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Emperor of the United States


THE United States of America once had an Emperor!

Without bloodshed he achieved the unique distinction of becoming the only monarch ever acknowledged and given fealty by Americans. He remained in his exalted position by the will and acquiescence of a free people.

He violated all rules of representative government by abrogating the powers of the legislative, executive and judicial branches, and vesting final authority on domestic and foreign affairs in his own royal person. He issued bonds and paper money. He levied taxes. He dictated to a legislature. A supreme court bowed to his will. He commandeered transportation facilities on land and water. He rewarded public officials by conferring upon them titles of nobility. He decreed punishment — even death! — upon offenders against himself and the State. He rendered judgment on matters brought to his Imperial Court. Yet his right to assume any and all of these powers went unchallenged for more than two decades—despite the election and inauguration of six Chief Executives during the period of his imperial regime!

Our monarch was Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. His capital was San Francisco, California. Leading hotels were his "palaces" during a reign of twenty-three years, from 1857 until his death in 1880. He violated more provisions of our national Constitution than any other man in history—and got away with it!

Within the last five years, citizens of this American democracy obeyed one of the Emperor's most dictatorial commands published nearly seventy years ago, in the newspapers of the royal capital.

"From His Highness NORTON I"

"Whereas, reliable information has
"reached us to the effect that our neigh
"boring sovereign, the Queen of the
"Friendly Islands, is desirous of annex-
ing her domains to the United States,
"and Herself to our Royal Person; and
"whereas, it is our pleasure to acquiesce
"in all means of civilization and popu-
"lation, now therefore we, NORTON
"I, Dei Gratia Emperor of the United
"States and Protector of Mexico, do
"order that a suspension bridge be con-
structed from Oakland Point to Yerba
"Buena Island, thence to the Mountain
"Range of Sausalito and on to the Fa-
"rallones, to be of sufficient size and
"strength for a railroad. Whereof fail
"not under pain of death.

"Given under our hand and seal this
"18th day of August, A.D., 1869, in the
"17th year of Our reign, in Our present

(Signed) NORTON I."

Sixty-six years later the Golden Gate suspension bridge across San Francisco Bay was completed. Although it fails to extend thirty-five miles westward over the Pacific to the Farallones, it does very nearly link the far separated promontories specified for abutments in the pronunciamento. And because in all essential respects this bridge fulfills his decree, we may call it the realization of the Emperor's dream — a fitting monument to America's only acknowledged sovereign!

EMPEROR NORTON'S personal story is an amazing saga of the halcyon days of California's el Dorado. No man of that golden frontier tasted more deeply than he of the flavors of living. His was the complete success of great wealth, a host of friends, a future promising great happiness, and after a certain fateful day, a magnificent failure.

Norton I was not born to the purple. The son of Hebrew parents, born in 1819, he grew to manhood as commoner Joshua A. Norton among the moors and highlands of old Scotland.

Early in life, this Jewish boy felt the pull of his star of destiny. Some strange force seemed to call him across a whole world, compelling him to forsake homeland and family to search beyond the horizon for the golden fleece he was to find at last.

While still a lad he sailed over the rim of the earth for the Cape of Good Hope. In South Africa he joined the Colonial riflemen and acquired that military manner, that love for bright uniforms, gold braid and brass buttons later to be considered the eccentricities of a monarch. But his strange restlessness soon guided him westward across the Atlantic.

During several years spent in Brazil as a trader, young Norton prospered very well and might have stayed to help develop that raw young nation had he not been a man marked for a stranger fate. When the startling news of the discovery of El Dorado electrified a world with golden thunder in Forty-eight, Joshua Norton converted all his holdings into cash and shipped as supercargo out of Rio de Janeiro for the Golden Gate.

He was thirty years old and had forty thousand dollars when he landed with other forty-niners at the docks of boisterous, swaggering, gold-fevered San Francisco.

The times conspired to make Norton a veritable Croesus at the end of four years. He perceived at once that, for him at least, there was more wealth to be gained in trade than by gouging the earth in search of gold. Opportunities to pyramid his capital by barter and investment were fairly flung at him.

Seven great fires ravaged San Francisco between the closing months of 1849 and the middle of 1851. Burned out property owners and discouraged merchants found a ready friend in Joshua Norton. Every dollar planted in property and merchandise by the Hebrew immigrant brought him a golden harvest of double eagles.

Proof that he was an honored and respected business man is furnished by the fact that he was Vigilante No. 339 of the Committee of 1851. His personal integrity and fairness are reflected in this curious excerpt from the Minutes:

"On motion of Mr. (Joshua) Norton:
'Resolved that no criminal shall he sentenced until he or she shall have an opportunity of pleading guilty or not guilty and assigning his or her reason why judgment should not be passed.'"

This expression of benign tolerance is of more than passing significance in the light of the swift moving events which followed!

IN 1853, Joshua Norton resolved to double his fortune in one master stroke. His Midas touch had already brought him wealth variously estimated at four hundred thousand to a million dollars. He pooled his entire resources with those of a merchant named Thorne, and they set about cornering the rice market.

Rice was in demand not only within the city but at the mines as well, particularly among the forty or fifty thousand Chinese then working in virtual slavery for masters yellow and white.

Norton and Thorne bought every grain of rice in the city. They purchased every boatload of the commodity then in the harbor or known to be on the high seas. Of Macondray & Co., they contracted for a very large cargo due to arrive within a week, agreeing to pay fifteen cents a pound arrival and delivery.

Immediately the price of rice began to soar. Soon it was selling from thirty-five to sixty cents a pound. The partners smiled; they could foresee prices of a dollar a pound—a dollar and a half —perhaps two dollars! They would be rich indeed....

And then three ships sailed in through the Golden Gate, laden with Saigon and Pakling mats, a tremendous cargo of rice entirely unexpected. The news spread like wildfire. The market broke. Norton and Thorne were ruined.

The first manifestation of the strange mania which was to dominate the rest of his life appeared during the hectic days when Norton was making heroic efforts to clear his name of debt and judgment. He managed to pay every debt except the one owed Macondray & Co.

During the week following the crash Joshua Norton sought out Mr. Macondray:

"The Emperor desires to arrive at an amicable settlement of the debt owed your firm by the Crown!"

Picture Mr. Macondray's consternation and amazement!

"Crown! Emperor! Man—are you crazy?"

"I," was Norton's calm response, "am the Emperor of North America! It has occurred to me that I may most satisfactorily settle our differences and pay you personal honor by raising your daughter to the highest station in life at my command. I come, sir, offering my heart and my kingdom. Your daughter shall be my Empress!"

Mr. Macondray was of the breed of men who were taught tolerance and understanding of their fellow men by vigorous living in a raw, new frontier. Aware of the tragedy which had overtaken his visitor he courteously replied that he would like time to consider, and gravely escorted the "Emperor" to the door.

He spoke of the queer mania to mutual friends. A few sadly shook their heads, recalling Norton's past brilliant successes, his unswerving honesty in business, his personal integrity. Many laughed and reckoned that the loss of millions would drive anyone out of his mind. All knew that a great mind had given way under pressure too great to bear. But no single soul even suspected, then, that within a few years all would be declaring allegiance to this man as a monarch indeed!

With the last remaining shreds of reason, Norton must have salvaged enough from the wreckage of his fortune to settle in a more practical way than marriage his debt to Macondray & Co. When he disappeared from the streets of San Francisco in 1853 he was penniless—but his debts were paid in full.

DURING the next four years he was missed from his old haunts. Some of his former associates came suddenly into great wealth. It was whispered that lands rightfully belonging to Norton had been swindled from a madman, that a little investigation might bring to light altered land records, forged deeds, securities baldly transferred into new accounts. Yet no one was sufficiently concerned to dig for facts.

In the winter of 1857, "Emperor" Norton invaded San Francisco. He found his future capital in just the right frame of mind to fall before his strange coup d'etat.

He appeared upon the streets one morning regally booted and spurred and garishly garbed in an ancient army uniform; rows of bright brass buttons across his chest, huge, gleaming gilt epaulettes upon his shoulders, and over all a blue military cape, lined with scar- not print it? let. Upon his head was a queer hat in the Jehu style, with an enormous white ostrich plume.

His scepter was an enormous cane entwined with a great carved serpent.

Grave of mien, regal of bearing, clad and cloaked in his imperial garments and an amazing dignity, he marched purposefully to the office of the Alta California, on the morning of September 16, 1857, bowed gravely and handed a carefully prepared statement to the editor. Another bow, and he quietly departed without a word. With open-mouthed astonishment the editor read the communication. His bellow of surprise brought other workers running. The office buzzed with mirth and excitement. Here was real news! Why not print it?

The next morning San Franciscans rubbed sleepy eyes to read that, the State had become an Empire overnight. "Emperor" Norton's first proclamation declared earnestly that an Act of the California Legislature of 1853 had made him "Emperor of California."

On that day, as the news spread by word of mouth, the city by the Golden Gate enjoyed the best laugh of its experience.

Mud-splattered teamsters and booted miners; calm gamblers and gaudy women; quiet business men and noisy street urchins—all would turn and smile when the singular personality who had come among them passed by on the street.

Palaces of pleasure spoke of "Emperor's" wealth to be gained across the green cloth of the gaming tables. Saloons featured "drinks for a king," and hotels "royal" service. Muckers and teamsters cracked many a loud joke with the words "my lord" and "sire" as they hauled their mired wagons from hub-deep mud. Miners swore with good round oaths they'd be kings themselves, when they struck bonanza. And one and all, the men of El Dorado swarming in from the mines for a good time took the "Emperor" to their hearts.

Norton was toasted in saloons, fed in restaurants, taken everywhere to meet friends. For a week he was the sensation of the ribald, bawdy, showy, hornyhanded and ostentatious elements of the town.

THEN, quite as suddenly as it had risen, his popularity waned. The city had had its fun. The very men who had crowded near him, now ignored him on the streets.

Emperor Norton, however, was a monarch not easily discouraged. His subjects might become a bit careless and forget his royal prerogatives. Not he!

When funds ran low and he was no longer welcomed at bars and lunch counters, Norton easily surmounted his financial problem. He made out and cashed a check for fifty cents.

Almost immediately it bounced. Norton's bank account was as phantom as his Empire. The disgruntled gentleman who had been bamboozled muttered angrily of prosecuting the "crazy old coot," but former friends of the demented man made good the worthless paper and let it be known they would be responsible for simple debts. These old associates were the first to give homage to Norton I.

With the passing months, the city came to accept the Emperor as an institution, just another of the strange characters familiar to all during the 'fifties and 'sixties.

In those days, San Francisco echoed the cries of saints and sages, devils and doctors, clowns and quacks. Street preachers never lacked audience. Medicine men reaped golden harvests. There was "Simon Pure," who insisted upon sleeping in the streets beneath the open sky. There was the man who would touch your sleeve for a dime—"give you the Midas touch." There was the itinerant healer who called himself the "King of Pain," and made a fortune selling aconite liniment, attracting customers with his attire of scarlet underwear, heavy velour robe, high hat adorned with ostrich feathers and a heavy sword with which he enacted his battle with aches and pains of man and beast.

Norton had a place among the rest of the amusing characters. He was considered eccentric, harmlessly balmy, somewhat to be pitied. And thus he lived for the next two years, not quite a public figure and not quite obscure; kept from need by the charity of old associates.

IN September, 1859, a friend pointed out to Norton that his reign over California was unconstitutional. Perhaps the friend hoped to cure him of his strange delusion, but his suggestion had far-reaching effects.

The Emperor of California took the matter under advisement for several days. Strangely enough some of the logic which had made him a business success had survived the metamorphosis of his mind. He soon perceived the error of his original proclamation, took immediate steps to correct it.

On September 17th he again made the headlines with his second manifesto. He pointed out that California lacked the right to consider herself an Empire when she was actually one of the United States. He solved the grave problem in the only way possible. He proclaimed the extension of his dominion to include the entire nation!

In that raw, new land where "colossal" and "gigantic" honestly described the achievements of men like giants, this joke was hugely appreciated. Viva Emperor Norton! San Francisco confirmed his royal decree by good-humored acclamation!

From that time on, America's sole monarch was firmly seated on his throne. For twenty-one years he was a real force to be reckoned with in western life. The incidents of his reign, the comic-opera drama of his eight thousand days of glory would supply a fiction master with material for a lifetime of work!

One of the first official acts of his greatly enlarged administration was the issue of still another pronunciamento. This one was brief, but much to the point, couched in language somewhat like this:

"Whereas our duties of State require
"Our attention and Presence at all im-
"portant public gatherings, and whereas
"the condition of the imperial wardrobe
"has become a matter of national dis-
"grace, now therefore We, Norton I,
"Emperor of the United States, do re-
quire and command that loyal citizens
of the Empire immediately provide
"Our Majesty with raiment suitable for
"every and all occasions and weather.
Whereof we have set our hand and
seal this 20th day of December A.D.,

(Signed) NORTON I.

This state of emergency was gravely considered at the next meeting of the San Francisco City Board. The Emperor received "raiment" complete with brass buttons and magnificent new epaulettes of gold braid!

This evidence of loyalty was immediately rewarded by his imperial Majesty. He bestowed upon the officials the first titles of nobility granted by the Empire! Their descendents today are probably unaware that these deserving ancestors were once Grand Dukes or Imperial Viceroys of the old Empire of the United States!

This precedent was adhered to more than once during the next two decades. Succeeding Boards replenished the royal wardrobe and in turn received titular awards for their generosity.

IN 1860, while the California State Legislature was in session at Sacramento, the Emperor announced his decision to favor that body with his presence. Accordingly, he made his way to one of the river steamers inland bound.

The Captain happened not to have given allegiance to Norton I. He made so bold as to forcibly eject the Emperor from his vessel when his Highness indignantly refused to pay fare. In high dudgeon, he betook his royal person to the offices of the Navigation Company. Officials there courteously explained they must back up their Captain. No fare—no passage!

Thoroughly aroused, Emperor Norton descended upon the office of the Collector of the Port. In icy tones he imperiously ordered that the Sacramento River be blockaded by the revenue cutter in the harbor. When and if the offending Navigation Company should come to terms, and the Captain apologize for his insult and issue a Pass—then the armed blockade might be lifted!

Bystanders who had overheard the dispute spread the news. Loyal subjects of the Emperor took up the fight. Officials of the Navigation Company refused to listen to their pleas to treat the pseudo-monarch as a privileged character. That justice moved swiftly in those days is attested by the fact that the issue moved through the lower courts and was brought to the attention of the State Supreme Court within a few days!

That august body immediately issued a writ of mandamus peremptorily ordering the Navigation Company to immediately come to terms with his imperial Majesty under penalty of civic and royal displeasure.

Defeated by public opinion, the transportation company capitulated, its boat captain apologized, a lifetime pass was issued — and Norton I journeyed in august triumph to the State Capital!

At Sacramento he found the lawmakers wrangling over a choice of two men to fill a vacancy. Candidate A had just about as many friends as Candidate B. From his gallery seat, Norton I attentively listened to the proponents of each. A vote still left the issue deadlocked. The legislature might have wrangled about it for weeks had not the Emperor been there to solve the problem in his own fashion.

Rising from his seat he began to speak. The political tumult subsided. Eyes and ears were focused upon his Highness. He warmly praised both candidates but stated that he was personally acquainted with the virtues and talents of Candidate B. He, Norton I, appointed Candidate B to the vacancy!

Stunned silence prevailed for a single, startled moment. Then shouts of approval filled the State House, hats were jubilantly thrown into the air, a boisterous standing vote was taken—and the Emperor's appointment was confirmed by unanimous vote!

THE gravest crisis of the Emperor's long career was brought about by the Civil War. That his children should fight among themselves greatly distressed his Highness. For several days he worried about the course the nation must pursue. His decision was a terrible one, but he made it with fortitude. On July 12, 1860, he issued a proclamation declaring the Union dissolved for the duration of the emergency!

Even after inflicting this punishment, he did not desert his errant children. He sought ordination from both Catholic and Protestant churches that he might attempt pacification of his warring peoples with better grace. He was not discouraged when his petition was denied, for the belligerents were approaching him!

Some wag with Northern sympathies prepared a telegram purportedly from Abraham Lincoln and presented it to the Emperor. It was an alleged appeal imploring the Throne to smite with royal wrath the southern upstart who was giving the country such a headache.

Norton I spent hours preparing a thundering rebuke to Jeff Davis, and a command to cease his nonsense forthwith.

With remarkable speed came an ostensible reply from Richmond, couched in conciliatory language pointing out that the northerners had started the ruckus and it wasn't any fault of Jefferson Davis'. If the damn' Yankees didn't know their places it was up to somebody to give them an education!

Another message to Lincoln—with a copy dispatched to the leader of the Rebellion—demanded that an armistice be declared of sufficient duration to allow the Emperor time to talk things over with both parties!

While he waited for his answer, Norton I was occupied with other cares of State.

A delegation of sober-faced citizens laid before his Highness the information that a foreign usurper was about to seize the reins of government south of the Rio Grande. To forestall such an attempt, Norton I proclaimed himself Protector of Mexico, and warned whomever it might concern that he would tolerate no interference in the affairs of his Mexican children.

Not very long afterward, however, he corrected what he considered his single error of statesmanship. Dismayed by the disorganized and troubled affairs of Mexico, and angered by that country's apparent indifference to his repeatedly offered advice and help, he curtly announced that he was compelled to withdraw his imperial protection.

All of his diplomatic correspondence was of course a reality to Emperor Norton, though no message ever got farther than the limits of his own capital city. Occasionally a more important proclamation appeared in the newspapers to advise the citizenry of the monarch's activity. He was repeatedly petitioned by partisans of both the North and South for royal redress of their wrongs, and he never became aware of the city-wide conspiracy to provoke amusing topics of conversation—any of which were less dreadful than war news.

When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the Emperor matched it with royal approval. He expressed the sorrow of his Empire when the war-President was assassinated, and instituted the relentless pursuit of John Wilkes Booth. He congratulated Grant and Lee for their obedience to his orders to stop fighting. The success attending the reconstruction of the Union was due to his wise counsel.

FROM day to day through all the years of his reign, Norton I busied himself with the affairs of his Empire, attending vigorously to both domestic and foreign affairs.

Abroad, he reconciled the French and the Prussians, and brought about the close of the Franco-Prussian war. He constantly received telegrams from Disraeli, Czar Alexander of all the Russias, Jefferson Davis and many other world figures—all urging him to marry Queen Victoria and unite his Empire with that of the British. But somehow he suspected skullduggery behind these messages, and persistently refused to dispatch replies... to the chagrin of the town wits who had tried to "frame" him.

His three most faithful subjects deserve mention. Two of them were dogs, named Lazarus and Bummer, undoubtedly the most sincere of all in their whole-hearted devotion. True to his name, Bummer was the one who most ably assisted his master at the free lunch counters. Lazarus usually waited at the palace room of the Eureka Lodging House for the spoils of forage Bummer never failed to bring home.

Long before the Emperor's reign was over, Bummer was poisoned by food obtained from a regularly patronized eating place. Some vowed it was deliberately done, and mourned the passing of their monarch's most faithful attendant. Lazarus soon afterward joined his pal; it was generally believed of a broken heart.

The third subject who never failed to give prompt homage was a queer person known only as the "Gutter Snipe," a term descriptive of his curbstone salvage activities. He never failed to tear himself away from whatever occupied him at the moment to industriously brush a clean path across the dusty street for his Sire. His invariable reward for this service was a quarter.

EMPEROR NORTON was probably the most democratic monarch the world has ever known.

He spent his mornings on the street, seeing to it that policemen were on duty, sidewalks unobstructed, and the various city ordinances properly enforced. He frequently presented a bright flower to each little girl who passed, and escorted boys to nearby candy shops where assorted jawbreakers and licorice-sticks were provided by command of his Majesty. Many and many a child went to school a commoner to return home afternoons a Grand Duke or a Grand Duchess, elevated to these happy stations by Norton I.

Afternoons, the Emperor attended to papers of State, and held Court from two to four at his Palace (The Eureka Lodging House) where he heard the complaints of the oppressed and extended his favors to the needy.

Evenings his activities were many and varied. Sometimes he orated at public meetings on the necessity of playgrounds for children. More often he was to be found at the Cobweb Palace, on the northern end of Meiggs Wharf; or the Cottage Bar in Stevenson Street; or the Martin and Horton saloon near Montgomery on Clay Street. These were the rendezvous for the famous, the sea-going, the odd and the political characters of the day.

Here Emperor Norton rubbed shoulders with William Walker, the American filibuster later to be shot by a firing squad in Honduras when his attempted coup failed.

Here, too, he conversed with mad Willie Coombs, who believed he was George Washington and always wore a Continental uniform of faded buckskin. Coombs almost starved himself to death before friends convinced him he was actually in the Martin and Horton saloon—instead of at Valley Forge.

He drank with Bret Harte at Barry and Patten's and rubbed shoulders with the lowly at less prosperous resorts. He knew personally most of the celebrities of his day; none of them ever attempted to disillusion him of his dreams of Empire.

Only once during his reign was Emperor Norton really insulted. A young policeman, new to the force and ignorant of his prisoner's real identity, haled Norton I before a judge for a sanity hearing. Shocked that profane hands had been laid upon his Highness, the good Judge roared out a declamation which crushed the erring cop, satisfied his Royal Highness and soothed the irate citizenry who threatened reprisal for the sacrilege.

"The Emperor Norton has never shed blood!" ruled the Judge. "He has robbed no one and despoiled no country. And that, gentlemen, is a helluva lot more than can be said for anyone else in the King line! Case dismissed!"

The Emperor died in 1880 while standing at the corner of California Street and Grant Avenue, dreamily watching the Bay. He was escorted to his last resting place by twenty thousand of his loyal subjects in a procession headed by the Mayor and two brass bands playing the "Requiem" from "Saul." A simple slab marked the grave of Norton I, "Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico"...