N is for Emperor Norton

Round 20 of ABC Wednesday is billed as The Farewell Tour so this may be my last trip through the alphabet of the famous, the infamous and the forgotten.

Most national leaders suffer from self-delusion to some degree, but they pale in comparison with Joshua Abraham Norton who in 1859 declared himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Norton was born in England in 1818 but spent his early life in South Africa. Following the death of his parents, he then emigrated to San Francisco during the Gold Rush of 1849.

His merchant father had left him a substantial inheritance of $40,000, or $1.2 million at today’s value, and used the money to establish himself as a businessman on the west coast. In just a few years he turned his $40,000 into $250,000 but then in 1853 greed got the better of him.

Norton in uniform c 1880

There was a famine in China and as result, that country’s export of rice was banned. The price of rice in San Francisco rocketed and Norton saw an opportunity to make a profit. He heard that a ship was on its way from Peru carrying 200,000 lbs of rice and he signed a contract to buy the entire load for $25,000 hoping to corner the market.

What he didn’t know was that there were several other shiploads en route and when they arrived the price of rice plummeted. He tried to wriggle out of they contract on the grounds that the dealer had misled him as to the quality of the rice and a protracted legal wrangle began. The Supreme Court of California ultimately ruled against Norton and he was forced to file for bankruptcy.

Unsurprisingly, Norton felt a deep sense of injustice and in 1859 he sent letters to the newspapers of the city, proclaiming himself ‘Emperor of these United States’.

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.

NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.

He went on to order the commander-in-chief of the army to ‘proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress’ and his proclamation was published in the San Francisco Bulletin, although more for the entertainment of its readers rather than as a serious article.

Norton’s proclamation

Not one to be ignored, Norton issued a further proclamation in 1860 dissolving the republic and in 1862 he called on both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches to publicly ordain him as emperor.

His eccentric law-making included a decree that anyone referring to his home city as ‘Frisco’ should be fined $25 as this ‘abominable word has no linguistic or other warrant’, but he also demonstrated some foresight, such as his order to form a League of Nations.

Norton became a popular figure as he wandered the streets of San Francisco in his elaborate uniform inspecting the city’s amenities and though he was penniless, he ate at the best restaurants and the owners would put a plaque outside their establishments declaring that they were by ‘Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States.

Norton also issued his own currency, such as the $5 bill on the left, and these became accepted in the city and when a policeman attempted to commit him for involuntary treatment for his ‘mental disorder’ there was such a public outcry that he was released with a formal apology.

Recognition of Norton’s imperial status was officially recognised in the 1870 census which lists Joshua Norton as 50 years old and residing at 624 Commercial Street; with the occupation was listed as Emperor, although it also adds that he was insane.

But San Francisco was kind to Norton. For example, when his uniform became shabby the Board of Supervisors replaced it which Norton graciously acknowledged by granting each of its members a ‘patent of nobility in perpetuity’.

Various rumours surrounded Norton, such as that he was the son of Napoleon III or that he was to marry Queen Victoria,  but his 21-year ‘reign’ came to an end in 1880 when he collapsed on the street and died before he could be taken to hospital.  The San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary on its front page the following day under the headline ‘Le Roi est Mort’.

Penniless as he was, a pauper’s funeral was arranged until the city’s business association stepped in to set up a funeral fund and some accounts say that 30,000 people lined the streets as the two-mile-long cortège passed by.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

3 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 12th April 2017

    That’s what we need here, an emperor!

  • zongrik 12th April 2017

    seems like a nut

  • Melody Steenkamp 12th April 2017

    To some degree self-delusion is necessary I guess…. but there are people who have to much of it… which is a disaster for those who try to live and come by with what they have…

    Have a nice ABC-day / -week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (abc-w-team)


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