Flashback Friday: Emperor Norton I

Each one of us has, no doubt, wished they could be King for a Day. In the case of a Scottish migrant, Joshua Norton, he reigned as “Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico” for twenty-one years.

Joshua Norton settled in San Francisco in 1849 after having lived in South Africa. He quickly found his niche as a merchant of considerable note and rose to prominence. By the early 1850s he had amassed a fortune of $250.000 and various real estate holdings in the rough North Beach neighborhood. A risky attempt to corner the rice market would cost him everything, including his sanity. By 1858, Norton was forced to declare bankruptcy and disappeared from San Francisco society.

As quickly as he disappeared, Norton returned and via the local newspaper announced on 17 Sept. 1859:

At the peremptory request and desire 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 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; 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 Feb. 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

Emperor of the United States.

Joshua A. Norton (1819-1880), self-proclaimed ...

Joshua A. Norton (1819-1880), self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Far from being mocked, the citizens of San Francisco adopted their Emperor. His presence was welcomed at construction sites where workers feigned reverence to his dictates. Norton I wandered the streets of San Francisco, inspecting sidewalks and cable cars. His diminutive stature was a frequent guest of various taverns; he didn’t come for the drink but rather the free meals. Restaurants placed brass placards that claimed the Emperor himself authorized their existence. “By Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States” these placards brought in added business from Norton I’s subjects. He dressed in a blue Union soldier jacket crowned with gold epaulettes, a tall beaver hat adorned with a peacock feather placed over his long, dark hair that often ran to curls, and he carried a walking stick made of a grape-vine from Oregon purchased by one of his subjects.

Click here to see the 1870 San Francisco 3rd Ward census listing Joshua Norton’s work status as “Emperor.”

He lived in a small 6 x 10 foot room. His “palace” was decorated with a worn carpet and dilapidated furniture. Though he lived like a pauper, he reigned like royalty. He had box seats at the Opera, his currency was accepted by merchants in town, and he regularly issued decrees that were printed in the San Francisco newspapers. His room rent was paid by the Masons, which Norton I was a member. When he was arrested by a novice policeman and brought to the Lunacy Court, the city quickly released him, offered apologies after scathing editorials were written, and, befitting his status, Norton issued a decree absolving the police department of all crimes.

Emperor Norton I was extremely troubled by the Civil War. His decree of July 17th 1860 dissolved the United States in an attempt to stem the tide of war. Blaming both the stubborn Southern Democrat and the vile Northern Republican for the horrific war and resulting Reconstruction mess, Norton I dissolved and abolished both parties in 1869 “because of party strife now existing in our realm.”

“It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” The words of Mark Twain in Pudd’nhead Wilson were in no doubt inspired by Emperor Norton. The two lived in the city at the same time, and Twain worked next door to Norton’s boardinghouse. “The King” in Huckleberry Finn is based on Norton. In 1860, Emperor Norton I dissolved Congress saying that the august body made sure

…fraud and corruption prevent[ed] 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

Emperor Norton died on the corner of California and Dupont in a cold rain. His funeral was

Emperor Norton

Emperor Norton (Photo credit: baughj)

attended by nearly 30.000 mourners (the population of San Francisco at the time totaled 230.000). Initially destined for a pauper’s funeral, a local businessmen’s organization rallied and America’s only emperor was buried in a fine rosewood casket in the Masonic cemetery. Today, you can find Emperor Norton I’s grave in Colma with a truly dignified marker.

Maybe there was a bit of brilliance in Norton’s mind; even Twain defended him saying that he wasn’t as insane as people thought. One thing is for sure, Emperor Norton was a forward thinker when it came to our political parties and Congress. Maybe we should have another Emperor Norton to fix our current issues.


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