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San Francisco, California, September 1859
For three excruciating days, Senator Broderick fought for his life. He succumbed on September 16.
Thirty thousand San Franciscans turned out to view his body, laid out in state upon a catafalque in the Plaza, and joined the funeral procession to the cemetery at Lone Mountain. An official month of mourning was declared, the city was hung in crepe, and it seemed the whole populace was at each other’s throats over the killing. Broderick’s last words had ensured his ascension to martyrdom:
“They have killed me because I am opposed to the extension of slavery and a corrupt administration.”
And his death had pushed the country several steps closer to civil war.
The duel encapsulated every increasingly violent debate that the city, the state, and indeed the entire country was engaged in over the issue of the enslavement of the Negro race. On one side, the Chivs and Cavaliers: Southerners armed and ready to kill to protect what they called their “way of life,” their “peculiar institution.” On the other: Unionists, Free-Soilers, in shocked mourning over the murder of one of emancipation’s staunchest supporters. Both sides locked in savage combat over California’s fate as a free state.
In the office of the Bulletin, “Deacon” George Fitch scribbled furiously, yet another article on the duel. Or assassination, depending upon which circle one happened to frequent or which newspaper one happened to be taking. Fitch was not the only editor who’d seized on the event as both the tragic close of the decade—and the ominous beginning of a new one.
California’s first ten years had been a wild ride, from sudden statehood after the Mexican-American War, which forced Mexico to cede California to the United States—and the simultaneous discovery of vast quantities of gold in Northern California’s fertile hills and rivers. Tens of thousands of young adventurers poured into the state, seeking and sometimes finding unbelievable fortunes. And the rich young state had become a political pawn, with the slave powers and the Free Soilers locked in a bitter battle to win the state for their own purposes.
That battle, above all, was crystalized in the Broderick-Terry duel. It was clear that 1860 would see a bloody national reckoning on the slavery question.
Fitch knew that the editorial war he was even now engaged in would only fan the flames. And yet it was his job to sell papers, so he continued, trying his hand at a ballad this time:
Who is’t that seeks in this enlightened age,
In mortal strife his fellow to engage—
He who seeks to urge the deadly strife
To show his skill in taking life
To right an error or remove a slur
He is a coward and a murderer—
A rumble and crash came from the street. Fitch didn’t even shift his gaze to the window. The building was not shaking, therefore it wasn’t an earthquake. Noise was simply a way of life. San Francisco was under construction, twenty-four hours a day it seemed. Outside the windows, day in and day out, carriages laden with building materials clattered on the wood-planked streets, sledgehammers pounded and explosions boomed through the city as the rickety original buildings were demolished to put up grand new granite structures.
The Gold Rush was already over. All the surface gold that could be found had been picked, panned, or carried out, and what was left was deep in the earth, accessible only by expensive machinery. But San Francisco was fast rising to the rank of a great metropolis. An “instant city,” people called it, boasting over a thousand substantial buildings, houses of stone and brick, two miles of brick sewers, two miles of plank streets, three miles of sidewalks. There were fourteen gristmills, eighteen breweries, nineteen foundries, eighty-four restaurants, seventeen banks, and a sugar refinery. Thirteen thousand new residents had arrived in this year alone.
Men still made up sixty percent of the population, but more and more of them were sending for their wives and families, and businesses were springing up to accommodate them— including three grand hotels, fashionable shops, and an opera house all within just a three-block radius of the Bulletin offices. Banking was replacing gambling and business was replacing mining.
Fitch stared out his window at the growing skyline, pondering the next line of his poem. A gentle cough made him turn.
In the doorway of the office stood a shortish, gaunt, dark-bearded man. He was dressed in shabbily fantastic garb: an old Army coat and boots, a plumed hat, a sword, and various epaulets.
A tad apart from the ordinary, even in extraordinary San Francisco.
Yet the vagabond comported himself with grace and dignity. He held a sheet of paper in his hand, and as he walked slowly forward, extending the page to Fitch, he spoke softly. “I was wondering if you would care to publish this.”
He placed the missive carefully on the edge of the cluttered desk, bowed, and departed without another word.
Fitch took it up, and with increasing incredulity, read thusly:
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 ten years and nine months of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States, and by 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 Musical Hall, on the 1st day of February next, 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
Fitch had to read it through thrice to take it in.
I declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.
“Well, I’ll be hanged.” He chuckled, then turned to the bin to toss it—but some newsman’s instinct stayed his hand.
Why not? he thought. Why in blazes not? New decade, new chapter… maybe an Emperor is exactly what this city needs.
He pushed his poem aside and rang for a compositor. Then he began to write:
Have We An Emperor Among Us?