The United States has been very proud to call itself a constitutional republic that is led by citizen-elected representatives. America is and has been, historically, very much opposed to monarchies. That is, until 1859, when a legitimately crazy guy wrote into a newspaper, proclaiming himself the “Emperor of these United States.”
Of course, he had absolutely no legal authority and no one truly believed his claim. In fact, “Emperor” Joshua Norton was actually a homeless man dressed in nice clothes. He ended up being a major tourist attraction for the city, however, so the locals just gave him a collective, “sure, buddy. Whatever you say.”
And so, an empire was born.
That’s enough to drive anyone flippin’ crazy…
Before his nosedive straight into the deep-end of crazy town, Joshua Norton was a highly successful businessman. He bought real estate outside of goldmines just before the Gold Rush really boomed. He would sell all of his holdings to invest in rice in 1852. The Chinese rice industry had been struck with a famine that barred the export of rice, which drastically raised the price of rice in San Francisco to 25 cents per pound.
Norton, being the savvy businessman that he was, found a source for Peruvian rice, which was being sold for 12 cents per pound. His idea was to spend all of his money on rice from Peru and resell it in the U.S. at the swelled rate of Chinese rice. As soon as the sale was finalized, however, the per-pound price of Peruvian rice dropped to 3 cents and would be sold at near cost. In short, Norton blew everything he had on rice he couldn’t sell.
By 1858, the once-powerful businessman was bankrupt, penniless, forced into a boarding home, and forgotten by his elite former peers.
He would also declare himself a pope, but that was more or less for the funeral for a stray dog.
Not much is known about his downward spiral into insanity but it was during that transition that he decided he couldn’t have been the son of regular English parents, but was rather a child of the House of Bourbon (despite the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette twenty five years before he was born.) This was confirmed in his mind by the fact that his first name was ‘Joshua’ — his logic was that his parents gave him a common name to hide his royal lineage.
He took his ramblings to the San Francisco Bulletin on September 18th, 1859. It’s remains unclear why the newspaper allowed it to run, but the audiences found it hilarious. In his editorial, he declared himself Emperor of these United States, decreed that Congress be abolished, and called for his “subjects” to gather at the city’s Musical Hall the following February 1st.
Congress was not abolished due to the whims of some random homeless guy — obviously. He ordered General Winfield Scott, Commander of the Union Armies, to clear the halls, but didn’t — obviously. Readers of the Bulletin did gather in droves at his call — likely because they figured it’d be funny. The doors were locked, but the crowds embraced the joke nonetheless.
He even printed out worthless “Norton-bucks” that San Franciscans embraced and used because that’s exactly how fiat money works.
By 1861, the legend of “Emperor” Norton I had spread around the country and was fully embraced by San Franciscans. Among his many decrees, he demanded that…
- …the unpopular California State Supreme Court would be abolished.
- …anyone using the word ‘Frisco’ in reference to San Francisco would be exiled.
- …a bridge be built between Oakland and San Francisco (which was impossible at the time).
- …and that Governor Henry Wise of Virginia be fired for hanging the abolitionist John Brown of Harper’s Ferry fame.
These were all things locals agreed with before the Civil War.
“Emperor” Norton I became so popular that even politicians and business owners would placate him in order to not upset the townsfolk. Officers at the U.S. Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco offered him an elaborate blue uniform with gold epaulets to keep the joke going, because you know, it was still kind of funny.
In 1876, the actual Emperor of Brazil, Don Pedro II, would visit San Francisco on an official trip — only to be greeted by Norton I. They met for an hour at the Palace Hotel and enjoyed what we can only assumed was an awkward conversation.
“Emperor” Norton I passed on January 8th, 1880. His funeral saw the attendance of 10,000 people who mourned their local celebrity. Many years after his death, the Oakland-San Francisco Bridge was completed and many called for it to be renamed “The Emperor’s Bridge” in honor of the goofy homeless guy who jokingly became an emperor.
Remember, if you fall on hard times and feel your sanity start slipping… lean hard into that crazy and you could just wind up becoming a legend.