In September, 1859, a British man named Joshua Abraham Norton stepped out of the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin and declared himself Emperor of the United States of America. He later added the title Protector of Mexico.
It was the first of many proclamations Emperor Norton would make over the next several years, as he walked the streets of San Francisco in his trademark military uniform complete with plumed hat and sword worn at his side.
Despite having no actual political or military power, Emperor Norton nevertheless gained quite a bit of fame. Mark Twain modeled the character The Dauphin in his novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after Norton, and is said to have written an epitaph for Lazarus, one of Norton’s dogs. The Emperor was also Robert Louis Stevenson’ inspiration for a character in the novel The Wrecker, and has since appeared—in one incarnation or another—in works by Christopher Moore and Neil Gaiman.
Norton’s funeral procession in 1880 was witnessed by 30,000 people who lined the streets of San Francisco. He was laid to rest in Masonic Cemetery. In 1934, however, his remains were transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery in nearby Colma. There his gravestone reads “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” In 1970 he was named a patron saint of Discordianism.
“Every age has its peculiar folly,” Emperor Norton supposedly declared, “some scheme, project or phantasy into which it plunges, spurred on either by the love of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the mere force of imitation.”
This weekend, Boston-based avant-garde gypsy steamfunk vaudevillian circus jazz troupe Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band headlines the Springfield Armory’s Steampunk Musical Extravaganza, held to coincide with the park’s special exhibit Steampunk Springfield Armory: Reimagining Our Nation’s Weaponry. Eli August and The Abandoned Buildings and other friends of the New England Steampunk Meetup are also expected to perform. Admission is free.
Aug. 16, 12-5 p.m., Springfield Armory National Historic Site, One Armory Sq., Springfield, (413) 734-8551, nps.gov/spar.
(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)