Who Says America Has no Royalty?

Presidents' Day is coming and there are so many ways to celebrate. You can build a Lincoln Log house in honor of President Lincoln. As a gesture of respect for President Washington you could have a nice philosophical discussion on the ramifications of truth telling and how it affects the long-term survival rate of cherry trees. You could do something to celebrate the birth of one of the other 41 presidents of the United States. Or you could go all out and take the ruler of the free world thing one step further and do something in the name of Emperor Joshua Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

You might be wondering who this man is, why we should celebrate his birth and why you never heard of him before. I can answer the first couple of questions. Joshua Norton lost a fortune trying to corner the rice market in San Francisco in the middle of the 19th century. He declared bankruptcy in 1858. Now many lesser men would let that get them down but Norton was not your average commodities merchant. On September 17, 1859, he issued the first of his many famous proclamations and declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Over the next two decades he printed his own money, which was accepted by San Francisco shopkeepers, he corresponded with the Queen of England and when he died he had a telegram from the Czar of Russia in his pocket.

Norton was beloved by his adopted city. In 1867 a young police officer arrested the Emperor with the intent to commit him to an institution for treatment of his supposed mental illness. The citizens of San Francisco were outraged and the newspapers wrote blistering editorials. Luckily Police Chief Patrick Crowley released the Emperor and apologized. After this event policemen would salute the Emperor when he passed them on the street.

Emperor Norton issued many proclamations. It's hard to say how many because the newspapers of the time liked to invent their own and pass them off as official. In one of the proclamations currently viewed as genuine, he foreshadowed the FCC of today when he forbade the use of the F word, making it illegal to say the hated word "Frisco." If you violated this decree you were subject to a twenty-five dollar fine. He also dissolved the Republican and Democratic parties, " because of party strife now existing within our realm," and he barred Congress from meeting in Washington DC.

Norton I is also famous for his actions during a terrible incident of anti-Chinese violence. During a time when it was not uncommon for vigilantes to lynch people, he came upon an angry mob and he stood between the mob and the intended victims, lowered his head and recited the Lord's prayer over and over until the members of the mob were ashamed and slunk away. When he died in 1880 members of the Pacific Club raised money to buy him a beautiful rosewood casket and thousands of mourners came to his funeral. I'm tempted to say even the heavens mourned him because the day after his funeral there was a solar eclipse and the skies were as dark as the funeral garb, but I won't because it sounds too hokey.

How can you commemorate the life of this great man? That's easy because his influence is still around us if you know where to look.

You can pick up a copy of Emperor Norton's Ghost by Dianne Day, a murder mystery set in San Francisco shortly after the Great Fire of 1906. Sadly Norton I has a bit part as the ghost of himself. He really does deserve leading man status and he gets it in Neil Gaiman's Sandman: Three Septembers and a January, a wonderful comic from Gaiman's multiple award winning Sandman series. You could also read Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Twain said the character of The King was based upon Norton I. He also has bit parts in The Wrecker by Robert Lewis Stevenson and Ishmael, a Star Trek novel by Barbara Hambly where Spock gets the honor and privilege of meeting the great man himself.

You can watch Death Valley Days episode 376 or Bonanza episode 225, which also features Samuel Clemens aka, Mark Twain.

You can take a drive across a bridge. In September of 1872 Emperor Norton issued a proclamation stating that money should be raised for the survey of a suspension bridge from Oakland Point via Goat Island. He commanded that the army arrest the "Boards of City Fathers if they persist in neglecting our decrees". The fathers did continue their neglect but in 1936 the Bay Bridge opened, proving again that the Emperor had some terrific ideas. In December of 2004 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a resolution to rename the bridge after Norton I. Hopefully it will now wend its way to California legislature where it will pass unanimously.

You can listen to a CD from the Emperor Norton record label. I suggest Lost in Translation. You can drink some Emperor Norton tea. Or maybe some Emperor Norton Lager would be more to your taste. You can even stay at the Emperor Norton Inn if you happen to be in San Francisco.

Keep in mind that there is no reason not to try to corner the market, start your own monetary system, issue your own proclamations or send telegrams to the Queen of England. Maybe someday we'll be celebrating your birth month.