American businessman and professional eccentric Joshua Norton (1818–1880) proclaimed himself the first emperor of the United States, Emperor Norton I, and “Protector of Mexico.” Living in California, Norton issued madcap satirical proclamations in San Francisco newspapers, created his own currency, and became one of the most famed characters of the American West.
Joshua Abraham Norton was born in 1818 (or possibly late 1817) to John and Sarah Norton, a couple who lived in London, England. They were among 5,000 British Jews who immigrated to Aloga Bay, South Africa, in May of 1820. His father told immigration officials there that the boy was two years old, providing the only reliable information about his birth. In 1839, when Norton was 21, his father financed his stake in a ship chandlery, a supply store for seamen and ships. Norton and a partner opened the store in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, under the name Joshua Norton & Company. It went out of business a year and a half later. In 1841, the Norton family moved to Cape Town and Norton's father started a chandlery (selling marine parts) and employed Norton as the shop's clerk. By 1848, his father, mother, and brothers had died, and Norton inherited his father's estate.
Norton's first business misstep came at the end of 1852. He bought a rice shipment from Peru for $25,000 during a famine in China, hoping to corner the market. After several more rice shipments from Peru arrived in town, the market was flooded and he refused to make good on the bill. His three-year dispute with the rice merchant resulted in huge legal fees. Meanwhile, the gold rush ended and the San Francisco economy crashed. Norton lost some property to foreclosure, sold some businesses and properties at a huge loss, and filed for bankruptcy in 1856. Although he advertised himself as a commission agent in 1857 and 1858, selling coffee and barley, he had gone from living in fine hotels to renting a room in a workingclass boarding house.
In 1859, as California and the United States were in turmoil over the debate on slavery, Norton hit upon an idea. On September 17, he visited the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper and handed the editor an announcement. “At the pre-emptory 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,” his announcement began, according to the Emperor's Bridge Campaign website. Norton called for a convention in San Francisco to rewrite the laws of the nation to “ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.” George Fitch, editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, ran the announcement under the headline, “Have We an Emperor among Us?”
Norton, or “Norton I, Emperor of the United States,” as he styled himself, handed Fitch's newspaper further proclamations within weeks. He declared the U.S. Congress abolished for fraud, corruption, and failure to protect people and property. He also announced that he had dissolved the California Supreme Court. When Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise presided over the hanging of abolitionist John Brown for his raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, Norton declared that he had fired Wise for not sending Brown to an insane asylum.
Perhaps Norton seriously believed he would be a good emperor. “If I were Emperor of the United States, you would see great changes effected, and everything would go harmoniously,” he told a friend offhandedly seven years earlier. San Franciscans widely understood him to have a mental illness, or a malady, as one newspaper put it. But perhaps Norton meant the proclamation in the same way that the audience of the San Francisco Bulletin interpreted it; as a madcap satire of the issues of the day. For whatever reason, Norton's proclamations became a hit with readers, and sales of the newspaper spiked.
When Congress convened in January of 1860, contrary to Norton's order, he responded with another proclamation. “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,” this document began, as quoted by William Drury's history Norton I: Emperor of the United States. Norton ordered General Winfield Scott, hero of the 1840s war with Mexico, to “proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress.” Scott was unavailable, however, since he was in present-day Washington state, trying to settle a border dispute with Canada.
The convention Norton called for February 1, 1860, did not go well. The Music Hall, where he intended to convene it, burned down a few days before the date. He rescheduled it for February 5 at the city's Assembly Hall. Fitch wrote in the San Francisco Bulletin, tongue in cheek, encouraging readers to get there early to beat the crowds and get a seat. The meeting never happened; the doors of the hall stayed locked that night. But on July 26, 1860, perhaps in reaction to the national controversy over Abraham Lincoln's May nomination as the Republican candidate for president, Norton forwarded to Fitch a new proclamation: he dissolved the U.S. government and replaced it with an absolute monarchy.
For the next 20 years, Norton reigned as San Francisco's most beloved street character. “Dressed in baggy, faded blue, military-type uniform, complete with gilt epaulets and shiny brass buttons, Norton began to strut about the streets of San Francisco as if he did indeed rule the city,” wrote Patricia E. Carr in American History Illustrated. He often hung a sword at his belt, carried a walking stick or umbrella, and wore a beaver hat. “Gaily colored feathers topping the already tall hat added inches [to] his somewhat stocky frame,” Carr added.
San Francisco was already developing its reputation as a haven for creative people, rebels, and eccentrics, and Norton presided over an early golden age of town characters. “There was George Washington II, who wore a Revolutionary War costume; Oofty Goofty, a strange little man who made his living by allowing gents to hit him with a pool cue for 50 cents; the Money King, a celebrated miser; and a mysterious street character who called himself the Great Unknown,” explained Carl Nolte in an article for the San Francisco Chronicle. Norton reigned over them all. He rode for free on streetcars, ferries, and the Central Pacific Railroad. Restaurants let him eat for free and even competed for his business, knowing an association with him would boost their popularity. San Francisco police officers were told they should salute him when he walked by. He sometimes reviewed the cadet corps at the University of California. When his uniform got too old, a general at the Presidio, the San Francisco fort, gave him a new one.
Norton issued his own currency, labeled “Imperial Treasury Bond Certificates,” in denominations ranging from 50 cents to $10. He signed them himself and added notes that they would be payable with 7 percent interest in 1880. The bills were much coveted as autographed tourist mementos.
Many local shops, meanwhile, sold Norton dolls, postcards, cigars, and lithographs. One lithograph, which shows Emperor Norton with two dogs, led to a myth. The city of San Francisco had adopted dogs named Bummer and Lazarus as mascots, and tavern-keepers often rewarded the canines with table scraps in exchange for their skills at killing rats. Norton, like the dogs, frequented Martin & Horton's tavern. Storekeepers began explaining the Norton-and-dogs lithograph by claiming, falsely, that Bummer and Lazarus were Norton's pets.
Norton lived for 17 years in a flophouse on San Francisco's Commercial Street, where he paid 50 cents a night for a six-by-nine-foot room with a cot. He hung his uniforms on nails and hung lithographs of the queens of England and Hawai'i and the empresses of France and Mexico on his walls. Most days, he would read the newspapers at the Empire House hotel, spend time in Portsmouth Square with friends, eat a free lunch at Martin & Horton's tavern, and read and play chess at the Mercantile Institute, Mechanic's Institute, or Bohemian Club. He often attended plays, lectures, and debates in the evening.
Although Norton was widely believed to be mentally ill, some of his proclamations and actions seem prescient, in the light of history. In 1872, he issued a decree that a bridge should be built across the San Francisco Bay, passing through Goat Island (now Yerba Buena Island) while connecting Oakland and San Francisco's Telegraph Hill. The San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge was built at that location 64 years later. He defended the rights of Chinese in San Francisco, arguing that anti-Chinese immigration restrictions and a law that Chinese could not testify in court should be repealed. Once, when an angry mob gathered and seemed on the verge of anti-Chinese violence, Norton calmed the crowd by reciting the Lord's Prayer. He is often credited with issuing a proclamation that anyone who called San Francisco “’Frisco” should be punished, a stance still popular with San Franciscans today. However, the authenticity of that purported proclamation has been disputed.
Norton died in San Francisco on January 8, 1880. His death was reported in newspapers in several U.S. cities, and was announced with huge headlines in local newspapers. “Le Roi Est Mort”(“The King is Dead”), read the San Francisco Chronicle's front page. 10,000 people viewed Norton's body, lying in state at the morgue, and an enormous crowd joined his funeral procession. San Franciscans still celebrate Emperor Norton today, with a tour led by a Norton impersonator, a bar named Emperor Norton's Boozeland, and efforts to erect a statue of Norton and rename the Bay Bridge after one of the city's most colorful and whimsical characters.
Drury, William, Norton I: Emperor of the United States, Dodd, Mead, 1986.
Lloyd, Benjamin E., Lights and Shades in San Francisco, A.L. Bancroft (San Francisco, CA), 1876.
American History Illustrated, July 1975.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 17, 2009.
Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2015.
Emperor's Bridge Campaign website, http://www.emperorsbridge.org/ (February 12, 2016), John Lumea, “On the Trail of the Elusive ‘Frisco’ Proclamation.”❑