Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm
Shirley Griffith. This week on our program, we answer a question from a
listener in Brazil. Tino Therezo in Sao Paulo wants to know about Joshua Norton.
Who is that? Oh, just the man who declared himself emperor of the United
States. Here are Steve Ember and Robert Cohen with the story of Emperor Norton.
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.
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.
Joshua Abraham Norton declared himself to be Emperor of the United States on
September seventeenth, eighteen fifty-nine.
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.
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
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
after he declared himself Emperor of the United States, Joshua Norton began
wearing blue military clothing. A soldier at the Army base in San Francisco
gave him gold colored buttons and gold cloth. It made his uniform seem as if it
belonged to a general. Or perhaps a king. Or even an Emperor.
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.
Norton usually did not have any money. But he did not need any. If Emperor
Norton went to a restaurant, 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.
Some 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 restaurant had been approved by the emperor
of the United States. Stores with the signs noted that their business
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 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.
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 treatment.
Emperor Norton 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 violence.
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
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." The King is Dead.
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.
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.
some stores and restaurants in San Francisco still have signs that say, "By
Appointment to His Majesty, Emperor Norton the First." And each year in
January, a group of people gather at Joshua Norton's grave to remember him.
Then they gather at a nearby tavern to continue the remembrance.
are local members of E Clampus Vitus, a historical society whose members like
to have a good time. They do not want people in Frisco -- oops, make that San
Francisco -- to forget 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 Shirley Griffith. 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.