The Sandman #31 – Three Septembers and a January

Dream accepts a challenge from his siblings and gives failed businessman Joshua Norton the dream of being the first Emperor of the United States of America.

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Emperor Norton Obituaries

From the New York Times: January 10, 1880 pg 5

DEATH OF AN ECCENTRIC CALIFORNIAN.
A dispatch from San Francisco says that Joshua A. Norton dropped dead at the corner of California and Dupont streets, in that city, Thursday night.  Norton was an Englishman, well-educated, and presumably of respectable antecedents. Drifting to California in the early flush times, nobody knows when he gradually sunk into vagrancy and lunacy.

His dementia was of a mild and harmless type, his ruling idea being that he was Emperor of the world.  Clad in semi-military toggery, much the worse for wear, and bedizened with tarnished gold lace, “Emperor Norton” was one of the noted characters of San Francisco.  He subsisted wholly on the bounty of the prodigal citizens of the place, and levied tribute with the humility and pertinacity of a citizen-Emperor.  Among the old Californians there were not a few who humored the old vagrant’s fancy, and gave him a quarter of a dollar when pressing needs compelled him to remind his subjects that “The Imperial Treasury was in pressing need of funds” as the old man usually put the case in some such manner as this.

In seasons of popular commotion, he was accustomed to fulminate proclamations, duly signed “Norton I” and good-natured newspapermen would print these for the sake of the joke.  Strangers invariably encountered his strange figure, tall, portly, arrayed in striking garb, and usually crowned with a plumed chapeau, and they were not long ignorant of his history.  For 25 or 30 years this eccentric man has wandered the streets of San Francisco given “a square meal” almost whenever he asked for it, endowed with a certain income from easy-going citizens and tolerated because he was a public character of whose antecedents almost nothing was known and whose harmless delusion it pleased the popular whim to tolerate and encourage.

From The San Francisco Chronicle Reader (1962), which reprints a selection of articles from the newspaper’s past:

The characters San Francisco has always loved best are those it invented.  Once born of the popular imagination they were savored and exaggerated.  In death they burrowed even deeper into the folklore of the city.

The prototype for all such San Francisco characters was Norton I, an eccentric who assumed the role of Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico and a number of lesser honors.  He was accepted with great toleration.

Currently, impersonators of Emperor Norton still appear at civic functions.  A downtown tavern employes its version of the Emperor as a greeter. And in recent years Norton’s grandiose proclamations have appeared in The Chronicle, heralding springtime with a hunt for treasure he has caused to be buried within his capital city.

In the case of Norton, San Francisco has kept its tongue in cheek for nearly a century.  This report demonstrates some of the legend’s original flavor.  the Headline stated simply:

Le Roi
Est Mort
January 11, 1880

Imperial Norton is dead and turned to clay.

His funeral took place yesterday afternoon from the undertaking establishment at No. 16 O’Farrell street.  All the afternoon the remains lay in state in the rear room of the Morgue.  Thousands flocked thither for a last look at the man whose peculiarities of mind, garb and person had rendered him familiar to all.

The man of imaginary majesty, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico and prospective consort of the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, narrowly escaped burial in a plain redwood box.  Some people, noting the odd manner of life of the old man, have unkindly surmised that his hallucination was simulated, and that he had adopted his strange life as a cover of a miserly hoard of unaccountably-acquired wealth.  When his effects were searched it was found, as his best friends knew, that he had no means.

On his person was found five or six dollars in small change, which was all his store.  He has no personal effects of any value, and but for the kindly remembrance of people of means who knew Norton and had business relations with him many years ago when he was a citizen of substance and standing, he would have had a pauper’s funeral at the city’s expense.  A subscription paper to procure a funeral fund was drawn up and taken to the Pacific Club where the sponsors soon had all the money they deemed necessary.  The subscription list still lies on the table of the clubroom.

After the autopsy Friday the body was prepared for burial.  It was clothed in black robe with a white shirt and black tie, and placed in a neat rosewood casket, trimmed handsomely but without elaboration.  The general interest felt in the deceased was soon manifest.  Early in the afternoon of Friday people who remembered the singular old man kindly, many of them gratefully and affectionately, began to call and ask to be allowed a last glance at the familiar face.  Among them were several ladies whose dress betokened prosperity.  Some of them brought bouquets to be placed on the coffin.  One, the daughter of a former well-known citizen and officer of the city government, in addition to her bouquet brought a delicate boutonniere, consisting of a tuberose and sprig of maiden’s hair, and pinned it to the lapel of the burial robe.

This lady appeared in deep mourning and betrayed the deepest feeling of any who gathered about the bier.  She stated that she had known the deceased from her childhood and when he was prosperous had received many and great kindnesses at his hands.  When she was a little girl he used daily to present her with flowers, which at that time were very costly.

Early yesterday morning the stream of visitors to the bier began.  By 7 o’clock quite a number had dropped in, some of them laborers who had got off the car on their way to the shops, to take a last look at the remains of one whom none remembered save with kindly feelings; others were business men who stopped on their way downtown for a similar purpose.  Soon the number began to increase and there was a steady stream of people pressing through the office to the little back room where the remains lay in state taking a last glance at the features and filing out at the side exit to make room for the constantly-increasing throng of visitors.  By noon there were hundreds of people gathered on the sidewalk waiting their turn.  Policemen were called in to regulate the entrance.

The visitors included all classes from capitalists to the pauper, the clergyman to the pickpocket, well-dressed ladies and those whose garb and bearing hinted of the social outcast, however, the garb of the laboring man predominated.

The coffin lid was partially removed, exposing the features in view. They were placid and composed as in life, bearing no sign of suffering in the supreme moment.  It was remarked by some of the visitors that the outline of features and habitual trimming of the beard, which were observed in dressing for the grave, presented a remarkable likeness to the last Emperor of the French, whereupon the reporter of a morning contemporary pricked up his ears and made note of it, and went off to enlarge upon the details of the resemblance with much display of learning, concluding with the statement that the dead man claimed to be an illegitimate son of Louis Napoleon, and going on to show that probably the name on the coffin plate was wrong, which, of course, is highly absurd.

The coffin plate, following the best information obtainable, states that Norton was 65 years old.  Louis Napoleon, who was born at the palace of the Tuilleries April 20, 1808, if still living would be his senior by only six years.  Norton never claimed to be his son.

The floral tributes, wreaths and bouquets were so numerous as to completely cover the coffin lid, the only exception being the silver plate, which bore this inscription neatly engraved:

Joshua A. Norton
Died January 8, 1880
Aged About 65