Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Holy Shit, Emperor Norton!

Emperor Norton I
Joshua Abraham Norton was an English-born, South African-raised immigrant to the United States. He gained citizenship and took up residence in San Francisco, where he made a terrible decision to invest in a rice shipment with his inherited fortune. After the price of rice plummeted, he lost all his properties and declared bankruptcy.

Norton challenged the company with which he invested, claiming that they misled him about the quality of the rice. The California Supreme Court ultimately ruled against him, creating a deep-seated dissatisfaction within the fiery passion-pit of his belly. Like so many Facebook users today, Joshua Norton decided to express his displeasure with empty spectacles.

Lensless Glasses
Which are a thing, I guess.

At least we hope that was his idea, because it would be a little bit disturbing if he actually believed that he could legitimately declare himself "Emperor of these United States."

Like so many modern-day secessionist petitioners (and unlike the very real secessionist Confederacy that began two years later), Norton expressed his political dissent with a powerful act of almost whimsical ignorance. The strange part, though, is that it sort of caught on.

Norton went around to all the local newspapers in San Francisco to hand deliver a letter, which read:

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. 

—NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.

The papers printed it, because why wouldn't you? No one had done anything so ridiculous before, and readers were eating that shit up.

Emperor Norton didn't just declare his reign and then let it go, either. He issued edicts ranging from abolishing both Congress and the Democratic and Republican parties to the criminalization of the colloquial San Francisco name, "Frisco." He even decided on a whim to add "Protector of Mexico" to his title.

"Miracles" by Insane Clown Posse
It was here. This is where you heard the word "Frisco." From ICP. I'm sorry.

It got to the point where, despite being destitute, Emperor Norton was treated like royalty. Literally. He had an entourage. People paid deference to him. And not just people: high-end restaurants set tables aside for him on permanent reserve. They put plaques on his table to commemorate his visits. Theaters could guarantee improved ticket sales simply by reserving a balcony seat for the Emperor. He issued currency, and local businesses honored it. I mean...what?

Here's what's really crazy: he wouldn't have made that bad of an emperor, all things considered. Some of his proclamations were incredibly visionary and insightful. There are factions to this day who want to rename the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to the Emperor Norton Bridge, because it was his idea first. The most they've accomplished so far is a plaque commemorating his role in the inception of the bridge.

Emperor Norton plaque
Pictured: An actual goddamn plaque on an actual goddamn bridge.

During a riot against Chinese immigrants, Norton stepped out into the street, blocking the rioters from their prey, and recited the Lord's Prayer over and over again until the rioters realized that murdering people because of their race is kind of uncool and decided to go home. Around that same time he demanded that the international community establish a League of Nations similar to the actual League of Nations that would be created about 30 years later. Part of that decree called for an end to all hostilities between religions. We still haven't nailed that one down yet.

In January of 1880, Emperor Joshua Norton I collapsed in the street and died before an ambulance could reach him. The next day, San Francisco was in mourning. Obituaries solemnly expressed their grief. Plans for his funeral were modest at best, but the city's populace stepped in and produced a lavish ceremony worthy of his title. It is estimated that about 30,000 people, about 13% of the population of San Francisco at the time, attended.

From the ashes of financial ruin and political outrage, Joshua Norton rose to the honorary status of United States Emperor. He is unique in American History for that. Others have imitated him, but never with anywhere near his success. He was penniless, almost a vagrant, and simultaneously, he was royalty.

Holy shit.

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