mercenary instincts, already well honed, were thwarted. On the one hand, this man was clearly down on his luck, without the pennies to steal. On the other, his sheer imperial certainty confused her somewhat.
[mary] decided to be honest. “We were gonna go shopping in the tourist’s pockets.”
Norton stood up further, reaching almost to his tip toes. “Oh no, dear girl. You must not descend to the depravity that stalks our beloved country. You see…”
Norton looked around in a quite amazingly conspicuous manner. Horace took the hint. Spies were everywhere, and Horace made a show of looking in dustbins and alleyways for possible agents of nefarious powers.
Norton stooped, and his voice dropped to a whisper “I shall tell you a secret, for you are the first of my subjects to recognize me in my finery. I am the rightful emperor, born of nobility running from the terrible republican bane that has torn society apart. I have been Seen the terror that is coming to America, and I have been ordered to take up my station as Emperor forthwith.
And each of us must have a reason to stay pure, a cause to fight for that raises us above the common herd. I hereby bestow upon you the title of First Duchess of Fifth Avenue.”
By the time they had reached the courtroom, Josha and Horace had gathered a small but interested crowd. They climbed up slowly, savouring the moment.
On the steps, Joshua stood proud. Taking a copy of his decree from Horace, he looked and the crowd and smiled. The group was nicely mixed, which was a good omen. He had not been made emperor by royal consent alone; no, the people loved him, and needed him. Faces from the past threatened to blur his mind’s eye, but he dismissed them.
Horace was right. His time had come. He thought back to the windswept waters of his birth and the pioneer spirit of those people, of the atrocities they committed and the land they loved so much, for all its barrenness and brutality. This place was very similar, but very different.
He cleared his throat and drew himself up to his full, but still diminutive and shabby, height.
“At the peremptory request and desire 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 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; 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 Feb. 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
There were a few shouted comments, in a quite impolite vein, but they soon gave way to silence. Everyone watched, with baited breath, to see what this lunatic would do next.
Michael looked over the crowd, wondering how long this performance could hold their attention. Usually, catcalls followed quickly, but they were staying quiet. A few, he noticed, were ducking their heads, or staring wide eyed. He must have been well known, back when he lost his fortune.
“Damn, Mike. This could be the shot in the arm we need. The railways are coming. This might be a new city, but it’s filled with stories. People will want to come and see where the gold rush happened, the far frontier that they read about in all the stories.”
Charlie stopped, fixing his eyes on his brother. “There are stories that will bring people here, and stories that live here. There’s more than just money coming in to this town. This guy, he’s one of us. Built and broken and rebuilt, all for the sake of making him into something new, a hero for an age already too full of railway barons and trading giants, fighting for a greater cause only he sees, not gold. He’s us.”