As we fast approach November 6th, we must certainly acknowledge and address the personal sniping, big-money influence and outright falsities that now define contemporary elections. There may be progress on the horizon, but how were these issues and other impracticalities of democracy dealt with in 19th century San Francisco? By heralding as emperor a ruined financier turned raving derelict as the man who would solve the country's legal and political inadequacies, of course. Come November 7th, we may be doing the same thing.
The story of Emperor Joshua Abraham Norton I is the true How to Make It in America—receive a bunch of money from your parents, blow it all on bungled investments, blame it on the government and then yell loud enough until people start listening to you—all the while doing it all in style (just like your favorite blogger). After declaring bankruptcy and enduring a short self-exile from San Francisco, Norton returned to the "Yay" Area on a mission. In September 1859, Norton proclaimed himself "Emperor of these United States" after receiving "the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States." He gave himself the power to alter existing laws and do what it took to "ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring."
One of Norton's first decrees, owing to the fact that he now had absolute control over the country, was to ban the U.S. Congress. He also set penalties for anyone "heard to utter the abominable word 'Frisco,'" which would result in a high misdemeanor and a fine of $25 to be added to the Imperial Treasury. But he did prove visionary in calling for a bridge to connect Oakland and San Francisco, and issuing orders on the formation of a league of nations.
Despite being absolutely out of his fucking mind, Norton became the darling of the city and was treated to free meals and regal treatment wherever he went. All police officers saluted him when he passed and currency bearing his image was legitimately treated as legal tender in the local economy. He strode through the streets in a elaborate navy uniform with gold plated epaulets given to him by the US Army. He accessorized with a beaver hat adorned with peacock feathers and flowers, and always carried a sword or umbrella in place of a scepter. When the years of inspecting street trolleys and the general state of public property took their toll on his signature uniform, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors provided him with an even more opulent replacement. Legend has it that two muggers, while in the midst of robbing a drunken sailor, saw the glint of his gold epaulets approaching and immediately fled.
A true man of the people, 30,000 city residents attended his funeral. Norton was immortalized with a plaque bearing his likeness and praising his decree to build the Golden Gate Bridge. Our country's first and, until Kim Jong-Un figures out how to turn our collective obesity against us, last emperor, Norton heads the list of briefly significant and beloved characters from the Bay Area including Lil' B, Brian Wilson and filthy hippies.