REALLY WEIRD HISTORY: The Emperor of the United States

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In the 1870s, several economic crises came
about in parts of the United States and many Americans lost their jobs. From this, a movement against Chinese immigrant
labor arose throughout the American West, leading to the creation of the Workingmen’s
Party organization and an anti-Chinese attitude in places like San Francisco. On the afternoon in question, a group of Chinese
immigrants find themselves surrounded on the street by a mob of angry out-of-work Americans,
and it appears that a riot is on the verge of breaking out. But before the first brick can be thrown or
shot fired, a vagrant in a tattered, blue Army officer’s uniform steps between the
two parties. He wears a beaver hat decorated with a large
peacock feather, and the only weapons in his possession are a rusted sabre and a cane,
which he uses to walk. The vagrant is Joshua Abraham Norton – The
Emperor of the United States – and before we continue, you must first learn how it was
that he came to power. Norton was born in London, England on February
4, 1818, but his mother and father soon moved to South Africa as part of a government-backed
colonization scheme. They worked there for many years as merchants,
eventually amassing a small fortune. After his mother died in 1846, and his father
in 1848, Norton inherited their wealth and sailed west to America, arriving in San Francisco
in late 1849. At the age of 29, and with $40,000 in hand,
or, the equivalent of 1.1 million dollars by today’s standards, he opened a business
selling mining supplies in an effort to capitalize on the gold rush. Though eccentric, Norton was a brilliant businessman,
and he soon jumped into real estate, buying up the land which is now known as Cow Hollow. Within no time at all, he became one of the
most well-respected and wealthy businessmen in San Francisco. In December of 1852, Norton struck upon a
new business venture: at the time, China was facing a severe famine, and had responded
by placing a ban on the export of rice. This caused the price of grain in San Francisco,
and places all across the Americas to skyrocket by over 800%. A business contact tipped Norton off to an
incoming ship that supposedly contained the last haul of Peruvian rice that would be sent
to America that year. Norton decided to corner the rice market,
and when the ship arrived to the mainland, he quickly invested $25,000 into the venture
and purchased the entire 200,000 pound shipment. Norton’s dreams of having a monopoly on
grain soon vanished, however, when, less than a week later, two more ships containing Peruvian
rice arrived, causing the market price to plummet to even lower than before the famine
had hit China. Incensed, Norton sued the man who had misled
him about the shipment, and after a long and costly court case, the California Supreme
Court ruled against him. The bank foreclosed on his real estate, and,
having lost everything, Norton declared bankruptcy. At this point in our story, Joshua Abraham
Norton fades from the pages of history, vanishing from public life. It is commonly believed that, at the loss
of his fortune, Norton disappeared after experiencing a complete mental breakdown. He would not be heard from again until September
17, 1859 when he walked into the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin, and demanded the
editor publish the following proclamation: “At the peremptory request 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 past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California,
declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States…” The paper, for whatever reason, decided to
humor Norton – and they published the statement in its entirety. What may have seemed like a one-off moment
of madness took a heightened turn as Norton soon began making public appearances, dressed
in a mixture of Union and Confederate military regalia, a signature feathered-beaver hat,
and a ceremonial saber strapped to his side. The self-declared Emperor began strolling
through the streets of San Francisco, inspecting the conditions of the sidewalks and cable
cars, public buildings, and even ensuring that police officers made regular patrols
to keep the city safe. He often gathered large crowds together on
various corners and launched into lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of
topics including the state of American politics, and his plans for the future of his empire. The public, for what it was worth, ate this
persona up. Within a few months, Emperor Norton had become
a local celebrity, and he continued to have his proclamations and Imperial Decrees published
by The Bulletin and other local papers to the delight of the general public. On October 12, 1859, he made a decree to formally
abolish the United States Congress. In March of 1860, he issued an imperial decree
in which he summoned the Army to depose all newly-elected officials of the congress. The Army refused the order. Hoping to resolve the many disputes that had
resulted in the Civil War, Norton issued a mandate in 1862 that ordered the Roman Catholic
Church and all Protestant churches to publicly ordain him as “Emperor”. On August 12, 1869, fed up with political
strife, he declared the complete abolition of the Democratic and Republican parties. (Sadly, this order, too, was ignored.) In 1872, he issued an edict that made it a
misdemeanor for anyone to refer to the city of San Francisco as “Frisco” – and violators
would be subject to a fine of $25. While many of these decrees seem bizarre,
Norton occasionally gave orders that would prove quite prophetic. He issued instructions for the United States
to form a League of Nations, which, a few decades later, actually happened. He issued a decree that a suspension bridge
be built that would connect San Francisco to Oakland – an idea that actually became
reality on November 12, 1936. But Norton took his emperorship even further
than the occasional newspaper clipping and public appearance: he would actually write
letters to world leaders – and some would even write back. In time, Emperor Norton had established real,
international relationships. He even met with Emperor Pedro II of Brazil. King Kamehameha of Hawaii, toward the end
of his life, refused to recognize the U.S. State Department, saying instead that he would
deal only with Emperor Norton. Locally, Norton excelled at public relations. He was a beloved public figure, and a constant
attendant of the city’s churches, theatres, civic gatherings, and commencements. Shops soon began selling Emperor Norton merchandise
(including dolls, cartoons, postcards, and cigars) which only caused his popularity to
increase. Soon, he was a living tourist attraction. Though a vagrant, Norton’s celebrity allowed
him to enjoy several comforts. He rented a room in a cheap boarding house
for half a dollar a night, he had his own reserved box seats at several theatres, and
restaurants would let him eat for free, knowing it would bring in customers. The city gave him a free rail pass and allowed
him to use public transportation at no cost – retail stores would give him free clothing,
so they could advertise that *they* outfitted the Emperor, and most upscale establishments
let him in at no charge. He EVEN printed his own currency – which several
business in San Francisco honored. The outside observer might come to the conclusion
that Norton had completely lost his mind – but through it all, he remained quite the businessman. He would speak with anyone who wished to meet
him – and he made a nice collection of royalties for every piece of Emperor Norton merchandise
that local stores sold. Despite his reputation as a rogue, unelected
and unrecognized world leader, Emperor Norton only had a single run-in with United States
Law Enforcement: In 1867, a policeman named Armand Barbier arrested him for vagrancy,
and then, after a few conversations, further charged him with lunacy. Local newspapers immediately wrote scathing
editorials informing the public of his imprisonment, and, during his hearing, outraged citizens
poured into the courtroom to protest. Seeing the massive public backlash led the
local police chief Patrick Crowley to release the Emperor and issue a formal apology on
behalf of the entire police force – in fact, he issued an order for all San Francisco officers
from that point forward to salute Emperor Norton if they passed him in the street. For his part, Norton granted an “Imperial
Pardon” to the man who arrested him. Whether this was the general public enabling
a man suffering from insanity, or simply all an act by a businessman who knew how to turn
a profit, is still hotly debated to this day – but in the two decades Norton reigned, the
truth didn’t matter. Even a man with self-appointed power can have
that power if all others are willing to give it to him. Which leads us back to the streets of San
Francisco sometime in the mid 1870s… Where Joshua Abraham Norton – The Emperor
of the United States, stands between an angry mob and a group of Chinese immigrants. The out-of-work men of San Francisco pause
their attack at the sight of the emperor. The men fall silent, and, with their full
attention, Joshua Abraham Norton bows his head and begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer. “Our father which art in heaven
hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done
in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom
And the power And the glory, forever. Amen.” The Emperor continues to quote scripture over,
and over, and over… and after a few minutes, the mob disperses – the incident ends without
injury. Years later, on the rainy evening of January
8, 1880, Emperor Norton collapsed on the corner of California Street and Dupont Street (now
Grant Avenue) in front of Old St. Mary’s Church while on his way to a lecture at the California
Academy of Sciences. A nearby police officer (who just happened
to be on patrol) immediately came to his aid and requested a carriage to take him to the
hospital. Norton died before the carriage could arrive. It was soon discovered that Norton, in his
final years, lived and died in poverty. He had five dollars in change in his pocket,
and in his room at the boarding house was a single gold coin worth $2.50, a collection
of walking sticks, his saber, a few tattered hats, a single franc, a collection of Emperor
Norton imperial bonds, some telegrams, a few letters, and 98 shares in a defunct gold mine. Though he had scarcely enough money to his
name for a coffin, several area clubs and businessmen donated money to give him a proper
burial. The Emperor was laid to rest on a Sunday,
two days after his death. 30,000 people lined the streets for his funeral. A day later, a total eclipse occurred over
the city. And just like that, the light went out in
San Francisco. This episode of Really Weird History is brought
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