Joshua Abraham Norton was born in 1818 in England, and when he was a toddler his family emigrated to South Africa, where his father owned and operated a successful ships’ chandlery. Unfortunately for Norton, his parents died when their only son was just in his 20s, leaving the younger Norton alone in the world but with an inheritance of $40,000 (a fortune at the time). As Norton was the type who craved adventure, he eventually decided to head to California for the Gold Rush.
By the early 1850s, a few years after arriving, Norton’s businesses – a warehouse, a ship, a cigar factory, a mill, and an office building – had increased his wealth to over $250,000 (about $6.5M today). However, he bet badly on rice futures and lost a ton of cash. By 1859, Norton was living in a working-class boarding house and living hand-to-mouth.
So Norton did what any other entrepreneurial person would do. He reinvented himself. With the Civil War looming, the Gold Rush flagging, and perceived graft and corruption all around, Norton told his friends that things would be far better if he were in charge.
Accordingly, on 17 September 1859, an unusual ad was published in the San Francisco Bulletin:
“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.”
It would have been easy to disregard this as the ravings of a lunatic, but the Bulletin continued to publish his demands and edicts. The self-styled Norton I called for the abolishment of the Supreme Court. He put Congress on notice. He fired Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise for sending John Brown of Harper’s Ferry fame to the gallows without permission; as he couldn’t leave Virginia without a Governor, though, Norton replaced – through a notice in the paper – ‘former’ Governor Wise with John Breckinridge of Kentucky, who was actually then the Vice President of the United States.
In 1860, Congress convened against Emperor Norton I’s apparent wishes. In retaliation, he ordered the “General in Chief of the Armies… to clear the halls of [the legislature in Washington].” Then he decided to just abolish Congress and political parties altogether, and in their places institute an absolute monarchy. These proclamations were, as before, carried as news by the Bulletin.
As a ruler with no troops or money to back his decrees, the Emperor had no real power to fire governors, or dismantle Congress and the Supreme Court. However, he did gain power of sorts. Norton I quickly became a legend and was extremely popular among the people of San Francisco. Politicians were forced to humor him, because to show him disrespect was to lose votes.
Some examples of his ‘power’ include:
1. He was arrested once, not for advocating the overthrow of the government, but for vagrancy. There was such a hue and cry from the public and the media that he was released, charges were dropped, and the Chief of Police issued a formal apology.
2. After the vagrancy charges were dropped, the Chief also instructed his patrol officers to salute the Emperor when they passed him on the streets of San Francisco.
3. His rent at the boarding house never increased from fifty cents per night.
4. Shopkeepers gave him clothes so that they could then put signs in their windows that read, “Outfitters to His Imperial Majesty Norton I.”
5. He was given passes to ride free on all public transportation in San Francisco and, later, the entire state of California.
6. He rec’d free meals from many restaurants. free opera tickets, and passes to theatrical productions (he accepted box seats only).
7. When he needed some pocket change, he went to various businesses to collect the ‘tax’ that was due to him, and fans would always hand over some coins. At other times, he printed his own paper money, which was honored at most local retail establishments (or which he traded to enthusiastic souvenir-seekers for actual U.S. currency).
8. Dolls were made in his likeness and sold in shops throughout San Francisco.
9. It is even reported that he prevented a gang of ruffians from robbing a Chinese laborer whom they accosted on the street; Norton I stood before them and recited the Lord’s Prayer, making them sulk away in shame.
He became a local, and arguably a national, hero and mascot.
Unfortunately, after 21 years ruling these United States and later extending, by newspaper proclamation, his protection to Mexico, on a sad day in January 1880, the Emperor suddenly fell to the sidewalk during his evening walk. He died before he could be taken to the hospital. The Pacific Club of San Francisco raised funds for a rosewood casket and other funeral expenses, as Norton I died nearly penniless, having chosen to never overtax his subjects.
More than 10,000 people paid their respects, with some newspapers later claiming that as many as 30,000 people, or 13% of the population of San Francisco, had lined the streets. The funeral procession wound its way several miles from city hall to the grave site, and newspapers across the country reported the death of the Emperor. One newspaper, the Alta Californian, even dedicated 34 inches of print to a celebration of the life of Norton I. On the same day, that paper printed just 38 words from the inaugural speech of the new Governor of California.
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