California is known for some pretty odd characters. It started in the early days; the crazy time of the 49’ers brought out some outrageous personalities. One of the biggest was Joshua Abraham Norton – The Emperor of the United States.
Norton was an Englishman that grew up in South Africa. He was a successful businessman who sailed to San Francisco in 1849. He flourished in the early days of the rush but lost it all when he bought a shipload of Peruvian rice at 12 and a half cents a pound. Suddenly other shipments arrived and the price dropped to three cents a pound, and Norton was bankrupt. After that disaster, he lived quietly till 1859. That was when he began telling people that, due to the sad state of American politics and all the war talk back east, he was taking over and making himself Emperor of the United States.
He was very sincere when he told people this, and while some thought he’d gone insane, most humored him. He sent letters declaring his promotion to the newspapers, which they printed for their humor value. He began issuing decrees; he disbanded congress when they couldn’t prevent the civil war. He also decreed that the nations of the world should come together and create a league of nations, and expressly forbade conflict between religious sects.
Aside from working on world peace, He also paid attention to local civic matters. He issued a decree to build a bridge from San Francisco to Oakland; to this day, a contingent of bay area residents want to name the the bay bridge after him.
Over the years, he became loved and revered by the citizens of San Francisco. He spent his days inspecting San Francisco’s streets in an elaborate blue uniform given to him by officers of the Presidio. He regularly ate for free at the finest restaurants and had reserved seats at plays and musicals.
Emperor Norton was sensitive how the name of his adopted city was shortened, and tried to end the noxious habit. He declared the word “Frisco,” an abomination and anyone saying it would be fined $25.
The Emperor died in 1880, and the city mourned their loss. It was a royal funeral, financed by local businessmen, and 30,000 people lined the streets to honor the cortege.