September 17, 1859, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper:
“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens…I, Joshua Norton…declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.”
Signed, “NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.”
Joshua Abraham Norton was a British-born businessman before he was “Norton I, Emperor of the United States”. Norton spent a large part of his childhood in South Africa before migrating to San Francisco during the 1849 Gold Rush. While in San Francisco he invested into the real estate business, and by the early 1850s, he’d turned his original $40,000 stake into a quarter million dollar fortune. But common to the Gold Rush-era, Norton’s greed eventually got the better of him. During a rice shortage in 1853, he planned to conquer the San Francisco market, only to land in financial ruin when fresh shipments poured into the harbor and caused the price to plummet. Norton declared bankruptcy and fell off the map for several years. He resurfaced in 1859 with the San Francisco Bulletin royal decree. He genuinely believed that he was the unrecognized sovereign of the United States. There were no reports of Norton ever exhibiting any symptoms of mental instability or delusion during his business career, but it seemed that in his time away he had lost his mind
Following the decree Norton would become a staple of the San Francisco community. Donning a Navy coat, an ostrich feather-plumed hat and occasionally carrying a military saber, he would stroll the streets and enjoy the celebrity status that came with anyone willing to indulge his royal fantasy. Often being greeted with a bow, the city directory listed his occupation as “Emperor”. Despite his lack of a palace and riches he ate at many restaurants free of charge, had free tickets to theater performances, and even issued his own currency.
Local newspapers and tourist locations quickly picked up on the popularity of the Emperor. Souvenirs such as photographs of him in imperial dress and Emperor Norton dolls found their way into shops across the city. Newspapers printed his royal decrees in hopes of increased readership despite their absurdity. On October 1859, he declared in local newspaper, “fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice…in consequence of which, we do hereby abolish Congress.” When congress continued to meet and run as normal Emperor Norton I responded with a decree that demanded General Winfield Scott to march on Washington. In the upcoming year with the Civil War approaching, Norton declared that he had dissolved the Union and replaced it with a monarchy; with him of course as the monarch. With the help of the newspapers these decrees continued to be put in front of the public. When the French invaded Mexico he even added ‘Protector of Mexico’ to his title.
As his popularity grew, Norton I became a cherished icon for the city of San Francisco. Theater owners saved him a seat at the opening night of every play; local train and ferry companies let him ride free of charge; and some restaurateurs allowed him to skip out on his tab in exchange for the right to post an imperial seal of approval that read: “By Appointment to His Imperial Majesty, Norton I.” The Emperor remained poor in spite of this; but many admiring subjects ‘paid’ taxes into the ‘imperial treasury’ to support him. In 1871, a local printing firm ran off a special currency emblazoned with a picture of Norton I and his imperial seal. The Emperor passed the notes as his official government bonds until the day he died, and many recipients displayed them as treasured mementos. Army officers gifted him fresh uniform when his old one wore out, and local lawmakers helped furnish the ‘royal wardrobe’ from public funds. When a police officer once dared to arrest the Emperor on charges of vagrancy, the city’s newspapers responded with outrage. The Emperor was quickly released, and from then on, the city’s lawmen saluted whenever they encountered him on the street.
All the while, newspapers continued to print Norton;s decrees in the papers. Some were bizarre such as in 1872, he declared that anyone who referred to his adopted city by “the abominable word ‘Frisco’” was subject to a $25 fine. Others were more logical, in the early 1870s he announced that the city should appropriate funds for construction of a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. Ignored at the time, Norton’s decree eventually came to fruition in 1936 with the opening of the Bay Bridge.
Emperor Norton’s character inspired fascination from tourists and great artists alike. Mark Twain, who had worked as a journalist in San Francisco during his reign, went on to use the Emperor as the model for the “King,” a royal impostor who appears as a character in his 1885 novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Various plays and operas were written about Norton during his lifetime. Despite this, his day to day wasn’t as grandiose; he lived in a tiny rented room and spent his days playing chess, attending religious services, reading in libraries or going on long walks, supposedly with Bummer and Lazarus, his two dogs.
It was during one of these royal walks on January 8, 1880, that Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, dropped dead from a stroke. His passing was written about in dozens of newspapers including the New York Times. San Francisco gave Norton a send-off fit for an Emperor. “LE ROI EST MORT” (“THE KING IS DEAD”), read the headline in the Chronicle. “He is dead,” lamented another paper, “and no citizen of San Francisco could have been taken away who would be more generally missed.” At Norton’s funeral a few days later, around 10,000 loyal ‘subjects’ turned up to pay their respects.