Ambition is a powerful political engine in history but, beyond the lust for power of classic characters who achieved their purpose and became reference figures, such as Julius Caesar or Napoleon, it is necessary to point out that not all cases are so brilliant. There are some whose experience -even if successful at times- did not manage to go beyond the category of curious and often bizarre anecdotes, such as those of Pope Luna, Pedro Bohórquez, the Pastry Chef of Madrigal or Princess Caraboo. However, few reached the unprecedented level of Joshua Abraham Norton, who in the mid-19th century proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico!

On January 10, 1880, San Francisco hosted a massive funeral with the attendance of some thirty thousand people who formed a procession of almost five kilometers. The press published extensive obituaries, as well as articles recounting the life of the deceased, and the local establishment paid their respects. The next day there was even an eclipse of the sun as if the sun also wanted to show its condolences. Paradoxically, the deceased had died in ruin and it had to be an association of businessmen who had to pay for the burial expenses together with a worthy coffin since at first he had been placed in a cheap wooden one. Something unbecoming of an emperor, no doubt, since such was the category of the deceased, the aforementioned Norton; probably the first to give the current meaning to the word freaky.

Little is known about Joshua Abraham Norton's youth since he was not exactly from an aristocratic family. It is believed that he was born around 1815, as can be deduced from the inscription on the plaque on his coffin ("[died] at the age of 65"), but other sources (naval passenger records, businessmen's association records...) suggest alternative dates. What is certain is that, although he was probably originally from a suburb of London called Deptford -now absorbed by the capital-, most of his early life was spent in South Africa, where his parents -Jewish merchants- emigrated in 1820 under the British colonization plan dictated that year.

After the death of his parents, Joshua set sail for the land of promise that was the young USA in the Franceska and arrived in San Francisco on November 23, 1849. With him, he carried his father's inheritance, forty thousand American dollars, thanks to which he was able to start a new life in businesses such as the commodities market and real estate speculation that gave him a fairly well-to-do position so that by the end of 1852 he had become one of the most prosperous men in the city.

He had not yet finished that year when he saw what he considered a unique opportunity: the famine that China was going through -which would drive a strong migratory wave precisely to San Francisco- made the oriental country prohibit the export of rice so that the price of rice skyrocketed in the USA. Norton learned that the ship Glyde was returning from Peru with a huge cargo of rice (ninety-one thousand kilograms) and bought it in its entirety for twenty-five thousand dollars with the idea of cornering the market and selling it at an even higher cost since he had previously acquired all the stocks he could find.

Unfortunately for him, after the Glyde, other ships arrived from the Andean country with the same cargo and the expected price increase not only did not occur but, on the contrary, plummeted. Norton found that no one was paying for his merchandise and although he tried to alleviate this by filing a lawsuit against the supplier arguing that the product was not of the quality promised, the trial dragged on for four years and in the end, the California Supreme Court ruled against him. Indebted, his property was seized, he had to declare bankruptcy in 1858 and leave the city, living only on a subsidy.

That unhappy experience affected him greatly; so much so that, based on his subsequent behavior, it can be said that he practically lost his mind. Dissatisfied with the sentence, he suddenly considered that the judicial and political institutions of the country did not satisfy the interests of its citizens, so on September 17, 1859, already back in San Francisco, he sent an unprecedented letter to all the newspapers with the following statement:

"At the request, and by the peremptory desire, of a great majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the past 9 years and 10 months of San Francisco, California, do hereby declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; and by virtue of the authority thereby vested in me, I hereby direct and command the representatives of the several States of the Union to assemble in assembly at the Concert Hall in this city, on the first day of February next, where such alterations will be made in the existing laws of the Union as will mitigate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby justify the confidence which exists, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity. - NORTON I, Emperor of the United States."

Thus began a reign as unusual as it was long-lasting (twenty-one years), and he immediately began to issue decrees. The first, issued the following month, abolished the US Congress for fraud and corruption, inviting its members to meet with him at Platt's Music Hall to reach an agreement; as they did not show up, he issued another order dismissing them for violating the previous edict and urging the army to vacate Congress. Although, as might have been expected, the armed forces did not obey him either, he continued to legislate throughout the following decade. In an exercise of realpolitik, he reauthorized Congress but suppressing the two major parties (Republican and Democratic), established a fine of twenty-five dollars for anyone who insisted on calling San Francisco Frisco (it was and still is the popular diminutive), and proclaimed himself Protector of Mexico because of the "incapacity of the Mexicans to govern their affairs".

Not all of his initiatives were grotesque. Some of them had a reasonable basis that in time would even become reality, such as the creation of a League of Nations (antecedent of the UN), the construction of a bridge across the San Francisco Bay (the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was built, which, by the way, has been proposed to be renamed Norton Bridge) or the demand that all national religious institutions stop competing with each other (and, incidentally, that they recognize him as emperor). Likewise, when the Civil War broke out, he invited the presidents of the North and South, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davies, to meet with him as mediator. Seeing that they did not listen to him, he ordered a truce that did not materialize either.

This vocation of trying to arbitrate was put into practice in other more direct circumstances, such as when he interposed himself in the attempted lynching of some Chinese emigrants by the mob, managing to get them to disperse only by singing a religious hymn and exhorting them to love their neighbor. His figure was known to all since he used to walk the streets wearing a blue uniform with golden epaulettes donated by the army and a unique beaver cap with peacock feathers, as well as a walking stick or umbrella. His wardrobe was due to a municipal subsidy obtained after complaining via the press that his shabby closet was unworthy of his imperial status, thanking the donation with the granting of noble titles to those responsible.

As can be seen, Norton I was viewed with great sympathy by the citizens of San Francisco, who considered him something of their own because he showed an interest in their affairs: on his walks, always accompanied by two adopted stray dogs (Bummer and Lazarus), he checked the condition of the sidewalks and other urban facilities, inspected the sewage system, checked the frequency of buses, monitored the time it took for the police to appear when their presence was required, etc. Speaking of police, when an officer arrested him well into his tenure, in 1867, charging him with a mental disorder, the chief ordered his immediate release. Of course, Norton demonstrated his imperial grandeur by pardoning the policeman and thereby earned the respect of the entire force, whose members saluted martially as he passed by.

He was, therefore, a very popular character whom the restaurants invited to eat -along with his dogs- so that they could put brass plaques at the entrance indicating that they had had an emperor as a customer (once he was not invited on a train and it became a scandal that forced the company to rectify and apologize publicly). They also reserved seats for him at all the shows and in all the churches (he went to a different one every Sunday to please them all).

Moreover, Norton issued a run of stamps that was very successful and even issued his currency (in fifty-cent and ten-dollar bills that today are prized collector's items), with which he defrayed his expenses. Incredible as it may seem, the merchants accepted them, just as they accepted the small taxes of a few cents that he imposed on them because the City Council then validated the bills with an extraordinary sense of humor. Institutionally, they also opted for that route, Norton being registered in the 1870 national census with the profession of Emporer (presumably a typo for Emperor) next to his address of 624 Commercial Street. The imperial court was domiciled there, in the simple room of a boarding house decorated with portraits of Queen Victoria, whom it was rumored he planned to marry (although it is said that he did correspond with her).

It was also said that he was a friend of Pedro II, emperor of Brazil, and secret son of Napoleon III. Legend upon legend was inevitable, to such an extent that it is believed that some of his laws were not dictated by him but were just newspaper gimmicks to sell more copies, as it would happen in London with the letters of Jack the Ripper. His dogs were dying and he, who dedicated lavish funerals to them, hiring Mark Twain himself to write the epitaphs, was left alone. On the night of January 8, 1880, he was walking in front of Ols T. Mary's Church to attend a conference when he collapsed to the ground, victim of a stroke.

He passed away before a doctor arrived. "Le Roi est mort" published the following day in headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle, while The Morning Call announced on its front page "Norton I, by the grace of God Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico, has departed this life". It was then that another of the hoaxes about him became clear: the fortune he was said to have kept at home did not exist and was quite poor. Only a few dollars, a collection of canes, a saber, and his wardrobe were found.

There were also letters written to the British sovereign, a fake telegram from Tsar Alexander II congratulating him on his impending marriage to her, old shares in a gold mine, and a handful of imperial bonds at seven percent interest that he used to sell to unsuspecting tourists. No wonder he earned as an obituary the very phrase the police chief said:

"Emperor Norton killed no one, robbed no one, seized no one's homeland. Of most of his colleagues the same cannot be said."

He was buried in the Masonic Cemetery, although later, in 1934, that cemetery was moved to Woodlawn and with it his mortal remains. His memory prevails thanks to stories, among others, by Mark Twain (who reviews him in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and Robert Louis Stevenson (in The Shipwreck Traffickers, apart from the fact that his daughter knew him personally) and it seems that in 2018 the city of San Francisco will celebrate in style the bicentenary of his birth.

By Jorge Álvarez via La Brújula Verde. Sources: An Emperor Among Us. The Eccentric Life and Benevolent Reign of Norton I, emperor of the United States as told by Mark Twain (David St. John)/Tales of San Francisco (Samuel Dickson)/Tales of English Eccentrics (Tony Grumley-Grennan)/The Imaginary Emperor (Steve Bartholomew)/San Francisco is Your Home (Samuel Dickson)/Wikipedia / Norton I Emperador de EEUU (Xavier Deulonder).