The writer Neil Gaiman said in one of his stories that ‘it’s the little bit of madness that keeps us sane’. I saw the truth of this in one of my heroes, a man called Joshua Abraham Norton, who was Emperor of the United States from 1859-1880.
Norton was born in England, raised in South Africa and came to San Francisco in the 1840’s and made some shrewd business deals, making around a quarter of a million dollars. But then he pushed his luck too far buying rice from Peru and lost all of his money overnight.
Some say that he lost his mind as well and he disappeared for a while without a trace. But a couple of years later he was seen again when he marched into the office of the San Francisco Bulletin with a proclamation that read:
‘I, Joshua Norton, do hereby at the request and desire of a great majority of the citizens of these United State, declare myself Emperor of America and Protector of Mexico.’
And so began his glorious 21 year reign.
Norton began by ordering Congress to dissolve on charges of corruption and fraud and when, inexplicably, they failed to do so, his second order was for the army to march in and throw all the scheming politicians out. They, too, seemed reluctant to accept Norton’s authority.
But it would be wrong to think that Norton’s decrees were all ignored. It was he who first ordered a bridge to be built across the Bay to Oakland, and it ended up being built some 70 years later. But even more remarkable was his vision for a League of Nations so that warring countries might resolve their disputes peacefully – this dream came true after the First World War when the League of Nations – the precursor to the UN – was actually formed.
But it would be wrong to think he only wrote out impressive sounding orders – for Norton was very much an Emperor of the street. Wearing an old military outfit with shiny brass buttons that he got from a sympathetic army camp, and a huge beaver hat with large peacock feathers, he marched the streets of San Francisco every day, closely followed by his two most loyal subjects – street dogs by the name of Lazarus and Bummer.
And what did he do?
He inspected the state of the sidewalks, the maintenance of the cable cars and even the uniforms of police officers – a habit that eventually caused one of them to arrest Norton on suspicion of insanity. But when crowds gathered at the police station to protest, inspired by scathing newspaper editorials, the chief of police decided to let Norton go. To his credit he said;
‘To my knowledge, Mr Norton has neither robbed anyone, spilled any blood or despoiled any nation – which is a lot more than can be said for many in his line.’
Norton magnanimously granted the officer who had arrested him an imperial pardon and, thereafter, whenever policemen passed the Emperor in the street they gave him a full salute.
In fact, the whole town had quite warmed to their monarch. Restaurants competed to feed him for free, in the hope that he would let them put up a plaque outside saying ‘By Imperial Decree of Emperor Norton I.’ The town hall gave Norton an imperial uniform to wear, the Metropolitan hotel gave him a room for free and, when he needed some cash for his daily expenses, he simply issued his own money with the help of a local printer. His banknotes soon passed into circulation and were accepted everywhere.
Some believe that Norton won his popularity because he was good for tourism. Newspapers around the country had picked up on the story and visitors to San Francisco looked for him so that they could pay a dollar in tax – Norton would write them impressive looking receipts that they could take home to show their family.
But the real reason Norton was so loved was for two particular acts. The first was during the anti-Chinese riots of the 1860’s when anyone from Asia was liable to get beaten up and have their shop burned down by racist agitators. When Norton came across a mob in the street one day, working themselves up to violence, he simply walked into the middle of them and began repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over until eventually the crowd dispersed, feeling quite ashamed of themselves.
Perhaps, though, he really won the hearts of the people with a famous law he passed. Now you can call San Francisco ‘San Fran’ – even maybe SF – but there is one name you must never, ever use. Norton’s law read:
‘Whomever, after fair and proper warning, shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco’ shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanour and ordered to pay a $25 fine.’
Finally, in 1880, after 21 years of office, Norton collapsed on the street one evening. A carriage was sent for but by the time it had arrived he had parted away. The next day the newspaper headlines declared:
The King is Dead
In an editorial dripping with sadness, the San Francisco Chronicle reported:
‘On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night, Norton I, by grace of God Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.’
His funeral was paid for by a community of local businessmen and eyewitnesses say it was attended by ‘all classes from the capitalist to the pauper, from the priest to the pickpocket, from well dressed ladies to those who garb and bearing hinted of the social outcast.’
The funeral procession was 2 miles long as 30,000 people came out to pay their respects to their one and only Emperor, Joshua Abraham Norton the First, a man whose little bit of madness had kept him sane.