Joshua Norton Becomes Emperor of United States, 1859

You’d probably recognize most of the names of the Presidents of the United States. Some of you might even be able to recite them all. But did you know that the U.S. had also had an emperor?

His name was Joshua Abraham Norton, or Norton I, as he liked to call himself. In 1859, he proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States, “at the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens.”

Joshua Norton was born in England in 1819, but spent nearly all of his early years in South Africa. At the age of 40, he emigrated to San Francisco, no doubt drawn, like so many others, by the lure of gold. Unlike many of the other 49-ers, however, he actually had money in his pocket when he got here: $40,000, which he had recently inherited from his father.

Norton actually did make a fortune in San Francisco, but in real estate, not gold. By the early 1850’s he had accumulated a quarter of a million dollars, and was ready to branch out. He thought he saw a golden opportunity in the rice market, when China halted rice exports due to famine. The price of rice had gone from four cents per pound to 36, and he bought a shipment from Peru at 12 ½ cents. Unfortunately, no sooner had Norton signed the contract, than several other shipments from Peru came in and the price of rice plunged to three cents per pound. Norton was ruined.

He declared bankruptcy in 1858, and then disappeared for awhile. No one knows where he went or what he did, but when he came back, he was a changed man. He was fed up with the legal and political climate of the country, and decided to take matters into his own hands. He sent letters to the San Francisco newspapers, declaring himself Emperor of the United States.

The San Francisco Bulletin considered the matter humorous, and printed his letter. The newspapers and the public may have considered Norton’s declaration a joke, but Norton was apparently quite serious. He “reigned” for 21 years, and over time became a well-loved fixture of the city.

Emperor Norton was a working monarch. He inspected the streets daily, dressed in a military uniform and plumed hat. He usually carried either a walking stick or umbrella, which doubled as a scepter. He inspected the condition of the streets and cable cars, and reviewed the police officers.

The Emperor also issued numerous proclamations over the years. He abolished Congress, and eliminated both the Republican and Democratic parties. He fired Abraham Lincoln. He forbade any kind of altercation or conflict between religious groups. He ordered a suspension bridge or tunnel to be constricted between Oakland and San Francisco (which actually was built in the 1930’s.) He offered to serve as mediator for the disagreements resulting in the Civil War. He ordered the creation of a League of Nations.

During one of his inspections, he once defused a riot. During his time, anti-Chinese demonstrations occasionally occurred in some of the poorer districts of San Francisco. Encountering one of these, he stepped between the rioters and the intended Chinese targets, and began reciting the Lord’s Prayer, over and over, until the rioters dispersed.

Emperor Norton was apparently penniless, but took care of his needs by issuing proclamations demanding that his citizens provide for his upkeep. Since his demands were modest, they were usually met. He dined at the finest restaurants, free of charge — restaurateurs were proud of the brass plaques this enabled them to put up announcing their Imperial seal of approval. He also issued his own money — which was printed free of charge by local printers — in denominations between fifty cents and ten dollars. At plays and concerts, a place of honor was reserved for him. He frequently led the annual parade.

In 1867, Norton was arrested by Armand Barbier, a San Francisco policeman who attempted to commit him for involuntary mental treatment. The public was outraged, and newspaper editors called for his immediate release. The police chief released him, stating that he had “shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.” Norton was given a public apology, and in return, Barbier was granted an Imperial Pardon. Thereafter the police began saluting Norton when they encountered him on his rounds.

San Francisco loved their Emperor, and he seemed to love his capital city just as much. An 1872 proclamation declared it a High Misdemeanor to “utter the abominable word ‘Frisco,’ which has no linguistic or other warrant.” There was a $25 fine.

Emperor Norton was also active in international affairs. He was, for a time, the self-proclaimed Protector of Mexico, in addition to his other duties. Eventually he dropped this title, explaining that it was “impossible to protect such an unsettled nation.”

On January 8, 1880, Joshua Norton collapsed on the street on his way to a public lecture. A police officer noticed and immediately called for a carriage to take him to the nearest hospital. Norton died before the carriage arrived, apparently of a stroke. A search of his rooms and his person revealed that he had less than $10 to his name, along with a collection of headgear and walking sticks. His room also contained his collection of letters to Queen Victoria, and fake telegrams from Emperor Alexander II of Russia, congratulating him on his upcoming nuptials to the British Queen.

Local businessmen provided the Emperor with a rosewood casket and respectful funeral, which was attended by all strata of society. 30,000 admirers lined the streets to bid him farewell.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; 17;;;;;;;

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