September 17: Emperor Norton

Emperor_Joshua_A._Norton_IJoshua Norton was born in England sometime in the early 19th century, He spent his early years living in South Africa, and after his father’s death in 1848, he traveled to San Francisco with $40,000 in his pocket (just over a million dollars in modern money). A series of business moves led to Norton amassing a fortune of $250,000 (the equivalent of nearly 7-million today). However, his luck took a turn for the worse and following a particularly bad business deal and a string of failed lawsuits against his former business partners, Norton was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1858.

The failed lawsuits left Norton dissatisfied with the United States’ legal system and political structure. So, on September 17, 1859, Joshua Norton did what any man in his position would do and took the most logical course of action: He proclaimed himself Norton I, Emperor of these United States!

Emperor Norton sent his proclamation to many local newspapers, but the editor of San Francisco Bulletin was the only person willing to print the His Imperial Majesty’s declaration in full. It read as follows:

At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and 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 assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then and there 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.

And so began Emperor Norton I’s reign as the US’s first Emperor, and later the “Protector of Mexico”. A month later, Norton would call for the voluntary dissolution of Congress; and if Congress did not dissolve itself then the Army was under orders to dissolve it by force. Shockingly, both Congress and the Army ignored the Emperor’s orders. Later, he would order the the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches to officially ordain him as emperor, and also called for the abolishing of the Democratic and Republican parties. Again, his orders were declined. Even his request to Queen Victoria for her hand in marriage was ignored.

Although Emperor Norton was never acknowledged by the “fraudulent” Washington, D. C. based government he stood in opposition to, he became a local hero of sorts in San Francisco. His Imperial Majesty was instantly recognizable in his signature blue and gold uniform and beaver hat, and San Francisco’s citizens treated him with all the respect his title accorded him. Police officers saluted him when he passed by, the city’s best restaurants sought the Emperor’s official seal of approval, businesses accepted money issued by the Imperial Government of Norton I, and whenever a play opened in San Francisco; the theater would leave balcony seats reserved for the Emperor. Unsurprisingly, Mark Twain was a great admirer of Emperor Norton and in fact based the character of the King in Huckleberry Finn on Norton.

For all his eccentricities, Emperor Norton did have some ideas that were ahead of their time. He called for the formation of a League of Nations decades before Woodrow Wilson made a similar suggestion. He ordered the creation of a suspension bridge that would cross over the Bay and connect San Francisco with Oakland. In fact, when the new Bay Bridge was completed in August 2013, there was a petition to name the structure “The Emperor Norton Bay Bridge.” Also, many a San Franciscan would be pleased to hear that he loathed the word “Frisco;” declaring in 1872:

Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco,” which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.

When Norton died in 1880, San Francisco’s newspapers ran front page stories mourning his death. As he died nearly penniless, Norton was to be buried in a pauper’s coffin. Thankfully, the members of the Pacific Club, an association of San Francisco businessmen, knew that America’s first Emperor deserved better than a mere pauper’s burial and raised funds for a rosewood casket. Emperor Norton’s funeral was attended by 30,00 San Franciscans of every stripe and social class.

Tributes to His Imperial Majesty still spring up to this day in the form of things like indie music label Emperor Norton Records and today’s featured drink, the delicious Emperor Norton’s 2nd Mistress. This cocktail was created at Elixir, a bar in San Francisco’s Mission District, and is a bold mix of bourbon, vanilla liqueur and strawberries. If this drink is the Emperor’s second mistress, then I think we can assume that Queen Victoria was his first.

Emperor Norton’s 2nd Mistress

  • 1 1/2 ounces Cyrus Noble Bourbon
  • 3/4 ounces Tuaca

In a mixing cup muddle three strawberries to juice. Add Bourbon and Tuaca and fill with ice. Shake hard to dilute and strain over ice into an Old Fashioned glass. Slice one strawberry half way and place on rim to garnish.

Tomorrow: Drinks at Tiffany’s.


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