So those of us here in the United States go to the polls today. Wouldn’t it be just easier if we just had an emperor? According to one man in San Francisco, we did and it was him. On September 17, 1859, Joshua A. Norton declared himself the “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico”. Who was this illustrious emperor and why haven’t we heard of him?
Joshua A. Norton was born February 4, 1819, probably in Scotland. Not much is known about his early life, but before settling in San Francisco he lived in Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope and was a member of the Cape Mounted Riflemen. He arrived in California in 1849 and like many others hoped to make his fortune in the Gold Rush. He was able to make good for a time, turning a $40,000 stake into a quarter million dollar fortune, but lost it all to speculation and greed. Again, he tried to make his fortune in speculation of rice during the 1853 rice shortage. He was thwarted when fresh shipments arrived and the bottom fell out of the rice market. At that point, he became involved in extensive litigation as his partners in the rice scheme sued him. One of the cases went all the way to the Supreme Court in November 1853, where he was ruled against. His legal troubles combined with the loss of his fortune seemed to take a toll on Norton’s sanity.
In September 1859 he appeared in the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin with a decree to be published. The editors published it on a lark and the notice in the September 17, 1859 read:
At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens…I, Joshua Norton…declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.” It went on to command representatives from all the states to convene in the Bay Area, “to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.” The edict was signed, “NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.”
He claimed that an act of legislature in 1853 made him the Emperor of California, however, because California was a state he felt this was inappropriate. He needed to be the Emperor of the whole country. After his declaration was published, he took up the duties of his office. The society of San Francisco was amused and ran with the joke. The Emperor became one of the city’s most beloved oddballs. He could be found in the best restaurants eating for free and accepting “fealty” from jokers. He was easy to spot as he was always dressed in a navy blue military style coat adorned with many brass buttons and gilt epaulettes. A tall beaver hat, with a cockade of feathers and a rosette, cocked over his curly dark hair. He carried a walking stick made of grapevine from one of his subjects in Oregon. It was sod with a ferule and gold-mounted, as befit a scepter. He was often attended by two street dogs, Bummer and Lazarus. In reality, the “Mad Monarch” lived in a 6 x 10 feet room in the Eureka Lodging House with sparse furniture and a threadbare carpet.
His proclamations were always published in the papers. First he abolished Congress, and when Congress continued to meet despite his decree he ordered General Winfield Scott to march to Washington DC and arrest them. Then on the eve of the Civil War, he dissolved the Union altogether and declared an absolute monarchy. Then he declared himself the “Protector of Mexico. However, he later abandoned this title saying, “It is impossible to protect such an unsettled nation.”
Norton’s celebrity grew and photos of him in imperial dress were popular souvenirs. No play opening night or restaurant opening was complete without him. He would pay them by posting an imperial IOU, which read “By Appointment to His Imperial Majesty, Norton I.” He captured the imagination of Mark Twain, who immortalized him as a character in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.
The Emperor died of a stroke on January 8, 1880. San Francisco gave him a funeral fit for the Emperor he thought he was. “LE ROI EST MORT” (“THE KING IS DEAD”), read the headline in the Chronicle. “He is dead,” lamented another paper, “and no citizen of San Francisco could have been taken away who would be more generally missed.” Some 10,000 loyal subjects turned up to pay their respects.
Sources available on request