Joshua Norton: Self-Proclaimed Emperor of the United States
Joshua Norton became totally disgusted with what he felt were the failures of the political and legal structure of the United States. He decided to take matters into his own hands. Norton was determined to take action. On September 17, 1859, Norton sent letters to many newspapers in San Francisco and proclaimed himself the Emperor Norton I of the United States. After this, he would roam the streets of San Francisco wearing an elaborate blue uniform covered with gold-plated epaulets. The uniform had been given to him by an Army officer stationed at the military base at the Presidio in San Francisco. On his head would often be a hat with a rosette and peacock feather. Norton would examine the condition of cable cars, sidewalks and all public property requiring repair. He also provided everyone who would listen to him a long philosophical lecture on many different topics. Later he took on another title as the official Protector of Mexico.
Joshua Abraham Norton was born on February 4, 1818, in London, England. In 1820, his family relocated to South Africa. They were part of a colonization program promoted by the government. Most of his early life was spent in South Africa. His mother died in 1846. Norton and his father sailed west in 1848 and arrived in San Francisco in 1849.
After arriving in San Francisco, Norton experienced an impressive amount of business success. He did well in real estate speculation as well as the commodities markets. His success was so significant that by 1852, Norton was one of the most wealthy and respected citizens in San Francisco.
Norton believed he was taking advantage of a great business opportunity in December of 1852. During this time, China was dealing with a serious famine. They placed a ban on the country's rice exports. This resulted in a huge rise in the cost of rice in San Francisco. It went from four cents per pound to thirty-six cents per pound. Norton heard the ship Glyde was returning from Peru. Part of its cargo was over 200,000 pounds of rice. Norton was able to purchase the entire rice cargo for $25,000. His goal was to corner the market in San Francisco rice. After he signed a contract for the rice shipment, many other ships from Peru arrived in San Francisco with huge amounts of rice. This resulted in the price of rice going down to three cents per pound. Norton lost all his money.
After this financial setback, Norton went to court and attempted to have the contract he signed for the rice voided. He tried to make the point that the dealer had not told him the truth about the quality of the rice that would be delivered. Norton did have some victories in lower courts. The case was eventually heard by the Supreme Court of California. They ruled against Norton. Soon after the ruling, his real estate holdings in North Beach were foreclosed on by the Lucas Turner Company to satisfy Norton's debt obligations. In 1885, Norton was forced to file bankruptcy. After this, he had no money and was forced to live in a boarding house for working class people. Four years later, he would declare himself Emperor of the United States.
During the 1860s and into the 1870s the poorer districts in San Francisco witnessed large anti-Chinese demonstrations. There were often violent riots that took place and these would result in fatalities. During one riot, Norton was wearing his emperor uniform and put himself between Chinese targets and rioters. Norton bowed his head and began saying the Lord's Prayer. He did this repeatedly, and eventually, the rioters dispersed with no serious property damage or harm to the Chinese.
The self-appointed Emperor of the United States had no formal political power. This did not make any difference to the people of San Francisco. When businesses, where Norton frequented, were given currency issued with his name and image, it was usually honored. They would often celebrate him wherever he went and enjoyed his proclamations. When Norton would walk around San Francisco wearing his uniform, people would greet him with smiles and bows. The San Francisco city directory listed his occupation as Emperor. Local newspapers encouraged his behavior and would eagerly print all of Norton's imperial proclamations.
Emperor Norton ordered the United States Congress to be dissolved by force. Among his many decrees was for a bridge to be built connecting Oakland and San Francisco. When this was completed, a tunnel would be built beneath San Francisco Bay. In 1862, Norton ordered the Protestant Churches as well as the Roman Catholic Church to publicly ordain him as Emperor. He explained this would resolve many disputes that led to the Civil War. On August 12, 1869, Norton also ordered the abolition of the Republican and Democrat parties.
Over time, Emperor Norton I eventually became quite a celebrity in San Francisco. Pictures of him wearing his imperial uniform became valued souvenirs. There were even Emperor Norton I dolls being sold in stores around the city. There was always a seat saved for him on the opening night of a play at local theaters. Local ferry and train companies let him ride for free. In some restaurants, Norton did pay for his meal by giving the owner his seal of approval. In the beginning, he was very cash poor. Then people claiming to be his admiring subjects would give him money stating they were paying taxes to his royal treasury. In 1871, a San Francisco printing company printed special currency with the picture of Emperor Norton I with his imperial seal on them. He regularly gave out the notes as his official government bonds.
Emperor Norton I collapsed at the corner of Grant and California on January 8, 1880. He passed away before medical treatment could be administered. Norton was on his way to give a lecture at the California Academy of Sciences. After his death, it was discovered he was living in complete poverty. A few dollars were found on his person and a single gold sovereign was located in his room at the boarding house. Initial funeral arrangements involved a simple redwood pauper's coffin. San Francisco's businesses established a funeral fund for Norton and a handsome rosewood casket was purchased. It is estimated over 10,000 people attended Norton's funeral on January 10, 1880. The funeral procession was over two miles long. The City of San Francisco paid for his burial at the Masonic Cemetery.
This Rush of Dreamers: The Remarkable Story of Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico was written by John Cech and published in December 1997. An Emperor Among Us: The Eccentric Life and Benevolent Reign of Norton I, Emperor of the United States, as Told by Mark Twain was authored by David St John and published in November 2012.
The Story of Norton I: Emperor of the United States was produced by Columbia Pictures and released in 1936. In 1956, Season 4, Episode 21, of Death Valley Days an Emperor Norton I character was featured. In 1966, Season 7, Episode 23, of Bonanza featured an Emperor Norton I character.
Museum of San Francisco
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