BARBARA KLEIN: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara
Klein. This week on our program, the man who declared himself emperor of the
United States: Joshua Norton. Here are Steve Ember and Robert Cohen with the
story of Emperor Norton.
STEVE EMBER: The small city of Colma, California is just a few kilometers
south of San Francisco. Many people visit the city each year to see the burial
place of one very unusual man in Colma’s Woodlawn Cemetery. These visitors come
to see a memorial stone placed on his grave.
The writing on the stone says in large letters , “NORTON THE FIRST, - EMPEROR
OF THE UNITED STATES AND PROTECTOR OF MEXICO.” Under this, in smaller size
letters, is, “Joshua A. Norton Born Eighteen-Nineteen. Died January Eighth,
ROBERT COHEN: Anyone who has studied American history knows that the United
States is a democracy. The president and other political leaders of the United
States are elected to office by the citizens. There is no royal family, no king,
and no emperor.
Yet, Joshua Abraham Norton declared himself to be Emperor of the United
States on September Seventeenth, Eighteen Fifty-Nine.
He sent an announcement to the newspapers of San Francisco saying he was
Emperor Norton the First of the United States and the Protector of Mexico. The
newspapers did not publish it.
STEVE EMBER: Many people in San Francisco knew Joshua Norton. He was born in
England in Eighteen-Nineteen. He moved to San Francisco from South Africa. He
arrived with a lot of money. He later lost all his money in a very bad financial
deal. His many friends knew that this greatly affected him.
Joshua Norton no longer was the same man. Most of his friends believed the
shock of losing all his money had taken away his ability to reason and to live
in the real world. Poor Joshua Norton was not dangerous or violent, but he no
longer knew what was real and what was only imaginary.
ROBERT COHEN: Soon after he declared himself to be the Emperor of the United
States, Joshua Norton began wearing blue military clothing. A soldier at the
army base in San Francisco gave him the gold colored buttons and gold cloth. It
made his uniform seem as if it belonged to a general, or perhaps a king, or even
Emperor Norton the First soon became the best known man in San Francisco. He
always wore his uniform and a tall hat. When people saw him they would show the
respect given a king…or emperor. Emperor Norton usually did not have any money.
But he did not need any. If Emperor Norton went to an eating place, he was
served a meal - free. If he needed something little from a store, that was also
freely given. Sometimes he paid with his own kind of money. It was paper money
with his picture on it.
Many stores began placing a small sign in the store window. The sign said,
“By Appointment to his Majesty, Emperor Norton the First.” The sign meant the
store or eating-place had been approved by the Emperor of the United States.
Stores that had the signs noted that their business increased.
STEVE EMBER: Emperor Norton began sending royal orders…called decrees…to the
newspapers of San Francisco. The newspapers began publishing them. Many people
thought they were funny. Some people bought the newspapers just to read about
the latest decree from the Emperor of the United States.
Many of the decrees, however, made people think. For example, Emperor Norton
said that Governor Wise of Virginia was to be removed from office by royal
decree. Emperor Norton said this was necessary because Governor Wise had ordered
the death by hanging of John Brown. John Brown was a rebel who had tried to
start a war to free slaves.
Emperor Norton’s decree said John Brown had tried to capture the state of
Virginia with only seventeen men. That was evidence, Emperor Norton said, that
John Brown was mentally sick and should have been put in a hospital for
Emperor North said John Brown never should have been executed. Many people in
San Francisco agreed with Emperor Norton. The execution of John Brown was one of
the many issues that led to the American Civil War.
ROBERT COHEN: Another Emperor Norton decree had to do with the name of the
city. Some people often use a short name for city of San Francisco. They call it
“Frisco.” Emperor Norton did not like this short name. He decreed that anyone
found guilty of using the word “Frisco” must pay a penalty of twenty-five
dollars. Even today many citizens of San Francisco warn visitors never to call
the great city “Frisco."
Perhaps Emperor Norton’s most famous decree ordered the city government to
build a bridge from the city of Oakland to a small island in San Francisco Bay.
It said the bridge should extend from the little island to San Francisco.
City leaders did nothing about building the bridge. So Emperor Norton ordered
them removed from office. Nothing happened, of course, to the city leaders or
about the bridge.
Many years later, after Emperor Norton’s death, a bridge was built extending
from San Francisco to the city of Oakland. It was placed almost in the exact
spot that Emperor Norton had decreed. It is called the Bay Bridge. Thousands of
cars pass over it every day.
STEVE EMBER: San Francisco has always been home to many Chinese people. It
still is today. One story about Emperor Norton involves the Chinese. In his time
many people did not like Chinese people. One group of people organized an
anti-Chinese committee. They believed too many Chinese lived in San Francisco.
They decided to cause violence in the Chinese area of the city.
Many people knew about the committee’s plans but no one did anything to stop
the planned violence. One night members of the committee left a meeting and
walked toward the area of the city where most of the Chinese lived. As they got
close to the area, one man stood in the street blocking their way.
He said nothing. He did not move. His head was low on his chest and he seemed
to be praying. The mob of troublemakers stopped. They looked at the old blue
uniform with its gold colored buttons. They said nothing. They did nothing.
Slowly, the mob turned and walked away. Emperor Norton had prevented the planned
ROBERT COHEN: Emperor Norton had two dogs. They were named Bummer and
Lazarus. They were with him all the time. If a San Francisco theater was
presenting a new play or musical, Emperor Norton, Bummer and Lazarus had three
seats at it. If the San Francisco Science Academy was meeting, the three might
attend to listen to a discussion of the latest developments in science.
One night, a new member of the San Francisco police department arrested
Emperor Norton. The young policeman thought anyone who claimed to be the Emperor
of the United State might be a danger to the public. Very soon a judge and the
chief of police arrived at the police station. The judge said, “The Emperor has
hurt no one that I know of.” He quickly ordered the Emperor freed and apologized
for the mistake. From that time on, the San Francisco policemen showed respect
to Joshua Norton by giving a military salute.
STEVE EMBER: On January Eighth, Eighteen-Eighty, Emperor Norton was walking
along California Street inspecting his city as usual. People in the area saw him
fall down. Several rushed to his aid. Moments later it was clear that Joshua
Norton was dead.
The next day, the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper printed four words in
French across the front of the paper. They were “LE ROI EST MORT.” They mean,
“The King is dead.”
The newspaper reported the death of the city’s most famous citizen. The
report said that Joshua Norton had no real money…not even enough to pay for his
burial. Almost immediately, wealthy members of a San Francisco business group
collected enough to pay for the funeral.
Businesses closed in San Francisco the day of the funeral. Newspapers
reported that more ten thousand people attended the burial ceremony for Emperor
Norton. One newspaper said that the world would be a much better place if all
kings and emperors were as kind and honest as Joshua Norton.
ROBERT COHEN: Today, some stores and eating places in San Francisco still
have signs which say, “By Appointment to His Majesty, Emperor Norton the First.”
And each year a group of citizens meets at Joshua Norton’s burial place to honor
the first and only Emperor of the United States.
Our program was written by Paul Thompson and Nancy Steinbach. The narrators
were Steve Ember and Robert Cohen. I'm Barbara Klein. You can find transcripts,
MP3s and podcasts of our programs at voaspecialenglish.com. We hope you join us
again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.