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’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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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?
- “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.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 24, 2018:
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.
Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on August 24, 2018:
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.