Saturday, 9 May 2009

Joshua I, Emperor of the United States of America

"To today's San Franciscan, the name "Emperor Norton" conjures up images of a colorful, but homeless street person, accompanied by a couple of dogs, who ordered bridges to be built and governments dissolved; an insane man revered by the San Franciscans of the late 19th Century. His story is far more complex than most San Franciscans know.

The real Emperor - Joshua Abraham Norton - is one of contradictions and myths. He was rational man who could speak about any intelligently about politics and science, was a great chess player, and was quite inventive, but believed he was the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He issued proclamations, collected taxes, attended sessions of government, rode free on public transit, had free tickets to theater, and sold his own currency; but lived day to day as a pauper in raggedy clothes. He was a successful businessman who lost a fortune as the result of a business deal gone badly and ultimately lived off the kindness of San Franciscans, but owned no dogs and was never homeless...

n July 1860, Norton ordered the Republic of the United States to be dissolved for an "Absolute Monarchy." His proclamation read:

"We are certain that nothing will save the nation from utter ruin except an absolute monarchy under the supervision and authority of an independent Emperor."

In 1869, he abolished the Democratic and Republican parties. King George III would have been proud...

In reality, Norton was now living off the kindness of his former business acquaintances and Freemasons. He was bone thin, with raggedy clothes. Norton would take their help of the occasional 50 cent piece for lunch or rent, but to save face, he simply referred to it as a tax, and recorded his tax collections in a notebook. He then began to visit local businesses, as often as monthly, to collect taxes, which some gave out of fondness for the Emperor.

Unlike a certain fabled emperor, this Emperor had clothes - but these were hardly the clothes of an emperor. He wore all manner of well-worn uniforms given to him by the Army at the Presidio or purchased from the auction houses along Pacific Street on the old Barbary Coast. On informal occasions Norton would wear a soft hat called a kepi and a coat of either blue or grey; he was after all, the Emperor of all the States.

For formal occasions, he had built himself an outfit of a stained and worn a Union officer's coat, enhanced with epaulets of tarnished gold and a boutonniere in the lapel, a tall beaver hat adorned with ostrich plume, a cavalry sword on his hip and an twisted knotty wood walking stick with ornate handle and a silver plate engraved Norton I, Emperor U.S. When it rained, he carried a tri-colored Chinese umbrella."