The One and Only Emperor of the United States

Numerous men can lay claim to the fact they once were presidents of this country. How many individuals, though, can truthfully assert they’ve been crowned Emperor of the United States?

As far as we know, only one, and his name was Joshua Norton. Migrating from England to San Francisco in 1849, Norton quickly amassed a small fortune, only to see it all slip away by 1858.

Absconding society for nine months, Norton returned in 1859, clutching a written proclamation declaring him Emperor of the United States, as appointed by the citizens of this great land. For whatever reason, The San Francisco Bulletin, a regional newspaper at the time, printed this bizarre announcement.

Even more astounding was the fact that San Franciscans embraced this self-proclaimed monarch’s reign. A local print shop circulated monetary notes in Norton’s name. With said legal tender, our fearless leader was able to dine at the finest restaurants, and shop in the most extravagant markets.

During his tenure, Norton single-handedly dissolved Congress, eradicated the Union, worked toward relieving the Bible of what he deemed “false lights,” and pronounced himself official Protector of Mexico.

Amongst Norton’s lesser accomplishments was a moratorium on the word “Frisco,” which San Franciscans despise. According to royal decree, anybody found using the repugnant “F word” would be fined 25 dollars, which was retained by the coffers of the Imperial Treasury.

For a period of time, the Grand Hotel in San Francisco even provided free lodging to Norton, who dressed in regal Naval attire, and performed daily inspections of local communities. Our intrepid luminary had more sway with people than you might imagine, being known to calm rioters using nothing more than words.

In 1880, Norton tragically collapsed and perished. A procession two miles long, comprised of more than 30,000 mourners, attended our fallen leader’s last rites. A local business association bestowed Norton with the finest of rosewood caskets. San Francisco footed the bill for his funerary service, and regional newspapers ran obituaries with headlines reading the likes of “The King is Dead.”

For more than 20 years, San Franciscans treated Joshua Norton as what he professed to be, the Emperor of the United States.

The San Francisco Bay Bridge, an expansion connecting the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, now stands in this self-declared sultan’s name.

Ostensibly, during Norton’s fourteenth year of rule, he decreed funding for a viaduct uniting the two municipalities. Although the bridge wasn’t completed until 64 years after his demise, one questions whether the millions of commuters annually traversing this overpass realize they owe their ease of travel to their one and only emperor.

Hugh Mungus

© 2010. Hugh Mungus

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