Emperor Norton vs. George Washington the Second
George Washington the Second beside a bust of his namesake. (I think he looks more like Ben Franklin.) Image courtesy San Francisco Public Library.
His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I, in addition to being the prototype of Frank Chu, is credited with visions of a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate (some suspect this to have been made up by others later) and a tunnel toward Oakland before those ideas were considered sane.
There were other eccentrics who paraded San Francisco’s streets in the 1850s and 60s, but for some reason the only one we still celebrate is Norton. It is a monopoly that he, above all, would have cherished; but just like his attempt to corner the rice market in 1852 which eventually sent him over the rainbow, this monopoly may not last.
Submitted for your approval: Frederick Coombs, a.k.a., “George Washington the Second.” Learn all about him after the jump…
San Francisco’s Crackpots
San Francisco from the beginning demanded to be noticed in spite of, even because of, its most outrageous citizens. In an instant metropolis that breathed boom and bust, lusted after gold and silver, and openly worshiped monopoly capitalism, the embrace of stylized mad behavior was perhaps a middle finger raised at the polite societies in other cities of the time.
George Washington Coombs in the Pied Piper
Norton is the most famous of these characters. However, within the Palace Hotel’s Pied Piper Bar & Grill hang two paintings. If you go into the lounge, past the eponymous Maxfield Parrish above the bar, and inside the restaurant, you’ll find them (they are not Parrishes). The one on the left features Emperor Norton and the one on the right, a rival figure holding a placard that reads:
The Spirit of Washington still lives like a California pioneer. He lived like a beggar to give like a prince.
Washington the Second was a contemporary of Norton’s, and in many ways his opposite, even though their stories have many similarities.
Emperor vs. President
Washington’s first and most obvious departure from Norton was in title. One honored the nation’s first president, the other embodied imperialism. San Franciscans must have seen in Coombs an alien quaintness.
Like Coombs, “Emperor” Norton was penniless and English by birth. But Norton’s megalomania appears to have been linked to his loss of fortune. The roots of Coombs’s intense patriotism and eccentricity were more complex and obscure. ((San Francisco Magazine, Dec. 1985, p. 22))
Washington the Second in costume; image courtesy San Francisco Public Library
Norton must have been more familiar – brash, monarchic, a true child of California gold and its excess. On the other hand, an article in the Daily Alta California from Nov. 16th, 1864, describes Washington the Second:
The old gent is quite the reverse of “Emp.” (Emperor Norton). His eye is mild and void of the sacred fire of majesty which burns with such latent power in that of “Nort.” (Emperor Norton). He is less dignified, and mixes more with common clay than does his colleague… He is also supposed to be void of sense, or in plain terms, “cracked;” but in his case, as in “Nort’s,” we think his head is clear. ((Daily Alta California, Nov. 16th, 1864))
Both Norton and Washington were venerated despite suspicions they might be faking their conditions, as if by embracing not only eccentricity, but even the pretense of it, San Francisco’s residents created a bulwark against the city’s prudish critics. It’s little surprise Norton has dominated the historical accounts versus his contemporaries. Gold Rush San Francisco yearned for dominion that would rival history’s most sprawling empires, such that only an Emperor would do.
Those who joined the gold rush had called themselves Argonauts and imagined themselves to be reliving a classical legend… They never tired of telling outsiders and one another that their city by the Golden Gate was the Mistress of the Pacific, the Queen City on her seven – or hundred – hills, looking westward to a destiny proportionately greater than that of imperial Rome. ((Imperial San Francisco, Gray Brechin, p. 14-15))
Norton amplified this sentiment, Washington did not. Recall the grandiosity and narcissism of Norton’s most recognizable proclamation:
At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, … declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.
It’s not hard to understand how that would ring truer to San Franciscans in the 1860s, as the city itself was deflating after the gold rush, than something like this from Washington:
If all the rich were to marry all the poor, would not this realize a beautiful equality so long dreamed of by Poets and Philosophers?
Similarities and Differences
Like Norton, Washington tempered his madness with inventive thinking. Before assuming his presidential title, Washington succeeded in business by inventing a ditch-digging machine for farmers in Napa Valley. He developed a train propulsion system that used electromagnetism and even demonstrated it on a small scale. Most notably, he built a working telegraph in 1840, just months before Samuel Morse scored the patent.
But Washington should not be denied his eccentric’s cred, either:
- He wrote a book on the pseudoscience of phrenology, which attempted to assess people’s personalities based on the contours of their skulls (one of his “clients” was Vice President Richard Johnson).
- He went on an expedition to Chicago (his home-town) to lure women to San Francisco, crossing the Isthmus of Panama on foot with a traveling museum of live animals and gold showcasing California’s assets.
- He billed the U.S. Congress $17,733,000,000,000,000 for expenses he supposedly incurred while contributing to the well-being of the nation.
- He self-published his own autobiography, titled, The Dawn of the Millenium! Splendid Discovery! A Beautiful Plan to Give Every Man (and Woman Also) a Nice House and Lot, And a Nice Little Wife or a Husband for All.
But his differences from Norton were perhaps more relevant to discovering why we should raise Washington’s stature:
- Emperor Norton was against women’s rights while Washington went to Sacramento and lectured for them.
- Washington/Coombs once demonstrated for the rights of Irish immigrants in New York.
- Washington once held up pro-Union banners in front an angry secessionist crowd in a San Francisco theater until he was pelted off stage, where Norton remained neutral in the North/South debate.
And finally, whereas Norton was a crude speculating capitalist, Coombs, before he became Washington the Second, was a hard-working businessman who nonetheless maintained a sense of charity.
In his early years, Coombs generally shared his money with poor daguerreotypists [of which he was one], needy friends, and destitute women. The press warmly recognized him as a philanthropist. ((San Francisco magazine, Dec. 1985, p. 24))
Today, we’re living through the consequences of an economic system that sacrificed long-term viability for the sake of delusional short-term riches. On a global scale, capitalism should be re-assessing itself, criticizing itself – for its own sake. To the degree that the gold rush was an instance of the same get-rich-quick ethic we suffer from today, perhaps we owe it to our beloved city and to ourselves to reconsider the “majesty” of our “Emperor,” and instead honor another figure who, in a quite different way, channeled the essence of San Francisco by transgressing the limits of sanity.
Washington the Second with skulls; image courtesy San Francisco Public Library
Vote for your favorite San Francisco crackpot in the comments.