Heyoka’s Workbench


(Joshua Abraham Norton, US-American trader and self-declared emperor)

Surely a man who declared himself Emperor of the United States, who assembled a fanciful uniform for himself and who then began issuing decrees and orders (one, for instance, abolishing the US Congress and a subsequent one ordering the US Army to »clear the Halls of Congress«) – well, surely such a man must have been quite a nutter and a candidate for lifelong residence in a rubber room.

But the San Franciscans seem to have looked upon Emperor Norton rather relaxedly, nay even favourably. They liked their mavericks and eccentrics and were proud to live in a city where such characters could thrive.

When Norton was arrested in 1867 to be committed to an asylum, there was a storm of public protest in the city and the editorial of the newspaper Daily Alta stated »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«. – Fair point.

Besides: when I consider that even today, in the 21st century, the notion of nobility and blue blood is alive and kicking and that still thousands adorn themselves with more or less pompous handles to their names (like the numerous flock of »von’s« in Germany, or the »Graf« I once met at a client’s office, not to mention the vast »nobility« mumbo-jumbo in Britain); and when I consider, above all, that not few folks look upon the bearers of these lofty titles with genuine deference and almost swoon when they happen across some proponent of the »nobility« – when I consider all this, I wonder if, in the end, Norton really was so outstandingly ludicrous.

P.S.: Much more about Emperor Norton on the website of The Emperor Norton Trust, and more on the »real« blue blood in my little »Bigwigs« series.

Caricature of Joshua Abraham Norton, the “Emperor of the United States”, ink and watercolour.