Emperor Norton I of the United States was not a pioneer in the true sense, but innovative in the sense that this colourful character declared himself Emperor with no official credentials, During his twenty-one year reign he issued futuristic decrees such as demanding a bridge be built across the bay.
There is a distinct possibility that he was on the high functioning autism spectrum, as he wasn’t your typical everyday emperor. He was a good deal gentler and saner than most “official” emperors and dictators have been, both historically and today.
Joshua Abraham Norton was born in the UK. His parents came to South Africa as part of the 1820 Settler scheme and he spent his youth in the Eastern Cape of South Africa until 1849 when he inherited money from his father’s estate and set off to seek his fortune in the United States.
Settling in San Francisco, by the early 1850s he’d amassed a fortune of S250 000 through shrewd real estate dealings, so he certainly wasn’t crazy.
However, he made an unfortunate business decision when he saw an opportunity to buy Peruvian rice. China had temporarily banned the exportation of rice to other countries due to a severe famine. The price of rice in San Francisco skyrocketed from 4c to 36c per pound. He bought a huge consignment coming in from Peru at 12c per pound: a total of S25 000. Unfortunately for him so much other Peruvian rice came in that the market was flooded and rice dropped to only 3c per pound. Thus after prolonged litigation his fortune was depleted.
Deciding it was time to put his claim in, the intrepid Mr Norton made his unilateral declaration in 1859, giving himself the title of Emperor. Later he added Protector of Mexico to his grand job description.
How he saw himself:
One of his decrees declared that Congress should be abolished. I’m sure many folk today would like to get rid of Congress and all the dead wood and self important representatives warming the benches on Capitol Hill.
Both parties were abolished by the stroke of his Imperial pen. This would please their respective opponents today, with so much mud slinging between the elephants and the donkeys that all the other animals scurry for cover, except the mud lovers. According to the far sighted Norton I, the two leading parties were summarily disbanded almost a hundred and sixty years ago.
However, such a decree didn’t carry much weight with the US Army, who filed it somewhere deep in the filing cabinet of Area 51, which was just a few days away by stagecoach.
Emperor Norton severely objected to the slang word Frisco being used for his native city and passed a decree subjecting anyone using the abbreviation to a fine. I wonder how he would feel about texting slang today, in which almost every word has become unrecognizable from their forebears. He would most likely issue a decree forbidding the murder of his native language.
In his imperial foresight and wisdom he ordered both a bridge to be built over and a tunnel under San Francisco Bay. Both these have been duly constructed, if a little late: the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was completed in 1936 and the Transbay Railway Tube in 1969.
He also demanded the formation of a League of Nations and peace between the different religions and sects. In fact he acted as a peacemaker during a number of race related uprisings in the city. Once he stood between anti-Chinese rioters and the Orientals, silently reciting the Lord’s Prayer until the troublemakers dispersed. How many emperors leave a legacy of peacemaking?
Despite abject poverty he usually ate at the best restaurants in town and was treated as royalty by the citizens of San Francisco, who held him in high regard. Many restaurant owners gave their local Emperor the freedom of enjoying their finest cuisine any time he wanted. He could often be found eating in the company of the well known Bummer and Lazarus, the unofficial representatives of the city’s pavement specials. In fact these two dogs deserve an article of their own:
The city’s board of supervisors supplied him with a brand new imperial uniform when his old one became shabby. The best seats were reserved for him at new musical and theatrical performances. Rich and poor alike loved their unofficial emperor.
Once he was arrested by a police officer wanting to have him committed to an asylum. There was a huge outcry in the city. The police chief, Patrick Crowley rightly wrote: “he has shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.” – and from that time onwards, all police officers saluted him as they passed him in the street.
He had his own monetary currency printed and today the few surviving ones are highly valued collector’s items:
The high regard he enjoyed in San Francisco continued when thousands of San Franciscans lined the streets on 10 January 1880 to pay their last respects. Despite having just a handful of dollars in small change to his name at the time of his passing, a respected businessman’s association named the Pacific Club sponsored a fine rosewood coffin for his final resting place.
He was in his early to mid sixties at the time of his death, but his exact age isn’t known as his date of birth is disputed.