Mark Twain vs. the Emperor of the United States

The story of an Americana darling and his living shadow.

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Mark Twain portrait via the UC Berkeley Library. Emperor Norton portrait via

I’m mad at Mark Twain right now.

If you follow along with my writing (you can do so here), you know I’m a massive Twain fan. His stories combine history, travel, and humor, which is totally my vibe. But Twain’s a problematic hero to have. I mean, the man once said that he wanted to dig Jane Austen up and “beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone”.

What the hell? You know, you can be a real asshole sometimes, Clemens.

Twain’s other famous beef pisses me off even more, though. Twain hated Emperor Norton.

Unless you’ve lived in San Francisco, you probably weren’t aware the United States was once ruled by an Emperor. (No, I’m not talking about Trump, but I won’t be surprised at all when he barricades himself inside the oval office the minute he’s voted out.)

I’m talking about Joshua Abraham Norton, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Joshua Abraham Norton was born to wealthy Jewish parents in England in 1818. The family moved to South Africa when he was very young, then sent Joshua off to San Francisco at the start of the gold rush (1849) to throw his money around at stuff and see if it turned into more money. It did. He quickly became one of the richest and most well-respected investors in the game.

In 1852, famine in China had made rice a steamy commodity, so Norton bought an entire rice shipment at a ridiculous price, hoping to corner the market. Several days later, a ton of other rice shipments docked at port and the prices plummeted. Norton lost everything. He was forced to sell his land, declare bankruptcy, and move into a poorhouse. Remember when San Francisco had housing for poor people?

Nobody heard from Norton for years. Some say he left town for a while. Some say he was simply hiding away in shame, watching all of Netflix and ignoring calls from his mom. All we know is, in 1859, he resurfaced with the following message —

“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 San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.”

— NORTON I., Emperor of the United States. (He would later add “Protector of Mexico” to his title)

The papers printed the declaration for a laugh and the people ate it up. What the hell had happened to Norton? Was it a descent into madness? Was he cooking up a scheme? Or was he simply choosing self-love over self-flagellation? (The original “Yaaas, Queen!”) This was all highly debatable, as we’ll discuss later, but it appears most people decided to assume good intentions.

Officers at the nearby Presidio military base gifted him an old uniform with official-looking epaulets and a sword holster and the Emperor quickly became the most recognizable face in town.

Locals bowed and curtseyed when he passed by on the street. Fancy restaurants saved tables for him. Playhouses kept a box open. As word of this strange character spread around the world, reporters flocked to San Francisco to interview him. Since the Emperor preferred not to be out at night (you were likely to get Shanghai’d back then), local bars invented something called a “happy hour”, selling drinks at a reduced price earlier in the day to entice reporters to conduct their interviews with His Majesty in their bar.

The Emperor attended local churches, synagogues, Buddhist temples, and science conventions. He patrolled the streets and inspected cable cars to ensure the safety of his citizens. One time, when an anti-Chinese riot was about to escalate into violence, Norton put himself between the rioters and their Chinese targets, held his hands up, and recited the Lord’s Prayer until everyone dispersed.

Local papers continued to print his proclamations. The Emperor Norton Trust lists several of his wilder ones:

“He demanded that African Americans be allowed to ride public streetcars and that they be admitted to public schools.

He commanded that the courts allow Chinese people to testify in court; and he pronounced that “the eyes of the Emperor will be upon anyone who shall counsel any outrage or wrong on the Chinese.”

He proclaimed, with respect to Native Americans, that all “Indian agents” and other parties connected with frauds against “the Indian tribes” were to be publicly punished before as many “Indian chiefs” as could be assembled together.

He supported women’s right to vote.

He was a defender of the people’s right to fair taxes and basic services, including well-maintained streets, streetcars, ferries and trains.”

And here’s one which may finally help you to understand why San Franciscans cringe at the dreaded F-word:

“Whoever, after due and proper warning, shall be heard to utter the abominable word ‘Frisco,’ which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.”

— NORTON I., Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico

One day, the Emperor was unceremoniously arrested and charged with “lunacy”. Citizens/imperial subjects were outraged and demanded his release. In response, Police Chief Patrick Crowley released the Emperor and issued a public apology to “the kindly Monarch of Montgomery Street”. From then on, police were instructed to stand at attention and salute whenever His Majesty crossed their path.

Meanwhile, Mark Twain (then Samuel Clemens) was coming into his own as a 30-something journalist with a penchant for spinning tall tales. He fell in love with San Francisco the moment he arrived, writing to his family:

“When I go down Montgomery Street, shaking hands with Tom, Dick & Harry, it is just like being in Main Street in Hannibal and meeting the old familiar faces.”

In fact, Twain was a regular patron of the basement steam rooms at the Montgomery Block artists’ colony, which stood where the Transamerica Pyramid stands today. It was there that he became friends with a local fireman. The two would spend hours getting pruney together and telling each other tales about their childhoods.

The fireman’s name? Tom Sawyer.

Twain’s future masterpieces were starting to take shape.

Emperor Norton died in January of 1880. He collapsed in the street on his way to a debate of the Hastings Society at the Academy of Natural Sciences. He died with nothing but a few dollars in his pocket.

The next day, the paper Twain wrote for, The Call, waxed poetic about His Majesty’s fall, “On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night, under the dripping rain… Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.” The San Francisco Chronicle reported 10,000 people came to view his body in state.

Norton’s death became even bigger news around the world when a rumor spread that a total eclipse of the sun had occurred as he was being lowered into his grave. This wasn’t true. There was a partial eclipse the day after his funeral. We can’t know who started this astronomical rumor, but I wouldn’t put it past Twain, who was known for spiffing up the truth every so often. He would have jumped at the marvelous opportunity.

A few years ago, I was perusing the Mark Twain Papers, an archive of Twain’s personal letters kept at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley (because that’s the sort of thing I do for fun) and I stumbled across this letter he wrote to a friend —

“Oh, dear, it was always a painful thing to me to see the Emperor begging; for although nobody else believed he was an Emperor, he believed it. … What an odd thing it is, that neither Frank Soulé, nor Charley Warren Stoddard, nor I, nor Bret Harte the Immortal Bilk, nor any other professionally literary person of S.F., has ever “written up” the Emperor Norton. Nobody has ever written him up who was able to see any but his (ludicrous or his) grotesque side; but I think that with all his dirt & unsavoriness there was a pathetic side to him. Anybody who said so in print would be laughed at in S.F., doubtless, but no matter, I have seen the Emperor when his dignity was wounded; and when he was both hurt & indignant at the dishonoring of an imperial draft; I have seen him in all his various moods & tenses, & there was always more room for pity than laughter. He believed he was a natural son of one of the English Georges — but I wander from my subject.”

I felt like I’d stumbled across a mean letter one of my very good friends had written about another very good friend. I couldn’t understand how Twain — progressive-for-his-time, lover of all things nonsense and all things San Francisco— could have such little reverence for the Emperor.

It’s not unreasonable that someone could look at a person without any money to his name, without a grasp on reality, and feel pity. But it feels like there’s something more to this. Norton was basically homeless, but he made people happy and found a way to connect to his community. Why begrudge the strange means through which he’d found love?

Four years after Emperor Norton’s death, Twain released what was to be his most popular book ever — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Within it were two characters based on Norton, and they were two of his darkest, most disturbing characters ever. The Duke and the King.

The Duke and The King are con artists. One character is young and slick. He tricks Huckleberry Finn and his friend Jim into believing he’s a real Duke and that they must dote on him and give him all their food and money. The other character, a bearded old man, gets jealous of the special treatment his fellow conman has amassed and “remembers” suddenly that he’s a King. Later on, these two attempt to trick a town into buying tickets to their terrible play, trick a family of women out of their inheritance, and threaten to sell Jim off to slave traders.

So did Twain really pity the Emperor? Or did he go so far as to see him as a scoundrel? It helps to take a look at Twain’s later life, when he’d sunk all his wealth into a giant mansion for his family and into investments that didn’t pan out. He was nearly as poor as the Emperor when he decided to pick up his life and embark on a comedy tour in the hopes of paying off his debts.

Twain had done the comedy circuit many times already and, every time, he swore he’d never do it again. In his book, The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, author Ben Tarnoff talks about the night Twain finished his first tour and headed back to his hotel with his long-time friend, Charles Stoddard.

(Charles was openly gay, by the way, at least in Twain’s company. That’s not important to this story, it just makes me love their friendship).

“They spent their final night together in the usual way, drinking and talking well past midnight. Whatever happiness Twain felt at going home gradually faded as the hour advanced, and his usual melancholy returned. ‘He sank into a sea of forebodings,’ wrote Stoddard, who watched helplessly as Twain slid into a nightmare trance, revisiting his terror of the poorhouse, envisioning his future as ‘friendless, forsaken, despised’ — until a comforting thought came to him. He knew what he would do if he failed as a writer. ‘I’ll become a teacher of elocution!’ he declared and rang a clerk for a copy of the bible.

What followed was perhaps the most surreal of the many odd moments that occurred that winter. Twain read the book of Ruth while Stoddard listened, astonished. The man he had seen drawling onstage for more than a month now spoke with the oratorical fluency of an Episcopal minister. The western twang was gone. The words flowed beautifully, ‘in a style that would have melted the hardest heart’.”

I believe Twain pitied and dispised Emperor Norton because he was terrified he was no different. His wealth was just as precarious. He could pretend just as effectively at being someone he was not. He, too, had many admirers. Did they love him or were they making fun of him? Was he a good person and deserving of his fame? Or was he a bad person, swindling the public?

It’s been suggested that The Duke and The King are a “bizzaro-world version of Huck and Jim”, two innocents reflected in an evil fun-house mirror. I can see that. But I also think The Duke and The King are Mark Twain and Emperor Norton.

In the book, the Duke started the con by claiming to be royalty. The King one-upped him, kept the con going, and proved himself to be the more “sophisticated” conman by coming up with a plan to sell expensive tickets to their shitty “Shakespearean” play. Throughout the book, the King grows steadily crueler while the Duke starts to question the morality of their actions. The King silences his objections by telling everyone the Duke is a deaf-mute.

It would make sense to cast the Emperor as the old, bearded King and Twain as the young, slick-and-silenced Duke. Twain said in his letter that he felt like he couldn’t speak up about his true feelings about the Emperor for fear of offending all of San Francisco.

But perhaps, in his heart, it was the other way around. Emperor Norton, like the Duke, was the first to proclaim himself royalty. When he died, he was silenced forever. Then Twain, orator and King of America, felt like he went on to “con” the whole world with his performances.

I said at the start that I’m mad at Mark Twain and it’s because he had a tendency to lash out at other people when he was feeling bad about himself. The way I see it, there’s one major difference between these two men.

One of them loved himself. The other didn’t.

At least Twain eventually gained some self-awareness in his later years. Remember that quote I mentioned at the beginning about how he wanted to beat Jane Austen with her own shin bone? He said that during an interview with a literary critic who happened to love Jane Austen, perhaps in an attempt to rile him up. In a piece Twain never published, available in the Mark Twain Papers, he later added:

“Whenever I take up “Pride and Prejudice” or “Sense and Sensibility,” I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I am quite sure I know what his sensations would be — and his private comments. He would be certain to curl his lip, as those ultra-good Presbyterians went filing self-complacently along. Be- cause he considered himself better than they? Not at all. They would not be to his taste — that is all.

Yet he would be secretly ashamed of himself, secretly angry with himself that this was so. Why? Because barkeepers are like everybody else — it humiliates them to find that there are fine things, great things, admirable things, which others can perceive and they can’t.”

There’s a rumor about Mark Twain’s death. They say he was born the day Halley’s Comet flew past the Earth in 1835 and he died the day it came back around to Earth in 1910. This is only partially true. Mark Twain died the day after the comet flew past.

We just all know how Twain would have wanted us to tell it.

Written by

Katlyn writes about history, travel, and culture… with some snark.

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