Thursday, April 16, 2020

Joshua Abraham Norton -- America's Self-proclaimed Emperor Of The United States

I was in a conversation recently, and we were talking about Hawaiian history. Our conversation had to do with the surrender of the Queen in 1893 then again in 1895, the fact that the Queen attempted a coup to overthrow her own brother, and how the United States didn't even want Hawaii.

I was asked about a group in Hawaii that wants to return things to the days when the islands were ruled by an absolute monarchy. An absolute monarchy is a form of monarchy in which the monarch holds supreme autocratic authority. That would mean that the King or Queen would be free from any authority. Absolute monarchies are usually hereditary monarchies. They don't believe in subjects having even the slightest rights that Americans citizens see as being basic to our existence.

In monarchies, Kings and Queens believe they were chosen by God and the people answer to them. In contrast, in a representative republic, the politicians voted into office must answer to the people. Under a monarchy, the people are subjects without any rights. In a representative republic, the people are citizens with rights. These are huge differences.

While obviously such a return is the wishful thinking of power-hungry individuals, we can be thankful that such a thing will never happen since the residents of Hawaii are citizens of our 50th state. But that doesn't mean that there aren't people living in the state of Hawaii who claim they are in fact today's "Hawaiian royalty" and want to see a King or Queen on the thrown there.

As for the wannabe Hawaiian monarchs and their desire to rule the islands as was done over 130 years ago, I have to admit that whenever I think of American citizens declaring themselves some sort of royalty, including "Hawaiian royalty," I think of Joshua Abraham Norton.

Joshua Abraham Norton was known as "Emperor Norton." He was a resident of San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. He became quite the celebrity after proclaiming himself "Norton I, Emperor of the United States" in 1859.

Of course, we all need to remember, just because someone declares himself or herself "royalty" doesn't make it so. In Norton's case, that certainly didn't make it so. But frankly, that didn't matter to Norton -- especially after he started making a living off his new found royalty.

Joshua Abraham Norton is believe to have been born in England on February 4, 1818. Though born in England, he is said to have spent his early life in South Africa. It's believed he left South Africa and sailed to San Francisco in late 1849 after inheriting a large sum of money when his parents passed on. 

He arrived in San Francisco as a businessman at the age of 31, and established himself as a prominent citizen. Things changed for him a year or so after arriving when he supposedly lost everything making bad investments. While trying to recover, it's said he was connected with this and that business deal but failed to recover his losses. 

It was about then that he disappeared for almost eight years. In reality, after he filed for bankruptcy, it's said that he went from being a prominent member of the San Francisco business community to living at a working-class boarding house and working menial jobs to feed himself.

He reappeared seemingly out of nowhere in September of 1859. It was at that time that he proclaimed himself "Norton I, Emperor of the United States." Yes, he declared himself the "Emperor of the United States." And just like other make-believe monarchs, he even created his own royal uniform. Yes, with ceremonial sword and all.  

San Francisco has a long history of embracing the strange, the eccentric, and swindlers. Like those with worthless royal titles in Los Angeles and New York City today, Norton was perfect for San Francisco upper-class who saw him as a fascination, a novelty, a curiosity, someone to fawn over. Fact is he gained a sort of celebrity status, and the people in San Francisco went crazy over him.

Norton found his self-proclaimed royal status a lot better than simply being a down and out businessman. San Francisco's upper-crust paid him to appear at their social events, everyone did him favors, people provided him with a hotel room and even servants from time to time simply because it was believed that's what a man of "royalty" deserved.

Why? Well, mostly because he was entertaining while being extremely harmless. People support such non-sense for one reason of another, and in Norton's case he seem to add a needed diversion from the world. This was a period in American History when tellers of tale tales were prized for the entertainment value. In fact, telling tall tales was how Mark Twain got started.

Besides, people there liked him. They actually helped him keep it all going. They allowed him to think he was royalty even when they knew full well there's no such thing in America. Yes, all in the exact same way that some have allowed people in Hawaii, Los Angeles, and New York City to continue calling themselves "royalty" when in fact America does not have, nor recognize, royalty among our citizens.

Allowing the "royalty" shtick to keep going is how a lot of such things continue to manifest themselves. In the case of so-called royalty today, whether it's getting people to contribute their money to a "foundation" run by "royals," or to get people to contribute their money to a group touting the need of funds for "official state business" of "the Kingdom," people calling themselves "royalty" are not above taking money from others.

Not everyone accepted what Norton was selling without questioning what he was all about. But then again, that was part of what made him a curiosity. People wanted to know what made him think he really could be Emperor Of The United States. As for profiting from his behavior, when you think about it, it was probably no different than today since both the wealthy aristocrats and merchants alike capitalized on his behavior. It's true. It didn't matter to them what his reasons were, there were people in San Francisco who milked it for all it was worth.

Citizens of San Francisco celebrated Norton's "imperial presence." The high-brows used Norton's royalty and notoriety by inviting him to events. His invited presence at a soiree was used to show off their supposed blue-blood pedigrees and taste for the avant-garde. He really was seen as a charming eccentric.

Of course, there were those who saw Norton as being very profitable. That's why merchants loved him. While we think of things like souvenirs as being a modern occurrence, they're not. In fact, San Francisco merchants loved his celebrity status so much that they sold all sorts of souvenirs bearing his name and face. One quick thinking entrepreneur wanting to cash in on his self-proclaimed royalty actually created fake currency with his likeness and issued it in his name.

Tailors wanted to dress him and restaurateurs sought him out to have meals at their establishments, all free of charge of course, just so they would be able to publicize his being an honored visitor of their establishments.

San Francisco newspapers also saw him as a gift when trying to sell papers. As with tabloids today who carry what some former-royal from England says about something or other, the newspapers in San Francisco jumped at the chance to publish his declaration of a secondary title as "Protector of Mexico" in 1863. They also carried Norton's proclamations, such as when he decided to order that the United States Congress be dissolved by force. 

So was he a con artist or simply insane? Was it all a scam or did he really believe that he was what he claimed he was? Some hold to the theory that he went from successful businessman to bankrupt, and that drove him insane. But since he didn't really profit monetarily from his declaration of being Emperor, what were the reasons for his deciding to proclaim himself "Norton I, Emperor of the United States?" 

There is a reason that I keep mentioning the possibility of he being a con artist. There have been a lot of people in the world who have scammed others by pretending to be royalty. If Norton was a con artist, he wasn't the first to try to pull off a royalty fraud to bilk people out of money. There have been a lot of others who have tried to claim the status and wealth of royal families.

Take for for example, Anna Anderson who professed to be Princess Anastasia Romanov. In 1918, Russian Bolshevik revolutionaries murdered the entire Romanov royal family. Of course that small fact didn't stop people from spreading the story that the Princess Anastasia was spared and swept to safety. Anna Anderson showed up years later claiming to be Princess Anastasia, the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia.

Anastasia was the youngest daughter of the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, Nicholas II and Alexandra. She along with the rest of the Romanov royal family was murdered on July 17th, 1918 by Communist revolutionaries in Yekaterinburg, Russia. They were all dumped in a shallow grave, but the location of her body was not known until 2007. 

Anna Anderson turned out to be a real con artist who had used several different names. She was a Polish-German factory worker from Pomerania, and probably the best known impostor of several other impostors who showed up over the years trying to make claim to the Romanov name. In her case, she migrated to the United States and died in 1984. 

Karl Wilhelm Naundorff was a German watchmaker, but he went down in history as a German swindler who went to his grave insisting that he was the eldest son to the King of France. His story started out when he arrived in Paris in the 1830s and immediately claimed to be Prince Louis-Charles, the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Of course King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded when they were executed for treason by guillotine in 1793 during the French Revolution.

The French people were suspect of Naundorff from the start since several men had already come forward to say they were the long-dead eldest son of the King of France. But, while that was the case, Naundorff did win over many high profile figures and kept up his claims, even as he was branded a fraud. Believe it or not, after being expelled from France, Naundorff moved to the Netherlands where he was known as Prince Louis-Charles. He was able to convince people there of his claim. With that, he lived the life of a royal. Well, in reality, he lived the life of an exiled prince until his death.

As for his true identity, Naundorff's relation to the royalty of France would be in question for more than 150 years. But, as with the case of Anna Anderson who professed to be a Romanov, years later the advent of DNA testing revealed the truth. Her DNA was tested and it was found she was not related to the Romanov royal family. As for Karl Wilhelm Naundorff, his DNA proved he too was a fraud and was not related to Marie Antoinette. Both were impostors.

Whether it's wishful thinking by a handful of people trying to pass themselves off as actually representing a fictional royal Hawaiian nation, or someone like Joshua Abraham Norton who proclaims himself the Emperor of the United States on a September day, there are all sorts of con artists and delusional people out there. 

As for whether he was simply eccentric to the point of really believing that he was some sort of fictional Emperor of the United States? Who knows why he did it. And as for those like myself who wonder if he simply woke up one day to suddenly find himself a royal who could issue proclamations pertaining to the building of bridges and more? Again I say, who knows. I don't know if anyone will ever know Norton's true motives other than getting the attention he wanted.

Again, that takes us to the question of motive for other so-called royals out there. For example, there's a group of self-proclaimed Hawaiian royalty in Hawaii. That group wants to "restore relationships with royal houses around the world, especially among those nations that recognized the independence of the Hawaiian Kingdom."

Okay, so they want to restore the Hawaiian monarchy to the throne. Of course it doesn't matter that the Hawaiian Kingdom is as dead as Julius Caesar. It doesn't matter that the last Queen who tried to overthrow her own brother was also overthrown later. Nor does it matter that the United States only annexed Hawaii after it was being threatened for annexation by other foreign powers at the time. None of that matters to delusional people who haven't realized that the world has outgrown such rulers a long time ago. While they might not like it, the world has progressed.

People don't mind governments that are governed. People don't want to be ruled -- especially by people who have no idea how it is to live in a world where you are not pampered royalty. There is a reason the world has fought against monarchies. Most have been tyrannical. The signing of the Magna Carta proves that monarchies only change at the point of a sword, or by overthrow for the good of everyone.

The days of Kings and Queens setting themselves above the people are thankfully gone. And for those who pretend to be royalty when they are in reality just plain old citizens, I really believe they are sort of like actors at a costume party all playing bit parts that they've created for themselves. 

The sad part is that the truly delusional ones really believe they are better than others, that they really see themselves as Kings and Queens chosen by God. In Hawaiian history, the people never had the right to vote even during the royal elections. And really, why would anyone want to return to the days when the monarchy ruled and the people had no rights and no voice. What's that all about? 

Royalty today, like that in Great Britain, is great for tourism the same way that Norton was great for selling souvenirs in San Francisco from 1859 to 1880. Sadly, for San Francisco that all came to an end on January 8th, 1880, when Joshua Abraham Norton collapsed on a corner in the city of San Francisco and died. Most believe he died of a massive heart attack. 

What people may find interesting is that even though everyone there knew darn well that no one could be "Emperor of the United States," no differently than how we know that we shouldn't take seriously people pretending to be members of a royal family that's long gone, more than 10,000 people lined the streets of San Francisco to pay their respects at Norton's funeral. And believe it or not, legendary writers such as Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson actually immortalized him by making him the basis of characters in their books.

Seeing how he was admired, I really understand why it's said that Joshua Abraham Norton was special in a city that was finding itself. We can call him quirky, a little crazy, a half a bubble off plum, delusional as all get out, or mad as a hatter. And really, all of that might be true. He may have really believed that he was what he said he was. Of course, if that's so, than I say so what!

All in all, Emperor Norton got the attention he wanted, gained a sort of celebrity status, and reaped the admiration of thousands. Some say he did so to became a San Francisco fixture without personal gain or harming others in the process. While I might not agree with that, and really think he really was some sort of a nut and probably a con man, no one will ever know the truth of his eccentric behavior. We will never know.

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. Can you just imagine that date? "So, what do you do for a living?" "I'm an emperor". "You an emperor? That's funny". "Yeah, but it's true". I wouldn't believe him.


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