Could San Francisco's most beloved eccentric finally be getting his due? There's an Internet petition at Change.org to name the Bay Bridge after Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, who reigned from 1859 to 1880. a
"The response has been overwhelming," says writer John Lumea, who created the petition. "But what's been most moving are the comments people are leaving. He still touches people's hearts, all these years later."
Joshua Norton was born in London, England, and came to San Francisco in 1849 in the wake of the gold rush.
He quickly made $250,000 in the real estate business and just as quickly lost every penny trying to corner the market in Peruvian rice.
He also lost his mind. He vanished from sight and reappeared a year later with a proclamation declaring himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States. (He added the "Protector of Mexico" bit later.)
Since he was Emperor, he saw no need for a Congress, so his next proclamation dissolved the Senate and House of Representatives.
Subsequent proclamations abolished the Republican and Democratic parties, religious warfare, and the name "Frisco."
Crazy? No doubt. But the people of San Francisco decided to play along. He issued his own currency in denominations ranging from 50 cents to ten dollars, which were honored as legal tender by the city's banks and businesses.
Though penniless, he dined for free every night in the city's finest restaurants. And a luxury box was reserved for him in all the city's theaters on Opening Night.
Dressed in a fancy blue dress uniform with gold epaulets, he spent his days inspecting the condition of the city's sidewalks and cable cars.
In 1867 a policeman arrested him and attempted to have him committed to a mental asylum, triggering an explosion of outrage throughout the city. The Chief of Police ordered his release and formally apologized to him, and thereafter every policeman in San Francisco saluted smartly whenever His Imperial Highness passed by.
It started as a joke; but as the years went by, Norton began acting more and more like the statesman he pretended to be.
One day he faced down a mob that was advancing on Chinatown, intent on riot and murder. He blocked their path with his head bowed, reciting the Lord's Prayer over and over until they shamefacedly dispersed.
And some of his ideas don't sound so crazy today. In 1872 he issued an Imperial Proclamation ordering construction of a suspension bridge between San Francisco and Oakland and a tunnel under the Bay – ideas that finally came to pass almost a century later.
When he died in 1880 the whole city went into mourning. Thirty thousand people lined the street for his funeral procession, which stretched for more than two miles.
In 2004 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors endorsed naming the bridge's western span after Norton. But the Oakland City Council refused to go along, and the idea died.
Now a resolution to name the span after Willie Brown is wending its way through the state legislature. But with all due respect to Da Mayor, I think it should be named after the man who came up with the idea of a bridge in the first place.
If you'd like to sign the petition, go to http://chn.ge/1eu7qju/