America’s Last Emperor: Bulletin

Chapter Nineteen

Emperor Norton’s First Proclamation in the Daily Evening Bulletin. Courtesy the San Francisco Public Library.

September 17th, 1859

Norton awoke this morning, feeling clear-headed for the first time in a very long time.

He went through his morning ablutions as he had for the previous ten years, but today there was a significance about the ritual he hadn’t expected. He looked at himself in the mirror, yet nothing seemed different. It was, however. His friend David Broderick was dead. The entire city was in mourning. The continental government had succeeded in tearing apart a nascent state with its politically poisonous ideas that some people could own other people. Norton felt this was somehow the sign that he waited for his entire life.

He sat down at the desk in his room and thought harder when a tiny voice in his head provided the obvious solution — why not just announce himself to the world as he was, child of Napoleon III? When the idea hit him, he immediately set about to writing his announcement. After about thirty minutes he had the perfect message to his people. Now to choose which paper to send it to.

After another five minutes of consideration, he decided that the best place to announce his good news would be the newspaper started by James King of William. It was an evening edition at any rate — if he gave his news this morning, it would be printed by nightfall.

He dressed and walked down to Mrs. Carswell’s breakfast table, to prepare for the day.


Norton walked down Kearny Street towards Market from the boarding house. Abe Warner had given him one of his old beaver felt top hats, and he felt like today was a good day to start wearing it. He made his way down past Portsmouth Square on his usual route, greeting friends on his way. He doffed his hat at Norman Asing as he got to Clay Street. Macao and Woosung was at Commercial Street, and Norman was usually on the street sweeping trash off of the wooden sidewalks into the gutter. Today was no different, except instead of carrying on past Norman, Norton turned down Clay Street.

He walked down Clay past the Montgomery Block, on the other side of the street. The newspaper offices were in the building in front of where Charles Cora had shot the marshall as well as being where James King of William was shot down in the street. Norton thought of all the more symbolism of such a location imbued with all this anarchy being used to restore order to the world.

He walked into the squat brick building and found the stairs to the second floor. He’d never been into the Daily Evening Bulletin offices but found them much the same as any other newspaper office — there was a waiting area with a counter for dealing with the public, and several people were there paying for advertisements.

Norton walked up to the counter. The room behind the counter had ten desks with people at them, and there was a clerk at the counter dealing with the advertisements. When the last advertiser was dealt with, Norton stepped up to the clerk with his piece of paper and his announcement.

“I have a governmental announcement to make,” said Norton.

“An advertisement?” asked the clerk. “It’s ten cents a day for a listing in the paper.”

“No,” said Norton. “This is news. I need you to print this on the front page.”

Solemnly, Norton handed the piece of paper with his incredibly legible printed script on it. The young man read the entire thing, looked up at Norton, and then read the paper again.

“We don’t do announcements like this,” said the clerk, his brow furrowed. As he spoke, an older man walked behind him and stopped.

“What kind of announcements?” asked the man.

The counter clerk paled, and looked back at the man.

“Sir,” he said, and handed the piece of paper to him.

The man read the piece of paper, and looked at Norton, and then read the piece of paper again.

“We’ll take care of it,” he said to Norton. “I’m George Fitch, I am the editor of the newspaper.”

“Sir…” said the clerk.

“Shut up, Butch,” said Mr. Fitch.

“Thank you, sir,” said Norton. “It’s most kind of you to help out.”

“Anything for the Emperor,” said George Fitch, bowing. “Your highness.”

Norton saluted and said “Good day, my loyal subjects.”

The clerk watched as Norton walked away, and the editor broke into a giant grin.


Norton walked to Montgomery, and then down Montgomery towards Market Street and his daily readings at the Mechanic’s Institute library. As he walked, he made an inspection of the sidewalks and streets. He decided that he should make his kingdom as perfect as possible. When he got to the corner of Montgomery and California, he saw that a wagon had crashed into a gas lamp and slightly bent it. Luckily, he knew exactly who to tell about this problem.

When he got to Post Street, he crossed the street and turned right. As he got across the street he heard from behind him a voice say “Norton!”

He turned to face his friend Eastland, who looked absolutely despondent.

“Eastland!” said Norton. “I’m glad to see you!”

“And I you,” said Eastland. “How can you be so cheerful?”

“You shall see,” said Norton. “By this time tomorrow.”

Eastland looked at Norton and cocked his head.

“It’s not like you to be cryptic,” said Eastland.

“Nonsense,” said Norton. “While I have you, I need to tell you about a bent gas light at Montgomery and California.”

“Oh really?” said Eastland. He removed a small pad and pencil from inside his jacket.

“Let’s go inside,” said Norton, motioning towards the Mechanic’s Institute.


Norton played chess with Eastland until noon, trying to cheer his friend up. The reality is that the death of Broderick had everyone in town in rather dismal spirits. The oppressiveness of the library was palpable — the men there were less talkative than usual and most everyone wore a frown. They took their leave of each other and headed in opposite directions. Eastland headed towards a luncheon with his lobbyists from Sacramento, and Norton headed towards the North Beach and Meiggs’ Wharf.

He didn’t expect his life to change much. His daily walks of inspection for his capitol city would be an ongoing need, obviously. The bent lamp post this morning proved this beyond a shadow of a doubt. He decided to vary his route so he could inspect a different street every day. Today he walked up Post Street to Kearny Street and walked up Kearny to Portsmouth Square. He’d already inspected Montgomery Street today.

The greasy figure with his sign was there. MONEY KING. YOU CAN BORROW MONEY CHEAP

Norton ignored him and walked with purpose towards DuPont Street through the park. When he got to Washington Street he walked up to Stockton and then on to Powell Street. He turned right and followed this all the way down to Warner’s Bar.

The entire way, Norton noticed how downtrodden the people looked. Everyone was mourning David Broderick, as they should be. Norton thought about his friend Broderick, who had introduced him to Mary Ellen Pleasant and helped him get his first real estate deals in town. The man was gone, and Norton had to honor his memory somehow. He determined to rule justly as he walked among his crestfallen subjects.

As he got to Warner’s Bar, he saw Tom Sawyer’s wagon out front. The blind sailor selling peanuts to children was already at his station, ready for the afternoon wave of kids as parents left them outside while the parents drank inside the bar at Warner’s. He saw the noble steed who’d borne him a few days earlier at the hitching post, swayback and all.

As Norton walked into the bar, the parrots all screeched. One of them called out “Norton!”

At the bar, Abe Warner looked up and smiled.

“Nice hat, Norton. Looks good on you.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Norton. “I have ten cents here if you could set me up with a coffee and lunch.”

“I’ll do better’n that,” said Warner. “New ship come in with some of that ginger ale.”

“It is definitely a momentous day, let’s tap it,” said Norton.

“What’ll we do about them?” asked Warner, motioning with a thumb as a large round table.

Tom Sawyer and the Baron were sitting in chairs, slumped over the tables and sleeping hard.

“Don’t wake them up,” said Norton.

“That’s well nigh impossible,” said Warner, producing two glasses and filling them from a tap in a barrel on the far end of the bar.


“Warner,” said Norton as he wiped his mouth with a napkin, “once again you have the finest lunch in town.”

“What, beans?” asked Warner. “Beans and sausages. Don’t see what’s so fancy about that.”

“I prefer simple pleasures,” said Norton.

“That’s good,” said Warner, “cause you ain’t getting anything fancy here. I don’t have champagne.”

“Do you have new art?” asked Norton, looking at the wall.

“I have new ivory pieces,” said Warner proudly. “Came off a boat coming from up north. Also a shrunken head from Figi.”

Norton looked around at the cobwebs hanging from corners of the room. About a year of dust and cigar smoke had accumulated on the oldest ones, and formed a base for the newer ones. The webbing threatened to invade the bar counter, but Warner seemed nonplussed.

“I don’t like the fancy places uptown,” said Norton. “I prefer places like this. I was born to royalty, yet I feel like I know the common man. This is a palace, moreso than any granite and gilt structure uptown!”

“Yeah,” said Warner. “A cobweb palace.”

Norton stood up.

“I must take my leave of you,” he said.

“By all means,” said Warner. “It’s a slow, depressing day anyway.”


Norton took the old Meiggs road back to uptown. The town was still trying to decide what to do with Meiggs’ legacy. Norton realized as he walked along the cart path that this was not a proper street and would never last in the long run. He walked along it until he got to the end of Battery Street and started back uptown. He found and walked along the wooden planks of Cunningham’s Wharf until he got to Broadway. The waterfront was dangerous at night, but during the day he felt quite safe. A few people recognized him, mostly wharf managers and tradesmen who’d been there since the beginning. They doffed their hats, and he doffed his.

The wharf turned into Front Street at Broad Way. Norton decided to walk up Broad Way to Sansome. As he approached Sansome, a fair bit of nostalgia welled up. Only six years prior to this he owned the only rice mill on the west coast. He walked down Sansome to see it, still in operation. Norton swelled with pride when he thought about his accomplishments. He’d brought innovation to the wilderness, and now he was bringing an end to anarchy as well.

The rice mill was there, and people he did not know scurried around the entrances guiding a wagon full of raw rice into the building. As he checked his pocket watch, he saw that it was three o’clock.

Walking further down Sansome, he saw his old offices there were now a telegraph office. As Norton understood it, there were two telegraph systems in the United States at the moment. He resolved to order the connection of the two systems as soon as possible, but currently it was possible to get news within days of it happening on the east coast as it was. Norton looked forward to closing that gap to hours or minutes.

Norton walked onward towards and across Market Street, towards where the Genesee had come to rest. There was no trace of the old girl now, only the squat brick building of Eastland’s coal gas plant. The gas for lighting every lamp in the entire city now came from the building that sat atop the ruined hull of the ship that brought Norton to San Francisco, cooked out of the coal by furnaces designed and made by the first friend he’d ever made in town. If this was not his kingdom, then Norton did not know what qualified to be called that.

Norton doffed his hat at the Donohues, who he saw on the sidewalk outside their ironworks. They acknowledged him but seemed busy, so Norton navigated his way back towards Portsmouth Square and the center of town. He walked up Mission Street, to the start of the new Mission Trail that led to the old adobe mission out by the creek a mile or so away. The trail started at Third Street, which Norton took back to Market Street. There was a small hill and then he was at the end of paved Market Street, where Kearny Street starts when you cross Market Street.

Kearny Street was greatly built up in the ten years since he’d arrived in 1849. He walked past wooden and brick storefronts, two and three stories high. The grocers, dry goods stores, real estate agents, photographers and other businesses were bustling, and he was please to see the hum of commerce in his empire as money flowed smoothly. The economic hardships of the past were sure to be stabilized now that he was in power, he thought.

He crossed California Street and looked up the hill. He should inspect this street more often, he thought. The next street was Sacramento and then he was at Commercial Street where he saw the dogs.

The older dog was the bummer that Norton first fed. He had just one other dog with him, that was even more proficient at begging. They instantly recognized Norton, and sat directly in front of him blocking his way until he produced some dried beef from his pocket.

“You,” said Norton, addressing the older dog. “You are the oldest dog in town. I remember when I first met you and I thought you were old then. Your grey hair makes me think you are truly a Lazarus amongst dogs.”

“That’s a good name for him,” said Norman, who was watching this unnoticed from the doorway of his restaurant until he spoke up.

“Then so shall it be, he is Lazarus,” said Norton. “And his friend is the new Bummer, since I used to call Lazarus that when I first met him.”

“You need food, Norton?” asked Norman Asing.

“I am always desirous of your spring rolls and pork buns, Norman,” said Norton. “How are you?”

“I should ask you that,” said Norman. “I know you and Mr. Broderick were friends.”

“Eastland is much more grim than me,” said Norton. “It has spurred me into action, though.”

“Really,” said Norman. “What are you doing?”

“You’ll find out soon enough,” said Norton.

“Well come in and get a couple of pork buns,” said Norman. “We can talk about it tomorrow, perhaps.”

“Perhaps,” said Norton, moving towards the entrance of the restaurant. The dogs sat down outside when they saw this, knowing they’d probably get pork buns when he emerged.


Norton stopped at the newspaper stand next to City Hall on the way home and took out a penny from his purse. He didn’t buy newspapers often, as he could read them in the reading room. Something scratching at the back of his mind told him to spend the penny on this newspaper, though. The Daily Evening Bulletin was a respected paper.

As he walked onward, he looked at the front page. As was good and proper, the newspaper editor had published his announcement on the front page, along with a small editorial that was as neutral as he’d ever read.

“Have We an Emperor among us?”

The world is full of queer people. This forenoon, a well-dressed and serious-looking man entered our office and quietly left the following document, which he respectfully requested we would examine and insert in the Bulletin. Promising him to look at it, he politely retired, without saying anything further. Here is the paper:

At the peremptory 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 past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, 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 the 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.


Norton knelt at his bedside, facing the coin of his father as he had every night since arriving in this chaotic and anarchic land ten years before. Finally, his life had purpose and meaning. Finally he was fulfilling his destiny. Finally, he was his father’s son.

He reverently placed the newspaper article on the nightstand, where the coin he addressed nightly could see. He beamed with pride, knowing that his thoughts and words were being transmitted straight from his head to the consciousnesses of his father and every monarch who had ever lived. He knew his father was proud of him at last, and even though he didn’t need to say a thing he still felt the need to ecstatically state the obvious to the face of Napoleon III.

“Father! With your guidance, and God’s help, today I changed everything! I shall bring order and law to the anarchy and chaos of this land.”



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Founder at KinkBNB. Writer of fiction and nonfiction.

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