Don Stitt's Website


The Emperor's Proclamation

Posted by Don Stitt on November 17, 2013 at 1:15 PM



An Englishman named Joshua Abraham Norton received a $40,000 bequest from his father’s estate and moved to San Francisco in 1849. He became an entrepreneur who lived by investment. By the 1850s, he was worth a quarter of a million dollars.

But not all investments pan out, and such was the case with a shipload of Peruvian rice. He had heard that The Glyde, a merchant vessel, was carrying 200,000 pounds of rice. Norton believed that by purchasing the entire shipment for $25,000, he would be in a position to corner the market (in a city with a rapidly growing Asian population.)

But shortly after inking the deal, several other shiploads of rice arrived from Peru, thereby lowering the price of rice, and Joshua sought to nullify the purchase of the shipment through the courts, claiming the dealer had misled him regarding the quality of the rice. While the lower courts supported his argument, the trials continued for 4 years, until the Supreme Court of the State of California finally ruled against him. By this time,he had been undone by legal fees.

His bank foreclosed on his holdings, and he was bankrupt by 1858. He left San Francisco for about a year.

Upon his return, he wrote letters to the various newspapers, which contained an uncommon “proclamation:” 

“...At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton... proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to ... make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.”

—NORTON I, Emperor of the United States

(It should be noted that his title would eventually include the line, “...and protector of Mexico.”)

Mind you, in most great cities of the world, this man would have been regarded for what he probably was, a lunatic. But San Francisco is not just another great city of the world.

San Franciscans seem to have delighted in the arrival of an Emperor, mad or no, and embraced him. While he was still bankrupt and penniless, he was regularly fed by the best restauranteurs in town. He and his two canine companions, Bummer and Lazarus, regularly dined together.

His “uniform” was an elaborate blue one with gold epaulets, with a beaver hat, decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette, which was given to him by the Commanding Officer of the Presidio. In time, he would routinely parade down Montgomery Street at noon in his uniform with the dogs, and the three of them got their own box at the Opera House, where they would acknowledge their subjects before every performance.

To the extent that a man who received free lodging and free meals should ever need cash, a local printer issued him his own private currency. Local merchants would usually honor the notes, which read, 

"The Imperial Government of Norton I promises to pay the holder hereof the sum of ten dollars in the year 1880, with interest at 5% per annum...payable in gold coin.”

During his tenure as Emperor, Norton I did somememorable things. 

He called for abolishment of the United States Congress, citing that “...fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions, and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property (to) which he is entitled.” He subsequently abolished the Democratic and Republican parties.

He decreed that anyone using the abominable word “Frisco” should be fined $25.

During one of the frequent anti-Chinese riots of his era, Norton positioned himself between the rioters and their Chinese victims, bowed his head, and recited The Lord’s Prayer repeatedly. Eventually, the rioters dispersed without incident.

One of his proclamations called for a suspension bridge to be built between Oakland and San Francisco, and another for a tunnel to be constructed joining the two. (His proclamations came in 1872; The Bay Bridge was begun in 1933, and the Trans-Bay Tube was completed in 1969.)

When his uniform started to look a bit shabby, a new one was commissioned by the board of supervisors. In response, the Emperor issued a “patent of nobility in perpetuity” for each member of the board.

When a cop named Barbier tried to commit Norton to a mental institution, the police chief released Norton and issued a formal apology on behalf of the entire police force. Norton received it graciously and offered an imperial pardon to the arresting officer. Thereafter, all policemen would salute the Emperor as he passed them on the streets.

He died in January of 1880, the same year his notes would become due for redemption, (although no one ever tried to redeem one.) And as a result, many people over the years have asked the question: Was Emperor Norton I mad, or was he crazy-like-a-fox?

The question is irrelevant. The people of San Francisco loved their Emperor (perhaps because he was powerless,) and in San Francisco, madness is tolerated as long as it is well-intended. 

Everybody in San Francisco is a little bit crazy, but most people are happy, as well. In this context, madness becomes subjective.

Yesterday, the people of San Francisco came together to make a sick little boy’s dream of being Batkid for a day come true; when the call went out for volunteers to aid in the fantasy, so many responded that literally thousands had to be turned away.

Miles Scott ran through the streets of San Francisco with the assistance of a grown-up Batman, and battled The Penguin and The Riddler, to the delighted cheers of hundreds of thousands of supporters. By extension, he made the news around the world, and lifted the spirits of millions of people all over the globe.

For this reason, I feel it necessary to issue the following proclamation:

"Whereas Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, has been prevented from doing so himself (by a slight case of death,) I hereby proclaim myself the Emperor’s Interim Press Secretary, for the purpose of issuing the following statement:

“We, the people of the United States hereby declare and recognize Miles Scott to be Batkid, Victor Over Evil of the people of Gotham City and San Francisco, and declare that this title be afforded to him in perpetuity, with all honors and privileges pursuant thereto.

“Thank you, Batkid. You have saved a grateful nation from the encroachment of cold-heartedness and cynicism, and you shall always be our hero.”

And I sincerely believe The Emperor would approve.

Categories: None

Post a Comment


Oops, you forgot something.


The words you entered did not match the given text. Please try again.

Already a member? Sign In

1 Comment