I am a freelance writer with a degree in Journalism and Communications. I enjoy researching history and sharing unique stories.
Who Was Joshua Norton?
In 1850s San Francisco, a man named 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.
On September 17, 1859, Norton sent letters to many newspapers in San Francisco and proclaimed himself Emperor Norton I of the United States.
After this, he roamed 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, Norton often wore a hat with a rosette and peacock feather.
Thus outfitted, he would examine the condition of cable cars, sidewalks and all public property requiring repair. He also provided anyone who would listen 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.
Early Business Success...
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.
... Followed by Business Failure
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.
California Supreme Court Case
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—yet they ruled against him.
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 '70s 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.
What Did People Think of Him?
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.
Two Books That Tell the Story
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.
Film and TV
The Story of Norton I: Emperor of the United States was produced by Columbia Pictures and released in 1936. Emperor Norton I has also been featured on TV: in 1956 on Death Valley Days (season 4, episode 21), and in 1966 on Bonanza (season 7, episode 23).
- Museum of San Francisco: http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist1/norton.html
- PBS: https://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/i_r/norton.htm
- History Channel: https://www.history.com/news/the-strange-case-of-emperor-norton-i-of-the-united-states
© 2019 Readmikenow
Readmikenow (author) on February 01, 2019:
Maria, thanks. I found it interesting he was able to become so well know in the 1800s prior to social media, television and more.
Mary's Crumbs on February 01, 2019:
It is interesting to ponder the personal brand that Emperor Norton would build for himself by leveraging the power of social media if he were alive today.
I suppose that those who have a knack for establishing a memorable persona for themselves are always going to be able to interject themselves into the limelight of their contemporary narrative — be it in the eccentrically endearing fashion of Mr. Norton or in more consequential ways.
Very interesting article indeed. It has motivated me to look more into Emperor Norton.
Readmikenow (author) on January 21, 2019:
Liz Thanks, I agree, it is quite a story and true.
Liz Westwood from UK on January 20, 2019:
This is a fascinating article. I had never heard of him before.
Readmikenow (author) on January 19, 2019:
FlourishAnyway, thanks. He turned a business failure into a an opportunity to be a celebrity. Thanks for sharing your story about your uncle.
FlourishAnyway from USA on January 18, 2019:
Very, very enjoyable and entertaining. I had an uncle who was probably this guy reincarnated. My uncle would introduce himself to perfect strangers as President Reagan’s personal attorney. He was eccentric and had the gift of gab. Bless the eccentric among us who add spice and extra flavor to life.