The First and Only Emperor of the United States: Emperor Norton - History Key

The First and Only Emperor of the United States: Emperor Norton

Joshua Abraham Norton was quite a character, that is for sure. He was born in England in 1818, but he spent most part of his childhood in South Africa. After his parent’s death, he moved to San Francisco, where he probably arrived during November 1849.

His first time spent in America found him well. He managed to raise a little fortune as a businessman, but he eventually lost everything investing in Peruvian rice.

Norton I, Emperor of the United States
Norton I, Emperor of the United States  © Image Source:

A self-proclaimed Emperor

After his failure in the rice trade, Norton tried to take the problem to court, but he lost the lawsuit and eventually entering a cone of shadow. After a period of isolation, he reappeared with a new and at least crazy idea.

During September 1859, Norton started claiming the position of neither more nor less than Emperor of the United States. Sounds crazy, also considering that Norton did not have any kind of political power or influence, but we must admit that the people of San Francisco treated him differently.

The moment of his financial failure and the lost lawsuit, probably made him develop some sort of nervous breakdown, transforming him into a representative of all the inadequacies of the legal and political structures of the United States.

On September 17, 1859, he sent letters containing his “Emperor statement” to several local newspapers, 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 US 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.” (NORTON I, Emperor of the United States)

Later on, Emperor Norton I, add to his title the role of “Protector of Mexico”. At the beginning, his letter of the proclamation was reprinted and distributed by the San Francisco Bulletin for comic purposes. Even if considered crazy, Emperor Norton I was somehow accepted and supported by the locals, if we consider that currency issued in his name was accepted in the establishments where he used to spend his time.

We also have to recognize that Emperor Norton took his role and duty very seriously. We say that having in mind the numerous decrees issued during his empire, one of them deserves to be remembered. On October 12, 1859, Emperor Norton I was formally abolishing the United States Congress, in a decree from which we draw the following quote:

“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”

During the following month, he released another imperial decree in which he summoned the Army to depose the elected officials of the U.S. Congress:

“Whereas, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress is 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.”

No need to say that both the Army and Congress ignored Norton.

Emperor Norton I
Emperor Norton I © Image Source:

His own currency was used in San Francisco

He was probably crazy, but some of his Imperial decrees were built on a clear foresight. One decree was related to the construction of a suspension bridge intended to connect Oakland and San Francisco. Unlike many others, this decree managed to materialize in a real project: the construction of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge began on July 9, 1933 and was finalized on November 12, 1936.

Emperor Norton spent most of his time on San Francisco’s streets. Dressed in a blue uniform, having gold-plated epaulets (which were give to him by an officer of the United States Army) and a beaver hat with a peacock feather, Norton’s main activity was inspecting the streets. He would check the condition of the sidewalks or of the cable cars, frequently giving also philosophical monologues, for the ones willing to listen.

We must admit that despite his lunatic behavior, the citizens of San Francisco loved Emperor Norton. He was able to eat in the best restaurants, mainly because the owners were using his presence in order to boost up the restaurants, by placing a plaque at their entrance stating that “Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States.”

Norton even issued his own currency, which was used by him in order to pay for his debts; what was interesting, is that his money was accepted in San Francisco, becoming a local currency.

A ten dollar bill issued by the Imperial Government of Norton I
A ten dollar bill issued by the Imperial Government of Norton I © Image Source:

The last part of Norton’s life was associated with all sorts of gossips. One story was related to the fact that he could have been the son of Emperor Napoleon III, and the claim that he lived in South Africa, only a trick to prevent persecution. Another story suggested that Emperor Norton I had in plan a royal marriage, neither more nor less than with Queen Victoria. The only real aspect is that Norton wrote several letters to the Queen, but without reporting any kind of feedback.

We must admit that Emperor Norton I went out in style. When on the evening of January 8, 1880, he died collapsing on the corner of California Street and Dupont Street, something happened. Even if during his life Norton was perceived as a funny lunatic, the city of San Francisco wanted to pay a special homage to him.

The following day the San Francisco Chronicle put his obituary on the front page, titling it “Le Roi est Mort” (The King is Dead). Another famous San Francisco newspaper, The Morning Call, followed the San Francisco Chronicle by publishing on the front page another article related to Norton’s death. This time, the headline was formed around a powerful sentence:

“Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.”

Despite all the rumors, Norton’s death revealed that he lived and died in total poverty. Only six dollars were found on his body and only a gold coin in his room at the boarding house on Commercial Street. It was a gold sovereign coin, having a net worth of $2.50, kept by Norton just to make him remember his Royal origins.

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