originally published September 1, 2014
For all her achievements and triumphs, America just hasn’t been the same since the good ol’ days when the Emperor ran the show.
It was a brief sliver of eccentric history (or ‘eccentristory’ – I’m copyrighting that title) that should never be forgotten. And for some who live in San Francisco, where Emperor Norton breathed the free air of his glorious domain, it’s a cause worth championing. If nothing else, he was a testament to the spirit of the San Franciscan penchant for enfolding the quirky and unrepentantly goofy into the city’s lore. This wouldn’t have happened in Omaha.
Consider this an education on the potential of the politic of passion, a reimagining of a man’s place in the society that – to his mind – has clipped the wings of his security and left him abandoned in the ether. One cannot be defeated if one is the champion of one’s own self-proclaimed might. Kudos to Emperor Norton for making up his own rules, and Super-Kudos to San Francisco for buying in.
No one knows for certain the details of his origin story, but we do know that Joshua Abraham Norton came to us from somewhere in England via South Africa in 1849 after receiving a hefty bequest of $40,000 from his late father’s estate. He parlayed that money into a successful dance around the real estate market, building his fortune up to a cool quarter-million within a few short years. But Mr. Norton was always on the lookout for the next big opportunity. In this case, it drifted beneath his nose in the form of a news release from China.
For the Chinese, it was a famine. For Mr. Norton, it was money in the bank. China wasn’t exporting any rice during the famine, causing the market price in America to leap from 4 cents per pound up to 36 cents. Mr. Norton found a vessel on its way stateside from Peru, hauling 200,000 pounds of rice in its hold. He offered a whopping $25,000 for all of it, which worked out to about 12.5 cents per pound. It was brilliant – he’d corner the market and bring in a fortune.
<without rice there would be nothing for San Franciscans to -a-roni>
Unfortunately, roughly a gajillion other ships carting rice showed up in San Francisco around the same time, dropping the value of rice down to 3 cents a pound. Mr. Norton tried to void the contract, but it was no use. He declared bankruptcy in 1858 after years of fighting in court, and proceeded to slip out of the city a broken man.
When Mr. Norton returned to San Francisco, he did so with a flourish. Letters were dispatched to all media outlets of note, informing them that he was now Norton I, Emperor of these United States. He felt the current legal and political structures of the nation were inadequate. He called upon representatives of all states to assemble in Musical Hall to welcome him (they didn’t), then began to impart numerous decrees for the various authorities throughout the land to heed (they wouldn’t).
It was the start of an impressive 21-year reign.
On October 12, 1859, Emperor Norton formally dissolved the United States Congress, calling out its fraud and corruption and later demanding that the US Army swoop in and remove all Congressional representatives by force. His decrees were regularly printed in the San Francisco papers. They were harmless fun, and I suppose beneath their inherent silliness was an element of genuine satire.
When the Civil War broke out, Emperor Norton issued a mandate that instructed both the Catholic and Protestant churches to ordain him as Emperor in a public ceremony. He eventually gave up on this, just as he gave up on seeing Congressmen arrested for assembling “unlawfully”, as though they still possessed actual power. The Emperor never gave up on his assumption of power though – in 1869 he aimed to dissolve the Republican and Democratic parties.
Eventually even the good Emperor must have realized the futility of his attempts to alter the state of American legislation, as his proclamations became somewhat fluffier in nature. In 1872 he ordered a $25 fine for anyone who dared to sully the name of his good city by calling it “Frisco”.
The reality is that Emperor Norton was penniless and homeless, living in boarding houses and possessing nothing that would reflect his assumed status. He wore a beaver hat adorned with a peacock feather, along with a brilliant blue uniform decked out with gold-plated epaulettes. He created his own currency, and the finest restaurants in the city were proud to serve him in exchange for this paper. Some mounted brass plaques near their entrance, declaring “by Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States.”
No play would open in San Francisco without reserving a prime seat for Emperor Norton. He was treated as a celebrity – a real celebrity who has earned the public’s reverence.
In 1867, a policeman decided he’d had enough of the gag, and he arrested Emperor Norton with the intention of having him committed. The public outcry was immense – every paper published a scathing editorial against the act, and before long Police Chief Patrick Crowley ordered the Emperor released, along with a formal apology from the force. Emperor Norton, in turn, offered an Imperial Pardon to the arresting officer.
Beneath the luster and revelry and collective adoration of the Emperor’s antics was some genuine achievement. When a riot threatened to erupt between some anti-Chinese demonstrators and the local Chinese population (this occurred often, and occasionally resulted in some grisly violence), Emperor Norton intervened between the two factions and peacefully recited the Lord’s Prayer until both sides retreated. No one wanted to be the asshole who caused harm to the Emperor of the United States (and Protector of Mexico – he added that title later).
In one of his many decrees, Emperor Norton ordered the formation of a League of Nations to ensure global peace – beating out history by about a half-century. He also felt there should be a bridge and/or tunnel connecting San Francisco and Oakland across the bay, via Goat Island. Both of these came true in the form of the Bay Bridge, which opened in 1933, and the rapid transit Transbay Tube, which was brought to life in 1974. Say what you will about the Emperor, he had vision.
On the evening of January 8, 1880, Emperor Norton collapsed at the corner of California and Dupont Streets, on his way to a lecture. He could not be revived.
Stunned by this loss, the city of San Francisco came together to mourn their nation’s Emperor. This was around the time they discovered his true wealth: about five or six dollars, a single gold sovereign, some fake telegrams from Alexander II of Russia, congratulating him on his forthcoming marriage to Queen Victoria, and some stock in a defunct gold mine.
Emperor Norton’s legacy is one truly worthy of a man who became a living, breathing embodiment of the notion of Freedom of Speech. Mark Twain crafted the character King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in his honor. Robert Louis Stevenson also incorporated him into his novel The Wrecker. A ceremony is still held at his grave every year.
Perhaps most interesting are the repeated citizen-driven attempts to rename the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after the Emperor. Despite a tremendous amount of media coverage, this never happened – in fact, former mayor Willie Brown received the honor of having his name splashed on that bridge just last year.
That’s okay – we won’t forget. Long live the Emperor.