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Emperor Norton I

July 2024
3min read

During the Gold Rush of 1849 and the years that folllowed, San Francisco attracted more than any city’s fair share of eccentrics. But among all the deluded and affected that spilled through the Golden Gate in those early years, one man rose to become perhaps the most successful eccentric in American history: Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Joshua Abraham Norton, an English Jew, arrived in San Francisco on the steamer Franzika in 1849 from Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, with $40,000. With that stake, he proceeded to make a fortune. He was an astute agent for several mercantile houses, a broker, and an energetic land speculator. In a few years Norton had become a respected citizen worth a quarter of a million dollars. But in 1853 he overextended himself in one grand effort to corner every grain of rice already in the city or on its way there. When unexpected shiploads sailed into port, prices crashed, and with them toppled the fortunes of Norton and several friends who had trusted his advice. During the long, excruciating lawsuit resulting from default on his contract, Norton’s fine mind began to warp. Ruined, he dropped from the city’s life—only to emerge a few years later in the guise of an emperor.

In September of 1859 a dignified, stocky man appeared in the offices of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin and solemnly submitted a proclamation that began: “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton … declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States Amused by this unusual feature story, the editor ran it without comment, but few people in the busy boom town paid much attention—even when the subsequent proclamations abolished Congress and the state supreme court for fraud and corruption. However, when Norton began appearing in the streets in a gaudy uniform given him by the commander of the Presidio, San Francisco’s army garrison, the citizenry began to take notice. There was, of course, some jeering, and rival newspapers ridiculed the Emperor. He riposted in the Bulletin , which he now used as his official publication, against “certain scurrilous and untrue articles attacking our right and propriety … in one or two insignificant papers … and the portions of a community whose taste can be pampered by low and improper articles,” and decreed that the “good sense and honesty of purpose of the nations … not be insulted by such trash.”

Resplendent in his large gold epaulets, garrison cap, and saber, Norton applied himself to the business of being an emperor as diligently as he had to being an entrepreneur. He joined the promenade along Montgomery and Kearney streets to show himself to his people, and accepted the ironic bows of his subjects with the serenity befitting his new profession. He faithfully attended public gatherings of all kinds and continued to issue proclamations for the progress and justice of his empire.

His unfeigned concern for his people, his inherent dignity, and his tact (he never stayed long enough during his many calls to be considered a bore) soon won over the city completely. For twenty years the citizens of San Francisco cheerfully supported him in his delusion. His imperial bonds—usually issued in the amount of fifty cents—were honored, and the modest taxes he levied were paid. He ate and drank free at the best restaurants and saloons and was invited to speak at political rallies. When the state legislature met, a large upholstered chair was always reserved for him. The city directory listed him as “Norton, Joshua, Emperor.” And when the genuine Emperor Dom Pedro n of Brazil visited the city in 1876, San Francisco proudly presented its own to him with fitting pomp and circumstance.

When Norton’s uniform wore out, a public subscription bought him a new one. On a similar occasion the board of supervisors voted city funds. Tailors who made and contributed uniforms proudly announced themselves on window cards “by appointment to His Majesty.” His loyal subjects gave him a variety of hats, a magnificent walking stick, and a big tricolored Chinese umbrella to keep his imperial self dry on rainy days. When an inevitable dogooder attempted to have him committed, the judge dismissed the inquiry into the Emperor’s sanity with the curt remark that Norton was “just about the best going in the king line.”

Norton I, Emperor of the United States (he had earlier shed his original title of Protector of Mexico, declaring it impossible to protect such an unsettled nation), died in January, 1880. As he lay in the morgue, a crowd began to gather. “The general interest felt in the deceased was soon manifest,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle in an article headed “ LE ROI EST MORT .” By noon the crush was so large that the police were called. All classes were represented, from “capitalist to pauper, clergyman, pickpocket, welldressed ladies and social outcasts, the aged and children.” “He is dead,” mourned the Morning Call , “and no citizen of San Francisco could have been taken away who would be more generally missed.” A kind of innocence had been taken away, and would indeed be missed.

A reported thirty thousand San Franciscans attended his first funeral. But more than fifty years later, there was another. In 1934, when the still growing city engulfed the Masonic Cemetery, the Emperor’s remains were dug up and reburied at Woodlawn. Norton remained so alive in the imagination of his city even then that Mayor Angelo J. Rossi placed a wreath on the grave, the municipal band played, and the Third Batallion, iSgth Infantry, fired three volleys. A fine granite monument was set in place; it read: NORTON I, EMPEROR OF THE UNITED STATES, PROTECTOR OF MEXICO, JOSHUA A. NORTON 1819-1880. And as one historian has noted, there were no quotation marks around the inscription.

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