The United States Has Never Had a King, But It Has Had an Emperor
In case you hadn't noticed, there's a bit of a kerfluffle going on right now about who's going to be President of These United States come January 20.
I'm not going to touch that with a 10-foot pole, because this article isn't about the President of the United States. It's about the first (and only) Emperor of the United States.
Does the name Joshua Abraham Norton ring a bell? Unless you've ever taken a dive into the weirder side of U.S. history, probably not. I hadn't heard of him either until he was featured in one of my favorite comic books, The Sandman, Vol 2, 31, "Three Septembers and a January".
I'm revisiting that series as part of my pandemic shut-in book binge, and I thought I'd share with you the story of Norton I, Emperor of the United States - a real person who declared himself Emperor of the United States in 1859.
Norton was born in what's now a part of London sometime around 1818. (There's some debate about how old he really was.) He grew up in South Africa, and after his parents passed away he made his way to San Francisco in 1849. He did well in the city, becoming wealthy by investing in commodities and real estate.
In 1852, a famine in China led to a rice shortage in the States. Norton saw an opportunity and invested thousands of dollars in a Peruvian ship full of rice bound for San Francisco. Sadly for him, several more Peruvian ships loaded up on rice and sailed to California too, bringing the price of rice way down and ruining Norton.
His assets were sold off to pay his debts as he battled the person who sold him the rice ship in court, and by the end of the ordeal he was pretty much penniless.
Norton was understandably upset, and rather than fight the system, he decided to become the system. He declared himself emperor in a series of letters to local newspapers, at first demanding that the United States government accept and acknowledge his right to rule, then calling on the military to help him abolish Congress. His proclamations were actually published, after which he became a local celebrity. However, there's every indication that he took his role as emperor seriously, issuing proclamations and decrees about pressing social issues and inspecting public facilities, works, and transportation.
You'd think authorities would have had Norton locked up, but he became a beloved figure in San Francisco. Until his death in January of 1880, he was treated pretty well by city officials and even the military, who didn't help him overthrow Congress, but did provide him with a blue uniform and epaulets. When that wore out, the City of San Francisco issued him a new one.
In 1867, Norton was arrested by a security guard who tried to have him committed, but when word got out, the public demanded Norton be released. Police Chief Patrick Crowley ordered he be set free and issued an apology on behalf of the police department. From then on, it's said, officers saluted Emperor Norton when they passed him on the street.
Norton issued his own currency known as Emperor Norton Bonds, which were actually accepted at several bars and restaurants around San Francisco. The owners of these businesses loved the draw Norton had and respected him as part of the city's unique culture, so they made sure he stayed fed and honored the Norton currency brought in by tourists.
Obviously the U.S. government never formally acknowledged Emperor Norton or gave in to his demands and proclamations, but the 1870 census did list his occupation as "emperor". It also listed him as insane, but hey, the emperor thing was officially documented.
At least one head of state at the time threw support behind Norton as well. According to some historians, King Kamehameha of Hawaii received several letters from Norton. Toward the end of his life, King Kamehameha refused to recognize the the U.S. State Department and instead said he would only deal with representatives of Norton's empire.
Emperor Norton even sought Queen Victoria's hand in marriage, but she left him on read.
When fellow emperor Napoleon III of France invaded Mexico in the 1860's, conspiracy theorists who thought Emperor Norton might secretly be Napoleon III's son (and may have just been having a little fun) bestowed upon Norton the additional title of Protector of Mexico. Norton was fine with this at first, but eventually declared Mexico too unruly to protect.
Emperor Norton didn't just hand out his own currency and munch on free lunch. His decrees were actually pretty popular with a large number of people, especially his vision for a suspension bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. He died long before the completion of the Bay Bridge.
By all accounts, Emperor Norton was a kind fellow and forward-thinking for his time. He was a civil rights advocate for African Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese immigrants. There's even a popular story about Norton interrupting an anti-Chinese rally and calming the crowd with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.
Toward the end of his life , Norton was submitting his decrees for print solely to a Black-owned newspaper, Pacific Appeal - the only publication he trusted to print his words accurately. (A lot of papers had started heavily editing his submissions or making up their own.)
On the night of January 8, 1880, Emperor Norton I collapsed on a San Francisco street and passed away, most likely of a stroke. About 10,000 people showed up to his funeral. Rumor started that there was even a total eclipse of the sun the day he was buried, but it was only a partial eclipse the day after. Maybe that's more fitting for a self-proclaimed emperor.
Emperor Norton's story isn't the typical rags to riches tale Americans love. It's quite the opposite, really. Still, the people of San Francisco loved the guy and did their best to take care of him after he lost everything. How many presidents could count on that sort of kindness?
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