The Neighbourhood Emperor

Eric Lis

Dr. Eric Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC sourcebook, Insults & Injuries.

I enjoy using this blog as a place where I can share interesting new advances in the scientific literature and discuss what implications they might have for that most important of all things: gaming. It's therefore a particular treat for me that today, in a rare moment of egotism, I get to do some using some of my own contributions to the literature. I've refrained from writing about my own research here because it doesn't tend to have much applicability to gaming, notwithstanding some as-yet unpublished work done by my laboratory, which I hope to also one day tell you about. A little more than a week ago, though, my latest paper was published, and this one does have the potential to point your stories in some amusing directions.

Let me tell you about Joshua Abraham Norton, first Emperor of the United States.

Joshua Norton was (probably) born in 1819 in London, but he lived much of his life with his family in South Africa. Around the age of 30, after coming into his inheritance, he moved to San Francisco, where he built a respectable fortune in business and stocks. After several years there, a major investment failed which, combined with the resulting legal battle, left him bankrupt. Norton disappeared for a year, and when next history records anything of him, he sent a letter to the local newspaper declaring himself the Emperor of the United States. He ordered that the existing government be dissolved, and would later decree that, among other things, all political parties be abolished for being divisive, and that various governors should lose their positions for improper uses of power. Norton maintained his claims of rulership for about 30 years, during which time he was consistently nearly penniless and living in a cheap flop-house. He never worked again and never rebuilt his fortune, and isn't know to have ever married or had love, although we know that he once proposed to a woman about forty years younger than himself, and was politely rejected. Several sources, including a newspaper from his era and a biography of Norton written many years after his death, record that on several occasions Norton claimed to be a descendent of the French royalty who has been sent to England in infancy to save him from assassins, and as near as we can tell a century later, Norton genuinely believed this to be true. Pretty much everyone he told this story to felt he was insane.

All of this paints the picture of a man with a serious mental disorder, but the actual truth is far more weird and wonderful. Unlike the vast majority of self-declared monarchs, a few of whom I get to meet in the hospital every year, Norton's beliefs were embraced by the community around him. The city of San Francisco generally treated Norton as if he really was their emperor. Shopkeepers accepted his Imperial currency. Restaurants competed to have him as a patron, and he was not expected to pay for his meals. The local theaters reserved seats for him on opening nights. The city government issued him royal regalia, and other cities sent him tribute in the hopes to attracting him to move there. Norton was helped by the fact that, unlike many people who suffer from disorders such as schizophrenia, he was otherwise cognitively intact; he was reportedly an excellent conversationalist who always kept up to date on political and scientific news, and he was apparently a brilliant chess player up until the day he died. Where Norton might have been treated as an outcast or a fool, he was instead treated very much like royalty. Norton had what can be called "social capital," meaning that even though he didn't have a great deal of financial resources, he had a wide network of people watching out for him, taking care of him, and benefiting from having him around.

Sadly, given space constraints, I'm barely even scratching the surface of who Norton was as a person. There's volumes to be said about his unusual religious leanings ("I think it is my duty to encourage religion and morality by showing myself at church and to avoid jealousy I attend them all in turn"), his many proclamations, and stories of him single-handedly stopping a bigotry-inspired riot by standing in front of the rioters and praying until they grew embarrassed and went home. Further reading is well worth your time, and any number of sources are readily available online.

From a medical point of view, it's debatable whether Norton was "sick." The evidence is strong that Norton wasn't merely a charming eccentric, but that he did have some sort of psychotic disorder. On the other hand, we're reluctant to call something an illness if there isn't some sort of negative impact on the life of a person or the people around them. Norton's life was immeasurably improved by his odd beliefs, as were the lives of many of the people around him. Norton's family were long dead by the time he declared himself Emperor, so they weren't around to suffer from seeing him "go crazy," as the families of many modern sufferers of mental disorder are. By a strict medical point of view, Norton could be given a diagnosis, probably of delusional disorder, but one has to ask the very real question of whether he should.

Norton's implications for your game center around his very unusual life. Norton proves that, under just the right circumstances, a person can live a long, happy life under rather bizarre conditions. In a game, any town or city might be the home of a character like Norton, who has a delusional belief but otherwise remains a charismatic speaker, a quick wit, and an engaging figure. An NPC like Norton can simultaneously give players access to both the highest tiers of society and the lowest and seediest dregs. Although Norton was never violent or dangerous in his life, a similarly delusional wizard or cleric could cause no end of trouble for a party, even with the best of intentions, to say nothing of what problems a Norton-like character could cause with a Ring of Wishing. Lastly, players could well find themselves earning the ire of an entire city if someone were to hire them to bring home or effect a cure for a "poor, demented man."

Most importantly, to me, Emperor Norton proves that even as terrible a place as it can be, the world is still full of strange and amazing things, and that's what life, to say nothing of our games, is all about. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on August 7, 2014. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system