Read any history textbook and you’ll be flooded by greatness. The subject is filled to the brim with stories of people who were inspirational, people who were extraordinary, people who were generous or kind or ruthless or really, really pretty. (And yes, the only group with a significant number of women in it is the last, but I’m happy that at least my namesake Phillip “the Handsome” of Spain is an exception). One group of people who tend to be forgotten by history, however – and it’s a terrible shame because they’re my absolute favourites – are the mad. The quirky. The eccentric. And unless they’re in charge of one of the largest countries in the world at the time, or the pet of someone who is, they’re likely to be swept up by asylums or banished into the wilderness forgotten. That’s what makes the case of Joshua Norton so special, what makes his story amazing and why I’m willing to forgo holistic overviews for a personal story today. Ladies and Gentlemen, by the Grace of God, I present Emperor Norton I, lord of the United States of America and Protector or Mexico, Regent of San Francisco and all-round eccentric.
Joseph Abraham Norton was born to a rather un-royal background, a British citizen born in England and raised in British South Africa in the early 1800s. His early life is largely unknown, but historians are pretty sure he moved to San Francisco in 1849 to move into finances and lost most of his money by investing unwisely. That’s not an unusual story – thanks to the Gold Rush in California in 1848, San Francisco was the place to be for budding investment bankers and finance gurus at the time, and naturally a lot of them went bust. Norton, for his own reasons, stayed, and it’s about then that he started…you know…the mad stuff.
See, on the 17th of September, 1859, Norton did something that puts other eccentrics to shame. He declared himself Emperor of the United States of America (by some unknown authority only he knew about, of course) and ordered the entire US government to meet him in the San Francisco Theatre to hold a meeting on the state of his newly inherited country. He was ignored by the government, but the press loved him, jokingly printing his declarations in the local newspapers. This is where the story gets really heart-warming. The local people grew to love him, humouring him as he went about his “official duties” – checking the trams, posing for photographs, writing to the US government to try and dissolve Congress to give his absolute power, the usual stuff for an Emperor of his rank to do. As time went on, he grew more and more popular – the army gave him a uniform with gold-plated shoulders, restaurants would put up plaques if they got the “Imperial Seal of Approval”, plays were written with Norton as the protagonist at his favourite theatres – and he became a cult hero to the residents of what was quickly becoming the US’s most tolerant city. He even became a force for good in the community – he campaigned for a bridge to be built across the San Francisco Bay 60 years before the Golden Gate was built, and was one of the first to suggest that America form a League of Nations (read: He invented the UN 50 years early) for international peace. His finest hour was in the middle of an anti-immigrant riot, where he protected local Chinese labourer by STARING AT THE RIOTERS UNTIL THEY WENT AWAY. Suffice to say he was a local legend by the time of his death in 1880, as 30,000 people paraded through the city’s streets in his honour.
The story of Norton, First Emperor of the USA, is a good one because it’s about a whole town’s kindness to one rather odd man – it’s about tolerance in a city so multicultural, so full of the weird and wonderful that racial and social tension should be constantly high. But, more importantly, it’s the story of an extraordinary man, a visionary and a lunatic all at once, and the legacy that means that, even today, the bridge he suggested across the San Francisco Bay still hold a plaque in memory of San Fransisco’s first – and so far only – Emperor.