public domainWhile Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were leading a war between the American north and south, a rival emperor was conducting a much more peaceful reign out west. 158 years ago this week, on September 17, 1859, Joshua Norton of San Francisco proclaimed himself emperor of the United States. Once a prosperous rice trader, now living on the edge of vagrancy, he issued his own currency, which local businesses often honored; he wrote royal proclamations, which local newspapers printed; legend has it he once managed to stop an anti-Chinese riot by standing in front of the mob and reciting the Lord's Prayer. He allegedly inspired a character in Huckleberry Finn—the phony dauphin who travels with Huck and Jim for a spell—but he didn't need Mark Twain to be remembered; he generated plenty of memorable stories on his own.
A few of those tales appear in The Story of Norton I: Emperor of the United States, a short film made by Columbia Pictures in 1936. Let me warn you up front: This is a clumsily made movie with stilted acting and, in one scene, one of the most cringeworthy blackface performances you'll ever see. But there are moments when the acting is so far removed from natural behavior that it stops seeming bad and starts to feel like some strange David Lynch experiment. And surely there's something inspirational in the film's final line: "He was insane, but—strange as it seems—honesty and sympathy won him an empire of voluntary subjects."
Needless to say, that's a rather romanticized assessment. Emperor Norton I lived in poverty—more than a few businesses did not accept his scrip—and he had to withstand more than his share of mockery and cruelty. But he was loved too, and he managed to reign for two decades through sheer power of personality. I cannot think of a better American statesman, with the possible exception of President-in-Exile Dick Gregory.
Here is the film:
For some background on the motion picture, check out this post from the folks at the Emperor's Bridge Campaign, a commendable effort to name the San Francisco Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton.