"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 22, 2017

When America Had an Emperor

You don’t see too many self-made Emperors walking the streets. Joshua Norton did his best to correct the deficit.

Norton was born in London, possibly on February 4, 1817. In 1820, his family emigrated to South Africa. In 1849, the young man joined the hordes hoping to strike it rich in California’s Gold Rush. However, he sought to find fortune not in mining, but in business. He grandly set up shop in San Francisco as “Joshua Abraham Norton, international merchant.”

His various business and real estate speculations soon paid off. It has been claimed that by 1852, he was worth the modern equivalent of about five million dollars. However, in that same year, his luck suddenly ran out. China, California’s main rice supplier, cut off exports due to a famine. As a result, the price of the grain immediately skyrocketed. Norton bought a rice shipment from Peru sitting in the San Francisco harbor for $25,000, figuring to corner the market. The day after he signed the contract, ships full of Peruvian rice of a far higher quality began to arrive on the scene. The price of rice crashed even more dramatically than it had risen, leaving Norton suddenly facing economic disaster. He tried to get out the contract, but the ship’s owners sued him, kicking off over two years of costly litigation that ended with a verdict against him.

By that point, the boom created by the gold fever had ended, leaving San Francisco—and Norton—in ruin. Some of his properties were foreclosed; others were sold at a loss. A client accused him of embezzlement. In 1856, he filed for bankruptcy, and sank into what appeared to be a permanent obscurity.

In 1859, Norton crafted what has to rank as one of the most original reinventions in American history. On September 17, the “San Francisco Bulletin” carried a proclamation that had been submitted the previous day:

“At the preemptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the Emperor of These United States, and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall of this city, on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.

Norton I, Emperor of the United States”

On October 12, the “Bulletin” published a second Ukase from their new ruler:

“It is represented to us that the universal suffrage, as now existing throughout the Union, is abused; that fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions, and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled to by paying his pro rata of the expense of government—in consequence of which, We do hereby abolish congress, and it is therefore abolished; and We order and desire the representatives of all parties interested to appear at the Musical Hall of this city on the first of February next, and then and there take the most effective steps to remedy the evil complained of.”

He followed up by abolishing the state Supreme Court and firing the governor of Virginia, replacing him with Vice President Breckinridge.

By July 1860, the Emperor really got to work. He announced the Republic of the United States was being dissolved in favor of an “Absolute Monarchy.” In 1869, both the Republican and Democrat parties got the heave-ho as well.

The Emperor picked the perfect place to found his dynasty. San Franciscans have always cherished their crackpots, and they happily submitted to his rule. At opening night at the theaters, the best seat in the house was always reserved for Emperor Norton, with applause and fanfares from the orchestra to greet him. Politicians courted his favor. Police officers saluted him on the street. The local papers milked his growing legend for everything it was worth. A “Daily Morning Call” reporter named Samuel Langhorne Clemens often chronicled the Emperor’s reign. Local businesses invoked his name and alleged patronage as a bonanza of free publicity. In short, Emperor Norton became a hotly-exploited cottage industry for the city.

The Emperor in military dress

Everyone profited from the Emperor except the Emperor himself. However grand his proclamations or glorious his fame may have been, the former Joshua Norton remained a threadbare charity case. Although local restaurants and stores happily used his name for commercial purposes, they seldom bothered to show him any financial gratitude.

Every day, he would awaken in his 50 cent a night boarding house, wear one of the various second-hand uniforms he had acquired, and tour his kingdom. He appeared, in the words of biographer William Drury, “a kind, affable man,” who “spoke rationally and intelligently about any subject, except about himself or his empire.”

He was a benevolent and enlightened ruler. One of his closest companions was a Chinese man named Ah How, who was dubbed the Emperor’s “Grand Chamberlain.” Norton hated the violent prejudice shown against the Chinese, proclaiming, “We are all God’s children.” He toured schools and attended a different church every Sunday. (He explained, “I think it is my duty to encourage religion and morality by showing myself at church and to avoid jealousy I attend them all in turn.”) He patronized libraries, theaters, debating societies, lectures. He was an avid reader and an excellent chess player. He issued decrees calling for a bridge connecting San Francisco to Oakland, and a tunnel under San Francisco Bay--years before anyone else thought to actually build those structures. (To this day, the descendants of Norton's loyal subjects are campaigning to have the bridge named after the visionary Emperor.)

During the Civil War, many preachers took to airing their political views in the pulpit. The Emperor disapproved of “political preaching,” which he saw as a danger to the separation of Church and State. He issued a decree forbidding the practice.

Leland Stanford, then President of the Central Pacific Railroad, gave Norton a free pass which he used to attend sessions of the state legislature (he seldom approved of the proceedings,) and review military troops.

In the 1860s, Norton encountered a man who had known him back in the day in South Africa, and they met for a generally sane reunion. When the man asked the Emperor about his career change, he confided that he was not really a Norton—he was a Bourbon; a member of the French royal family given to the Nortons for protection after the Revolution.

The friend informed the Emperor that he was nuts. Norton replied calmly that a great many others agreed.

Over the years, the Emperor became San Francisco’s favorite tourist attraction. In 1876, Dom Pedro II, Brazil’s Emperor, visited the city. One of his first requests was for an Emperor-to-Emperor summit meeting.

Emperor Norton took to issuing “Imperial Treasury Bond Certificates.” He would sign them with a promise that they would be payable at 7% interest by 1880. They became highly popular souvenirs with locals and tourists alike. Local vendors made a fortune selling “Emperor Norton I” merchandise.

On the night of January 8, 1880, the Emperor suddenly collapsed on the sidewalk and died, presumably of a stroke or heart attack.

The next day, the top headline in the “Chronicle” proclaimed, “Le Roi Est Mort.” Funds were quickly raised for an appropriately royal burial at the Masonic Cemetery. The funeral cortege was two miles long. In 1934, when all of San Francisco’s cemeteries were closed, he was given a dignified reburial in Colma’s Woodlawn Memorial Park.

Whether Norton was a pathetic dreamer, a hoaxer, or an unhinged megalomaniac, as a native Californian, I can vouch that my state has had many far worse leaders, and very few who are better.


  1. Far from the worse leader the US has ever had.

  2. From what is chronicled here, I suspect many Americans today would sanction a majority of his actions. I especially liked his abolition of both major political parties - a gentleman with an idea of where to start improvements. But then, I'm a monarchist.

  3. I've been a fan of Joshua Norton for as long as I can remember and always try to promote his story wherever I can. One of my favourite stories about him describes the occasion that he met a mob bent on attacking and burning out the local Chinese community. When they told him where they were going he bowed his head and began to pray. The mob quietly dispersed and went home. He was a great man in his own peculiar way, and I would be happy to take him in exchange for any of the political leaders I've lived under during the course of my life.


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