On December 26, 1979, 14-year old Robert Ben Madison became an unlikely king when he announced that the nation of Talossa—really, his second-floor bedroom in a house on Milwaukee's east side—had seceded from the United States.
It is unlikely that the child-king could've foreseen what his fantasy would become, but 37 years later, the Kingdom of Talossa still exists and boasts a few hundred citizens from around the world. It has its own language, Talossan, spoken fluently by many of its citizens; a fully developed system of law; and a colorful, troubled history.
In the decade that followed the founding of Talossa, Madison set himself the task of designing the Talossan language, which would include a lexicon of over 35,000 words, as well as outlining the laws of his constitutional monarchy. During those early years, Talossa consisted only of Madison and a few dozen of his closest friends and family. They'd gather for annual "Talossafests" in a Milwaukee park during the summer and Independence Day celebrations close to December 26. In the interim, Madison and his friends would work on the details of their fictional country, form political parties, host elections, and publish semi-regular newspapers.
"From 1979 to 1996, Talossa existed as a completely 'real' community, based exclusively in Milwaukee," Madison told me. Then, in 1996, he created a website which "made citizenship available to people all over the world who had no connection with the Milwaukee-based community."
Shortly after Madison made the website, Talossa gained coverage in high profile newspapers and magazines, including Wired and the New York Times. The coverage resulted in a period of unprecedented "immigration" to Talossa—more people joined in 1996 than in the previous 17 years combined. These new citizens had been drawn to Talossa for a number of reasons—linguists interested in the Talossan phenomenon, aspiring politicians who liked the immediacy of participating in the Talossan government, and those who simply liked the company of other strangers acting out a collective fantasy on internet message boards.
Yet as more and more "Cybercits"—citizens who came to Talossa by way of the internet instead of IRL in Wisconsin—joined Talossa from around the globe, they began to grow increasingly dissatisfied with the way it had been organized.
"The main conflict was that many of the new internet-based citizens thought that any Talossan who was not active on the website should not be a Talossan," Madison told me. "The flip side of that is that a number of Cybercits accused me of 'controlling' any pre-internet citizen who didn't vote for their [political] parties. 'Ben' became a symbol of tyranny and even 'brainwashing' simply because I spoke for the majority."
The dissatisfaction that a number of Talossans felt about Madison's rule spurred them to form a breakaway rival micronation called the Republic of Talossa while Madison was away on vacation. There were several years of infighting among the rival Talossan factions, with the Republic often waging personal attacks against Madison and his supporters. By 2004, Madison would relinquish his authority over Talossa, after a period that he described to me as "the single most traumatic experience of my entire life—worse than a death in the family and worse than a divorce."
But according to John Woolley, who joined Talossa in 2005 and now serves as the country's king, the reality is more complicated.
"This is just my take, but I think most people involved with Talossa would say that the core issue was Ben's personality," Woolley told me. "Ben's a smart guy, but he's also highly controlling. [Talossa] was his baby and he wanted to run it."
To hear Woolley tell it, the internet citizens of Talossa were getting increasingly fed up with Madison's inability to turn his creation loose and allow others to help shape the country. Once, according to Woolley, Madison even hired a private detective to look into somebody's personal affairs to use as political fodder for an argument that was happening in Talossa.
When I asked Madison about it, he categorically denied it. He says he and his family became the targets of a number of verbal threats, and his computer was regularly the target of malicious hacking, which he suspected was orchestrated by one disgruntled Talossan.
"My reaction was to ask, is this really the type of person who would resort to violence, or is this just internet hyperbole?" Madison told me. "In an effort to answer the question, I consulted a public online database to see if he had a criminal record. The records indicated that he did indeed have a criminal record and had a restraining order against him, in order to protect a woman whom he had violently assaulted."
Ultimately, Madison became tired of the growing animosity in his now divided kingdom. After he abdicated as king in August 2005, he named his eight-year old grandson, known as Prince Louis Adam, as head of the kingdom. Prince Louis remained the de facto ruler until his mother requested that the Talossans select a new king because she was uncomfortable with a bunch of grown men talking about her child on the internet.
By 2007, almost 30 years after Talossa was founded, the kingdom found itself divided and without a head of state. The future of the micronation seemed uncertain until Woolley was voted in as the new king and committed to running a sustainable constitutional monarchy. He's ruled ever since. The Republic of Talossa was absorbed back into Talossa in 2012.
By day, Woolley works as a software engineer, but by night he is the king of Talossa. The demands of this position vary depending on the day—sometimes he will go weeks without engaging with Talossa and other times he will spend several hours a night for days on end resolving conflicts in the kingdom. The nature of these conflicts varies, but Woolley recalled sorting out an instance of voter fraud where a single Talossan was acting out multiple identities on the internet so that he could try to swing Talossan elections as an example of a particularly stressful time as King of Talossa.
"To a large degree it's fallen on my shoulders to establish the monarchy the way a monarchy ought to be, instead of a personality cult," Woolley told me. "I don't want to set any bad precedents that are going to come back 50 or 100 years from now and screw things up. The kingdom of Talossa ought to be able to be stable over a long period of time."
When I spoke with Woolley on the phone from his home in Denver, over 1,000 miles away from where Talossa first began, he told me Talossa represents for him a beautiful experiment in politics and language that's brought together strangers from all around the world. If anything, the rebellion of the internet citizens against Madison and the pre-internet Talossans in 2005 spoke to the passion that the newcomers had for the nation-building project that a 14-year old had created in his bedroom almost three decades earlier.
If the popularity of Talossa today is any indicator, the Talossan rebels' intention was not to destroy Madison's creation, but to allow it to flourish as a true democracy. But for Madison, who today works at a mom-and-pop florist in Milwaukee, the wounds from that period are still very real.
"I have no doubt that what happened in 2004, 2005 was a coup against the state of Talossa and its people," Madison told me. "But I drew the conclusion that the group that had seized control was no longer really Talossa. And that, I think, was the wrong conclusion. The Talossa that exists today seems to be the Talossa that I founded in 1979 and nothing would please me more than to be able to rejoin the kingdom."
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