When you have an Emperor?! That's right the United States of America at one time had a royal family. No I am not talking about the Kennedy's and their Camelot story up in New England. I am talking about his Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, America's first royal family...kinda. The story of Emperor Norton I is quite an interesting tale but a bit of odd ball history. But who was this Emperor Norton I and why not a bigger part of American History and more important why have you not ever heard of him?
The great Emperor was born Joshua Abraham Norton in about 1818 in London, England. The young Norton immigrated to South Africa with his family around 1820 and would stay there until 1849 when he made his way to the city by the bay, San Fransisco after the death of his parents. Norton arrived in Frisco with a $40,000 estate left to him by his father. He was a master of real estate, perhaps the first successful house flipper in America. By the mid 1850s he was estimated to be worth around 250K. However, Norton faced some hard economic times due to some poor speculation. Word of a famine in China had reached the west coast and news that no rice would be shipped out of the country, Norton took a chance on a shipment of Peruvian rice. He paid 25K for the shipment expecting to corner the market, unfortunately for him several other people had the same idea. So instead of a rice shortage there was actually a surplus of rice in the city. Norton tried to void the contract with his Peruvian rice dealers but it was to no avail. The California Supreme Court ruled against Norton in the late 1850s and took most of his properties in North Beach to pay his debts. However it was this downfall that gave birth to America's first Emperor.
By 1858 Norton had declared bankruptcy and left San Francisco. It is believed that during this time Norton lost his mind during his self imposed exile. However, upon his arrival he was back with a vengeance. Disgusted by the legal and political systems in American Norton sought to rebuild the nation. On September 17, 1859 Joshua Abraham Norton officially became Emperor Norton I, Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico. Now how does one exactly become "Emperor of these United States?" Well you make a bad ass proclamation like this...
"At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. 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."
-Emperor Norton I
So take that President...I mean ex-President James Buchanan and Congress the Great Emperor has given you fair warning, your time is over. It was time for a new era in American History to begin, the reign of Emperor Norton I. So by now you, just as the people of 1859, are just totally not taking Norton seriously. But you know who was? His Royal Majesty Emperor Norton I was and he had some pretty good ideas too. After self-appointing himself Emperor, Norton I made several decrees addressing problems in America. In October of 1859 he disbanded the Congress. In 1860 after Congress completely ignored him, he called upon his army (the United States Army) to forcible remove Congress from D.C. He would eventually "allow" Congress to operate but just for shits and giggles. By 1862 the Great and Glorious Leader wanted both the Catholic and Protestant Churches to publicly acknowledge him as Emperor of the United States. And as if I am making this stuff up our Great Emperor continued on almost setting the standard for other nut job leaders throughout history.
So Emperor Norton I continued his reign and was attempting to over throw and remove elected officials across America. In fact as of August 12, 1869 he abolished both the Democratic and Republican Parties, boy imaging a world without MSNBC and FOXNews. In 1872 he actually outlawed the word "Frisco" as it was an insult to the city of San Fransisco and imposed a $25 fine, payable to the Imperial Treasury of course. But Emperor Norton I wasn't a complete nut ball he actually every now and again stumbled across a good idea. He laid a plan to form a world union which forbade world conflict that would mirror the League of Nations. Later he again struck gold in September of 1872 with an idea to construct a bridge or tunnel linking Oakland with San Francisco, HELLO! The Great Leader gave us the blueprint for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which wasn't constructed until 1933 and the Trans-Bay Tube which was finished in 1974.
Norton was a very hands on leader as well. He was known to walk the streets of San Francisco in his full imperial dress inspecting the streets, buildings, cable cars, construction sites and everyday operations of his city. The Emperor was also known to hold political meetings whenever he found a crowd large enough to hear his speech. Norton was also a man of peace, there was horrible riots in San Francisco over the influx of Chinese immigrants and at one such riot Norton walked in and prayed aloud and the crowd dispersed. Hopefully by now you can tell I am just having some fun with the story of Emperor Norton I but in the city of San Francisco Norton I was always taken seriously and treated with the utmost respect.
Inside the city of San Francisco Emperor Norton I was more popular than any politician in America. City business would put up ornate signs saying "Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States." These signs were sure to promote business and be a place for the Emperor to frequent. Another place the Emperor was every Friday night was in San Francisco's music and play houses. No show opened without having the Emperor present and when there he sat in reserved seats with the best views. The city also allowed Norton to print his own money, which some place actually excepted! The city would also give Norton a new wardrobe when his began to look ratty, talk about paying homage to the Emperor. But Norton's reign wasn't without scandal, he was once arrested by a young police man named Armand Barbier and committed to a mental institution. Naturally San Franciscans were outraged at the arrested at their beloved Emperor, so he was released and a formal apology was issued. The in his own classy style Norton issued an "Imperial Pardon" for the SFPD. In return the SFPD would salute Norton when they saw him around the city.
As Norton grew older numerous rumors surrounded him. Rumors that tried to solidify his "royalness." Tales that he was the son of Napoleon III, engaged to marry Queen Victoria and to be known to be visited by foreign leaders. However the rumors would end on January 8, 1880 when Norton dropped dead on the corner of California and Grant in San Francisco. A police officer saw the Emperor collapse and immediately called for a carriage but upon its arrival Norton was already gone. A funeral fund was established almost immediately for the great leader's funeral by local businessmen . The entire city of San Francisco attend Norton's funeral, from the wealthiest men to the poorest children, they all lined the streets to pay their final respects to the colorful character that was Emperor Norton I. And this funeral procession was nothing small, it was a two mile procession. He was then buried in the Masonic Cemetery on the cities dime. His grave reads "Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico"
So what can we learn from Emperor Norton? That anything is possible in America? Well not really but we can learn that celebrating someone's eccentricities is pretty cool. Norton I never held any real power but people still respected him enough as if he did. American History is filled with crazy, nutty, eccentric and colorful characters like Norton. However, we as Americans are losing this people because they are out of sight and out of mind. Sure every town and city has their own wack-job who thinks he/she is the mayor or Holy Savior but did you ever stop and think just to entertain them? My fiancée hates when I stop and listen to these kind of people but I figure you never know what they're going to say and that's what makes them great. I mean just look at Norton, he laid a blueprint for a cross bay bridge and tunnel, called to establish a "League of Nations" to resolve conflicts peaceful and even wanted to disband Congress which today most people think is a good idea. Sure Norton lost everything and died penny less but he died a man more popular than anyone else in the city of San Francisco. So I say lets follow in the foot steps of Norton and celebrate eccentricities and perhaps try to honor his Imperial Majesty every January 8 by declaring in Emperor Norton Day.