Bummer, Lazarus And The Emperor: Famous Dogs

Cesar Milan’s Dog Nation

On the next episode of “Cesar Millan’s Dog Nation,” Cesar and Andre visit San Francisco, one of California’s most vibrant and historically significant cities. It’s a place that has also contributed a good share of stories, legends, and myths to state lore.

One of the most famous real people of San Francisco was Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He was the Emperor because he said he was, and the people of San Francisco just accepted it. After all, his ad in the September 17, 1859 edition of the San Francisco Bulletin proclaimed it:

“At the peremtory (sic) request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton… declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U.S., and… do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in the Musical Hall of this city on the 1st 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, in our stability and integrity.”

He was a local celebrity and eccentric for twenty years, going so far as to issue his own currency — which local businesses accepted. But since this is “Dog Nation,” let’s look at the dogs involved with Norton.

Bummer and Lazarus the Dogs

Just as Emperor Norton I became one of the City’s biggest celebrities, so were two stray dogs named Bummer and Lazarus. Now keep in mind that San Francisco had strict anti-stray laws at the time, but something about these two dogs so captured the public’s attention that when a dog catcher snared Lazarus in 1862, the outrage was so great that not only was he released to re-join his constant companion, but the two of them were exempted from the stray dog laws after that.

It might have also helped that both dogs were expert rat-catchers and that port cities in the 19th century were notorious for wharf rats and other vermin.

According to accounts of the time, the two dogs met when Bummer arrived to rescue Lazarus from an attack by another larger dog. The attack left Lazarus with a bad leg, and Bummer became his protector and constant companion. The January 18, 1861 issue of “Alta California” reported, “Every night since then, the ‘twa dogs’ have slept coiled up together close to some doorway — Bummer always giving the lame cur the inside booth, and trying to keep him as warm as possible.”

Lazarus died in 1863 and wound up being taxidermied and displayed behind the bar at Martin’s Saloon, a place that both dogs had frequented in the search for scraps. Bummer died two years later after being kicked by a man — who was promptly arrested by the police for his own protection, and the dog was eulogized by none other than Mark Twain. Today, there’s even a brand of gin named for them.

It was only natural that these famous rat-catching dogs would become associated with the City’s famous eccentric in the public mind, and even to this day a lot of San Franciscans refer to Bummer and Lazarus as Emperor Norton’s dogs — but were they?

Emperor Norton and the Dogs

The very appropriately named historian Malcolm Barker disagrees, and attributes the connection between Norton and the dogs to later misinterpretation of humor and satire at the time. In fact, according to Barker, many images of Norton with Bummer and Lazarus were created by a young French artist named Edward Jump — and the only contemporary news article Barker could find that mentioned both Norton and the dogs referred to Norton’s disdain for a Jump cartoon that depicted him eating from a free buffet with the dogs at his side.

Edward Jump's "Three Bummers" depicting Emperor Norton, Bummeran, and Lazarus

Apparently, Norton took such exception to seeing this artwork in a store window that he struck the window with his cane, promptly breaking… the cane.

The Dog Myth

And yet, to this day, the myth that Lazarus and Bummer belonged to Emperor Norton and were his constant companions continues, even being perpetuated by entities like the Virtual Museum of San Francisco, which goes so far as to report that the Emperor and the dogs attended the opening of every theatrical show in the city, sitting in their own reserved front row balcony seats. While theaters did make it a practice to reserve an opening night seat in hopes that their local human luminary would attend, there is no evidence that he ever brought the dogs to the show with him.

So why is this trio so inextricably linked when there’s no evidence from the time that there was any connection between them and, indeed, enough anecdotal information to indicate that Norton himself wasn’t even fond of dogs? Perhaps it’s because all three of them were bigger-than-life characters, and it just seems natural that such a colorful personality as Norton would have to be associated with equally colorful animals.

It’s also just something of the nature of San Francisco, where real lives and legends have been colliding for decades. Nothing about the City is mundane or commonplace, and there is probably nowhere in America that so seamlessly weaves together a rich, living history and modern progress, nor is there a place that so heartily embraces and promotes its own eccentrics.

So even if the connection between dogs and a slightly mad fake leader isn’t real, as far as the City is concerned it was, is, and always will be in one sense, although it was never Norton who owned the dogs. If you drop by Redwood Grove park next to the towering Transamerica Pyramid near North Beach, there you can see a memorial plaque to the two dogs which sums it up the best in these words: “Contrary to common belief, they were not Emperor Norton’s dogs. They belonged to no one person. They belonged to San Francisco.”

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