Who was Norton I, Emperor of the United States?

Introduction

Joshua Abraham Norton, 04 February 1818 to 08 January 1880, known as Emperor Norton, was a citizen of San Francisco, California, who proclaimed himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States” in 1859.

In 1863 he took the secondary title of “Protector of Mexico” after Napoleon III invaded that country.

Norton was born in England but spent most of his early life in South Africa. He sailed west after the death of his mother in 1846 and his father in 1848, arriving in San Francisco possibly in November 1849.

Norton initially made a living as a businessman, but he lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice to sell in China due to a Chinese rice shortage. He bought rice at 12 cents per pound from Peruvian ships, but more Peruvian ships arrived in port which caused the price to drop sharply to 4 cents. He then lost a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, and his public prominence faded.

He re-emerged in September 1859, laying claim to the position of Emperor of the United States. Though Norton received many favours from the city, merchants also capitalised on his notoriety by selling souvenirs bearing his name. “San Francisco lived off the Emperor Norton,” Norton’s biographer William Drury wrote, “not Norton off San Francisco.”

Norton had no formal political power; nevertheless, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honoured in the establishments that he frequented. Some considered him insane or eccentric, but citizens of San Francisco celebrated his imperial presence and his proclamations, such as his order that the United States Congress be dissolved by force and his numerous decrees calling for the construction of a bridge and tunnel crossing San Francisco Bay to connect San Francisco with Oakland.

On 08 January 1880, Norton collapsed at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant) streets and died before he could be given medical treatment. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, upwards of 10,000 people lined the streets of San Francisco to pay him homage at his funeral. Norton has been immortalised as the basis of characters in the literature of Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christopher Moore, Morris and René Goscinny, Selma Lagerlöf, and Neil Gaiman.

Biography

Early life

Norton’s parents were John Norton (d. August 1848) and Sarah Norden, who were English Jews. John was a farmer and merchant, and Sarah was a daughter of Abraham Norden and a sister of Benjamin Norden, a successful merchant. The family moved to South Africa in early 1820 as part of a government-backed colonisation scheme whose participants came to be known as the 1820 Settlers. Most likely, Norton was born in the Kentish town of Deptford, today part of London.

The best available evidence points to 04 February 1818, as the date of Norton’s birth. Obituaries published in 1880, following Norton’s death, offered conflicting information about his birth date. The second of two obituaries 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. However, Norton’s biographer, William Drury, points out that “about 65” was based solely on the guess that Norton’s landlady offered to the coroner at the inquest following his death. In a 1923 essay published by the California Historical Society, Robert Ernest Cowan claimed that Norton was born on 04 February 1819. However, the passenger lists for the La Belle Alliance, the ship that carried Norton and his family from England to South Africa, list him as having been two years old when the ship set sail in February 1820. This information appears not to have come to light until after 1934, the year that Norton’s headstone was placed at his grave in Colma, California – when Cowan’s account remained prominent. This may help to explain why those who had the stone made used 1819 as the birth year.

The 04 February 1865, edition of The Daily Alta California newspaper included an item in which the Alta wished Emperor Norton a happy 47th birthday, indicating that his birth date was 04 February 1818 (not 1819, as Cowan claimed) – a date that would line up with La Belle Alliances passenger list from two years later. Moreover, when Cowan quoted the 1865 Alta item in his essay, he used an altered version in an apparent attempt to advance his claim of an 1819 birth date. Persistent claims for an 1819 birth date are of doubtful provenance, tracing to unsubstantiated assertions made online, during the early years of the Internet. The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign (now known as The Emperor Norton Trust), a nonprofit that engages in Norton research and education, produced a 2018 bicentennial series, Emperor Norton at 200, that took as its starting point a 04 February 1818, birth date for Norton. Supporting and participating in the series were a number of institutions that long have helped to preserve the historical record of Emperor Norton: the California Historical Society, the San Francisco Public Library, the Mechanics’ Institute and the Society of California Pioneers.

There are oft-repeated historical claims that Joshua Norton arrived in San Francisco on a specific vessel, the Franzeska, on 23 November 1849; that he arrived with $40,000, in whole or in part a bequest from his father’s estate; and that he parlayed this into a fortune of $250,000. None of this is substantiated by contemporaneous documentation. What is known is that, after Norton arrived in San Francisco, he enjoyed a good deal of success in commodities markets and in real estate speculation, and that by late 1852, he was one of the more prosperous, respected citizens of the city.

In December 1852, 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 to thirty-six cents per pound (9 to 79 cents/kg). When he heard 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 twelve and a half cents per pound), hoping to corner the market. Shortly after he signed 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 the dealer had misled him as to the quality of rice to expect. From 1853 to 1856, 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, the Lucas Turner and Company Bank foreclosed on his real estate holdings in North Beach to pay Norton’s debt. He filed for bankruptcy and by 1858 was living in reduced circumstances at a working class boarding house.

Declaration as Emperor

By 1859, Norton had become completely discontented with what he considered the inadequacies of the legal and political structures of the United States. On 17 September 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 San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself 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.

The announcement was first printed for humorous effect by the editor of the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin. Norton later added “Protector of Mexico” to this title, and thus began his whimsical 21-year “reign” over America.

Norton issued numerous decrees on matters of the state, including a decree on 12 October 1859 to formally abolish the United States Congress. In it, he 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.

Norton ordered all interested parties to assemble at Platt’s Music Hall in San Francisco in February 1860 to “remedy the evil complained of”.

In an imperial decree the following month, 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;

WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with;

NOW, THEREFORE, we do hereby Order and Direct Major-General Scott, the Command-in-Chief of our Armies, immediately upon receipt of this, our Decree, to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress.

Norton’s orders were ignored by the Army, and Congress likewise continued without any formal acknowledgement of the decree. Further decrees in 1860 ordered dissolution of the republic and forbade the assembly of any members of the former Congress. Norton’s battle against the elected leaders of America persisted for the remainder of his life. He issued a mandate in 1862 ordering both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches to publicly ordain him as “Emperor”, hoping to resolve the many disputes that had resulted in the Civil War.

Norton then turned his attention to other matters, both political and social. He declared the abolition of the Democratic and Republican parties on 12 August 1869, “being desirous of allaying the dissensions of party strife now existing within our realm”. The failure to treat Norton’s adopted home city with appropriate respect is the subject of a particularly stern edict that often is cited as having been written by Norton in 1872, although evidence is elusive for the authorship, date, or source of this decree:

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.

Norton was occasionally a visionary, and some of his Imperial Decrees exhibited profound foresight. He issued instructions to form a League of Nations, he explicitly forbade any form of conflict between religions or their sects, and he decreed the construction of a suspension bridge or tunnel connecting Oakland and San Francisco. His later decrees, however, became increasingly irritated at the lack of prompt obedience 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 decrees. Given under our royal hand and seal at San Francisco, this 17th day of September, 1872.

Long after his death, similar structures were built in the form of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and the Transbay Tube, and there have been campaigns to rename the bridge “The Emperor Norton Bridge”.

Imperial Acts

Norton spent his days inspecting San Francisco’s streets in an elaborate blue uniform with gold-plated epaulettes, 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 imperial posture with a cane or umbrella. During his inspections, he would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, and the appearance of police officers. He would also frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot.

Norton caricaturist Edward Jump started a rumor that two noted stray dogs named Bummer and Lazarus (which were also San Francisco celebrities) were Norton’s pets. Norton ate at free-lunch counters where he shared his meals with the dogs, although he did not in fact own them.

Special officer Armand Barbier was part of a local auxiliary force whose members were called “policemen” but in fact were private security guards paid by neighbourhood residents and business owners, and he arrested Norton in 1867 to commit him to involuntary treatment for a mental disorder. The arrest outraged the citizens and sparked scathing editorials in the newspapers, including the Daily Alta which wrote “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.” Police Chief Patrick Crowley ordered Norton released and issued a formal apology on behalf of the police force, and Norton granted an Imperial Pardon to Barbier. Police officers of San Francisco thereafter saluted him as he passed in the street. Norton did receive some tokens of recognition for his position. The 1870 US census lists Joshua Norton as 50 years old and residing at 624 Commercial Street, and his occupation is listed as “Emperor”. It also notes that he was insane.

During the 1860s and 1870s, there were occasional anti-Chinese demonstrations in the poorer districts of San Francisco, and riots took place, sometimes resulting in fatalities. Starting in the late 1870s, these riots were fomented at rallies that took place on Sunday afternoons at the sandlots across from City Hall. The rallies were led by Denis Kearney, a leader of the anti-Chinese Workingmen’s Party of California. At a sandlot rally held on 28 April 1878, Emperor Norton appeared just before the start of proceedings, stood on a small box and challenged Kearney directly, telling him and the assembled crowd to disperse and go home. Norton was unsuccessful, but the incident was widely reported in local papers over the next couple of days.

Norton issued his own money in the form of scrip, or promissory notes, which were accepted from him by some restaurants in San Francisco. These notes came in denominations between fifty cents and ten dollars, and the few surviving notes are collector’s items that routinely sell for more than $10,000 at auction.

The city of San Francisco also honored Norton. When his uniform began to look shabby, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors bought him a suitably imperial replacement. Norton sent a gracious thank you note and issued a “patent of nobility in perpetuity” for each supervisor.

Later Years and Death

Norton was the subject of many tales. One popular story suggested that he was the son of Emperor Napoleon III and that his claim of coming from South Africa was a ruse to prevent persecution. Suggestions that Norton should marry Queen Victoria can hardly be taken seriously, though he is reported to have met Emperor Pedro II of Brazil. Rumours also circulated that Norton was supremely wealthy and was feigning poverty because he was miserly.

Local newspapers printed a number of decrees that were probably not issued by Norton; it is believed that newspaper editors themselves drafted fictitious edicts to suit their own agendas. The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society maintains a list of the decrees believed to be genuine.

On the evening of 08 January 1880, Norton collapsed on the corner of California Street and Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) in front of Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral 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”, according to the next day’s obituary in the San Francisco Morning Call. Norton died before a carriage could arrive. The Call reported, “On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night, under the dripping rain… Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life”. Two days later, the San Francisco Chronicle led its article on Norton’s funeral with the headline “Le Roi Est Mort.”

It quickly became evident that Norton had died in complete poverty, contrary to rumours of wealth. Five or six dollars in small change was found on his person, and a search of his room at the boarding house on Commercial Street turned up a single gold sovereign, worth around $2.50. His possessions included his collection of walking sticks, his rather battered sabre, a variety of headgear 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 that 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 were for a pauper’s coffin of simple redwood. However, members of a San Francisco businessmen’s association called the Pacific Club established a funeral fund that provided for a handsome rosewood casket and arranged a dignified farewell. Norton’s funeral on Sunday, 10 January was solemn, mournful, and large. Paying their respects were members of “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”. It was reported that as many as 10,000 people lined the streets, and that the funeral cortège was two miles (3 km) long. Norton was buried in the Masonic Cemetery at the expense of the City of San Francisco.

In 1934, Emperor Norton’s remains were transferred to a grave site at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, California, as were all graves in the city.

Popular Culture

Details of Norton’s life story may have been forgotten, but he was immortalised in literature. Mark Twain resided in San Francisco during part of Emperor Norton’s public life, and he modelled the character of the King in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on him. Robert Louis Stevenson made Norton a character in his 1892 novel The Wrecker. Stevenson’s stepdaughter Isobel Osbourne mentioned Norton in her autobiography This Life I’ve Loved, stating that he “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.”

Since 1976, the Imperial Council of San Francisco has been conducting an annual pilgrimage to Norton’s grave in Colma, just outside San Francisco. In January 1980, ceremonies were conducted in San Francisco to honor the 100th anniversary of the death of “the one and only Emperor of the United States”. The Emperor Norton Trust – founded and based in San Francisco from 2013 to 2019, and originally known as The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign – is a nonprofit endeavour which engages in research, education, and advocacy to advance the legacy of Emperor Norton. He is considered a patron saint of Discordianism, and a park in the Republic of Molossia is named “Norton Park”.

The 15 June 1956 episode of the western anthology series Death Valley Days was titled, “Emperor Norton”, who was played by Parker Garvie. The 27 February 1966 episode of the western television series Bonanza was titled “The Emperor Norton”, who was played by Sam Jaffe. The episode also featured William Challee as Sam Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain.

Norton appeared as a character in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Vol 2, 31, “Three Septembers and a January”.

Emperor’s Bridge Campaign

In 1939, the group E Clampus Vitus commissioned a plaque commemorating Emperor Norton’s call for the construction of a suspension bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, via Yerba Buena Island (formerly Goat Island). The group intended to place the plaque on the recently opened San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge or, failing that, the new Transbay Terminal. This was not approved by the bridge authorities, however, and the plaque was installed at the Cliff House in 1955. It was moved to the Transbay Terminal in 1986, in connection with the 50th anniversary of the bridge. The Terminal was closed and demolished in 2010 as part of the project to construct a new Transbay Transit Center, and the plaque was placed in storage. After being restored in late 2018, the plaque was rededicated and reinstalled at the new transit center in September 2019.

There have been two 21st-century campaigns to name all or parts of the Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton. San Francisco District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced a resolution to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in November 2004, after a campaign by San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank calling for the entire bridge to be named for Norton. On 14 December 2004, the Board approved a modified version of this resolution, calling for only “new additions,” i.e., the planned replacement for the bridge’s eastern section, to be named “The Emperor Norton Bridge.” Neither the City of Oakland nor Alameda County passed any similar resolution, so the effort went no further.

In June 2013, eight members of the California Assembly and two members of the California Senate introduced a resolution to name the western section of the bridge for former California state Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. In response, there have been public efforts seeking to revive the earlier Emperor Norton effort. An online petition launched in August 2013 calls for the entire bridge system to be named for him. The petition was the impetus for the creation of The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign – now known as The Emperor Norton Trust – which is carrying forward the bridge-naming effort, citing the precedent of 30 California bridges for which the state has authorised multiple names. The Trust calls on the legislature simply to add “Emperor Norton Bridge” as an honourary name for the Bay Bridge, leaving in place all existing names. Currently, the organization hopes to sponsor a legislative resolution that would take effect in 2022, the 150th anniversary of Emperor Norton’s proclamations of 1872, setting out the original vision for the bridge.

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