It was 1859 and a San Francisco resident, Joshua Abraham Norton, proclaimed himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States” and “Protector of Mexico” with this written proclamation:
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.
WHEREAS, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th of October last, declaring the said Congress abolished;
WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with;
NOW, THEREFORE, we do hereby Order and Direct Major-General Scott, the Command-in-Chief of our Armies, immediately upon receipt of this, our Decree, to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress.
Despite his orders being ignored by Congress, Emperor Norton I of the United States continued to rule as a representative of the people and abolished not only Congress, but also the Republican and Democratic parties on August 12, 1869. The Emperor was also able to engage in politics at the local level trying to abolish any and all slang language as it pertained to his city of residence.
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.
The Emperor, ever the visionary, even demanded the building of a suspension bridge from Oakland to San Francisco as well as a tunnel for people to pass through.
WHEREAS, we issued our decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of a suspension bridge from Oakland Point via Goat Island; also for a tunnel; and to ascertain which is the best project; and whereas the said citizens have hitherto neglected to notice our said decree; and whereas we are determined our authority shall be fully respected; now, therefore, we do hereby command the arrest by the army of both the Boards of City Fathers if they persist in neglecting our decrees.
Given under our royal hand and seal at San Francisco, this 17th day of September, 1872.
Emperor Norton I frequented a number of bars in the San Francisco Bay area and many of those bars even honored the currency that was printed with the Emperor’s face on it. It seems that the people of San Francisco rather liked having an Emperor among them and therefore Norton was treated well by most in the community. Many of the cities finest restaurants provided tremendous service to the Emperor and the performing arts community always reserved a great seat for him despite the fact that he had no money to pay his way.
He was once arrested and sent for mental treatment which outraged the citizens of San Francisco who demanded his immediate release. His release was granted and the ever so gracious Emperor Norton I issued a full imperial pardon for the arresting officer. After this incident it is reported that the police would salute the Emperor whenever they saw him on the street where he was probably sharing his free meal with stray dogs as he regularly did.
He wore a full regal uniform and when it began to look old and dingy the town council of San Francisco bought him a new one. Emperor Norton I of the United States as he was known was considered insane by the public but loved all the same. He only did good, he only showed kindness to others and never performed an unjust act during his long reign.
When he passed away after collapsing on a street corner on January 8, 1880, nearly 30,000 people came the funeral of Emperor Norton I of the United States, The Protector of Mexico. Since that time he has been reincarnated in a number of literary works including those by:
- Neil Gaiman
- Mark Twain
- Selma Lagerlöf
- Maurice De Bevere
- Robert Louis Stevenson
- Christopher Moore
In the modern era there have been repeated efforts to rename the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge “The Emperor Norton Bridge”.
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