Norton I, Emperor of the United States

Updated on August 24, 2018
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Joshua Abraham Norton announced in 1859 that “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of the United States, I, Joshua Norton, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.”

San Franciscans accepted the reintroduction of a monarchy with poise and took a certain pride in having this man strutting about in a military uniform under an extravagantly plumed top hat.

Emperor Norton I.
Emperor Norton I. | Source

Emperor Norton’s Early Life

Born in England in 1818 or 1819, he went with his parents to live in South Africa. By the time he was 30, his mother and father were dead and Joshua headed to San Francisco to make his fortune. Many thousands of others had the same idea of striking it rich in the Gold Rush.

But, Joshua Norton was smart enough to know that the chances of coming out of the gold mines with his pockets stuffed with money were slim.

He didn’t need to dig for gold because he seems to have arrived with a good nest egg. The figure of $40,000 (easily more than a million in today’s money) is mentioned but there is no way of verifying the amount. Whatever the size of his fortune, it was enough to set himself up as a commodity trader, something that led to his financial ruin.

But, before his downfall, Norton made a lot of money and was accepted into the highest levels of San Francisco’s society. As a historical report on his life notes “He knew all the right people. He was a member of all the right clubs and committees. He was invited to all the right parties. He stayed in the best hotels. He had access. He had arrived.”

Perhaps, the welcome might not have been so effusive if it was known that his parents were Jews.

The Emperor and his trusty sabre.
The Emperor and his trusty sabre. | Source

Cornering the Rice Market

Norton thought he saw a business opportunity. In 1852, there was a famine in China because of a shortage of rice. A boatload of Peruvian rice had arrived in San Francisco Harbour. He could buy it all at 12½ cents a pound, when the going price was 36 cents a pound.

He closed the deal, but, unfortunately for him, more ships arrived from Peru laden with better quality rice. The price plunged to three cents a pound. Norton sued on the grounds he had been misled. Three years, and massive legal fees later, the courts ruled against the would-be rice baron. Norton was ruined and filed for insolvency in August 1856.

Joshua Norton’s Proclamations

The bankruptcy seems to have pushed Norton over the edge psychologically. He disappeared from view and it’s thought he plunged into depression.

He emerged in public in September 1869 to declare himself Emperor Norton I and, for the next two decades issued proclamations through local newspapers.

In the context of today’s political grid-lock, hypocrisy, and malfeasance he presciently called for the abolition of Congress. When, of course, this edict was ignored he issued another: “… we do hereby Order and Direct Major-General Scott, the Command-in-Chief of our Armies, immediately upon receipt of this, our Decree, to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress.”

He ceaselessly attacked Congress in a bid to “save the nation from utter ruin.” But he had plenty of other issues about which he felt the need to express himself.

Among his proclamations may have been this one:

“Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word ‘Frisco,’ which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.”

There’s some debate about whether this is authentic. A rascal or two took to drawing up spoof proclamations and sending them to local newspapers; this may have been an example.

In his Civil War guise.
In his Civil War guise. | Source

Much Loved in San Francisco

Norton spent his days wandering the streets of the city checking on the condition of cable cars, sidewalks, and public buildings. When he found deficiencies he proclaimed about them loudly and clearly.

He was impoverished but could count on a free meal at most restaurants. His 50-cent-a-day lodgings in a rooming house were frequently paid for by others.

When he was really short of money he printed his own currency; basically a promissory note that was honoured by most merchants who never intended to collect on the debt.

The Emperor's currency.
The Emperor's currency. | Source

One look at Joshua Norton's life notes that “The Emperor wasn’t just humored. He was beloved. Theaters reserved some of their best seats for the Emperor on opening nights.

“When the Emperor’s uniform and hat became tattered, San Francisco’s city government - the Board of Supervisors - bought him new ones.”

In January 1867, an overzealous policeman arrested the Emperor on the grounds that he needed to be treated for insanity. The citizens of San Francisco rose up in anger. The Evening Bulletin newspaper vented its feelings:

“In what can only be described as the most dastardly of errors, Joshua A. Norton was arrested today. He is being held on the ludicrous charge of ‘Lunacy.’ Known and loved by all true San Franciscan’s as Emperor Norton, this kindly Monarch of Montgomery Street is less a lunatic than those who have engineered these trumped up charges. As they will learn, His Majesty’s loyal subjects are fully apprised of this outrage.”

The red-faced Chief of Police issued an apology and immediately ordered the release of the Emperor, who graciously granted the errant officer an Imperial Pardon. Thereafter, when police officers encountered the Emperor on the street they saluted him.

The end came suddenly in January 1880. As Norton headed to a lecture at the California Academy of Sciences, he collapsed in the street and died.

The San Francisco Chronicle marked his passing with an article entitled Le Roi Est Mort – The King is Dead.

He was scheduled for a pauper’s funeral but his old business pals put up the money for a proper send off. It’s reported that 10,000 people (some say 30,000) lined the streets as his funeral procession passed by.

Bonus Factoids

The Morning Call newspaper had offices next to Norton’s lodgings. A young reporter for the paper called Samuel Clemens took a particular interest in the eccentric man who roamed the neighbourhood. Using the pen name Mark Twain, Clemens wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and said he based the character King on Joshua Norton.

Actor and writer Timothy “Speed” Levitch said of Emperor Norton “Some say he’d gone mad; others say he’d gone wise.”

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “In what other city would a harmless madman who supposed himself emperor ... been so fostered and encouraged?”

The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign is a non-profit whose goal is to have the San Francisco Bay Bridge named after Emperor Norton I. The group points out that several California State bridges have multiple names, so why not the Bay Bridge?

Sources

  • “Joshua Abraham Norton.” PBS, undated.
  • “Emperor Norton: Life.” Emporersbridge.org, undated.
  • “Emperor Norton, Zaniest S.F. Street Character.” Carl Nolte, SF GATE, September 17, 2009.
  • “Emperor Norton I.” Patricia E. Carr, American History Illustrated, July 1975.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      14 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Hi Rupert, this is funny! In the video, I think I notice a Roll-Royce? If it is not easy to give JN a ride, why not make a stately couch for him? I can not help myself liking the man. Thank you.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      14 months ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very interesting piece of American history, Rupert. I consider myself a history buff and did not know a thing about him. He was quite the character. Great Hub.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)