FrankenNorton: A ForShame! Halloween imagination-sensation.Posted: October 31, 2012
LHB here about to make a big statement, sure to incite a frankenstorm of “opinions” from all you boys and ghouls. (And I’m not even talking about that tired seasonal pun that I just made but I love that shit, too, so shut up.)
Okay, here it is, straight from me to you: Halloween is the greatest holiday in all the land. Admittedly, All Hallow’s Eve has got some stiff competition; Christmas with its one day of presents, Chanukah with its 8 days of socks, and let’s not forget Ramadan; who doesn’t love fasting for weeks at a time?! I know I do! But for realz y’all, Halloween is not just my favorite holiday, it is objectively the greatest holiday in the Universe and by the transitive property of the time and such of the science things as this, October 31 is the greatest day of the year. It involves candy, scary stories, fabulous costumes, candy, glitter, more candy, PUMPKINS, Butterfingers, Reese’s peanut butter cups, and candy.
But cozy on up to the fire and let me tell you the true meaning of Halloween. (I love it when I sound like the wise person at the end of a Christmas movie.) Halloween is really about imagination. I mean, isn’t it? It’s about believing that the itchy poly-blend poodle skirt that came in that creepy plastic bag that looks like it has been opened before will really make you feel like you’re in Grease. It’s about letting your 12 year-old daughter go to her elementary school’s Halloween carnival dressed as a vampire (even though it’s going to be kind of awkward since the other girls have already figured out the dressing-like-a-slutty-fill-in-the-blank thing) because when a kid wants to be a vampire, you let her be a vampire. (I was way ahead of my time.) It’s about really believing that you’re a princess for just one night while all of your neighbors try to make you fat.
And this whole believing you’re somebody else for a night thing is actually really important. Because there’s a point somewhere along the line where kids stop using their imagination on a daily basis. It’s not cool anymore, you know? But somehow, as if by magic, one day every year, on Halloween, playing pretend is cool again. For everyone! And this annual act of widespread collective imagining is, like, really fucking special.
Joshua Abraham Norton, known to his peers as “Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I” never stopped being really good at using his imagination. For today’s Feature (sure, let’s call it a feature) we’re going to talk about a dude who embraced the spirit, the true meaning of Halloween, throughout his every day life. I’m sorry, no: he didn’t do much that was sexually scandalous. That’s why it’s a feature, mmK? But he is perhaps history’s greatest pretender and so today seems like the perfect day to holler at our boy.
I know this intro has been excruciatingly long as it is, but I should add one more thing: this “scandal” was “suggested” by our resident web-expert (wexpert) DMK, who saw a link to the emperor’s wiki page on Reddit a few days ago. (Reddit is a website that is apparently a big deal amongst people who understand the “Internet.”) But anyway, we kind of fell in love with Norton and we hope you will, too.
Norton was born in England in 1815ish (no one really knows…mysterious, huh?) and shortly after his birth, moved with his Jewish mother and gentile padre to South Africa where people were real tolerant of diverse marriages. HAHHAA. When his dad died in like 1850ish, he inherited $40,000 which was like, a BOATload of cash back then, and moved to San Francisco. He played the real estate market for a little bit and wound up with about $250,000 to his name. (He was still going by plain old Josh Norton at this point, for those keeping track.)
Then, something bad happened in the Orient. China had a severe famine and placed a ban on rice exports. That shit was cray for California because they were all, “Shit, where our rice at?” But Mr. Norton, business man, that he was, got wind that a ship with a bunch of Peruvian rice was on its way to California. He bought up all the rice and was like, “DAMN, IMMA MAKE A FORTUNE” because obviously the price of rice in SF had skyrocketed.
But then, as shipments go, several other boatloads (literally) of rice showed up in SF harbor like the day that he signed his contract with the Peruvian rice ship captain.
So, Norton was SOL as they say. He had the rice people tied up in litigation for a long-ass time, but eventually higher courts ruled against him so he filed for bankruptcy and left California for several years, licking his wounds.
No one really knows what he was up to during that San Francisco hiatus of 1858-1859.
But when he returned, he was a changed man. First thing he did after he unpacked his newly aprehended sword and scepter was to issue documents to all of the Bay Area’s major publications and civil offices declaring himself “Emperor of these United States.” The whole press-release (if you will, will you?) went like this:
At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.
NORTON I, Emperor of the United States
Later on in his imperial career he added “Protector of Mexico” to his title. Which, I gotta say, I think is nice. Cuz, you know, he cares.
He seems to me like a sort of real-life Don Quixote. So much so that I wonder if Cervantes had time traveling capabilities and just straight up stole this shit. Like, no one really knows if he was insane or just had the most powerful imagination in history. (I’m a subscriber of the second opinion in both this case and with DQ.)
As good ol’ Wiki points out, even though his tenure has emperor was marked by his debatable insanity, Norton was also kind of a visionary. His declarations involved demanding the formation of a League of Nations, the construction of a bridge connecting San Francisco and the East Bay (hello, we have that now), an under-water tunnel connecting the bays (we have that, too), and he forbade religious conflict. And he once stopped an anti-Chinese riot by positioning himself between the rioters and the the railroad-builders (the Chinese people) and recited the Lord’s prayer until the meanies GTFO’d. I mean, don’t you kind of love him now?
He printed and distributed his own currency, which local businesses honored as real money. Those local businesses included some of the fanciest, schmanciest restaurants of the day. Because he was dressed to the nines all day e’ry day, so it’s not too surprising that he was dining with San Francisco’s best. Norton’s daily garb included a royal blue uniform complete with gold epaulets and a beaver hat. The uniform was given to the Emperor by the US Army. On purpose.
That’s my favorite thing about this guy; people fucking loved him. And maybe it is the sort of thing where, like, every town has its kook. (Sidenote: My hometown had a homeless cross-dresser who pretty much became a tourist attraction. Seriously, I think he was in guide books.) But I think there was something a little more special about the emperor. Once, a police man had Norton apprehended and sent to a mental hospital without his consent and San Franciscans went ape shit and got him out of there real fuckin’ fast.
When Norton died in 1880, the SF Chronical reported:
“Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.”
San Franciscans were so enamored with him that he sold imperial bonds at 7% interest and people bought them! And then when he died, the newspapers talked about his reign as emperor. I mean, people, I think we’re talking about the largest act of communal imagination, of collective pretending, in all of history here!!
So tonight, if you don’t have any better ideas, dress up as the impoverished, fiercely beloved fake emperor of San Francisco, and do some really good pretending. That is, after all, the true meaning of Halloween.
Just please don’t dress like a prostitute.