29 June 2009

The Eccentric Emperor

I'm enjoying reading about Joshua Abraham Norton - the self-appointed 'His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I'. Born in England in 1819, he wound up in San Fransisco, via South Africa, and proclaimed himself to be a Very Important Person and 'Emperor of theses United States'. Despite being an Englishman - and eccentric to the point of assumed insanity after losing his fortune - he was welcomed as a celebrated citizen in 19th century San Fran.

'Norton spent his days as emperor inspecting the streets of San Francisco in an elaborate blue uniform with tarnished gold-plated epaulets, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco. He also wore a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. He frequently enhanced this regal posture with a cane or an umbrella. During his inspections, Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, and the appearance of police officers. Norton would also frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot at the time.'

He died in 1880 and a very large, very public, funeral followed. He must be one of the forefathers of the eccentric English gentleman figure: megalomania embodied, a raconteur famed for his whimsical tales, living a bohemian penniless existence, dressed up in his own uniform, administering his own currency (ten dollar note issued by the 'Imperial Government of Norton I', pictured), parading around with delusions of grandeur… and wearing a beaver hat. I find not enough men wear beaver hats these days.

English gentry, ex-pats and eccentrics the world over: take note - start behaving like you own the place and you'll be revered!
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