Emperor Norton: Greatest Monarch Of The United States
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Politics and Activism

Emperor Norton: Greatest Monarch Of The United States

The story of a strange, destitute man and the city that loved him.

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Emperor Norton: Greatest Monarch Of The United States
wikipedia.org

The greatest Emperor the United States has ever had was undoubtedly His Imperial Majesty Joshua Norton, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

"Hold up," I can hear you saying, "the United States had an Emperor? I thought we were a constitutional republic?"

You are correct, of course, the US has always held by the greatest traditions of democracy and universal enfranchisement for adult white males (the rest of the population came along more recently) and our leaders have always been, and always will be, elected representatives of the people.

Apparently no one told Norton.

Born in England sometime around 1818, the future-emperor lived with his parents in South Africa until the late 1840s, when his mother and father passed away within two years of one another. He took his father's fortune of $40,000 dollars ($1.1 million in modern exchange rates) and moved to San Francisco. Most of that fortune vanished after a series of disastrous investments in Peruvian rice. After losing a lawsuit intended to void his rice contract, Norton retreated from the public eye.

He reappeared in 1859, having declared himself Emperor. Despite the lofty title, Norton had no real political power. He was an unemployed pauper with delusions of grandeur. He announced his new position through a letter sent to various newspapers, in which he explained that he was disgusted with the failures of Congress, and was hereby ordering both houses to assemble in the San Francisco musical hall to await dissolution. When Congress ignored him, he issued an Imperial decree ordering the military to evict the representatives. The military ignored him.

And San Francisco lovedit.

For twenty-one years Norton the First "ruled" the city. He remained nearly destitute the entire time, but San Franciscans gifted him various fine clothes that disguised his financial situation. Restaurants would admit him free of charge simply for the prestige that the Emperor's presence brought. Many bore plaques proclaiming the monarch's visitation and approval. Musical halls would stall shows until Norton was comfortably seated in his reserved box seats.

The Emperor would spend his days walking the city, inspecting tram lines and sidewalks, greeting citizens and police officers, and giving lengthy philosophical speeches to anyone within earshot. He ate at free lunch counters due to his empty treasury, but still found room to share his food with the local dogs.

It wasn't all fun and games, however. During the 1860s and 1870s anti-Chinese race riots occasionally burst out in poorer districts. In one such riot, witnesses claimed that the Emperor knelt between the two sides with his head bowed, reciting the Lord's Prayer until both factions departed without violence.

Some weren't convinced by Norton's charisma, and in 1867 he was arrested by Officer Armand Barbier to be forcibly committed for lunacy. Public outrage was so great that the Police Chief released the Emperor the next day with an official apology, stating that Norton had committed no crimes, which was "more than could be said of his fellows in that line." His Majesty accepted the apology, and issued an Imperial edict absolving Officer Barbier of any misdeeds. From that day forth, police officers saluted Norton whenever they encountered him.

In addition to his domestic duties, Norton wrote many letters to world leaders of the time, including Abraham Lincoln, Emperor Napoleon III of France, and Queen Victoria Queen Victoria, to whom Norton hoped to be wed. He even met the great Brazilian Emperor and Statesman Dom Pedro II in person. It is unclear whether any of these figures wrote back.

On the evening of January 8, 1880, Emperor Norton collapsed in the street on his way to a science lecture. A nearby police officer rushed to flag down a carriage to take Norton to the hospital. The Emperor was dead by the time the carriage arrived. He was around sixty-five years old.

Newspapers the next day ran with headlines such as "Le Roi est Mort" (The King is Dead), and featured sorrowful articles lamenting the passing of San Francisco's beloved monarch. The Emperor's pockets contained a mere five or six dollars, and a search of his apartment fond no currency but a single gold sovereign, worth $2.50 at the time. Additionally, there were fake telegrams from Tsar Alexander II of Russia congratulating Norton on his upcoming marriage to Queen Victoria, and from the French President predicting that such a union would destroy world peace.

The city first planned to give Norton a pauper's coffin of redwood. Loyal San Franciscans intervened, however, and funded a full funeral and superb rosewood casket. The fallen Emperor's services took place on Sunday, January 10th, and drew a crowd of as many as 10,000 people of all classes.

Based on the city's population, that amounted to one out of every twenty-three San Franciscans.

In the end, Emperor Norton was never a true ruler. He had no true recognition beyond San Francisco, and even in the city his proclamations were hollow. Despite all of this, he enraptured the city with his strange, kindhearted lunacy. His people and city treated him with nothing but respect and adoration.

And as any American knows, the people's choice is the one that matters.

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