Friday, February 02, 2007

Biography Podcast 0019: Norton I - Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico

Welcome to the second episode of the new year, and our first real local character. I apologize for the delay, but I think you'll find it worth the wait. And, Sorry ladies, it's another guy but I'm sure you'll still enjoy our presentation of Joshua Norton - Emperor of the United States.

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Biography Transcript
Emperor Norton I

Joshua Abraham Norton (ca. 1815 – January 8, 1880), also known as His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, was a celebrated citizen of San Francisco who proclaimed himself "Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico" in 1859. Though he was generally considered insane, or at least highly eccentric, the citizens of San Francisco in the mid-to-late 19th century celebrated his presence, his humor, and his deeds. He continues to be a patron saint of the unusual, and of eccentrics, as he is mentioned as a Saint in the Principia Discordia (1970), the seminal main text of the Discordian religion.

The self-declared "Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico," Joshua Abraham Norton was one of the most picturesque figures in California history. Norton was born in 1818 or 1819 in London, England, but was taken almost immediately to South Africa, where his parents had decided to move to seek their fortune. In 1849, having failed in business ventures in South Africa, the already psychologically unstable Norton moved to San Francisco, one of the thousands who rushed there hoping to strike it rich.

Norton soon became a commodities merchant, and for several years achieved a large measure of financial success -- enough to be invited to join the elite San Francisco Vigilance Committee. But in 1853 his failed effort to corner the local rice market put him into bankruptcy. And his bankruptcy, in turn, seems to have driven him insane. Six years later, in 1858, he announced that:

At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of the United States, I, Joshua Norton, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.

It was published the following day, on the front page, under the headline; "An Emperor among us?

It is not known how the good citizens of San Francisco initially felt about their new monarch, but they apparently soon got used to him, for he was often seen walking the streets of the city, dressed in his regal, although frequently a bit worn, alternating blue and grey uniform, to show his support for both the Union and the Confederacy, his beaver hat with its colored feathers, his saber at his side and gnarled cane and wiry umbrella in hand. When his uniform was worn out, the Board of Supervisors, with a great deal of ceremony, presented him with another, for which he sent them a note of thanks and a patent for nobility in perpetuity for each supervisor.

Over the next twenty-one years, Norton cut a striking figure as he roamed the city in a European-style military uniform with a plumed top hat and a sword at his side. Norton caught the attention of Samuel Clemens, then working as a newspaperman in San Francisco. Years later, Clemens -- by that time the celebrated writer known as Mark Twain -- would reveal that he had based the character of the King in Huckleberry Finn on the eccentric Joshua Norton.

As Norton the First, Emperor of the United States of America and Protector of Mexico, he found, if not a fortune, at least some of the privileges of his office. He lived at a boarding house on Commercial Street, and was registered as "Emperor, living at 624 Commercial St." in a census done August 1, 1870. He lived there for seventeen years, but refused to pay the rent by week and instead paid by day. He was fed for free by some of San Francisco’s finest restaurants, which he graciously allowed to put up signs which said; "By Appointment to His Emperor, Joshua Norton I." He had a standing ticket, together with his two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, at any play or concert in the city’s theatres. He was given a bicycle by the city as his means of royal transport, he was allowed to review the police to check that they performed their duty; a special chair was reserved for him at each precinct.

He marched at the head of the annual Police parade and reviewed the cadets at the University of California. The Emperor was even allowed to print his own money, which was honored at most places in the San Francisco area, and even a few banks. Where saner men had tried to break the currency monopoly and been arrested, Norton I got away with it, on the grounds, one must assume that he wasn’t perceived as a threat. The stories about Emperor Norton are many, and some more factitious than others.

One story tells how on January the 21, 1867, an overzealous Patrol Special Officer, by the name of Armand Barbier, arrested His Majesty Norton I for vagrancy. It was pointed out that the Emperor had $4.75 in his pocket and lived in a lodging house, and so technically wasn’t a vagrant. Armand Barbier then declared that Norton was of unsound mind and arrested him as a danger to himself and others. This created a public uproar and several scathing newspaper editorials followed the arrest. Norton was was held in custody pending examination by the Commissioner of Lunacy. City Police chief Patrick Crowley saw to it that the hearing was never held, apologized to the Emperor and ordered him released. There after, all police officers began to salute Norton when he passed them on the street.

At one point, Emperor Norton took the title "Protector of Mexico" because Mexico had, as he said, "Beseeched him to rule over her." But this didn’t last long; he soon dropped his new title with the explanation that it was "impossible to protect such an unsettled nation." Norton also published many proclamations, some of them sensible, others rather eccentric, and many even of questionable origin. For example the following;

"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." (1872)

Though to this day, it is still advisable never to call San Francisco “Frisco” in presence of a native.

A few of Norton’s edicts were actually very much ahead of his time, such as the one ordering a suspension bridge to be built at the exact spot where the Golden Gate Bridge now stands;

"The following is decreed and ordered to be carried into execution as soon as convenient:
I.That a suspension bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island, and then to Telegraph Hill; provided such bridge can be built without injury to the navigable waters of the Bay of San Francisco. II.That the Central Pacific Railroad Company be granted franchises to lay down tracks and run cars from Telegraph Hill and along the city front to Mission Bay.
III.That all deeds by the Washington Government since the establishment of our Empire are hereby decreed null and void unless our Imperial signature is first obtained thereto." (March 1872)

And the following, regarding the project of a local inventor, thirty six years before the Wright brothers made their first flight in 1903;

"Whereas, we Norton I, "Dei Gratia" Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, being anxious for the future fame and honor of the residents of San Francisco, do hereby command all our good and loyal subjects to furnish the means and exert their best skill and advance money to make Mr. Marriot's aerial machine a success.
Given at San Francisco, Cal., this 25th day of July, A.D. 1869, in the seventeenth year of our reign."

The Emperor had two dogs, some sources say the dogs were originally strays given to him by the city, that he had named Lazarus and Bummer. Regardless of how the dogs came to belong to the Emperor, there was no question that the dogs were his faithful charges and his constant companions. Most of the contemporary cartoons of the Emperor showed him walking his dogs. Tragedy struck, however, when, in October 1863, Lazarus was run over and killed by a fire-truck. A public funeral was held, and many prominent people turned up to console the Emperor. Bummer continued to beg for scraps at his masters´ feet until the 10th of November 1865 when he, too, shuffled off this mortal coil. To honor him, Mark Twain wrote the epitaph for the noble canine.

For the next 15 years, the Emperor himself lived out his remaining years in his little room at 624 Commercial Street, continuing to oversee his domain during his daily walks. Finally, on the 8th of January 1880, Norton I, "Dei Gratia" Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, was promoted to glory on California Street, while on his way to a lecture at the Academy of Natural Sciences, two blocks away. The cause of death was apoplexy. In his pocket was found some telegrams, a coin purse, a two and half dollar gold piece, three dollars in silver, an 1828 French Franc, and a few of his own bonds. When reporters sacked the Emperors´ tiny apartment they discovered that all he left behind in the world was his collection of walking sticks, his tasseled saber, news clippings, his correspondence with Queen Victoria and President Lincoln and 1,098,235 shares of stock in a worthless gold mine. The Morning Call ran the headline; "Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life."

Though the city was prepared to put the departed Emperor into a common grave, the citizens of the City would not let Norton see that ignominious end. So, on the 10th of January 1880 Emperor Norton was buried in the Masonic Cemetery, where wealthy citizens of San Francisco had paid for the coffin and funeral expenses. The funeral cortege was two miles long and an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 people turned up for the funeral.

On 30th June of 1934 Norton the First’s grave was moved to Woodlawn Cemetery by the citizens of San Francisco. On January 7, 1980, San Francisco marked the 100th anniversary of the death of the United States only Emperor with lunch-hour ceremonies at Market and Montgomery streets.


Sean said...

Loved the podcast. I never heard of this guy, it was a great story to listen to heading to work.

MacPhilly said...

Hey Sean! Thanks, I loved finding out about this guy too!