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They May Call You Crazy – 3/24/2013

A man with a small beard and bushy mustache walks down a busy street in the city of San Francisco, sometime around or just after the Civil War. He wears a blue and gold military uniform, complete with epaulettes – those little fringey things on the shoulders. At his side is his cavalry saber, or more likely, because it is not a formal occasion, a cane or umbrella. On his head rests a top hat adorned with a peacock feather. He has a few dollars in change in his pockets, and little more than that to his name. He holds no rank, title, or appointment other than that which he has given himself: Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Going about his daily circuit the Emperor pauses often to inspect the condition of public property: he notes the condition of the sidewalk, the repair of trolley car wheels, and the paint quality on city buildings. The man approaches a police officer who immediately stands at attention and salutes. Norton looks over the policeman’s jacket, hat, and shoes, and pronounces them to be in satisfactory order. As the traffic flows by the shop windows outside of a store, he finds a place to stand and begins to hold forth with one of his impromptu philosophical discourses.

Joshua Abraham Norton is one of the great characters in the lore of San Francisco. In the late 1860s and 70s he became one of the city’s most notable residents. Besides his distinctive dress and imperial bearing, he issued a series of public decries, dutifully published by the local newspapers. In these he commanded that in the interest of reducing conflict and strife, the United States Congress be dissolved and all political parties be disbanded. He ordered that a bridge be built across San Francisco Bay 60 years before it was done. He forbade any war or conflict over religious or sectarian disagreement and declared that anyone who, “after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco,” which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.”[i] He hinted at a courtship with Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, and also issued his own money.

The people of San Francisco, and in particular the business owners and officials, not only accepted this behavior – they embraced it. Though he begged on the street to afford a single room in a boarding house, Emperor Norton routinely ate in fine restaurants. For such eateries, being able to display his imperial seal of approval was a coveted sign of stature and a known attractor of customers. Theater productions would reserve balcony seats in the hopes that the Emperor would grace their opening performance with his presence. When a police officer arrested Norton under the charge of lunacy the city’s newspapers leapt to his aid. One wrote that the, “kindly Monarch of Montgomery Street is less a lunatic than those who have engineered these trumped up charges. As they will learn, His Majesty’s loyal subjects are fully apprised of this outrage.” Another declared, “The Emperor Norton has never shed blood. He has robbed no one, and despoiled no country. And that, gentlemen, is a hell of a lot more than can be said for anyone else in the king line.”[ii] Norton was released with apologies from the police commissioner, and magnanimously granted an imperial pardon to the officer who had arrested him.

So what are we to make of this odd historical figure. It might be tempting to declare Joshua Norton delusional or otherwise possessed of some serious mental health challenges. Although I should point out that he had no official diagnosis. Still, we might decide that the people and leaders of San Francisco were humoring someone who needed their help, and quite possibly having a joke at his expense. But that would ignore the fact that Joshua Norton lived life on terms of his own choosing, and never requested much help beyond the ample generosity he received. There almost certainly were folks laughing at him, such as whoever sent him false telegrams from the Czar of Russia and the President of the French Republic, alternately congratulating him on and warning him against an engagement to Queen Victoria. But if some of his fellow San Franciscans were laughing at him, a great many were not. When the man died, the San Francisco Chronicle ran with the top headline, Le Roi Est Mort, The King Is Dead, above a solemn, heartfelt obituary. Thousands came to his funeral, and funds were raised to ensure his proper burial.

I’ve told you this little story for a couple of reasons, and one of them is this: Joshua Norton was a poor person arrested for lunacy in the mid-1800s in America, and that worked out for him about as well as it conceivably could have. For virtually everyone else in his situation, the story was far more sad. I’ll tell you another little story now to illustrate.

A woman with dark hair set up in a braid enters a dark, squalid jail in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1841. She is entering the women’s section, as a visitor, not a prisoner. Immediately she is struck by the smell: the raw odor of human beings confined without sanitation or care. But for the crush of people themselves, the place is nearly empty: even the most basic furniture is lacking, and inmates sleep on the floor. That floor is particularly cold because the jail is unheated, no matter the season. In this place she encounters women who have been sentenced here for prostitution and intoxication, some for theft, a handful for violent crimes. Mixed in amongst these folks are also women suffering from mental illness or who have serious cognitive disabilities. There is no attempt at treatment or hope of recovery; everyone here has been caged, and essentially forgotten.

This first trip to the East Cambridge Jail was a great turning point in the life of Dorothea Dix – the author, educator, international social reformer, Superintendent of Army Nurses, and Unitarian. Dorothea came to the prison to teach a Sunday School for the women there, and this she did. But her work expanded dramatically as she was horrified by the conditions she found there. She might have turned away and tried to put the situation out of her mind, or she might have focused only on trying to change things at this one jail.  But Dorothea had made a name for herself as a teacher of women and girls, without having any significant formal education of her own because of her keen mind, and her unflinching determination to learn.

She read all that she could on mental illness, mental disability and their diagnosis and treatment. She interviewed physicians and court officers. And she undertook a tour of the state of Massachusetts, visiting as many prisons and almshouses as she could. Some people designated insane at this time, who had no family that could otherwise support them, were housed in private homes, with caregivers paid some small amount by the state. Visiting some of these folks, Dorothea found examples of terrible abuse, but also of cases where compassion and support had allowed mentally ill people to reach a degree of health and wellbeing then thought to be impossible. She wrote that, “some may say these things cannot be remedied, these furious maniacs are not to be raised from these base conditions. I know they are…I could give many examples. One such is a young woman who was for years ‘a raging maniac’ chained in a cage and whipped to control her acts and words. She was helped by a husband and wife who agreed to take care of her in their home and slowly she recovered her senses.” Her report to the Massachusetts legislature, and her dogged campaigning led to considerable reforms and the expansion of Worcester State Hospital.

She continued her work nationally and eventually internationally, lobbying for the rights and needs of the poor, the imprisoned, and the mentally ill. She confronted a system in which human beings were being discarded – warehoused in a way that couldn’t meet even the most minimal threshold of humanity. While she sought to separate those who were imprisoned as punishment from those whose medical needs required institutional care, Dorothea advocated on behalf of both groups. She sought to meet basic needs with clean, safe, healthy living spaces and humane treatment. And she also lobbied for access to culture, learning, and means of expressing and contributing. The prison library, as an idea and as a literal thing that exists, is one of her legacies. She went from her Massachusetts campaign on to New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, North Carolina, eventually having an impact across the country. In 1854 she championed legislation that would have set aside five million acres of federal land to be used in the care of the mentally ill and disabled. The bill passed both houses of congress, but was vetoed by the president. Not beaten by that disappointment, she went on to travel through Europe doing basically the same thing she had done in the US: visiting prisons, reporting on the conditions there, and agitating for their improvement.[iii]

Dorothea did all of this at a time when it was rare and almost scandalous for a woman to travel alone, never mind the places she was traveling to. For a woman of no small social standing, a notable member of one of the most prominent churches in Boston, there was risk, and likely cost, in what she was doing. There was a powerful social stigma around both criminals and maniacs, to use the common terms of the day. Like any sort of shame or public judgment, that stigma was highly contagious, and difficult to remove. By literally associating with the lives and needs of people who had been convicted of a crime, Dorothea risked being treated like a criminal, which, then as now, was an isolating, debilitating fate. By visiting and working on behalf of people considered crazy, Dorothea risked being called crazy herself.

About two-thousand years ago, so the story goes, a man rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. In itself, that was not unusual; donkeys were a common animal to ride. But that entrance by the teacher Jesus is remembered in the Western Christian calendar today as a grand and pivotal affair; and there is much that his story has to say about risks of association. Again and again, in the stories of the Gospels, the teacher takes a place among those on the margins of his world. He walks with the poor, he visits those afflicted by demons – the way in which his society understood mental illness. He meets with lepers: people whose physical illness supposedly makes them spiritually unclean. He accepts sex workers into his company and seems unafraid of being associated with criminals. At the same time, he shows a willingness to meet with those reviled for their high (rather than low) positions. In the Gospel of Mark, he calls upon a tax collector and shares a meal with him and other collaborators with the Roman authorities.[iv] In a time and place of subsistence agriculture, under military occupation, tax collectors are some of the most hated people in society; but Jesus refuses to shun them. Even when the man himself seems to think that someone is too different, too outside the bounds of his community for his help and counsel, he is contradicted.

The story told by Matthew goes like this: Jesus was traveling the countryside, essentially operating a free clinic. His name is by now synonymous with healing miracles. A woman begs him to rid her daughter of a demon – to cure her of some mental affliction, probably. Jesus’ response is incredibly cold towards a mother pleading for her child’s sanity. “It is not fitting,” he says, “to take the bread of the children and throw it to the dogs.” The woman is a Greek-speaking pagan from Syria; she isn’t part of Jesus’ nation, religion, or culture – and he so he has just called her a dog. But with a rejoinder that would make Oscar Wilde proud, the woman replies, “Yes lord; yet even the dogs under the table may eat the children’s crumbs.” In this episode we would say in the modern vernacular that Jesus ‘gets schooled’. He doesn’t argue the point, and announces to the woman that the demon has already left her daughter.

There is always a risk in being an outsider, and there is also always some risk in taking the side of the outsider. But Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have often found themselves on the outside, or standing with those on the outside. This comes from something deep in our faith about the kindred nature of humanity. Not that we are all the same, because in fact we are wonderfully, spectacularly, startlingly different. But that our lives matter to each other, and when any of us is allowed to grow into the fullness of who we are, all of us benefit. Dorothea Dix insisted in the incredibly simple idea that the lives of discarded people were worth something – not just because they might one day become ‘normal’, but because simply as they were they deserved the means to live and to grow and to hope.

I’ll close with a final episode from the stories of Emperor Norton. In his day there was tremendous acrimony and racism surrounding the issue of immigration. The group labeled “undesirable” at that time came from China. Anti-Chinese protests by white San Franciscans were common, and sometimes became violent. The Emperor was known to oppose these demonstrations, and argued for what would have been the equivalent of comprehensive immigration reform. It’s said though that at least once things went far beyond the theoretical. An angry mob was menacing a group of ethnic Chinese on the street when Norton caught sight of them. He stood between the mod and their would-be victims and very loudly recited the Lord’s Prayer. He was addressing the crowd in a religious language he might expect them to understand even if it wasn’t necessarily natural to him – unbeknownst to most of his fellow San Franciscans, Joshua Abraham Norton was Jewish. After reciting the prayer, possibly several times, he ended with the declaration, ‘We are all God’s children.” He won the day, and the crowd dispersed. Sometimes you risk, and the risk has to be enough on its own. Sometimes you fight, and the fight has stand for itself. And sometimes, even if they call you crazy, even if they’re right, you win.




[iv] Mark 2: 14-16, Matt 9:9-13, Luke 5:27-28


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