On September 17, 1859, Joshua Abraham Norton proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States. He would reign for 21 years.
Norton was a San Francisco businessman who got rich through real estate deals and then lost his fortune in 1852 trying to corner the local rice market. After unsuccessfully pursuing his money through the courts for years he disappeared from public view.
In 1859, Norton sent out a pronouncement to the local San Francisco newspapers, declaring himself the ruler of the country:
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 San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States
The letter was printed by the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, one of the most popular newspapers in San Francisco, and so Emperor Norton was born.
Emperor Norton issued a number of proclamations over the next few years, abolishing congress, ordering the army to abolish congress, ordering the churches to proclaim him emperor, abolishing the Republican and Democratic parties… none were successful, but at least he tried.
Norton dressed himself in military paraphernalia and walked the streets of San Francisco, inspecting public property and employees. The residents of the city humoured him because he didn’t do anyone any harm. He issued his own banknotes, and local restaurateurs accepted them (they’re now collector’s items). He was once arrested but public outcry led to his release. Emperor Norton reigned in every way except in reality.
Despite his eccentricities, Norton had some good ideas. He fought for racial harmony, religious harmony, and demanded a bridge and a tunnel be built between San Francisco and Oakland. We’re still working on the first two, but the bridge was finished in 1936 and the tunnel in 1974.
Norton himself died – on the streets where he ruled – in 1880. Ten thousand people are said to have lined the streets to see him off. The Emperor has inspired countless authors, including Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, and there’s now a non-profit organisation trying to get the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge renamed the Emperor Norton Bridge.