The second emperor of the US begins his reign in Pittsburgh, naturally

By night, he tends bar — but by day, he’s on a mission to civilize civics.

Meet the emperor of the United States.

Meet the emperor of the United States.

MJ Slaby

He stopped every few blocks to read his proclamation:

“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Richard St.Denis, former Duke of Appalachia, and lifelong citizen of Pittsburgh, Pa., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States…”

Norton the Second, Emperor of the United States of America, along with a small counsel walked through Lawrenceville on Saturday, meeting his new subjects.

Some smirked and seemed amused. Others shook their heads. A group of actors setting up for Shakespeare in the Park seemed, naturally, to appreciate the theater of it, the Emperor said on Monday.

“It was a good test run,” he said.

As he spoke more about the reasons for his rule and the agenda for his reign, it all sounded more carefully planned than you’d expect from a man who wore a top hat and purple paisley jacket to make proclamations in the street.

And you’re about to see him more often.

He’ll be walking through neighborhoods and attending religious services. Starting today, the Emperor will even go to Pittsburgh City Council meetings.

Motivated by a need for civil engagement, the Emperor’s top priority isn’t establishing himself as a ruler. It’s about having conversations.

A transcontinental lineage

Before Norton the Second, there was Norton I, Emperor of the United States, he and Wikipedia tell us:

Oh hai, Norton I.

Oh hai, Norton I.


Norton I, who lived in San Francisco, made his emperor proclamation exactly 157 years (to the day) before Pittsburgh’s Norton. Norton I once had social standing and a small fortune in the 1850s. He lost it in a bad investment into Peruvian rice. Like you do.

Upset about the direction of the U.S. in the years before the Civil War, Joshua Abraham Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States on Sept. 17, 1859. He was penniless and had no political power, but business owners treated him well. Norton dined at the finest restaurants and graced plays and other performances with his presence. He spoke eloquently about various topics and wrote proclamations until his death in 1880.

Fast forward to about ten years ago, when Rich St.Denis — now Norton the Second— discovered his predecessor while researching a band called Beulah and its then-label Emperor Norton Records.

St.Denis fell in love with the story of the eccentric ruler.

“It’s the idea that your bearing and how you carried yourself is more important than social standing,” the Pittsburgh man said Monday, adding that although Norton was homeless, he was well-respected and articulate.

From there, Norton was a historical role model for St.Denis. About six months ago, motivated by the current election cycle, St.Denis decided to make his own proclamation.

He noticed parallels of institutionalized racism and civil unrest between now and the 1850s reign of Norton I. And everyone seems really unhappy with the direction of the country and of the government, St.Denis said.

Maybe, he said, the terrible government is a reflection of the people and the people need to change.

Elevating the discourse

After his decision, St.Denis said reactions fell largely into two groups. First, there was the excited but incorrect, “Oh that’s so awesome, I’ll definitely vote for you.” To which St.Denis would respond, “not necessary.”

And then there was the group that told him it wasn’t possible to declare himself emperor. “Have you ever read a history book?” was his response.

With a smile, he also added that he’s uniquely qualified for the job. He’s been Duke of Appalachia for about five years after adding it on a whim to his Facebook jobs and never removing it.

Unlike the 1800s Norton, St.Denis is not homeless. He’s a bartender at Scratch Food & Beverage in Troy Hill and lives in Mt. Washington.

He’s also organized, admittedly more so than Norton I, and self aware that despite his grand title, he could have a small impact.

“I don’t know if I’ll have any real impact, but what I want to do is reintroduce conversation in American life and American politics,” Norton the Second said.

A conversation, he said isn’t jumping in to talk over people or only talking about things that fall into pre-determined categories, he said. It’s having more diversity than bullet points.

To do that, he plans to listen to as many people as possible. He’ll go into different neighborhoods about three or four times a month.

People might smirk when a stranger introduces himself as “Norton the Second, Emperor of the United States of America,” but hopefully it’s also funny and disarming enough to allow them to open up and talk to him about their concerns, he said.

The original Norton also went to different religious services each week to show he was a man of moral standards and that he didn’t value one group more than others, Norton the Second said.

He modified that approach and will rotate visits to religious services, making sure to include one Catholic, one Protestant, one Jewish and one Muslim service each month.

St.Denis said that approach will show his moral standards as well as allow him to learn about more viewpoints.

And he’ll regularly attend city council meetings, following each by playing “town crier” to spread the news of the meeting.

Doing that is a way to promote an informed electorate and transparent government, St.Denis said.

All of this is going to be an extra part-time or full-time job, he said. But he sees it as being a civil servant and leading by example.

“I want to be able to use this as a platform for ideas not in the discussion and to talk about them, then it will be a success,” he said, adding that the more varied situations he’s in, the more viewpoints he will learn.

“It’s going to be an adventure one way or the other,” Norton the Second said.