Joshua Abraham Norton landed on the shores of the golden state of California in 1849 a millionaire (by today’s standards). By 1859 he had lost most everything. Perhaps Mr. Norton was disgruntled or perhaps he just snapped, but one day in 1859 he declared himself, “Norton I, Emperor of the United States“.
The US government chose to ignore Norton’s seizure of the United States. The local elected officials of San Francisco chose to ignore him as well. But, to Norton’s advantage, he started getting noticed by local newspapers. His first act as Emperor was to abolish both the Democrat and Republican parties. Secondly, he declared that anyone using the name “Frisco” would be guilty of high misdemeanor and must pay into his treasury the fine of $25 (a huge sum at the time).
He was the first to call for a bridge to connect the city of Oakland to SF and a tunnel to be constructed under the bay. He forbade conflict between religions and perhaps most famously disbanded an angry mob out to lynch the Chinese by standing between the groups chanting the Lord’s Prayer.
He dressed in full Emperor’s regalia and gained celebrity status in San Francisco. Emperor Norton ate for free in restaurants and was given free box seats to all theatrical performances. He also printed his own money, which was excepted as currency by local businesses. He was truly loved by his subjects. In 1867 a policeman named Armand Barbier arrested Emperor Norton in order to have him institutionalized. Public outrage forced the police department to release him with a public apology and the promise that from then on the police would salute Emperor Norton when he passed. As his uniform began to look worn and shabby, the city board allocated the funds to by him a new uniform.
Sadly, Emperor Norton died on the corner of California St. and Grant on his way to a lecture in 1882. The headlines of SF newspapers the next day read “Le Roi est Mort“. Today there are still annual celebrations held to commemorate Emperor Norton as well as an ongoing effort to rename the Bay Bridge that he had envisioned so many years before in his honor. He has been immortalized by Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson and many others. 2018 will be the 200th anniversary of his birth and a state ballot measure to rename the Bay Bridge is in the works to be proposed.