In 1819, Joshua Abraham Norton was born to a family of merchants somewhere in Britain. While Norton was still young, his family moved to South Africa, where they set up a successful enterprise. As Norton grew up, he learned the merchant’s trade and joined the family business. Yet, he was not satisfied with the status quo, so when the Gold Rush of 1849 caught the world’s attention, Joshua Norton set sail from South Africa and traveled to San Francisco.
When Norton arrived in San Francisco, he had with him assets worth $40,000 of his day’s currency. At first, he played the market wisely. Instead of wasting his money in search of gold, he catered his business to serving the needs and wants of the gold-miners and city-folk. In particular, he focused his efforts on real estate and commodities. The investments paid off, and at the high-point of his career, Norton’s wealth grew to $250,000 in his day’s money.
Perhaps made arrogant by his success, Norton soon became sloppy in his financial practices and schemes. The end—or perhaps the beginning—arrived around 1853, when the price of rice was temporarily very high in San Francisco. In that environment, Joshua Norton made the fateful decision to pour all of his assets into the rice trade. Yet, as soon as he staked all of his fortune on the grain, outside suppliers poured shipments of rice into San Francisco and saturated the market. As the price of rice plummeted, so too did Norton’s fortunes. The would-be rice baron, once worth a quarter-million dollars, was now forced to declare bankruptcy.
Joshua Norton’s bank was evidently not the only thing to break after the failed rice scheme; along with his wealth, he apparently also lost his mind. The man’s insanity, however, only increased his ambitions. Although he once would have been content as robber baron, the new and improved Norton was shooting for the highest title imaginable—emperor.
By 1859, Joshua Norton was ready to launch his coup d’état. A man ahead of his time, he knew that the press was his key to absolute power. Therefore, on September 17, 1859, he announced the creation of his monarchy in a letter to the editor, featured in the San Francisco Bulletin. The royal document stated, “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 Francisco Bulletin, September 17, 1859). To educate the public on how he should be addressed, the insane merchant signed the letter as Norton I, Emperor of the United States.
The publication of the edict launched Emperor Norton I into stardom and celebrity. Before long, fans gave the emperor a blue epaulet-adorned uniform, including a matching feathered hat. He was also eventually given a military saber to finish the ensemble. Besides royal garb, the emperor also obtained access to free products and services—bars, restaurants, theaters, and train companies would pay his tabs in exchange for Norton’s imperial endorsement of their businesses.
The newspapers eagerly anticipated the emperor’s edicts, and counterfeited a few of their own between the releases of the emperor’s authentic statements. Although insane, the decrees of Norton I could be quite witty and humorous. As the United States was ripping itself apart in the years leading up to the Civil War, Emperor Norton stepped forward to save the day by announcing that he was henceforth abolishing Congress and imposing his absolute monarchy on the realm. Additionally, when Norton I learned that European powers were meddling in Mexico, the emperor protested by adding “Protector of Mexico” to his title.
Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, remained impoverished despite his fame and the support of the community. In 1867, he was arrested by a certain Officer Armand Barbier on the charge of vagrancy. This attempted overthrow of the emperor was thwarted, however, when the populace and the press of San Francisco protested in outrage. In the end, Emperor Norton was released and Police Chief Patrick Crowley was forced to take damage-control measures by issuing public apologies. After Norton’s release, the relationship between the emperor and the local government improved. By 1870, the city directory of San Francisco officially listed Joshua Abraham Norton’s occupation as “Emperor.”
Toward the end of his imperial reign, Emperor Norton I had become the center of the tourist industry in San Francisco. Photographs of the emperor were sold, as were fake currencies that bore his name and image. Even dolls depicting the mad monarch could be found in city shops.
On January 8, 1880, Emperor Norton I suddenly collapsed and died while out walking around San Francisco. His adoring fans in the press spread the word of his death and between 10,000 and 30,000 people were said to have attended the emperor’s funeral. He remains a celebrated figure to this day.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Photographs of Emperor Joshua A. Norton of the United States (c.1819-1880), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).