Thursday, September 30, 2004

The Only Emperor Is the Emperor of San Francisco

Philadelphia has Ben Franklin -- wit, statesman, inventor, and civic innovator, who brought us the Library Company, the fire department, street lights, and bifocals. In return, we have immortalized his countenance on the $100 bill.

San Francisco has the illustrious Joshua Norton (1819-1880). A friend of Mark Twain’s (who once wrote a eulogy for Norton’s dog), Norton was a respected and beloved figure in Victorian San Francisco. He directed that Sacramento, the state capitol, should clean up its muddy streets and add gas lighting. He deplored the strife between the Democratic and Republican parties and did his best to end it. Queen Victoria was one of his correspondents.

Norton did his best to make San Francisco a good place to live. He paid close personal attention to such matters as unobstructed sidewalks and a respectful police force. He once stopped an anti-Chinese riot by standing between the rioters and their intended victims, while he softly recited the Lord's Prayer.

He sensibly proclaimed, "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." The fine was $25.

His plans for a bridge from Oakland to San Francisco via Goat Island were well ahead of their time. When the Bay Bridge was finally built -- 60 years after he issued orders for it -- a plaque honored his vision for the spanning of San Francisco Bay.

When he died, the city shut down in mourning, and his funeral was attended by 20,000 people. Later his remains were reburied at Colma, with full military honors and a crowd of 60,000 attendees.

So who was Joshua Norton? Governor of California, like Leland Stanford? Mayor of San Francisco, like Willie Brown? No. He was a businessman who came to the city with $40,000 (a fortune in his day) and lost it all trying to corner the rice market. He then went insane and proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He even issued his own scrip money.

But he was a beloved madman, highly respected by the people. Policemen saluted him; gentlemen tipped their hats. When an overzealous cop arrested him and tried to have him involuntarily committed, the uproar was so great that he was released within days. On the US Census and in the city directory, his profession was listed as Emperor. He was even permitted to tax his subjects.

The Emperor Norton exemplifies all that is best about the Bay Area: its genial loopiness, its visionary quality, its racial and ethnic tolerance, and its sense of humor. Now the Bay Bridge is being rebuilt, and there is a campaign to rename it for him.

Show your support for our Emperor. Let's honor the wise and kind ruler who is still the patron saint of our city.

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