Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cool Dudes of History - Emperor Joshua Norton I

In lieu of the fact that "Time Train" is on hiatus, I'm starting a new feature called "Cool Dudes of History," highlighting great figures in the annals of history. I should note that this blog is mostly true, in that 50.1% of everything I write in this blog is true. "Cool Dudes of History" falls into that 0.1%. Not all of these figures show up in history books, but they should be remembered nonetheless.

Emperor Joshua Norton I was born Joshua Abraham Norton in England c. 1819. he eventually moved to San Francisco where he made his living as a businessman. After losing his money investing in rice, he left San Francisco only to return years later quite mentally unbalanced. Dissatisfied with the government, he proclaimed himself "Emperor of these United States" and later "Protector of Mexico." He took to wearing an old military uniform and issued his own currency which was accepted around the city. At one point, he prevented the outbreak of a riot that could have resulted in injury to the Chinese immigrants he was protecting.

Despite his eccentricity, he was much revered and beloved by San Francisco locals. Though penniless, many fine restaurants opened their doors to him, and he received preferential treatment from many establishments. When he was incarcerated by an unknowing police officer, outraged citizens lobbied successfully for his release. Police Chief Patrick Crowley, in apology, was quoted as saying "that he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line." Subsequently, police officers would stand and salute Emperor Norton when he passed by.

He was a popular subject of news articles of the day, and was associated with two street dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, who were celebrities in their own right. When his clothes became worn, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors procured him with a suitable replacement.

Despite his mental issues, he was fairly forward thinking. He called for the formation of a League of Nations decades before Woodrow Wilson would push for one following World War I. He also proposed the creation of a bridge and underwater tunnel spanning the bay, which would later be realized with the creation of the Bay Bridge and the Transbay Tube.

On January 8, 1880, Emperor Joshua Norton I collapsed on the sidewalk and passed away before help could arrive. San Francisco newspapers the following day featured his death on the front page, under headlines like, "Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life." A lavish funeral was paid for by the Pacific Club, a local businessman's association, and tens of thousands of San Franciscans came out to pay their respects to the fallen emperor.

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