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When Only An Emporer Will Do Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

25 June 2015

The price of rice in San Francisco had jumped 900 percent from less than a nickle a pound to 34 cents. The 1852 famine in China was the culprit. But there was a ship from Peru in the harbor with 200,000 pounds in its hold.

Emporer Norton. And his legions marching up Montgomery Street. Captured at f5.6, 1/80 second and ISO 200 and very tightly cropped.

At the Merchant's Exchange, an agent for the Ruiz Brothers who owned the ship showed the wealthy Joshua Norton a sample and offered the whole load to him for $25,000, just 12.5 cents a pound.

Norton did the math. He could gross $72,000. He made a down payment, promising to pay the rest in 30 days.

But over the next two weeks, Peruvian rice sailed into San Francisco on several more ships, all of it far superior to what Norton had purchased. And the price of rice plummeted to three cents a pound.

It ruined Norton.

He was sued for non-payment, countersued for fraud, saw his fortune spent in legal bills and in 1855 lost the case.

When anyone gave him a handout, he recorded it as a tax payment in a notebook he kept with him.

Four years later, as California was drawn into the debate over slavery that would lead to the Civil War (and which also resulted in the last duel in California), Norton proclaimed himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and later generously added Protector of Mexico to his title, although he did not extend his protection to Peru.

Not for his own benefit but because it was what the country needed. "We are certain," he proclaimed in 1860 when he ordered the Republic dissolved, "that nothing will save the nation from utter ruin except an absolute monarchy under the supervision and authority of an independent Emperor."

His reign was more than indulged by San Franciscans. Officers at the Presidio outfitted him in dress blues which were replaced by the Board of Supervisors when they wore out. Restaurants offering free meals with a tankard let the teetotaler eat for free. He printed his own money, which was recognized at sympathetic establishments that subsequently advertised his patronage.

When anyone gave him a handout, he recorded it as a tax payment in a notebook he kept with him. Never homeless, he paid 50 cents a night for 9x6-foot room in a flophouse for 17 years.

But he spent his day attending to his duties, reading the newspapers first and then visiting schools and attended various churches in turn so none of them would become jealous. He admonished preachers not to talk politics from the pulpit. And he physically intervened when a mob threatened several Chinese, reminded everyone, "We are all God's children."

Among his venture-capital-worthy ideas were building a bridge across San Francisco Bay and a tunnel too. Those ideas were eventually realized in the Bay Bridge and BART's Transbay Tube.

But, even more to his credit, he is responsible for this edict:

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.

An amendment including "San Fran" among the violations was, no doubt, later included as well.

He was not safe from ridicule, however. A cartoonist drew him in the company of two stray dogs famous for catching rats. Titled it The Three Bummers, he sold prints to local merchants who hung them in their windows for a laugh. That enraged Norton. And forever associated him with Bummer and Lazarus, but incorrectly as their owner.

In her book This Life I've Loved, Isobel Field, Robert Louis Stevenson's stepdaughter, summed it up sweetly:

He was a gentle and kindly man, and fortunately found himself in the friendliest and most sentimental city in the world, the idea being "let him be emperor if he wants to." San Francisco played the game with him.

We all play our roles in life. We are, perhaps, no more an editor than Norton was an emperor. And the world lets us be what we pretend if that's what we want to be. The trick is not so much to avoid being ridiculous, which is inevitable, as it is to work for the common good, which is never as easy as it sounds.

Norton certainly did that.

These days his legacy is reduced to the occasional costumed walking tour guide. But they, too, perform a valuable social service in keeping his image before our eyes and graciously striking a pose for our cameras.

Perhaps they will even collect the fines for calling San Francisco by any other name.

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