America’s Last Emperor: Miser

Darren Mckeeman
12 min readDec 14, 2020

Chapter Three

Note: Chapter One can be found by clicking here.

Old San Francisco, 1850 courtesy of OpenSFHistory

Monday, November 26th, 1849

“Thank you very much, Mr. Norton.” said Mr. Naglee.

The inside of the bank was not very ornate, being a hastily thrown together space on the ground floor of the Parker House hotel in Portsmouth Square. The hotel was essentially what they called a wooden put-together, a building assembled back east and shipped around the horn to be assembled on site. Clapboard walls were the same everywhere — the only difference was that this room was split by a wall with barred windows in them. As Eastland had explained to Norton, most every bank was the same in San Francisco — almost every merchant with a safe had declared himself a bank and started issuing money in return for gold dust.

“And anyone will accept this?” asked Norton. He turned over and inspected the crudely printed bill that Naglee had given to him in return for a deposit into his vault.

“Oh certainly,” said Naglee. He was a middle aged man with muttonchops. Norton had noticed a great many men with this style of facial hair around town and made a mental note to see the barber after this.

“So I could go to the barber and give this to him?” asked Norton.

“It helps if they are a customer of mine,” said Naglee. “But everyone knows you can bring this to my bank and exchange it for gold.”

Satisfied, Norton took another look at the note and thought about it.

PAY TO THE BEARER $10 OF GOLD was across the top in large letters, and EXCHANGE AND DEPOSIT OFFICE BANK was across the bottom. A “$10” was in each corner of the bill, and at the lower right was a signature “Henry Naglee, founder”.

“So what happens when the price of gold goes up or down?” asked Norton.

“What do you mean?” Naglee asked.

“Well, if I deposit an ounce of gold and you give me a $20 bill, what happens when the price goes to $35 an ounce?” asked Norton.

Naglee sniffed. “The price of gold is stable,” he replied haughtily.

“One must try to plan for all situations,” said Norton. “I trust it well enough for the moment, though. Must be nice to print your own money though.”

Naglee winked at him. “It’s not without benefits,” he confided.

#

The barber combed Norton’s hair back and deftly trimmed it with a pair of brass scissors. He worked quickly and methodically, and as he ran his comb through his hair he stopped every so often and looked at the comb.

“Are you just in from the gold fields?” he asked.

“No, I’m off the brigantine Genesee. We came in on Friday night,” said Norton.

“Ah,” said the barber. He looked around conspiratorially, and nudged Norton.

“These rednecks, they come in from Placerville after working their claims,” he said. “They ain’t washed in months, come in for a wash and a trim.”

There was a twinkle in his eye, and he swung around to pick up a small glass bottle. He handed it to Norton, who inspected it.

The bottle was half filled with glittering golden flakes.

“And they pay you in this?” Norton asked.

“Oh no,” said the barber. “That all goes over in the till over there. This is what I comb out of their hair and beards.”

“How long did it take you to get all that? A week?”

The barber guffawed. “That’s just from today!”

The barber pushed Norton’s chin up, and decided on the exact right way to shave it and get the muttonchops Norton had requested.

“We get a lot more out of the tubs out back,” he said, as moved to the side table and started strapping the straight razor back and forth on a piece of leather. “Best location I could have picked, right next to the Parker House. They always come here right after depositing their money or exchanging it.”

Norton only responded with silent contemplation of the lathering process.

#

Norton considered the adobe building on the corner of Jackson and Montgomery with a little trepidation. He remembered his first run-in with Lick, at the Alcalde’s office. The building before him was in a perfect location, but appeared to be a tavern of some sort on the first floor. Would the inside have a dirt floor? He certainly hoped not.

Lick stood beside him, looking at the building. “I actually like this building. I have an office here myself, but I own a lot of property now. This was one of the first pieces of land that I bought. I need more space for the piano work though. I use the tavern as kind of a showroom, come see.”

Norton reminded himself not to breathe too heavily near Mr. Lick, but the smell seemed to get worse once they were in an enclosed space. He fought to not gag but it started to get eye watering. He fell back a little bit.

“Sorry about the smell, we think an animal fell in the well out back,” said Lick. “At any rate, there’s one of mine, what to you think?”

Norton’s eye’s fell on a rather beautiful upright piano. He moved to it, and played a chord or two.

“I am afraid I could not showcase your handiwork with any great talent,” said Norton.

“I can’t really get past tunin’ them,” said Lick. “I know a few people though.”

Lick paused. “Let’s go see the office, I have. You have two people, you say?”

“Yes,” said Norton. “Myself and my associate, Peter Robertson. Once I have an address, I am off to California Street to post a notice in the newspaper.”

The pair moved up a staircase to a veranda overlooking courtyard of the tavern on the second floor. Offices or rooms had doors that opened out onto the interior, and from the balcony Norton could see a group of men clustered around a well in the middle of the courtyard.

The smell was pretty bad. Norton looked away, towards the door that Lick moved towards. He preferred to smell James Lick than whatever was in that well.

The room Lick guided him into was four walls and a window looking out over Montgomery Street. The street was starting to curve sharply upward at this point, and he could see that the second floor of the building he’d walked into was the first floor of the building on this section of the street. The window was just high enough off the street where people could not easily climb in.

“Mr. Ellis built this place pretty good, and I got a good deal from him. So now I rent out the rooms. It used to be a boarding house but I prefer offices because businessmen always pay their bills on time. And the tavern keeper is shutting down now too, the crime at night around here is just too much. We will convert that space into a store or something.”

“Oh that would be splendid,” said Norton. “But immediate matters take precedent. How much for the office?”

“Straight to business, I like that,” said Lick. “Also slightly suspicious of it.”

“I assure you, I know I could not take you in a business matter, sir,” said Norton. “You’ve been here a while, and hold all the cards. So name your price, I need an office in the middle of things.”

“You are correct, sir, you do,” said Lick. “Two thousand five hundred American dollars per month.”

Norton felt himself getting light headed. He gulped.

“Also no sleeping in here,” he said.

“Oh most definitely,” he said, as a shout came up from the courtyard. “Hey boss!” came a call.

“Excuse me a minute,” Lick said, moving to the door. Norton followed him.

The scene laid out in the courtyard was as foul as the smell that permeated the air. The workers had removed the foul stench from the well in the form of the corpse of Captain Keene. The bartender looked at the corpse and looked back up at the landlord, who suddenly looked very unwell. Norton gasped in recognition of the man he’d just spent four months at sea with.

“I recognize ‘im,” said the bartender. “He’s the captain of that ship that came in Friday night, he came in here for a drink and disappeared. This must be why the whiskey tasted bad Saturday night.”

Lick looked at Norton, who was visibly upset.

“OK, I’ll give it to you for fifteen hundred,” said Lick.

“Deal,” said Norton, without taking his eyes off the corpse. “Mr. Lick, I must take my leave of you immediately. I will be back this afternoon to give payment, but in the meantime I have urgent business I must attend to. This man was in charge of my cargo, and I need to secure it. I trust you men can handle the police?”

Lick snorted. “The police? You can talk to them yourself when you get back, that’s about when they’ll be available to deal with this. I’ll handle this, you secure your cargo. I understand your position.”

“Thank you sir,” said Norton, and out the door he went.

#

The wharf was a bustle of activity during the day, much to Norton’s surprise. Not knowing where to start, he went to Commercial Street and the wharf that extended from there, it seeming to be the central wharf of the waterfront. He wandered down until he found himself in front of a tent with a sign painted that stated this was the New World Coffee Salon. Standing a bit off to the side, leaning on his wagon, was Tom Sawyer. Norton hurried up to him.

“Hello again, sir,” he said urgently. “Might you be available for hire?”

“I might,” said Sawyer.

“Could you take me to where you picked my captain and I up on Friday evening?”

“Certainly,” said Sawyer. “Anything wrong? You look a bit upset.”

“Oh, I am,” said Norton. “Tell it on the way.”

#

The captain’s tender was still tied to the dock at the waterline, which came as a surprise to Sawyer. After a little more wrangling, Sawyer was engaged to row Norton out to the Genesee, where the crew pulled them up on deck. Sawyer assured Norton that everything in San Francisco happened like this, all at once or not at all. The first mate came bounding out of the cabin, pulling on clothes as he came.

“Is Captain Keene with you?” asked the first mate.

“I’ve bad news, Billy,” said Norton. “Captain Keene is dead.”

“Here I thought the news couldn’t get any worse,” said Billy. “I’ve been struggling to keep this ship together.”

Billy looked around, and as he did, what remained of the crew gathered around the men on the deck.

“Five men deserted the first night. Just jumped off the deck and swam to shore,” said Billy. The men were muttering to each other in whispers.

“Three more Saturday night. Five more last night,” said Billy. “Not only that, we’ve been hulled bad. That rock scraped a good bit of wood and cracked a bone on her. We’ve sent men down with tar but we really need to careen her and fix the damage.”

“Careen her?” asked Norton.

“Beach her on the tide,” said Billy.

Norton looked at Sawyer and then back at Billy. “How long do we have?”

“If we didn’t work constantly on it, she’d be half sunk a week the way we have it now.”

“So you can give me a week?” asked Norton.

Billy looked at the remaining crew, who were all looking at him. Norton realized he had to act quickly.

“Men, your crewmates did the stupid thing. They deserted in our hour of need. But I am here to tell you — help us solve this, and I will outfit each and every one of you. I have shovels, pickaxes, buckets, and pans. Did you know a shovel is going for $36 on shore?”

“Help me, men. Help me secure this cargo, and you will surely come out of it better equipped to take advantage of the situation than those that deserted ahead of you!”

#

Monday, December 3rd, 1849

Norton watched from the beach as the remaining crew waited for high tide to peak. The original crew had been thirty six men, including the first mate. Now there were just over fifteen men left. The Genesee had about thirty or so large barrels lashed to her hull just under the waterline, which made her ride higher in the water despite being loaded down with Norton’s chandlery. A line was attached to to the ship that led to the shore, where half of the crew and a large number of hired men were holding the bitter end. Norton knew they would not be able to get the ship completely ashore, but all he needed was close enough to the Howard Street survey that he could put a ramp up.

As he observed the work at hand, he saw Eastland walking up the sandy bed of Howard. He turned to face his new friend and fraternal brother.

“Good day, Mr. Eastland!” said Norton.

“I see you’ve got your plots picked out,” said Eastland.

“The alcalde bought them himself at auction and sold them to me,” said Norton. “No one dared bid against him, it seems.”

“So you already own them! Good show!” said Eastland.

“Well, the bank rightfully owns them,” said Norton. “I’ve got three lots here. Naglee holds the mortgages.”

“Water lots!” said Eastland. “and once you’ve got the Genesee beached, you’ll have a warehouse.”

“Poor Captain Keene,” said Norton. “But the boat will never sail again and as long as my cargo is in the hold I am responsible for salvage.”

“I’m not exactly sure that’s how it goes, but if nobody is complaining then you are doing good,” said Eastland.

“That’s the value of a leader,” said Norton. “These men respond to my regal bearing, that’s all.”

Eastland considered this, and nodded. As he did so, Billy appeared at the head of the line of men holding the tow line.

“Alright men! High tide! When I give the word, haul on those lines! Are we ready?”

A great shout came up from the men.

“All right! Heave! Heave! Heave!”

As Billy called out encouragement, the line tightened and the ship started to glide towards the shore. The men on the line started to pull as fast and hard as they could, and as they did the boat picked up speed. As they did so, some of the crew on board had climbed into the rigging and let loose one one of the square sails. The wind caught it and the boat picked up a lot of speed. The line to the shore went slack, and the boat barrelled into the shallows and buried its bow into the sand just short of the flags that demarcated Howard Street as a great cheer went up. The square sail fluttered down, lines cut as the lazy sailors decided there was no more need to be shipshape about what they were doing.

“Now we prop it up and start selling,” said Norton.

“Congratulations,” said Eastland. “Now we’re neighbors of a sort.”

“I could never have done it without the help of my brothers,” said Norton, beaming. As he said this, Billy walked up.

“She’s on shore, sir,” said Billy.

“And your duty is discharged, sir,” said Norton. “I’ve arranged for Mr. Sawyer to deal with security. What are your plans for the future?”

“I’m gonna do what the rest of the boys are gonna do,” said Billy. “I’m gonna go up into the hills and dig until the ocean calls me back.”

#

Norton knelt at the small table in his room at the Jones, contemplating the coin with the visage of the Bourbon king on it. He clasped his hands in prayer and smiled, knowing his father was in heaven looking down on his royal and regal son.

“Father, thank you for watching over me and guiding me in this new land. I’ve already been lucky enough to find the Masonic helpers you have sent to me, and with your help I have also put down stakes in this new land and claimed a piece of it. I find myself at the beginning of a great business venture truly befitting one of my noble birth.”

“This country is young and foolish. The form of government is supposedly democracy, but it is rife with corruption and shortcuts by the well to do that I have been able to take advantage of due to my breeding and mandate from God. It is obvious that the Americans yearn for an emperor rather than a president — it is obvious in the way they speak about “Manifest Destiny” and “empire”. Someday, maybe they will see the light and reinstate our family as rightful leaders of the countries of the world. Until then, I shall bide my time and build a fortune to live the way we once did before you sent me away to South Africa for my own safety.”

“Amen!”

###

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