Historical Randomness: Emperor Norton I

It was 1880, and on a sad Saturday in January, 30,000 people lined the streets of San Francisco to pay their final respects to Joshua Norton, first (and last) Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. A two-mile cortege made its way to the Masonic Cemetery as residents from across the social spectrum honoured one of history’s great eccentrics.

Of course, the USA doesn’t do emperors – that’s pretty much its reason for existing in the first place. However, on September 17 1859 they got one. Joshua Norton returned to San Francisco after a self-imposed exile. He had been made bankrupt the previous year – famines in China had lead to a ban on rice exports, and while Norton had spotted a potential business opportunity, things went badly wrong, resulting in him being caught up in protracted litigation. It’s possible that the stress of this situation pushed him over the edge, because on his return he declared himself emperor, demanding that Congress be dissolved.

Now, obviously Congress didn’t dissolve, not even after the Norton called upon the army to disband the government by force. It didn’t matter. Emperor Norton soon established himself as a beloved part of San Francisco life (by the way, don’t call it Frisco, he didn’t it being called Frisco), regularly seen in full dress uniform inspecting street cars. Although penniless, the city’s best restaurants let him eat for free, putting up plaques informing customers that they worked by order of the Emperor. He got the best seats in the house at theatre productions. He issued decrees that the streets should be cleared up and that residents should sponsor the airship experiments of Frederick Marriott (the man who coined the term ‘aeroplane’ and who was responsible for the US’s first unmanned aircraft). He pre-empted the Bay Bridge (when they extended the bridge in 2004, there was an unsuccessful campaign to name it after Norton) and when one of the Emperor’s dogs died, Mark Twain wrote its epitaph.

Everyone knew Norton was crazy, of course, but that didn’t matter; when a policeman tried to have him committed it led to a public outcry (“Emperor Norton has killed nobody, robbed nobody and despoiled no country, which is more than can be said of some fellows of his line”) – from then on all the police officers in San Francisco saluted the Emperor when he passed.

The mid-1800s wasn’t necessarily a barrel of laughs if you were Chinese-American – the usual story of immigrants being sought after as cheap labour, but facing racial discrimination as a result is an old, old story. So it’s worth remembering that, when an anti-Chinese riot broke out in San Francisco, Emperor Norton got between the riotters and their targets and simply recited the Lord’s Prayer until the mob dispersed.

In 1880, on a cold and rainy night, Norton I collapsed in the street and died, the first and only Emperor of the United States. His story is obscure, but he’s still remembered if you know where to look; there’s just something inspirational about the whole thing. Just one example – Neil Gaiman wrote about him in the comic book story ‘Three Septembers and a January’ (in issue 31 of The Sandman), in which a character comments that Norton’s “madness keeps him sane.” Something about that feels true.

So at the start of the year, when we’re all thinking about our hopes and dreams for the next twelve months, raise a glass to Emperor Norton and consider how even the strangest dreams can end up somehow beautiful. And then go and think about doing something crazy.

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