|Joshua Abraham Norton|
Joshua Abraham Norton (a.k.a. Norton I)
|Died||January 8, 1880
San Francisco, California, U.S.
Joshua Abraham Norton (c. 1819 – January 8, 1880), the self-proclaimed His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, was a celebrated citizen of San Francisco, California, who in 1859 proclaimed himself "Emperor of these United States" and subsequently "Protector of Mexico."
Born in London, Norton spent most of his early life in South Africa. He emigrated to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving a bequest of $40,000 from his father's estate. Norton initially made a living as a businessman, but he lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice.
After losing a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, Norton left San Francisco. He returned a few years later, apparently mentally unbalanced, claiming to be the emperor of the United States. Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented.
Though he was considered insane, or at least highly eccentric, the citizens of San Francisco celebrated his regal presence and his proclamations, most famously, his "order" that the United States Congress be dissolved by force (which Congress and the U.S. Army ignored) and his numerous decrees calling for a bridge and a tunnel to be built across San Francisco Bay (which both happened long after his death in the form of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge and the Transbay Tube). On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at a street corner, and died before he could be given medical treatment. The following day, nearly 30,000 people packed the streets of San Francisco to pay homage to Norton. Norton's legacy has been immortalized in the literature of writers Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christopher Moore, and Neil Gaiman who based characters on him. In December 2004, a resolution was made to name the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge in honor of Norton, but the idea did not progress further.
Norton was born in England, but scholarly works disagree as to the date and exact town of his birth. His obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, "following the best information obtainable," cited the silver plate on his coffin which said he was "aged about 65", suggesting that 1814 could be the year of his birth. Other sources claim that he was born on February 4, 1819 in London. Immigration records indicate that he was two years old in 1820 when his parents moved to South Africa. South African genealogies suggest that his parents were John Norton (d. August 1848) and Sarah Norden. Sarah was a daughter of Abraham Norden and a sister of Benjamin Norden, a successful Jewish merchant.
Norton emigrated from South Africa to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving a bequest of $40,000 from his father's estate. He enjoyed a good deal of success in the real estate market and by the early 1850s had accumulated a fortune of $250,000. Norton thought he saw a business opportunity when China, facing a severe famine, placed a ban on the export of rice, causing the price of rice in San Francisco to skyrocket from four cents per pound to thirty-six cents per pound (9 cents/kg to 79 cents/kg). When he heard that the Glyde, which was returning from Peru, was carrying 200,000 pounds (91,000 kg) of rice, he bought the entire shipment for $25,000 (or eight cents per pound), hoping to corner the market.
Shortly after signing the contract, several other shiploads of rice arrived from Peru causing the price of rice to plummet to three cents a pound. Norton tried to void the contract, stating that the dealer had misled him as to the quality of rice to expect. From 1853 to 1857, Norton and the rice dealers were involved in a protracted litigation. Although Norton prevailed in the lower courts, the case reached the Supreme Court of California, which ruled against Norton. Later on, the Lucas Turner and Company Bank foreclosed on his real estate holdings in North Beach to pay Norton's debt. Norton's mental state was severely affected by these financial setbacks. He declared bankruptcy in 1858 and left the city for a time. There are no known documents noting that Norton had an eccentric personality prior to the loss of his fortune, so it is not known whether his pronounced eccentricity was a permanent aspect of his character or arose as a result of the stressful financial straits he found himself in during the 1850s. Nonetheless, after his sudden loss of financial stability, Norton became (in the absence of a proper diagnosis) somewhat "odd", exhibiting the symptoms often referred to as "delusions of grandeur".
When Norton returned to San Francisco from his self-imposed exile, he had become completely disgruntled with what he considered the vicissitudes and inadequacies of the legal and political structures of the United States. On September 17, 1859, he took matters into his own hands and distributed letters to the various newspapers in 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.||”|
The announcement was first reprinted for humorous effect by the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin. Norton would later add "Protector of Mexico" to this title. Thus commenced his unprecedented and whimsical twenty-one-year "reign" over America.
In accordance with his self-appointed role of emperor, Norton issued numerous decrees on matters of the state. After assuming absolute control over the country, he saw no further need for a legislature, and on October 12, 1859, he issued a decree that formally "dissolved" the United States Congress. In the decree, Norton observed:
|“||...fraud and corruption prevent 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.||”|
As a result, Norton ordered that all interested parties gather at Platt's Music Hall in San Francisco in February 1860 so as to "remedy the evil complained of".
In another imperial decree a month later, Norton summoned the army to depose the elected officials of the U.S. Congress:
|“||WHEREAS, 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, declaring the said Congress abolished;
Norton's orders obviously had no effect on the Army, and the Congress likewise continued in its activities unperturbed. Norton issued further decrees in 1860 that purported to dissolve the republic and to forbid the assembly of any members of the Congress. Norton's battle against the elected leaders of America was to persist throughout what he considered his reign, though it appears that Norton eventually, if somewhat grudgingly, accepted that Congress would continue to exist without his permission, although this did not change his feelings on the matter. In the hopes of resolving the many disputes between citizens of the United States during the Civil War, Norton issued a mandate in 1862 ordering both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches to publicly ordain him as "Emperor".
His attempts to overthrow the elected government of America by force having been utterly ignored, Norton turned his attention and his proclamations to other matters, both political and social. On August 12, 1869, "being desirous of allaying the dissensions of party strife now existing within our realm", he abolished both the Democratic and Republican parties. The failure to refer to Norton's adopted home city with appropriate respect was the subject of a particularly stern edict in 1872:
|“||Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word "Frisco", which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.||”|
For all of his quirks and regardless of the precise nature of his psychological condition, Norton was on some occasions a visionary, and a number of his "Imperial Decrees" exhibited a profound foresight. Among his many edicts were instructions to form a League of Nations, and he explicitly forbade any form of discord or conflict between religions or their sects. Norton also saw fit on a number of occasions to decree the construction of a suspension bridge or tunnel connecting Oakland and San Francisco, his later decrees becoming increasingly irritated at the lack of prompt obedience being exhibited by the authorities:
|“||WHEREAS, we issued our
decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to
appropriate funds for the survey of a suspension bridge from
Oakland Point via Goat Island; also for a tunnel; and
to ascertain which is the best project; and whereas the said
citizens have hitherto neglected to notice our said decree; and
whereas we are determined our authority shall be fully respected;
now, therefore, we do hereby command the arrest by the army of both
the Boards of City Fathers if they persist in neglecting our
This suggestion, unlike many of Norton's others, actually came to fruition, but not because of him; construction of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge began on July 9, 1933 and was completed on November 12, 1936. The construction of Bay Area Rapid Transit's Transbay Tube was completed in 1969, with Transbay rail service commencing in 1974.
Norton spent his days as emperor inspecting the streets of San Francisco in an elaborate blue uniform with tarnished gold-plated epaulets, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco. He also wore a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. He frequently enhanced this regal posture with a cane or an umbrella. During his inspections, Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, and the appearance of police officers. Norton would also frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot at the time.
It was during one of his inspections that Norton is reputed to have performed one of his most famous acts of "diplomacy." During the 1860s and 1870s, there were a number of anti-Chinese demonstrations in the poorer districts of San Francisco. Ugly riots, some resulting in fatalities, broke out on several occasions. During one such incident, Norton allegedly positioned himself between the rioters and their Chinese targets, and with a bowed head started reciting the Lord's Prayer repeatedly until the rioters dispersed without incident.
Norton was much loved and revered by the citizens of San Francisco. Although penniless, he regularly ate at the finest restaurants in San Francisco; these restaurateurs then took it upon themselves to add brass plaques in their entrances declaring "[b]y Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States." By all accounts, such "Imperial seals of approval" were much prized and a substantial boost to trade. Supposedly, no play or musical performance in San Francisco would dare to open without reserving balcony seats for Norton.
A popular rumor started by the devoted Norton caricaturist Ed Jump holds that he had two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, who were themselves notable San Francisco celebrities at the time. Although he did not own the dogs, Norton ate at free lunch counters where he provided the dogs with a few morsels of food. The royal dogs were not considered dogs in Norton's eyes and in the eyes of his "subjects". The canines were treated as their own autonomous beings.
In 1867, a police officer named Armand Barbier arrested Norton for the purpose of committing him to involuntary treatment for a mental disorder. The arrest outraged the citizens of San Francisco and sparked a number of scathing editorials in the newspapers. Police Chief Patrick Crowley speedily rectified matters by ordering Norton released and issuing a formal apology on behalf of the police force. Chief Crowley observed of the self-styled monarch "that he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line." Norton was magnanimous enough to grant an "Imperial Pardon" to the errant young police officer. Possibly as a result of this scandal, all police officers of San Francisco thereafter saluted Norton as he passed in the street.
Norton did receive some small tokens of formal recognition for his self-claimed position: the 1870 U.S. census records Joshua Norton as 50 years old and residing at 624 Commercial Street; his occupation is given as "Emporer" [sic]. Norton would also issue his own money on occasion in order to pay for certain debts, and this became an accepted local currency in San Francisco. Typically these notes came in denominations ranging anywhere from fifty cents to ten dollars; the few notes still extant are collector's items. The city of San Francisco also honored Norton. When his uniform began to look shabby, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, with a great deal of ceremony, bought him a suitably regal replacement. In return, Norton sent them a gracious note of thanks and issued a "patent of nobility in perpetuity" for each supervisor.
During the later years of Norton's "reign", he was the subject of considerable rumor and speculation. One popular story suggested that he was the son of Emperor Louis Napoleon and that his claim of coming from South Africa was a ruse to prevent persecution. Another popular story suggested that Norton was planning to marry Queen Victoria. While this claim is unsupported, Norton did write to the Queen on several occasions and he is reported to have met Emperor Pedro II of Brazil. Rumors also circulated that Norton was supremely wealthy—only affecting poverty because he was miserly.
A number of decrees that were probably fraudulent were submitted and duly printed in local newspapers, and it is believed that in at least a few cases, newspaper editors themselves drafted fictitious edicts to suit their own agendas. The Museum of the City of San Francisco maintains a list of the decrees believed to be genuine.
On the evening of January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed on the corner of California Street and Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) in front of Old St. Mary's Church while on his way to a lecture at the California Academy of Sciences. His collapse was immediately noticed and "the police officer on the beat hastened for a carriage to convey him to the City Receiving Hospital." Norton died before a carriage could arrive. The following day the San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary on its front page under the headline "Le Roi est Mort" ("The King is Dead"). In a tone tinged with sadness, the article respectfully reported that, "[o]n the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain..., Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life". The Morning Call, another leading San Francisco newspaper, published a front-page article using an almost identical sentence as a headline: "Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life."
It quickly became evident that, contrary to the rumors, Norton had died in complete poverty. Five or six dollars in small change had been found on his person, and a search of his room at the boarding house on Commercial Street turned up a single sovereign, worth around $2.50; his collection of walking sticks; his rather battered saber; a variety of hats (including a stovepipe, a derby, a red-laced Army cap, and another cap suited to a martial band-master); an 1828 French franc; and a handful of the Imperial bonds he sold to tourists at a fictitious 7% interest. There were fake telegrams purporting to be from Emperor Alexander II of Russia, congratulating Norton on his forthcoming marriage to Queen Victoria, and from the President of France, predicting that such a union would be disastrous to world peace. Also found were his letters to Queen Victoria and 98 shares of stock in a defunct gold mine.
Initial funeral arrangements included a pauper's coffin of simple redwood. However, members of the Pacific Club (a San Franciscan businessman's association) established a funeral fund that paid for a handsome rosewood casket and arranged a suitably dignified farewell. Norton's funeral on Sunday, January 10, was a solemn, mournful, and large affair. Respects were paid "...by 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." Some accounts report that as many as 30,000 people lined the streets to pay homage, and that the funeral cortege was two miles (3 km) long. At the time San Francisco's total population was a mere 230,000. He was buried at the Masonic Cemetery, at the expense of the City of San Francisco.
In 1934, Norton's remains were transferred, as were all graves in the city, at the expense of the City of San Francisco to a grave site of moderate splendor at Woodlawn Cemetery, in Colma. The site is marked by a large stone inscribed "Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico".
Although details of Norton's life story may have been forgotten, he was immortalized in literature. Mark Twain, who was resident in San Francisco during part of Emperor Norton's "reign", modeled the character of the King in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after Norton.
Robert Louis Stevenson made Norton a character in his 1892 novel, The Wrecker. Stevenson's stepdaughter, Isobel Field, wrote about Norton in her autobiography entitled This Life I've Loved. She wrote that Norton "was a gentle and kindly man, and fortunately found himself in the friendliest and most sentimental city in the world, the idea being 'let him be emperor if he wants to.' San Francisco played the game with him."
In January 1980, numerous ceremonies were conducted in San Francisco to honor the 100th anniversary of the passing of the one and only "Emperor of the United States." Norton's proclamations promoting a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland were commemorated on December 14, 2004, when after a campaign by local cartoonist Phil Frank the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a resolution calling for the new span of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge to be named after Norton. The proposal, however, needed the approval of the City of Oakland and then state authorities before it could be ratified. The members of the Oakland City Council expressed disapproval of the proposal, and no progress was made on the resolution afterwards.