The Madness of Joshua Norton

by Joel GAzis-SAx

Copyright 1997 by Joel GAzis-SAx

For Richard Petersen

Clampers Gathering

Remembering Norton

The four wheels and minivans zoom backwards through the barbican, their ends barrelling up the hill. The fleet anti-cortege hangs a right at the Hotaling Mausoleum. The drivers park along an easy curve of a Woodlawn cemetery lane, pull their feet off the accelerator and the clutch just as they switch the ignition off. Keys go back into their pockets and a crowd emerges from the vehicles, the visions of a crab cracking to come at Molloy's fading from their minds as they set their heels forward and backpedal to the grave of Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

The members of E. Clampus Vitus come to Colma every year to rededicate themselves to absurdity. And so is it not appropriate that this look at their hero, a man who thought he was the son of a Bourbon, takes an unconventional approach? Historians and forensicists don't like to admit that their's is backward science. From the fact of a murder, for example, they work from the body lying on the floor and the bloodstains on the wall. As the deceased rises from the carpet and his vital fluids implode off the surroundings back into the flesh, the bullet leaves the body and returns to the gun where it is stripped of those peculiar marks left by the action of the hammer and the riflings on the barrel. The killer pockets the gun and leaves after inhaling angry noises. The perpetrator's feet suck up his footprints and eventually lay the gun itself down, removing at a touch his fingerprints. The evidence never comes in court like this because even those with an eye to the past prefer to remember things from start to finish. To do otherwise would smack of lunacy or, worse, of obstinate refusal to be part of the herd.

Empty beer bottles fly out of the wire garbage pails and into the hands of Clampers who will soon refill them with inebriating contents. The crowd gathers, listening to the Yerba Buena Band, which plays golden hits of the Emperor Norton ReincarnatedVictorian age, only slightly out of tune. The long-haired, bearded photographer moving among them lifts his camera from his chest to his eye and discharges the photons back onto his subjects who, in turn, repel these particles back to the hidden sun, a long eight and a half minute flight away. He backs into a shot of an Imperial pretender, removes that from his film, and then lets another photobug step in front of him. The crowd draws him in. He seeks the sources of the other pictures he has taken, not quite remembering that he is doing so until just after he gets the right angle and retrieves the light. The Clampers make for colorful subjects: you can find men dressed like bandits, miners, bikers, fops, soldiers (mostly Union Army except for one German with a pickle-haube), Brad Pitt, Mark Twain, bulldog-faced policemen, preachers, a couple of Nortons, and one fellow who came as a plump, be-fezzed Ottoman, probably in honor of the Ali Haggans. They wear red shirts to a man, button-infested hats and vests, and offensive slogans, of which this is the mildest:

When I tell my mother
that I am a Clamper
she thinks that I play piano
in a whorehouse.

Others make simpler, cruder statements. Those for whom words fail substitute pictures.

Not all the messages worn on lapels, cap visors, and jacket backs neglect the dead. Some Clampers wear commemorative buttons for chapter members who had recently died. Norton I is not the only dead Californian celebrated today. Several Clampers wear chapter insignia, bearing the names of Sam Brannan, Joaquin Murietta, and other heroes of yore. True to the Clamper contempt for historical accuracy in favor of the comic, the picture of Joaquin Murietta looks nothing like the bronzed, dark-eyed Latino of fact. They've turned Joaquin into a Norseman: a blonde, bushy-bearded, middle-aged Forty-Niner astride a yellow jackass waves to you from the black jackets of chapter members. Jesus, who was a dusky Semite, would empathize with Murietta at being so transmogrified. As the Humbug joins the Emperor next to the stone, he sucks back mentions of Clampers who have gone to their rest in the past year, including the only female Clamper (who died young at age forty-four). Hats come off and go back on for each name. The replica Norton I smiles and leans on the tombstone and his gnarly cane as other Clampers take back interjections into the Humbug's previous speech. Norton's classic proclamations about the Bay Bridge and a brief biography go back into the Humbug's mouth and, via his eyes, onto the paper where he keeps his notes.

The Humbug and Norton I step away and the crowd thins. Men retrieve the libations they poured on the Emperor's tombstone, take the last of the beer bottles out of the wire trashcans, replace the bottle caps, and get back into their cars. Slowly they disperse, some to Molloy's for a pre-wake drink and others to hotel rooms or their homes.

"If it is absurd, I believe it" is the Clamper motto. The present Clampers started as a 1930s revival of a Forty-Niner's organization which spoofed the secret and fraternal societies of the day. The new Clampers kept the tradition of calling their president a "Humbug" and readopted their 1849 forebear's mission of "protecting widows and orphans, especially widows!" You may be a Clamper and not know it. Local chapters claim thousands of members, some of whom have been subjected to grueling initiations, others (usually prominent persons who could not take the shame of hazing) who have been tapped with a seven-foot long sword, and perhaps a few who have been initiated without their knowledge. Norton I is one of these. (1)

Masons also lay claim to Norton, even though they kicked him out for not paying his dues in 1854. USENET Discordians beatified Norton. Norton appears on beers, breads, coffees, and chocolates sold in San Francisco. He even turns up in a fantasy role-playing game as a magical fairy who left certain marvelous toys to be found by the present generation. History is like that. Nothing is so certain as what happened in the past. Unlike the future, we can't change what happened. But the human mind, imaginative, inventive, and corruptible makes history mutable. History is not the past: it is our just-so story of the present, why things are the way they are. It makes good guys and bad guys, great achievements and miserable failures. Out of a single war or social conflict, you can find men who are devils to some and heroes to others. And Joshua Norton, the son of a Cape Town Jewish store owner, becomes saint to some, clown to others, tormented human being to a third, and lunatic to a last quarter.

Backwards then we go, past many other Woodlawn graveside celebrations. In 1961, we see a drag queen named Norton's GraveJosé Saria call himself the Dowager Widow of the Emperor Norton, Empress of San Francisco and Protectress of Mexico. He polls 6,500 votes as the first openly gay candidate for Supervisor in the city's history. Back again nearly thirty years and we find ourselves again at this plot, with a marching band, notable officials and personalities, and a big crowd watching as the remains of Norton I are drawn out of the pit at the foot of the pink granite marker for their return to the Masonic Cemetery. The year is 1934 and some still remember the funny old man who wore a rumpled old Army uniform and begged for quarters.

These grow younger, becoming children. Some are there for another gathering, this one near the summit of Lone Mountain, where gravediggers remove the soil covering a silver and rosewood coffin holding the corpse of the Man Who Was A King. As it rises, pallbearers take it in hand and follow a 10,000 person-long cortege two miles back to downtown. It is the largest funeral procession in San Francisco history.

(1)Drury, Norton I: Emperor of the United States, 1986, pp. 209-210. [Return]

Proceed to the Second Part: Emperor of the United States
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