Thursday, May 29, 2008

Norton I: Did you know America had an emperor?

The Emperor gets his bike on.

As per an exciting request from Zachary (look at how I am passive-aggressively encouraging you to update your blog): I introduce to you Joshua Abraham Norton AKA His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I of these United States and Protector of Mexico. Just like today, nineteenth-century San Francisco encouraged local citizens to wander about in wacky apparel and make ridiculous public pronouncements. A crazy guy declared himself a royal sovereign, and the city indulged him for over twenty years. Although, I'm not going to lie, my favorite touch in his self-appointed title is the "First" part, as if he was expecting generations of Emperor Nortons to follow him. We're still waiting on that count.

But so anyway, the future emperor was born some time in the 1810s in London, and grew up in South Africa. After gaining a significant inheritance upon his father's death, Norton emigrated to San Francisco. He made a bad deal on some Peruvian rice,* lost a drawn-out lawsuit over the whole thing, and disappeared from SF for a few years. When he came back in 1859, he pronounced himself Emperor, and began making public demands. His fellow San Franciscans were apparently only too happy to play along. Besides claiming imperial rule of the country, Norton I declared that Congress should be dissolved, and tried to force the Protestant and the Catholic Church to officially ordain his rule. He was summarily ignored. Whatever, I know for a fact that The Sexy Gay Jesus totally endorses Emperor Norton I.

So though people in power (like Congress and the Army and such) pretty much just ignored His Imperial Majesty, but that didn't stop local newspapers from publishing his decrees (seriously, check them all out, they are hilarious). He became the city's awesomest resident eccentric, and was welcomed at some of the city's finest establishments and cultural events. He was buddies with famous local stray dogs Bummer and Lazarus, broke up at least one anti-Chinese immigration riot, abolished the national Democratic and Republican Parties, insisted that the word "Frisco" be banished,** and most awesomely, printed his own money:

Local restaurant owners and the like put up plaques to honor the Emperor and accepted his currency as legit. Joshua A. Norton may have been penniless, but Emperor Norton I had the Treasury! When he was arrested in 1867 to undergo treatment for mental illness, the city cried out in protest, and he was released. Luckily, the offending policeman was offered an Imperial Pardon, and the local officers continued to defer to the Emperor's inspections and authority.

Apparently our nation's first and only Emperor just wandered around San Francisco for a couple decades, wearing old army uniforms, a feathered hat, and carrying an old beat-up saber while making imperial statements. He was universally beloved, and when he collapsed on a street corner and died in 1880, 30,000 people came to pay their respects. The city paid to have him buried in a Masonic Cemetery.*** Mark Twain based the Huckleberry Finn con-artist character "The King" on him. Most recently, local officials wanted to name a new span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after him (one of his main unmet demands was that the city build a bridge and a tunnel across the bay, both of which occurred in the 20th century). Apparently same lame-os on the city council or something didn't like that idea, and it got stuck in committee in 2004. But Emperor Norton I is still considered one of San Francisco's finest historical citizens. If I ever go crazy and start claiming I'm the emperor of something, I just hope my neighbors are as awesome as his were.

*A serious blunder, to be sure, "But only slightly less well-known is this, 'Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!'"

**Punishment was a $25 fine paid to the Imperial Treasury.

***YOU GUYS: The Freemasons are EVERYWHERE. This should make you nervous.


  1. Ever read Neil Gaiman's comic THE SANDMAN? There was an issue about Norton. I think it was number #31 . Great story.

  2. Awesome! He may be my new hero.

    Austin's cross-dressing homeless mayoral candidate Leslie is much less regal and much more risqué, but no less beloved: