September 13, 1860 A Harmless old Crank

From the casual keyword search to bumper stickers the world over the message is, Come to Key West, Where the Weird, Go Pro. And yet, history gives us such a collection of cranks and oddballs as to make even a land where Ernest Hemingway’s urinal became a lawn ornament seem tame, by comparison.

Plato called him, “Socrates gone mad”. 21st century historians have likened his life to a never-ending Monty Python sketch. He’s one of the founders of the ancient philosophy of Cynicism, who lived with a pack of stray dogs in a barrel outside the Temple of Cybele and famously wandered the land with a lantern, searching “for an honest man”.

Diogenes of Sinope lived in the 4th century BC, haranguing shoppers in the marketplace and tormenting the upper crust, of Greek society. The philosopher renounced all physical possessions and delighted in performing in public, that which should be performed in private. And I do mean, everything.

It was taboo to eat in the marketplace but not for Diogenes who explained, “I did, for it was in the market-place that I was hungry.” Plato once referred to a human being as “a featherless biped animal“. Diogenes showed up at Plato’s academy with a plucked chicken, declaring, “Behold! I have brought you a man.” On one occasion a group of wealthy Athenians emerged from a banquet calling Diogenes a dog, and throwing him bones. Diogenes lifted his leg, and peed on them.

Alexander III of Macedon succeeded his father King Philip II to the throne at the age of 20 and spent most of his reign, on military campaign. Undefeated in battle by the age of thirty, “Alexander the Great” amassed one of the largest empires in history, extending from Greece, to the northwest of India.

Alexander visits Diogenes at Corinth, by Louis Loeb (1898)

The most feared and powerful man on the planet, Alexander wanted to know who was this man who clearly cared not a wit, about his Royal Presence.

According to legend Alexander visited Diogenes while the man was sunning himself in Athens and asked, if there was anything he needed. Famously honest up to and well beyond the point of rudeness Diogenes responded, “Stand out of my light“.

Alexander’s followers dissolved into raucous laughter but the emperor himself was struck by Diogenes’ haughty and uncaring manner. Alexander commented, “Truly, if I were not Alexander, I wish I were Diogenes.” The philosopher replied, If I were not Diogenes, I would wish to be Diogenes.”

Diogenes of Sinop (then known as Sinope) statue by Turan Baş, erected in 2006.

You can still visit him even today at the isthmus of Sinop, in modern day Turkey. There his 18-foot likeness depicts the Cynic, standing with his dog on the barrel in which he lived, lamp outstretched. 25 centuries later Diogenes searches still, for an honest man.

For a nation the size of Michigan the UK has produced more than its share of eccentrics and cranks. John Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland, was a member of the House of Lords by virtue of his title. It took the man three years, to take his seat. Such a recluse was he, Portland built a vast underground complex under his estate at Welbeck Abbey in North Nottinghamshire. So he didn’t have to see anyone. “The workman’s friend” was well liked by the thousands of laborers required to construct such an edifice but business was always conducted, by mail. Vast underground pool halls, horse stables and roller skating rinks were constructed and connected, by a maze of tunnels. Workmen themselves were encouraged to enjoy the facilities but heaven help the man who addressed the Duke, in person. One poor slob was summarily fired, for tipping his hat.

Baron de Rothschild was a great animal lover who drove about in a carriage, pulled by zebras. A tame bear lived in Rothschild’s superb chateau in Buckinghamshire, trained to slap his female guests, on the behind. At one political dinner for Lord Salisbury, twelve puzzled guests were seated for dinner, each beside an empty chair. The mystery was solved shortly before the first course, when twelve immaculately dressed monkeys trooped in, and took their seats.

Lord North married an American woman in September and honeymooned, in the Caribbean. On returning home, the new bride was rather surprised when the man went to bed…and stayed there. An enormous table was moved into the bedchambers so North could entertain, in bed. The explanation? According to this guy no Lord North ever got out of bed between October 9 and March 22 since his famous ancestor, lost the American colonies.

Speaking of Americans. We’ve had our share of cranks but none so memorable, as Emperor Norton.

Born in England sometime around 1818, Joshua Abraham Norton arrived in San Francisco in 1849, by way of South Africa.

For a time a successful businessman, Norton lost a considerable fortune trying to corner the rice market. He seems to have lost his mind, with it.

Norton disappeared for a time and returned on September 17, 1859, proclaiming himself Emperor of the United States. The Royal Ascension was published in a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin:


“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens”, it read, “I, Joshua Norton…declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.” The letter went on to command representatives from all the states to convene in San Francisco, “to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.”

The edict was signed  NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.”

To many of his “subjects”, “Emperor Norton” was an amusing eccentric. A harmless old kook.  Most were pleased to go along with the gag.

An earthquake was felt on this day in 1860 described as “very severe” in the East Bay area. It didn’t slow him down. Emperor Norton abolished the United States Congress, declaring “fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice…in consequence of which, we do hereby abolish Congress.

We could use a guy like that, today.

A portrait of Emperor Norton in the Society of California Pioneers is the only portrait he’s believed to have posed for. Photo credit: Joe Rosato Jr.

When Congress failed to disperse, Norton issued a second edict, ordering General Winfield Scott to Washington to rout the rascals. “WHEREAS, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th of October last, declaring the said Congress abolished; WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with; NOW, THEREFORE, we do hereby Order and Direct Major-General Scott, the Command-in-Chief of our Armies, immediately upon receipt of this, our Decree, to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress”.


In December 1859, Norton fired Virginia Governor Henry Wise for hanging abolitionist John Brown, appointing then-vice President John C. Breckinridge in his stead.

The United States teetered on the brink of disunion in 1861, as Norton abolished the Union altogether and established an absolute monarchy. With Norton himself at the helm, naturally.

Emperor Napoleon III invaded Mexico that year resulting in French victory, Mexican independence (figure that out) and a peculiarly American event we call, “Cinco de Mayo”. How differently might things have worked out had Emperor Norton not added to his already considerable titles, “Protector of Mexico”.


Norton wore an elaborate blue uniform with gold epaulettes, and carried a cane or saber and topped it off with a beaver hat with peacock feather. By day, Emperor Norton “inspected” the streets and public works of San Francisco.  By night he would dine in the finest establishments in the city. No play or musical performance would dare open in San Francisco, without reserved balcony seats for Emperor Norton.

Mark Twain, who lived for a time in Emperor Norton’s San Francisco, patterned the King in Huckleberry Finn, on Joshua Norton. Among his many proposals, Norton envisioned flying machines, the League of Nations, and the construction of the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

Though he was penniless, the “Official Norton Seal of Approval” was good for business. Some restaurants even put them out on brass plaques, declaring the prestigious “Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States”.

Most of the time, Norton was accompanied by two stray dogs. “Bummer” and “Lazarus”, who usually dined for free along with the Emperor.


In 1867, police officer Armand Barbier arrested Norton, attempting to have the man involuntarily committed to an insane asylum. The public backlash was so vehement that Police Chief Patrick Crowley was forced to order Norton’s release, with profuse apologies.  The episode ended well, when Emperor Norton magnanimously pardoned the police department. After that, San Francisco cops saluted Emperor Norton whenever meeting him in the street.

The 1870 California census records one Joshua Norton, age 50, occupation, Emperor, along with a note, declaring the man to be insane.

Admiring supporters gave Norton financial aid, in the guise of “paying taxes”. A local printer even printed “Imperial bonds”, emblazoned with Norton’s likeness and official seal. To this day, Norton banknotes are highly prized collector’s items.


The San Francisco Board of Supervisors once bought Norton a new uniform, when the old one became shabby and threadbare. Norton responded with a very nice thank you note, issuing each of them a “Patent of Nobility in Perpetuity”.

On the evening of January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed on a sidewalk and died before help could arrive. The San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary on the front page, under the headline “Le Roi est Mort” (“The King is Dead”). “On the reeking pavement”, began another obituary, “in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain…, Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.”

10,000 loyal “subjects” attended Emperor Norton’s funeral, roughly 5 percent of the entire city. The 21-year reign of Emperor Norton I, had come to an end.


In a city that’s nothing if not idiosyncratic, Norton remains the Patron Saint of eccentrics, to this day.  The Bay area kicked off a month-long celebration of Norton’s bicentennial birthday on February 4, 2018, with walking tours, exhibitions and period nostalgia.

On its website, the Mechanic’s Institute Library and Chess Room proclaims “Emperor Norton at 200, a series of exhibits, talks, toasts and other special events organized by The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign, in partnership with Bay Area institutions, to mark the bicentennial of Emperor Norton’s birth“.

A February 7 lecture invited participants to arrive in their best 1860s – ’70s attire, and “party like it’s 1859! Join us at the Mechanics’ Institute on February 7th for cake and bubbly to celebrate the 200th birthday of Joshua Abraham Norton, the businessman who one day in 1859 declared himself Emperor of the United States and (in 1862) Protector of Mexico”.

The event sold out, in hours.

Joseph Amster in character as Emperor Joshua Norton for walking tours in San Francisco. Photo credit: Joe Rosato Jr. H/T NBC Bay Area
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