Saturday, September 18, 2010

Le Roi est Mort

Have you noticed my penchant for writing stuff in foreign languages? I suppose we could deduce that I am trying to impress you but since I don't speak any other languages, other than Texan, I think my cover is blown. It has to do with this handy site: Translation Online . You can type in something and translate it into any of a bunch of languages. Or you can copy a paragraph in Portuguese that you happen to have sitting around and it will translate it into English. It gets it mostly right I think.

"The King is Dead" was a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle in January of 1888. That what the title of this essay says. The king was Joshua Abraham Norton and I think he has become my new hero. Superman is kinda' passe these days.

You see, Joshua immigrated to America from South Africa with $40,000 inheritance money in his pocket. Like any shrewd businessman, he wanted to invest it and make a bunch of money and live on easy street. Using his keen analytical mind he figured investing in rice was the way to go. After all, China stopped exporting rice which means that there was a shortage of rice in the U.S. and the price of rice was beginning to skyrocket, like shooting up ten times. So he threw his money into buying a 200,000 lb. shipload of rice from Peru. Sadly, the day after he made his investment, several other shipments of rice arrived from Peru. It seems that other investors had beat him to the punch. With the arrival of that rice, the price dropped to almost nothing and he lost his money. The sad tale of Joshua Norton.

Humiliated and bankrupt he disappeared for a couple of years.

It has been speculated that this harrowing experience drove him insane and delusional. When he returned to San Francisco, he returned proudly and proclaimed himself the Emperor of these United States.

He did this by writing letters to all of the local newspapers making this proclamation. He followed up with more letters dissolving the United States Congress because:

"...fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled."

Although congress sorta' ignored this decree, the newspapers were amused and published all that he wrote in an effort to add a light touch to the news. Well -- Joshua Norton went viral. It was a slow virus as was fitting in those pre-internet days. People got a kick out of a guy proclaiming himself king....and all were entertained when he declared that he was also 'Protector of Mexico'.

King Joshua was miffed that Congress refused to disband, so he ordered the Army to remove Congress:

"WHEREAS, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th of October last, declaring the said Congress abolished;
WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with;
NOW, THEREFORE, we do hereby Order and Direct Major-General Scott, the Command-in-Chief of our Armies, immediately upon receipt of this, our Decree, to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress."

Actually, the Army tended to ignore this order too.

The Civil War was approaching so King Joshua stepped in to put a stop to the whole mess....except he was a little confused as to who the combatants were. In 1862 King Joshua mandated that the Catholic Church and Protestant Churches publicly ordain him as Emperor which would, of course, solve everything. Shortly after that he disbanded the Republican and Democratic parties.

The citizens of San Francisco loved him. He was of calm temperament and walked the streets dressed in an elaborate uniform complete with a feathered hat and sword. The epaulets on his shoulders were given to him by local Army officers. Everyone greeted him as King and the police would salute him when he approached. As he strolled he would inspect the streets and the cable cars and condemn any filth that he found. Frequently he would stop to give philosophical lectures on street corners and always drew a crowd, even if they didn't know what he was talking about. He in some ways became a revered mascot of San Francisco. He printed his own money and used it to pay for anything that he bought....and all accepted the money. Why? It drew crowds. He always had his two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, with him....and they were to be fed when he was.

In fact, when  the King dined at a finer San Francisco restaurant, the restaurant would put up brass plaque stating: 'Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States'. It became a status symbol to have one of these plagues.

Once a policeman arrested King Joshua to have him involuntarily committed in a mental institution. The outrage in San Francisco was so great that the Police Chief quickly released him stating: "...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."

When the King's uniform began to get a bit shabby, the City Board of Supervisors, with great ceremony, present him with new regal uniform. In appreciation King Joshua issued a "patent of nobility in perpetuity" for each supervisor.

He wrote letters to Queen Victoria proposing marriage....and even had a telegram from Emperor Alexander II of Russia congratulating him on his impending marriage to Queen Victoria. I'm pretty sure that the Queen didn't accept his proposal or I probably would have heard of it somewhere.

King Joshua also paid attention to local affairs too and once published this stern warning:

"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."

He was a bit of a visionary and became upset when his order to build a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland was ignored.

"WHEREAS, we issued our decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of a suspension bridge from Oakland Point via Goat Island; also for a tunnel; and to ascertain which is the best project; and whereas the said citizens have hitherto neglected to notice our said decree; and whereas we are determined our authority shall be fully respected; now, therefore, we do hereby command the arrest by the army of both the Boards of City Fathers if they persist in neglecting our decrees.
Given under our royal hand and seal at San Francisco, this 17th day of September, 1872."

60 years later the bridge was built.

Joshua Norton lived the life of the king that he thought he was for twenty years. On January 8, 1880 Joshua collapsed in front of St, Marys Church and died. The next morning the San Francisco Chronicle headline read Le Roi est Mort. The King is Dead. The Chronicle went on to say: 

"on the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain..., Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life"

Joshua Norton died a pauper but he didn't know it because he had plenty of his printed money.

It was reported that 30,000 people lined the streets and attended his funeral. Respects were paid " all classes from capitalists to the pauper, the clergyman to the pickpocket, well-dressed ladies and those whose garb and bearing hinted of the social outcast." A San Francisco Businessman group provided the rosewood casket. The City of San Francisco paid for the funeral.

Joshua Abraham Norton is one of the few people in this world that actually lived his dream.

It is important to note that in writing this I got a little help from Wikipedia.

Well, maybe a lot of help.


  1. What a delightful story and a really interesting man. It is so amazing that people did not lock him up, but instead, enjoyed him.
    Hum--wonder if I could get away with printing my own money?
    Thanks for the introduction.

  2. This is a great story. It probably wouldn't be an easy life for him today. Maybe there weren't as many like him back then. It warms my heart that he lived his own life in his own world and yet got along in society. It sounds like he was more than tolerated; he was revered. I really like this post.

  3. What a great story, especially in what it says about that society's acceptance of someones 'idiosyncrasies', or perhaps they applauded him him for doing/saying what they themselves couldn't. I'm sure in today's world they would pump pharmaceuticals into him and turn him into a zombie, or he'd be living under an overpass in some big city. For sure he'd be on YouTube after someone videod him parading around town.

  4. What a wonderful story - sadly, today he definitely wouldn't be revered.

  5. I love it! You find the most interesting things to write about, now, how about we appoint ourselves king and queen and see if we can just get someone else to take out the trash.

  6. It's good to have heroes. Even if they have big moustaches. I should grow one in homage. Interesting tale told well.

  7. It's happening again! I think she would like to be called Empress Sarah!

  8. As a native-born San Franciscan I recall the stories about Emperor Norton but didn't know all the details you related in your post.

    I have had people tell me they were from "Frisco" and immediately called them out as liars... NOBODY really from San Francisco calls it Frisco!! Now I know where that admonition came from. Thank you!

  9. Heard Frisco in my youth but never heard of Le Roi! Nice story. Reminds me of Don Quixote living a dream.

  10. The best part is that the community went along with it and treated him kindly. I can't get ov er his funeral. A kings funeral indeed!

  11. This is a beautiful, sad story. And this man is your hero, correct? You said he won out over Superman...correct? So, in essence, you feel that printing your own currency is preferable to say, flying and stopping bad guys? Just clarifying.

    Jerry, Jerry, Jerry. We need to tawk. Actually, I've got a few names for you.

    Seriously, though....I'd guessed on the title of this post and came up with "The Time I was Mortified".

    Oh. So. Close.

  12. Fantastic, delusions of grandeur can be very very satisfying, especially when the community is cooperative. There is a man in Vancouver, a homeless man, who regularly dons a neon orange vest and begins directing traffic along East Hastings. He looks so pleased with himself. You can tell he feels that he is doing something very important, helping us know to go when the light turns green and stop when it turns red. His smile is heartwarming and the community is generally considerate enough to avoid running him over. I think he receives at least as many friendly waves and honks as he does insults hurled out the windows of passing cars. Henceforth I shall think of him as *Le Roi de Circulation" (the King of Traffic).

  13. what an amazing story, Jerry! I am off to share it with others, thank you :)

  14. I don't understand how he got left out of the history books?! You should definitely start a petition to have him included.

    Thank you for a delightful introduction to such a "character". Even way back when...he let his freak flag fly.


  15. There are many wonderful things about SF - Emperor Norton is one of them! He was spot on- no one should ever refer to Baghdad by the Bay as "Frisco".... unless you want the mantle of TOURIST tattooed on your forehead.

  16. No shit!,, you found him.. that was my great great grand daddy. He was in Texas before Stephen F. Austin. The two of them got drunk in Nacogdoches at the Old Stone Fort on a Saturday night in 1829. He had just come from a "par-lay" with Santa Anna where Santa Anna had made him King of Tejas. The decree was forever and would be for all his hairs. "I-b-dog" if this aint a shocker. That means that I must be the present King Of Tejas (Texas). I gotta get out my Sears and Rarebak Catalogg and order me an outfit. Ya'll might be getting my update later. I gotta git me some money printed too. Dont this just split your britches. "I-B-Dog"

  17. This was a great story, very intriguing. I have to say of all the blogs I search through this is the first one that has shared such a story!!!

    That being said I'm now a new follower so you must be doing something right!