That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of our time.
—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
IT IS USUALLY ASSUMED, ERRONEOUSLY, THAT THE UNITED STATES HAS NEVER BEEN A MONARCHY!.
From 1859 to 1880, Joshua Abraham Norton was the emperor of the United States. His accession to the American throne was proclaimed by an edict published in the San Francisco Bulletin on September 17, 1859:
At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of the United States, I, Joshua A. Norton, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; and in 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, of this city, on the first day of February next, then 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, both in our stability and in our integrity.
Norton I, Emperor of the United States and
Protector of Mexico.
Born in London in 1815 and raised in South Africa, Norton made a small fortune during the California Gold Rush speculating in property. In 1853 he gambled a quarter of a million dollars on an effort to corner the rice market in San Francisco, buying and stockpiling all the available supply, and thereby artificially inflating the price. However, just as he was about to cash in, several ships laden with rice sailed into the bay, glutting the market. Prices plummeted, and Norton went bust. He was soon reduced to working in a sweatshop and living in a seedy rooming house.
Most people would have been daunted by such a reversal of fortune, but not the doughty Norton. He discovered his true vocation: ruling an empire. He began confiding to his friends that he was really Norton I, emperor of California. In 1856, the same year he filed for bankruptcy, he also issued his first imperial edict, imposing a monthly tax of fifty cents on sympathetic merchants in San Francisco to bankroll the fledgling empire. By 1859 he had decided that California was not big enough for him, and he annexed the whole United States.
He became instantly famous. He suspended the Constitution and dissolved both the Republican and the Democratic political parties on the grounds that “their existence engendered dissensions.” He printed his own money in twenty-five- and fifty-cent denominations, which was accepted freely in most shops and restaurants in San Francisco. Yet as emperor he felt that he was entitled to more, and he tried to negotiate loans of several million dollars from the banks, which found tactful ways of evading the imperial demands.
Norton took his responsibilities seriously. For more than twenty years he patrolled the streets, seeing to it that the sidewalks were unobstructed and the streetcars ran on time. He never missed a session of the state Senate, where a chair was reserved for him, and he attended a different church every week so as to avoid sectarian strife in the empire. The emperor was a benevolent despot for the most part, but when his authority was challenged he responded with an iron fist: when Maximilian assumed the throne of Mexico, which was an imperial protectorate, Norton sentenced him to death as a usurper.
The emperor always wore a blue military uniform with golden epaulettes, which had been given to him by army officers, with a tall, plumed beaver hat, a sword, and a rosette. In 1869, when his uniform became shabby, he issued another edict:
Know ye whom it may concern that We, Norton I, Emperor Deigratia of the United States and Protector of Mexico, have heard serious complaints from our adherents and all that our imperial wardrobe is a national disgrace, and even His Majesty the King of Pain has had his sympathy excited so far as to offer us a suit of clothing, which we have a delicacy in accepting. Therefore we warn those whose duty it is to attend to these affairs that their scalps are in danger if our said need is unheeded.
The city’s Board of Supervisors, mindful of its scalps, appropriated the money to buy him a new uniform. The emperor, touched by this gesture, knighted the whole board.
The King of Pain referred to in the emperor’s edict was a fellow street royal, a patent-medicine salesman who wore scarlet underwear, a heavy velour robe, and a stovepipe hat decorated with ostrich feathers. The king rode a black coach drawn by six white horses—considerably more horsepower than the crowded city streets required.
San Francisco, always renowned as a capital of the freakish and fantastical, had its golden age of weirdness in those post-Gold Rush years. Another of Emperor Norton’s subjects was Oofty Goofty, the Wild Man of Borneo, who walked about swathed in furs, making strange animal cries. He supported himself by allowing passersby to kick him for ten cents, to cane him for twenty-five cents, and to hit him with a baseball bat for fifty cents. The boxing champion John L. Sullivan, getting his half-dollar’s worth, sent Oofty Goofty to the hospital with a fractured spine.
There was also a phrenologist named Uncle Freddie Coombs, who bore a striking resemblance to George Washington. He took to wearing knee breeches, a powdered wig, and a tricorn hat, and went about the city with a banner proclaiming himself to be “Washington the Second.” Montgomery Street was the beat of the Great Unknown, an impeccably attired, vaguely theatrical gentleman with a gold- headed cane, who took a stroll every afternoon, mysteriously averting his gaze and speaking to no one. After many years of this enigma, there was a public reception in Pacific Hall, where it was revealed to everyone who was interested enough to pay twenty-five cents that the Great Unknown was a retired German tailor named William Frohm.
In their lifetimes Emperor Norton, the King of Pain, Oofty Goofty, Uncle Freddie Coombs, and the Great Unknown were regarded as harmless eccentrics, a source of delight and even a sort of strange asset to the community. Today they would be declared to be suffering from any number of well-defined mental illnesses, vigorously battered with tests and physical treatments, diagnosed, tranquilized, stabilized, and forced to be “normal,” whether they wanted it or not. Yet there is no evidence that these men were unhappy, or that their lives would have been improved in any way by being compelled to surrender their eccentricities and conform. If Emperor Norton had been “cured,” he might have had a normal, conventional, dull career as a clerk or salesman—a miserable comedown for a man who had wielded the scepter. His life would have been impoverished, and so would that of the society he lived in. When Norton died in 1880, the San Francisco Chronicle ran the headline “Le Roi Est Mort.” The police were summoned to ensure order in the huge crowds of people who came to the funeral parlor to pay their last respects to their beloved monarch. All flags in the city were flown at half-mast. Thirty thousand mourners attended the lavish graveside service, and many more than that turned out to see the funeral procession pass through the streets of San Francisco to the Masonic Cemetery.
Emperor Norton and his court pose a challenge to the assumption that underlies all modern psychology, that we know more than we used to about the mind, and therefore that we are doing things better now. In fact a strong case could be made that even though nineteenth-century Californians knew nothing about brain-cell synapses or neuro-transmitters, delusional grandiose mania or borderline syndromes, in humanitarian terms they got it much more right than we do now.
Why is that? Precisely what does it mean, in the first place, to say that Emperor Norton and the others were eccentric?
The dictionary tells us that an eccentric is someone who deviates from the conventional or established norm, who is
different from the rest of us—hardly a definition that is likely to satisfy a trained psychologist. That description applies just as well to a criminal or a person with a birth defect.
What does science have to say on the subject? Ten years ago, when I first began asking these questions, I undertook a thorough search for some answers through the vast, forbidding tundra known as the scientific literature. One would expect that abnormal or clinical psychology, which has produced definitive treatises on every conceivable deviation from normal behavior, must surely have established a sound, widely tested profile of the eccentric, one that carefully distinguishes the syndrome from other, harmful forms of mental aberration. Yet in fact there is next to nothing to be found on the subject of eccentricity in modern scholarly literature. Because eccentrics tend to be healthier than most people, they rarely seek the services of the medical profession, and the medical profession, as a rule, is not very interested in those who do not seek it out.
In the field of experimental psychology, it is an open secret that we have learned a great deal about how penniless undergraduates perform in narrow and sometimes deliberately deceptive experiments, while psychiatrists, on the other hand, know about every possible variation in the behavior of people who have had mental breakdowns. The rub, from the scientific point of view, is that those two groups rarely overlap, so most of the theoretical knowledge obtained by the experimental psychologists is useless to the psychiatrists who are dealing with patients. Meanwhile, almost nobody is studying adult nonpatients, the vast bulk of humanity.
Of the four best-known textbooks on psychiatry, three make no mention of eccentricity. The fourth describes it, cryptically, as a form of “predominantly inadequate or passive psychopathy,” adding that it is “usually difficult to distinguish the symptoms of eccentricity from schizophrenic manifestations.” These summary statements are tossed off with nonchalance, and there is no mention of the fact that they are based upon a database of zero patients and research subjects, and upon clinical observations that are at best haphazard.
Thus it appeared to me that actual scientific knowledge about eccentrics was virtually nonexistent. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does a scientist: since no study of eccentricity existed, I decided to begin my own. It occurred to me that it would be a great advantage to psychology to have a basic understanding of the thought processes of people who come to regard themselves, and who are regarded by others, as eccentric, if only to help distinguish their behavior from certain forms of mental illness. Such a study would also be an ideal way to learn about illogical thought processes, and it might help us to understand more about the deep human mystery of schizophrenia. Furthermore, given the frequent association of eccentricity with genius, the ability to conceive startlingly original artistic and scientific breakthroughs, it seemed to be an obviously worthwhile subject for psychological research. For the annals of eccentricity include, in addition to Emperor Norton and Oofty Goofty, such names as William Blake, Alexander Graham Bell, Emily Dickinson, Charlie Chaplin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, not to mention Albert Einstein and Howard Hughes. If we could gain even the barest glimpse into how all those people came to be the way they were, it might just help the rest of us to be more creative, more original: better at being ourselves.
Source: Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness (Kodansha Globe) by David Joseph Weeks, et al (Paperback – October 1996)
The 19th psalm
The spacious fermament on high,
With all the blue etherial sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great original proclaim.
The unwearied sun, from day to day,
Does his Creator’s power display,
And publishes to every land,
The work of Almighty hand.
Soon as the evening shades prevail,
The moon takes up the wond’erous tale,
And nightly to the list’ning earth
Repeats the story of her birth.
Whilst all the stars that round her burn,
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from the pole to pole.
What tho’ in solemn silence, all
Move round this dark terrestrial ball,
What tho’ no real voice, nor sound,
Amidst their radiant orbs be found,
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice;
For ever singing as they shine,
THE HAND THAT MADE US IS DEVINE
Long long time ago, there were only three monks in the whole world and only 3. They were very concerned that the future of the monastery depended on what they will do. So they set out to ask any wise man how to save the future. No one was able to help.
They set out to travel the world to find the answer. Half way around the world one man said that the wise rabbi far away on the other side of the world might have the answer. So they packed to find the wise rabbi. Finally they found him. Rabbi told them how to cure all their illnesses and all other problems, but that he had absolutely no clue how to save the future of Monastery. So disappointed the monks packed again to leave. As soon as they opened the door, rabbi called them back and told them that he is now absolutely sure one of them is highly related to God and he can even be a profit as equal as to profit Abraham. Rabbi also told them that this situation is just a test from God.
The monks thought rabbi is too old and might have gone weird or lost his mind. So they thanked him and left. Back at the monastery each monk reflected upon the last words of the wise rabbi – thinking “impossible I am related to God or I might be a profit”. So each monk came to conclusion that if rabbi is correct and I cannot be related to God then one of the other two must be. So each monk believing that the other two might be related to God, began to treat the other two with outmost respect. After few months the monks were amazed as how much respect each were receiving from the other two so each began to believe, I must be related to God. The monks also concluded that If I am related to God I deserve better clothing. So each dressed better. “If I am related to God, I deserve better housing” so each groomed the area and planted flowers, trees. They painted the monastery…..cooked the best food….singing,….drawing……arts…sculptures…CREATIVITY
People all over the world wrote and chanted about the new beautiful monastery. People came from all parts of world to see and enjoy the beautiful flowers, trees, eat the food, and some decided to stay. And those who stayed saved the future of monastery. Moral of the fable: We are all related to God.
Self respect is the best gift one can give to himself/herself.