Norton I, Emperor of the United States

Excerpt from The Tears of Llorona: A Polytropic Odyssey
into the Shadow of Cross and Sword along
California's Historic El Camino Real

Craig Chalquist, MS PhD

He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
-- Hamlet

On September 17th, 1859, the San Francisco Call published a surprising epistle:

At the preemptory request 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 nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the Emperor of These United States.

America’s only openly proclaimed monarch was born in London in 1819 to a family that moved to South Africa and, like many Anglos in South Africa, prospered. In 1849 Joshua Abraham Norton got off a Dutch schooner in San Francisco and invested a $40,000 gift from his father in real estate, a market where he too prospered at first. An unfortunate attempt to corner the rice market left him broke overnight.

He disappeared, but when he resurfaced some years later he wore a blue admiral’s uniform adorned with gold-plated epaulets and a beaver hat decked out with rosette and green peacock feather. With cane and umbrella faithfully close to hand, this proud regalia took to the pavement followed by two stray dogs named Lazarus and Bummer. The uniform was a donation from the Presidio army post.

If it be true that he suffered in the depths of his shattered mind the full, brutal impact of the local economic apartheid, it’s also true that you can’t keep a good liege down. When proclamations by the man who would be emperor began to show up in the papers, his reign became a busy one almost overnight. By day he surveyed his dominion on long walks downtown, inspecting the condition of the streets, the sidewalks, the buildings, the cable cars, the appearance of police officers, and the mood and bearing of passing subjects. He conducted reviews of the city police and fire departments twice a year. He corresponded with Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, and King Kamehameha. In the streets he spoke words of encouragement and mediated disagreements and was quick to promote the depressed and saddened into states of temporary royalty. A local legend tells us that his willingness to make commoners into nobles gave rise to the phrase “queen for a day.”

Somewhere else he might have been locked up or had a fire hose turned on him. Instead, the City came to love this man whose flamboyance constituted so ironic a rebuke of the ceremonies of the rich and powerful. Merchants accepted as authentic the scrip he printed and presented as money, each note bearing the royal Visage on the left and the Great Seal of the State of California at the dexter. Theater seats were reserved for him. The 1870 census listed him as residing at 624 Commercial Street, his occupation duly noted as "Emperor." With appropriate ruffles and flourishes the local Board of Supervisors presented him with a new uniform, for which they were thanked and elevated to the status of perpetual noblemen. Restaurants that served him for free nailed up brass plaques that read: By Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States.

He was the first to suggest building a suspension bridge across the Bay from the peninsula to Marin. He came out for a league of nations. He believed in the possibility of air travel. Finding the Union corrupt, he abolished the party system, and then Congress, proclamations that delighted Samuel Clemens. When the Governor in Virginia executed John Brown, the Emperor in California fired him.

Nor were national concerns allowed to detract from local ones. In 1872, for example, an edict proclaimed that

Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word "Frisco," which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.

Unlike the reign of many another head of state, his time in office was marred by only a single scandal, and one not remotely his fault. It would seem that a green policeman named Armand Barbier arrested His Majesty one day to confine him to an institute for the deranged. Citizens of the realm protested and outraged editorials screeched complaints in the local newspapers. Police Chief Patrick Crowley promptly issued a formal apology in person, whereupon the Emperor graciously pardoned the offending officer as well as the chief. After this unfortunate incident all officers smartly saluted His Eminence whenever they saw him during their rounds.

Out one day on an inspection of the capital, the Emperor noted with concern the potential outbreak of an anti-Chinese riot. There being no imperial constables at hand, he planted himself between the angry mob and the Chinese, and, bowing his head, recited the Lord's Prayer, over and over, until the mob dispersed.

On a rainy January evening in 1880, Norton the First paused for a moment on California Street, then toppled, stone dead of a stroke. Rumors that he was actually a wealthy conman pretending insanity vanished like misplaced cash when the word circulated that His Majesty had only six dollars in his pocket and even less in the imperial coffer at home. He did own stock, but only to a worthless gold mine: a final irony, for he had not “seen the elephant” so much as been trampled by it while more sensible men compiled their hasty fortunes. Yet as far as anybody knows, he who had lost both money and mind never allowed himself to fall behind where it counted most to him: on the labyrinthine course he trod with his outgoing air of dignified concern.

Thousands of mourners attended his funeral, grateful that he had gone down as he had lived, not shut away in either palace or asylum but right out there in their midst. “The real concerns,” Nietzsche noted, “are to be encountered in the street.” Likewise, perhaps, the real nobility too, however we choose to diagnose it.

© 2003-2004 by Craig Chalquist

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