Who was the first (and last)
emperor of the U.S.?

'An Emperor among Us?'
Abraham Joshua Norton

The man who would become the first and last emperor of the United States of America was born sometime in 1819, in London, England, although we don´t know the exact date. Abraham Joshua Norton and his family moved from England to Algoa Bay, at the Cape of Good Hope, and got wealthy there. In 1849, at the age of 30, he came to San Francisco with $40,000 and set up shop as a trader in rice. Rice was immensely popular in San Francisco due to the large number of Chinese immigrants in the city at the time. He soon made himself a fortune, about a quarter of a million dollars by 1853, but lost it all in 1854 trying to corner the market on rice with an ingenious scheme that unfortunately failed. He bought up all the rice in the city, thus soon driving up the price to astronomical levels. Disaster struck when two Japanese ships unexpectedly arrived in the harbor laden with rice. Norton was ruined. He vanished from public view for three years, and when Norton returned to San Francisco from his self-imposed exile, he had become completely disgruntled with what he considered the vicissitudes and inadequacies of the legal and political structures of the United States. On September 17, 1859, he took matters into his own hands and distributed letters to the various newspapers in the city, proclaiming himself "Emperor of these United States":

"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 US, and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in the Musical Hall of this city on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity."

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 gray 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 mobility in perpetuity for each supervisor.

Norton spent his days as emperor inspecting the streets of San Francisco in an elaborate blue uniform with tarnished gold-plated epaulets, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco. He also wore a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. He frequently enhanced this regal posture with a cane or an umbrella. During his inspections, Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, and the appearance of police officers. Norton would also frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot at the time.

Norton was much loved and revered by the citizens of San Francisco. Although penniless, he regularly ate at the finest restaurants in San Francisco; these restaurateurs then took it upon themselves to add brass plaques in their entrances declaring "by Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States." By all accounts, such "Imperial seals of approval" were much prized and a substantial boost to trade. Supposedly, no play or musical performance in San Francisco would dare to open without reserving balcony seats for Norton. A popular rumor started by the devoted Norton caricaturist Ed Jump holds that he had two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, who were themselves notable San Francisco celebrities at the time. Although he did not own the dogs, Norton ate at free lunch counters where he provided the dogs with a few morsels of food. The royal dogs were not considered dogs in Norton's eyes and in the eyes of his "subjects". The canines were treated as their own autonomous beings.

A ten dollar note issued by the Imperial Government of Norton I.

A ten dollar note issued by the Imperial Government of Norton I.In 1867, a police officer named Armand Barbier arrested Norton for the purpose of committing him to involuntary treatment for a mental disorder. The arrest outraged the citizens of San Francisco and sparked a number of scathing editorials in the newspapers. Police Chief Patrick Crowley speedily rectified matters by ordering Norton released and issuing a formal apology on behalf of the police force. Chief Crowley observed of the self-styled monarch "that he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line." Norton was magnanimous enough to grant an "Imperial Pardon" to the errant young police officer. Possibly as a result of this scandal, all police officers of San Francisco thereafter saluted Norton as he passed in the street.

On the 8th of January 1880, 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." On the 10th of January 1880 Emperor Norton was buried in the Masonic Cemetery. Wealthy citizens of San Francisco 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. It is reported that his burial was marked by a total eclipse of the sun. On January 7, 1980, San Francisco marked the 100th anniversary of the death of its only Emperor with lunch-hour ceremonies at Market and Montgomery streets.

A few of Norton's edicts were way 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 ... Read more at: Emperor Norton I

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