Sunday, 10 April 2011

Joshua Norton, Emperor of the United States of America

In 1858 Joshua Norton, a merchant based in San Francisco, lost his fortune having speculated heavily on a cargo of Peruvian rice.
Bankrupt and ashamed, he vanished from the city he had called his home for almost ten years only to reappear a few months later.
During his time away Norton had decided that he had been ruined by the injustices that now pervaded his once proud nation but had determined a solution to the problems that had beset America.
Norton laid the blame firmly at the door of the country's government.
From the President downwards, Norton saw nothing but self-interest and maladministration dragging America to its knees.
His solution was simple.
He would become Norton I, the first Emperor of the United States of America.
In September 1859 Joshua Norton issued his first, but far from his last, Imperial Proclamation. It stated his desire to be recognised as the Emperor and requested that Representatives from the various States assembled in the San Francisco Musical Hall on February 1st 1860 to '...make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring...'
Norton had also informed the city's newspapers of his intentions and his proclamation was dutifully reprinted in the San Francisco Bulletin.
People laughed off Norton's announcment but he took his new role very seriously indeed.
He began to wander the streets of San Francisco in a bright blue uniform with gold-plated epaulets while wearing a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. Norton was never seen without a cane or umbrella which he would use to punctuate his points as he regaled his subjects on a variety of topics and inspected his empire. Each morning a local flower vendor presented the Emperor with a carnation for his buttonhole and restauranteurs and theatre-owners always had a seat ready if Norton came calling.
The Musical Hall was burnt to the ground before the Emperor could assemble his Representatives but the proclamations continued.
Norton abolished Congress and, when they continued to meet, ordered that the Army should be sent to Washington to forcibly dissolve the assembly.
With the arrival of the Civil War he fired Abraham Lincoln for failing to prevent the conflict and began to wear two different outfits on alternating days.
One was his traditional blue affair but he also began to wear a grey uniform, similar to that of the Confederate Army, to show that he didn't favour either side in the conflict as he was the Emperor of all of America.
He published an edict banning the use of the word 'Frisco' as an abbreviated form of San Francisco. Norton described this as an 'abominable' word with 'no linguistic or other warrant.' Its use would see offenders fined $25 on the spot.
This fine was payable directly into the Imperial Treasury...
Although many of his proclamations appear frivolous or outrageous Emperor Norton seemed determined that if his voice was being heard he should also say things of value.
He petitioned for finance for an aviation pioneer, attempted to improve on the design for railroad switches to make the railways safer and called for a bridge and tunnel to link San Francisco with nearby Oakland.
Norton also attempted to bring religious tolerance and social unity to his empire.
On one occasion he stumbled onto a crowd of rioters about to set upon a group of Chinese workers who they felt had priced them out of work.
Norton stood between the two groups, bowed his head and began to recite the Lord's Prayer. He invited the mob to join him and recited the prayer again.
He then made an impromptu speech on the subject of the virtue of brotherly love, reminded the crowd they were all God's children and ordered them to disperse peacefully.
Rumours abounded of a possible marriage between the Emperor and Queen Victoria.
The fact that she was already married and was unlikely to see the appeal of an eccentric American did little to stop the whispers.
On January the 8th 1880 Emperor Norton collapsed and died on the streets of San Francisco. Despite the widespread belief that he was actually wealthy it became apparent very quickly that the Emperor was virtually a pauper.
His pockets contained five or six dollars in change and his room at his boarding house had only a few more dollars. The room also contained forged telegrams from Emperor Alexander II of Russia and the President of France on Norton's forthcoming engagement to Queen Victoria, some share certificates to a defunct gold mine and a pile of Imperial Bonds.
The bonds had become Norton's chief source of income through their sale to tourists.
Norton also issued his own bank notes which some businesses would accept as payments for his debts. But there was an element of self interest to the businesses that would do this. Norton was a popular character and a genuine tourist attraction. Displaying his notes and bonds on the wall of your shop was certainly of value to the owners. Similarly, the reastaurants and theatres that would welcome Norton made sure to put up large brass plaques announcing the Emperor's approval of their premises. It turned out that even the carnation that Norton was gifted each day was usually a leftover from the day before...
But the Emperor and his dreams lived on. The President and Congress remained in power and 'Frisco' is still a popular word in San Francisco today but some of Norton's more ambitious projects came to fruition.
A bridge was opened that linked San Francisco and Oakland in 1936 and a tunnel for rail services opened in 1974.
In 1939 a plaque was placed on the bridge in honour of Emperor Norton and his proclamation that a 'bridge shall be built.'
On the day of his funeral 30,000 people lined the streets to watch his cortege pass and he was buried at the expense of the city of San Fransico.
In 1934, San Francisco closed all its cemeteries and Emperor Norton's remains were relocated to Woodlawn Memorial Park in Colma.He was re-interred with civic and military honors. The San Francisco Municipal band played and the 3rd Battalion of the 159th Infantry fired 3 volleys in salute.
In death Joshua Norton was finally accepted as what he had always seen himself as.
A pioneer, visionary and the Emperor of the United States of America...

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