150 years ago today, the sort of person that our current mayor Gavin Newsom would try to imprison (ie homeless) put a small notice in the San Francisco Bulletin proclaiming himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States acting on "the peremptory request of a large majority of the citizens." The editor printed it as a joke, but in San Francisco it stuck.
Dressed in a uniform given to him by the presiding General of the Presidio, he owned the City along with his two stray mutts, Bummer and Lazarus. Restaurants competed to have him dine there (gratis, of course. One doesn't charge an Emperor), they saved seats at the theatre for him and he even kept correspondence with other heads of State. Heck, Mark Twain wrote the obituary for Bummer!
Norton (real name Joshua Norton) had come to the City during the Gold Rush. He made a fortune in real estate and then lost it. He lived in a boarding house in a seedy neighborhood for 50 cents a night. But San Franciscans have always loved a character, and they embraced Norton as their true ruler. Today there are still restaurants, stores and historical sites all over the City recognizing him. When he died in 1880, his funeral procession was two miles long!
A few years ago, there was a movement to name the Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton, since he had issued numerous proclamations calling for a bridge to be built between San Francisco and Oakland. Of course, he also wrote procalamtions calling for the forced dissolution of Congress, saying it was a "remedy for the evil complained of." He also banned the use of the "abominable word" "Frisco" (and here, here!) under penalty of a $25 fine and produced his own currency.
So, on this the anniversary of our ruler, I suggest we all have a drink in the Emperor's honor. He was truly a San Francisco original. Robert Louis Stevension said it well: "In what other city, would a harmless madman who supposed himself emperor … been so fostered and encouraged?" Hail Norton I!
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