Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Just Remember Kids, Emperor Norton Was Kinda Sane

Damn, kick me for the fool that I am, I let this date slide.

August 12, 1869:

Norton I., Dea Gratia, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, Being desirous of allaying the dissensions of party strife now existing within our realm, I do hereby dissolve and abolish the Democratic and Republican parties, and also do hereby decree the disfranchisement and imprisonment, for not more than ten nor less than five years, to all persons leading to any violation of this our imperial decree. - San Francisco Herald

Joshua Abraham Norton, once a proud businessman immigrant who came to these shores in the 1850s, property owner and trader who made a foolish attempt to corner the rice market and failed. By 1860, with all the dissension with the upcoming Civil War, Norton decided to take it upon himself to make himself an Emperor of the United States and calm the situation.

Didn't exactly take.

But he kept at being Emperor living on a bare income of "taxing" the local citizenry at 50 cents (and it wasn't annoyingly persistent, he kept a rigorous schedule and issued receipts by all accounts), despite how delusional it made him seem to others. As the years passed, people realized at first he was pretty much harmless about it, and on many topics could be erudite and well-spoken.

What he did noteworthy was issue decrees, proclamations like the one above that the local newspapers - hungry for anything to fill the page - would print. They noticed that readership picked up if a decree was on the front page, so the competing papers of San Francisco would curry favor for official ones from Norton or otherwise fake their own.

Historians can recognize the fakes because the newspapermen were lousy at spelling and grammar (one editor was obsessed with the recent Alice in Wonderland stories and used "off with his head" waaaaaay too much), and Norton had a proper education thank you. His decrees were also practical and focused on such things as public works: he would include from time to time reminders that the government needed to respect his authority, but he never pushed further than issuing more decrees.

Thing was, the decrees spread to other papers to where Norton became a public figure coast to coast. When train travel proved affordable, Americans traveled West and one of the things they did was seek out the Emperor for one of his fake scrips (self-printed money that the local stores exchanged as normal currency). He was, in some ways, the first celebrity tourist attraction.

As Emperor, he wrote letters to politicians and European royalty about matters of the day. Abraham Lincoln reportedly wrote back. When foreign dignitaries visited San Francisco (as a major Pacific port of the 19th century), stories abounded about how they would actually meet Norton I as though he were a peer.

Norton kept an ear open on local affairs. His proclamations would include encouragements to invest in local inventions that had merit, or promote a service to the citizenry. He decreed often that a bridge - suspension or fixed - be built between San Francisco and rival city Oakland to improve transportation, local trade, and community harmony.

San Francisco, being on the Pacific, was the entry point for the massive wave of Chinese immigration of the 19th Century. As such, there was a lot of violent anti-immigrant riots that decimated the local Chinatown. When a mob charged towards that part of town one night, Norton stood in their path and merely recited the Lord's Prayer until the mob turned away in shame.

Legend has it the California State Assembly allowed him to sit at various sessions. He rarely spoke, but reportedly during a harsh argument over which of two men would get a key appointment he did speak up for the one man he could vouch for personally, who ended up getting the job.

A local patrolman working for a hotel - not an actual policeman, in San Francisco private businesses can hire their own police - in 1867 arrested Norton for vagrancy, not knowing who he was. When Norton could demonstrate to the real law enforcement that he had 1) a residence and 2) money in his pocket to afford a reasonable one-night stay at that hotel, the patrolman decided to change the charge to Norton having a mental disorder. The public outrage was swift, and the patrolman dropped the charge. The chief of police let Norton go with an apology and said "Mister Norton had shed no blood, robbed no one, and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in the king line."

Norton I, Emperor of the United States, died in the streets of San Francisco during a storm on January 8th, 1880. It made national news the next day. Mark Twain - who knew Norton back in the early days - admitted his regret never getting a chance to write the man's biography. His funeral train was reportedly 20,000 people and stretched two miles. It took place during a solar eclipse.

Compared to Donald Trump, Joshua Abraham Norton was sane, and desirous for what was best for the citizens of San Francisco and the United States. He may have been playing a con perhaps, pretending to be mad to gain sympathy from his neighbors and later on an entire city and state. But he never ripped anyone off, never went out of his way to cause real damage, never called on violence - his real decrees called for arrests, not executions - and never put himself on a golden throne - a comfortable chair at best - at the expense of others. At worst, he'd tax you 50 cents and give you a receipt for it.

And he seemed to believe. The whole time from his first decree onward, everyone who saw and commented on him noted he really did believe he was Emperor of the United States. And behaved accordingly to his role.
His madness kept him sane - Neil Gaiman, speaking on behalf of Delirium

1 comment:

dinthebeast said...

Herb Caen used to write about Emperor Norton in his column in the SF Chronicle and that's pretty much all I know about him. From what I understand, he sort of reigned over the plethora of other "colorful characters" who made San Francisco what it was, and to a certain extent, what it still is. We need some local color, so to speak, to animate our communities and provide ideas unconstrained by the shackles of money and politics. That he possessed more human decency than Trump is unsurprising.

-Doug in Oakland