150 years ago today, Joshua Abraham Norton – one of history’s greatest oddballs – declared himself “Emperor of the United States”. He would also later also declare himself “Protector of Mexico”.
Born in London around 1819, Norton spent most of his childhood in South Africa. In 1849 he moved to San Francisco, where he inherited $40,000 from his father’s estate (just over $1 million in 2008 dollars). Norton turned the $40,000 into $250,000 ($6.4 million) by way of real estate investments… but then disaster struck.
Facing a severe famine, China banned all exports of rice, which caused the price of rice to jump from 4¢ a pound to 36¢ a pound in San Francisco. Smelling a fortune, Norton found out that a ship named Glyde, traveling from Peru, had 200,000 pounds of rice on board. He bought her cargo, sight unseen, for $25,000. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter several other ships from Peru also loaded with rice arrived in San Francisco, causing the “rice bubble” to collapse. Norton spent years fighting against his cargo contract in the courts, and finally lost when the Supreme Court of California ruled against him. Financially ruined, Norton declared bankruptcy in 1858 and left San Francisco.
No one knows for sure exactly where Norton was for the next year, but on September 17, 1859, Norton returned to the city and wrote a letter which was sent to all the leading newspapers in the city:
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
The editor of the San Francisco Bulletin was amused by the letter, and printed it in his paper… and thus, a local legend was born. The citizens of San Francisco indulged him, and “Emperor Norton” spent his days roaming around the streets of his “kingdom” (or, as Norton would say, “inspecting the public works”) in an elaborate uniform given to him by Army officers at the Presidio.
Although penniless, restaurateurs would often allow Norton to dine for free, and many put up brass plaques at their entrances which read “[b]y Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States”. According to legend, almost every promoter in the city would reserve box seats for His Majesty for any play or musical performance. In time, Norton even began issuing his own money, which surprisingly became an accepted local currency in San Francisco:
As for his politics, it’s obvious that Norton had issues with the government that bankrupted him. His Majesty dissolved and abolished the United States Congress, dissolved the republic of the United States, made any assembly of former members of Congress illegal, and in 1862 issued a proclamation ordering Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in the area to support him as Emperor. He also proposed that a bridge be built from San Francisco to Oakland, and also banned the nickname “‘Frisco” for the city, a popular move amongst his subjects.
But it wasn’t all fun and games for Emperor Norton. There was significant anti-Chinese sentiment in the city at the time, and riots broke out on several occasions. In one instance, His Majesty was said to have jumped between the groups of protesters and began reciting the Lord’s Prayer, which diffused the situation.
In 1867, a young police officer named Armand Barbier arrested His Majesty to have him committed to a mental institution. This so outraged the people of San Francisco that police chief Patrick Crowley quickly ordered him released and issued Norton a formal apology. Norton was magnanimous enough to issue an “Imperial Pardon” to the young officer, and thereafter all San Francisco police officers saluted His Majesty when he passed.
Norton died on January 8, 1880. Because His Majesty was penniless, the city originally planned a pauper’s burial for him. When news of this leaked out, members of a local businessmen’s association created a funeral fund which allowed him to go out in style. It’s estimated that 30,000 people attended his funeral, “all classes from capitalists to the pauper, the clergyman to the pickpocket, well-dressed ladies and those whose garb and bearing hinted of the social outcast”.
Read more about Emperor Norton at Wikipedia here.