Joshua Abraham Norton was born around 1818, in England. He lived most of his early life in South Africa, immigrating to the United States in 1849 following an inheritance of $40,000 from his father – equivalent to $1½ million, today.
As a San Francisco businessman, Norton sextupled his fortune to $250,000, then blew it all on a bad Peruvian rice deal. A lawsuit followed, which the now-formerly wealthy businessman, lost. Somewhere along the line, Joshua Norton appears to have lost his mind.
For a time, Norton disappeared from the public eye. In September 1859, he proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States, his Royal Ascension announced to the public in a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin. “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens”, it read, “I, Joshua Norton…declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.” The letter went on to command representatives from all the states to convene in San Francisco, “to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.”
The edict was signed NORTON I, Emperor of the United States”
To many of his “subjects”, “Emperor Norton” was a harmless eccentric. A kook. Many were pleased to go along with the gag.
On October 12, Emperor Norton abolished the United States Congress, declaring “fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice…in consequence of which, we do hereby abolish Congress.”
When Congress failed to disperse, Norton issued a second edict, ordering General Winfield Scott to Washington to rout the rascals. “WHEREAS, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th of October last, declaring the said Congress abolished; WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with; NOW, THEREFORE, 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”.
That December, Norton fired Virginia Governor Henry Wise for hanging abolitionist John Brown, appointing then-vice President John C. Breckinridge in his stead.
As America teetered on the brink of Civil War in 1861, Norton abolished the Union altogether and established an absolute monarchy, with himself at the helm. France invaded Mexico later that year, when Norton added “Protector of Mexico” to his titles.
Norton wore an elaborate blue uniform with gold epaulettes, carrying a cane or saber and topped off with beaver hat with peacock feather. By day he “inspected” the streets and public works of San Francisco, by night he would dine in the city’s finest establishments. No play or musical performance would dare open in the city, without reserved balcony seats for Emperor Norton.
Mark Twain, who lived for a time in Emperor Norton’s San Francisco, patterned the King in Huckleberry Finn, on Joshua Norton. Among his many proposals, Norton envisioned flying machines, the League of Nations, and the construction of the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
Though he was penniless, the “Official Norton Seal of Approval” was good for business. Some restaurants even put out brass plaques, declaring their “Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States”.
Norton was often accompanied by two stray dogs. “Bummer” and “Lazarus” became quite the celebrities themselves, and usually dined for free along with the Emperor.
In 1867, police officer Armand Barbier arrested Norton, attempting to have him involuntarily committed to an insane asylum. The public backlash was so vehement that Police Chief Patrick Crowley ordered Norton’s release and issued a public apology. The episode ended well, when Emperor Norton magnanimously pardoned the police department. After that, San Francisco cops saluted Emperor Norton whenever meeting him in the street.
The 1870 census records one Joshua Norton, age 50, occupation, Emperor, along with a note, declaring him to be insane.
Admiring supporters gave aid in the guise of “paying taxes”. A local printer even printed “Imperial bonds”, emblazoned with Norton’s likeness and official seal. To this day, Norton’s Notes are highly prized collector’s items.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors once bought him a new uniform, when the old one got too shabby. Norton responded with a very nice thank you note, issuing each of them a “Patent of Nobility in Perpetuity”.
On the evening of January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed on a sidewalk and died before help could arrive. The San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary on the front page, under the headline “Le Roi est Mort” (“The King is Dead”). “On the reeking pavement”, began another obituary, “in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain…, Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.”
Emperor Norton’s funeral was attended by 10,000 loyal “subjects”. His reign had lasted for twenty-one years.