I can’t tell you exactly when or where he was born, possibly in 1818 and maybe in London, but he arrived in San Francisco, from South Africa, in 1849. People were attracted to the town in their hundreds of thousands in 1849 in the hope of finding gold. Norton though, was hoping to set up a business in buying and selling and also real estate. He had $40,000 that he had inherited from his father and began by buying an abandoned boat to store his merchandise and also rent out storage to others. He must have been good because by 1852 his fortune had grown to $250,000. Then he lost a tenth of his money on a shipment of rice. He believed that he’d been duped and spent the next two and a half years battling through the courts to prove it. He lost and in the process had racked up huge legal bills. In addition to this, the Gold Rush was over and everything was falling in price. His estate had lost a lot of it’s value and in 1858 he filed for bankruptcy.
He became pretty disillusioned with the American legal system and bureaucracy in general. He kept a pretty low profile for a while but then on September 17th 1859 he wrote a letter declaring himself Emperor of the United States and delivered copies of it to various newspapers around the city. This is what it said:
“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, 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 February 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.
His letter was printed in the San Francisco Bulletin the following day. More announcements followed. He later added ‘Protector of Mexico’ to his title. He abolished the California Supreme Court and also fired the governor of Virginia. This was for sentencing the abolitionist John Brown to the gallows. He went on to abolish both political parties and the Republic of the United States. Not all of his pronouncements were completely barking. In many respects he was a well informed and thoughtful man. He forbade any kind of conflicts between religions or their sects. He also once intervened personally in an anti-Chinese demonstration which could have turned violent. He stood between the demonstrators and their target with bowed head, reciting the Lord’s Prayer until everyone went home.
Although his edicts were ignored, people really took him to their hearts. They seem not merely to have tolerated him, but genuinely liked him. That’s what I really like about his story. Norton was a familiar and rather flamboyant figure around the town. He often dressed in an elaborate blue uniform with gold epaulettes and buttons. which had been a gift from the army, and a tall hat decorated with peacock feathers. Norton took a great deal of interest in his Empire. He spent his days inspecting the condition of sidewalks, cable cars, building projects and the appearance of police officers. Although he was penniless he ate in the finest restaurants because people were so fond of him, they let him eat for free. They would even put out brass plaques declaring themselves to be by Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States. No one thought of putting on a play without reserving a box in the balcony for the Emperor. Norton issued his own money, in the form of a promissory note, to pay his debts. They were accepted as currency, people just liked having them.
When, on one occasion, he was arrested by an over-zealous and newly appointed police officer who took him to the Commission of Lunacy, his fellow citizens were outraged. The chief of police ordered him released and issued an official apology, saying that he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country. Norton granted an Imperial Pardon to the errant policeman. In the US census of 1870 his occupation is listed as Emperor. Many rumours surrounded him, he was a wealthy eccentric, he was the son of Emperor Napoleon III, he planned to marry Queen Victoria.
When he collapsed and died in 1880, he had only a few dollars to his name. His obituary the following day read: Le Roi est Mort. He would have had a pauper’s funeral but the Pacific Club, a business association in San Francisco, gave him a fine send off and around 10,000 people lined the streets to bid him farewell.