No. Not a joke. Congress may not have recognized him, but plenty of Californians did. Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. This is his story.
California’s Gold Rush was full of characters. You had to be a bit odd to undertake a perilous journey of months to a place none of your friends or relatives had seen, and of which only vague reports were available. One of those was Joshua Abraham Norton. He was born in London in 1819, but went with his family at an early age to Cape Town, South Africa. In 1848 he inherited a substantial sum from his father, a successful business man, and in 1849, lured like so many others by the cry of “Gold! Gold in California,” he took ship for San Francisco.
In California he used his inherited wealth to accumulate a fortune in real estate. He was also a trader, looking to make a profit in buying and selling commodities like sugar, flour and rice. In late 1852 he believed he could corner the rice market, which he thought would be plagued by an extreme shortage until the arrival of particular ship from Peru with a large load of rice. He determined to profit off of the shortage and entered into a contract to buy the entire cargo at a premium price, thinking that with the shortage he could dole out the cargo at high prices, multiplying his investment several times over. But he was foiled by the unexpected arrival of several ships with cargos of rice, the price of which suddenly was in free fall. He litigated to get out of his contract, but after much disputation, he lost his appeal in the California State Supreme Court. His creditors executed on his real estate and left him a pauper.
He declared bankruptcy and disappeared for a year but then turned up exhibiting a very odd personality. Seemingly oblivious to his penury, he had delusions of grandeur, and he seemed to blame the legal and political system for his troubles and everyone else’s. But his turn toward an odd personality had its creative streak.
Back in San Francisco, on September 17, 1859, he sent letters to the City’s newspapers proclaiming that he, Joshua Abraham Norton was, in fact, Norton the First, Emperor of the United States! Somewhere along the way, Norton assumed the title of “Protector of Mexico.” No one seems to know why, and there is no record of the Mexican government having noticed that the country had a protector, but Norton began to use the full title in the early 1860’s.
For the rest of life—21 years—Norton led his life as if he were an emperor. He issued proclamations; he expected and received deference from the public authorities; he issued currency; he expected and received public acceptance; and, remarkably, he exhibited leadership in serious matters. Perhaps because Norton took himself seriously and constantly acted the part, the public took him seriously as well. And as things turned out, despite his “fine madness,” his view of society and California’s future was as astute and forward thinking as anyone’s.
Norton dressed the part. He appeared in public in a military uniform with huge epaulets and a sword. When his clothes wore out, local outfitters and the army post at the San Francisco Presidio provided new ones, including a plumed hat. At one time the San Francisco Board of Supervisors purchased a suitably regal uniform. Each Supervisor received in return a “patent of nobility” from Norton, although the documents did not specify what title Norton had bestowed. Norton lived in hotel rooms which were provided by the establishments free of charge. He ate his meals at a variety of restaurants without cost. In fact, hotels, restaurants and other public establishments encouraged his custom. They were given royal permission to post on their door a plaque proclaiming the Emperor’s approval of their hospitality and cuisine. Theater performances always reserved a box for the Emperor on opening night and a chair for him was reserved at public events. Clearly, the people of his adopted home town accepted him as more than just an average eccentric.
An example of how accepted and respected he was occurred in 1867 when a rookie police officer arrested Norton in order to involuntarily commit him for mental treatment. Norton spent a few days in jail until public outrage and explosive editorials in local papers motivated the police chief to release Norton and make a very public apology. Thereafter, all police officers of the City saluted when they saw Norton on the street. Norton showed his magnanimity by issuing a pardon for the young police officer.
All in all he seemed well suited to the part of Emperor. As we shall see below, the United States government seems to have taken no notice of Emperor Norton even though his proclamations seem intended to have that effect. However, in the 1870 census, the records do show Norton residing at 624 Commercial Street, San Francisco, and his occupation is listed as “Emperor.” At least one government agency was listening.
Norton seems to have been acutely aware of the shortcomings of the United States federal government and issued a number of proclamations intended to correct its problems. He dissolved Congress in 1859 and ordered the Army to clear Washington, DC of the miscreants who called themselves Congressmen and Senators. It appears nothing happened, however. He also dissolved both political parties and at one point “dissolved the republic.” All his ideas were not so outrageous. He decreed the creation of a “League of Nations” to promote world peace. He decreed that strife among religions and their sects was forbidden. He also made it a crime to refer to San Francisco as “Frisco,” a nickname still shunned by residents of the City. He seemed unfazed by the refusal of the Pope to obey his order to crown him Emperor.
Norton was a forward-thinking eccentric. In 1872 he ordered the construction of a suspension bridge from San Francisco to Oakland in the same location that the Bay Bridge was built 60 years later.
He also had a certain moral authority. It was reported that he abhorred the strife between whites and the Asian community. Riots were frequent and usually resulted in someone’s death or serious injury. During the beginnings of one such confrontation, Norton took up a position between the two hostile groups and prayed until the crowds dissipated. Apparently neither the whites nor the Asians were willing to offend the Emperor.
When he was short of funds, he simply had some bills printed. It does not seem he tried to make himself wealthy again by this means, but only created enough to take care of his rather simple needs. His currency was accepted by local merchants just as if it were issued by the U.S. Treasury. There are still a few collectors with Norton bills.
Norton died on January 8, 1880, collapsing on California Street as he walked to a meeting of the California Academy of Sciences. The following day, San Francisco’s largest newspaper, the Chronicle carried a front page headline—“The King Is Dead”—and a substantial obituary. Other papers immediately followed suit. It quickly became clear that Norton died a pauper, and funeral plans were initially very modest, but public sentiment quickly evidenced a great respect in this interesting local character. A local businessmen’s association put up funds for a handsome rosewood casket and a dignified funeral. Norton lay in state for two days and as many as 30,000 people joined in mourning his passing. On January 10 he was buried in Masonic Cemetery in San Francisco’s Laurel Heights neighborhood. The funeral cortege was two miles long and encompassed perhaps 10,000 people. While a myth grew up that during his funeral there was a solar eclipse, the evidence seems clear that the eclipse occurred the very next day—January 11.
In 1934 San Francisco moved all its cemeteries to Colma on the San Francisco Peninsula. Norton was reburied there in Woodlawn Cemetery with a new headstone. Again, thousands turned out for the affair. In 1980 the centennial of his death was celebrated, and thousands more attended the ceremony at his grave site.
Few would argue that any other eccentric pauper faux emperor was more loved and respected by his “subjects” than Norton. It seems highly unlikely that any was the subject of such large and respectful funeral arrangements, or that one hundred years after his death, huge crowds would turn out to pay their respects. The Emperor may be dead, but his influence lives on. The idea of harmless eccentric behavior, out-of-the-box creativeness, and a touch of the “crazy, but oh, so true” is still alive and well in California. Norton, mildly deranged as he may have been, was merely one of those early pioneers of that creative mindset. Who would have dreamed that a hugely powerful calculating machine could be shrunk to the size of a quarter, that plants could be breed and cross-bred to yield incredible crops, taste wonderful, and thrive in adverse conditions, that movies and television would be invented and made available to almost every person in the world, that—well, add your own item to the list. A lot of it happened right here in California, and Norton contributed a fair share to the mindset that led to our modern lives. If you are ever in Colma, visit Woodlawn Cemetery and thank him for his contribution.