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The Emperor of America

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The photo of “Emperor Norton”  is in the public domain and is made available through Wikimedia Commons. The photo of “Emperor Norton” is in the public domain and is made available through Wikimedia Commons.

From the files of the RJ's Surrealist Research Bureau, San Francisco's beloved self-styled leader

In 1859, an unknown, young and failing San Franciscan businessman named Joshua Norton attempted to corner the market on rice after hearing of a famine in China. He lost everything he owned when a large shipment of Peruvian rice arrived in port unexpectedly, making his investments worthless overnight. This apparently unbalanced him enough that he declared himself Emperor of the United States (he later would add “and Protector of Mexico”) and for the next 20 years ‘til his death, he wandered the streets in full regalia, inspecting his domain. In January 1880 he collapsed on a street corner and died. Nearly 30,000 marched in homage to bury him and writers such as Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson would eulogize his memory.

Before then he wrote a large number of proclamations, all of which were duly published in the state’s newspapers. In 1869 for instance he, “being desirous of allaying the dissensions of party strife now existing within our realm,” abolished both the Republican and Democratic Parties. Another edict was instructions for the countries of the world to form a “League of Nations.” Perhaps his most famous decree was an order directing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to begin construction of a suspension bridge across the bay as well as a tunnel, both of which were actually completed 50 and 80 years (respectively) after his death (no thanks to Norton).

Much beloved by his fellow citizens, Norton I paraded frequently through the streets in elaborate blue uniforms with gold epaulets given to him by officers of the nearby Presidio with a beaver hat decorated with peacock feathers. Although routinely broke he ate at the best cafes in town; these restaurateurs then added brass plates above their doors proclaiming “By Appointment to His Imperial Majesty Norton I of The United States.” The brass plaques were much sought after and a huge boost to trade. One police officer in 1867 arrested Norton and tried to have him committed but this led to a number of blistering editorials in the newspapers and led to the police chief ordering him released and issuing him a formal apology. Norton then magnanimously granted an “imperial pardon” to the young police officer and as a result, all police officers in San Francisco thereafter would salute him in passing.

The 1870 U.S. Census records list Joshua Norton as 50 years of age and his occupation is given as “Emperor.” Norton I would also issue his own money to pay certain debts, typically ranging from 50 cents to $10 and these notes are now highly coveted collectors’ items. He also wrote numerous letters to the widowed Queen Victoria (none were ever answered) proposing marriage.

When he collapsed on the street and died in 1880 the San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary on its front page under the headline “Le Roi est Mort” (The King is Dead!) and sadly reported, “In the darkness of a moonless night and under a dripping rain, Norton I, by the Grace of God Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.” Most city newspapers likewise reported the news on the front pages in banner headlines.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s daughter Isobel, in her autobiography, later recalled him as one of the kindest and gentlest men she’d ever known and since his death he’s been reborn as one of the patron saints of the modern day religion of Discordianism (“some men understand Einstein, no man understands Emperor Norton!”). (Discordianism, Grid knows, is far too simple and complex to get into here, but perhaps in a future article?) 

‘til next time, Long live Emperor Norton and All Homage to Xena!

The photo of “Emperor Norton,” above, is in the public domain and is made available through Wikimedia Commons.

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Jody Forest Jody Forest When he's not hidden behind the palatial gates of his Dover estate, Casa de Bozo, Jody is out using outdated and corny pickup lines on various gullible women.

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San Francisco, Surrealist Research Bureau, Emperor Norton, Joshua Norton

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