The de Youngs
October 12, 1859
San Francisco, California
The de Youngs: Charles (age 13), Gus (age 12), Michael (age 10)
Fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled.
Therefore I, NORTON I, hereby abolish the Congress of the United States of America.
Charles de Young looked up from the Evening Bulletin, from which he had been reading aloud to his brothers.
“Emperor Norton. There you have it. We now have our own Emperor.”
The brothers de Young: thirteen-year old Charles, twelve-year old Gus, and Michael, who had just turned ten, huddled in a corner of the printer’s shop where Charles worked as an apprentice for the Weekly Gleaner.
Rabbi Julius Eckman’s newspaper served San Francisco’s growing Jewish community. The rabbi was known for his scholarship and his strict conservativism, and used the paper to arouse religious sentiment.
Charles didn’t give a fig about any of that, so neither did his brothers. But their mother Cornelia, sometimes known as Amelia, took in sewing at their apartment, receiving customers throughout the day and requiring the boys to be absent for much of the afternoon and evening. In the morning, she required rest from her labors. So Charles had coaxed the Rabbi into a job for Gus as well.
Michael wanted to be with his brothers, but Charles insisted on Michael’s attendance at Rabbi Eckman’s Hebrew school. Again, not because Charles had any interest in religion, but because the school was attended by the sons and daughters of well-off merchants, which Charles said was a good investment in social capital. So Michael joined his brothers in the shop once he’d finished the school day, to run errands, sweep up the shop, and learn the printing trade.
Every day Charles combed through the local papers, schooling himself and his brothers on the business of publishing. The strange pronouncement the boys were now looking at was framed in a bold border, which Michael knew in the news business to mean Important.
Twelve-year-old Gus went back to laying out type and was silent on the matter.
Silence was by far the better course when it came to Charles, who had a savage and unpredictable temper. When Mother was working, or recovering from working, meaning most of the time, Charles was entirely in charge—which often went badly for the two younger de Youngs.
But Michael was also desperate to learn all he could about newspapers.
San Francisco, indeed the whole of California, was still an isolated territory, separated from the rest of the States by the vast deserts of Utah and Nevada and the perilous Wasatch, Rocky, and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. The distance made the new Californians rabid for news, both of the homes they had left, and of their new and burgeoning state. There were thirteen major newspapers in the city, and a new one started every day. And Charles was determined that they would have their own.
“When we have our paper…” was his favorite phrase.
He was already publishing a small daily, using the Rabbi’s equipment. The Holiday Advertiser was really just a circular of ads, but that’s what newspapers were about: Entertainment to sell ads. That’s what Charles said.
Now Charles was studying the announcement in its bold frame and Michael sensed another important lesson, a gold nugget, as it were, of knowledge could here be gleaned.
Somehow due to the mysterious pronouncement of “Emperor Norton,” Charles seemed in a particularly good humor today, so Michel ventured a question.
“But… it’s not true. Is it? The United States has no emperor.”
Michel saw Gus tense at the question, and he braced himself for what might be a painful response. But Charles merely smiled on him benevolently.
“Course it’s not. Old Norton s’gone crazy as a coot.”
Charles was evidently feeling expansive. He went on to explain. Joshua Norton had been a prosperous real estate and commodities speculator until a famine in China led that government to place a ban on the exportation of rice. As the price of rice skyrocketed in San Francisco, Norton took advantage of an opportunity to buy a shipload of rice from Peru, hoping to corner the market. Unfortunately, several other shiploads of rice arrived in the port before Norton’s. He’d lost everything he owned, and his mind on top of that.
Michael was still bewildered. “But if it’s not true, why did the Bulletin print it?” In a bold frame, no less.
As Charles spread his arms, Gus flinched back. But Charles was only gesturing to make a point. “It doesn’t need to be true. It’s news.”
This was a new concept to Michael.
Charles expounded. “California is a brand-new state, and San Francisco is a brand-new city. Men come here to be anything they want to be. And now this Norton character is taking it all the way. Deacon Fitch understands that’s worth a thousand truths.”
Charles was so effusive, he actually flung an arm around Michael’s shoulders. “That’s the news we’re going to print when we have our paper. The news that people want to be news.” He gave Michael a brotherly squeeze.
Michael nodded, his eyes shining. At that moment, he would have killed for Charles.
With Charles to guide them, there was nothing they couldn’t do. The de Youngs would own California. And the world would know them for the aristocracy their mother always assured them they were.
I deeply regret that I can find no photos of the teenaged de Youngs, but this charming photo of newsies depicts boys of the same panache doing the same job that Charles, Gus, and Michael were doing at these ages.