Thursday, February 14, 2008

His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I

Happy Birthday to one of the great American eccentrics, Joshua Norton, His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I.
Joshua Abraham Norton (Feb 14, 1819 – January 8, 1880), also known as His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, was a celebrated citizen of San Francisco, California who proclaimed himself "Emperor of these United States" and, in 1859, "Protector of Mexico." Born in London, Norton spent most of his early life in South Africa; he emigrated to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving a bequest of $40,000 from his father's estate. Norton initially made a living as a businessman, but he lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice.

After losing a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, Norton left San Francisco. He returned a few years later, apparently mentally unbalanced, claiming to be the emperor of the United States. Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented.

Though he was considered insane, or at least highly eccentric, the citizens of San Francisco celebrated his regal presence and his proclamations, most famously, his "order" that the United States Congress be dissolved by force (which Congress and the U.S. Army ignored) and his numerous decrees calling for a bridge and a tunnel to be built across San Francisco Bay. On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at a street corner, and died before he could be given medical treatment. The following day, nearly 30,000 people packed the streets of San Francisco to pay homage to Norton. Norton's legacy has been immortalized in the literature of writers like Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson who based characters on him. In December 2004, a resolution was made to name the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in honor of Norton, but the idea did not progress further.

Norton spent his days as emperor inspecting the streets of San Francisco in an elaborate blue uniform with tarnished gold-plated epaulets, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco. He also wore a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. He frequently enhanced this regal posture with a cane or an umbrella. During his inspections, Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, and the appearance of police officers. Norton would also frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot at the time.

It was during one of his inspections that Norton is reputed to have performed one of his most famous acts of "diplomacy." During the 1860s and 1870s, there were a number of anti-Chinese demonstrations in the poorer districts of San Francisco. Ugly riots, some resulting in fatalities, broke out on several occasions. During one such incident, Norton allegedly positioned himself between the rioters and their Chinese targets, and with a bowed head started reciting the Lord's Prayer repeatedly until the rioters dispersed without incident.

Norton was much loved and revered by the citizens of San Francisco. Although penniless, he regularly ate at the finest restaurants in San Francisco; these restaurateurs then took it upon themselves to add brass plaques in their entrances declaring "by Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States." By all accounts, such "Imperial seals of approval" were much prized and a substantial boost to trade. Supposedly, no play or musical performance in San Francisco would dare to open without reserving balcony seats for Norton.

A popular rumor started by the devoted Norton caricaturist Ed Jump holds that he had two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, who were themselves notable San Francisco celebrities at the time. Although he did not own the dogs, Norton ate at free lunch counters where he provided the dogs with a few morsels of food.

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