Some people are already tired of hearing about the 2012 election campaign. But they should be grateful for our election process, because our democratically-elected government was once a monarchy. No, I'm not referring to the British royal family. I'm talking about Joshua Abraham Norton, the self-styled "Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico" — and surely one of the most eccentric American Jews of the nineteenth century. You can read about his exploits in books from the Dorot Jewish Division and General Research Division.
Norton (ca. 1819-1880) was born in London but went to South Africa with his parents when he was a child. In 1849, having received a bequest from his father's estate, he emigrated to San Francisco.
After some disastrous financial reverses, which probably caused or at least exacerbated his mental peculiarities, he declared himself "Emperor of these United States." He then began issuing royal decrees, the most famous of which called for the abolishment of the United States Congress. Like many San Franciscans then and now, he detested the word "Frisco" and tried to ban its use. He walked the streets of San Francisco in full military regalia and soon become a folk hero. So benign and genial an emperor was he that a local printer agreed to issue "currency" of the Norton government.
Norton wrote letters to Queen Victoria, urging her to marry him. In 1867 he wrote a letter to Kamehameha V, King of the Hawaiian Islands, which he signed "Norton I Emperor U.S. and protector of Mexico." A facsimile of the original letter can be seen in the Jewish Division.
Norton truly became a legend in his own time. In 1868, May Wentworth included a highly fictionalized version of his life among the stories in Fairy Tales from Gold Lands. (A 1985 reprint of the Emperor Norton tale is also available). His story inspired characters in several novels, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Wrecker.
Was he insane? Well, probably. But at his funeral on January 10, 1880, some 30,000 San Franciscans lined the streets to pay their respects.