Abraham Joshua Norton
Emperor of the United States of America and Protector of Mexico.
The man who would become the first and last emperor of the United States of America was born sometime in 1819, in London, England, although we donīt know the exact date.
He and his family moved from England to Algoa Bay, at the Cape of Good Hope, and got wealthy there. In 1849, at the age of 30, he came to San Fransisco with $40.000 and set up shop as a trader in rice. Rice was immensely popular in San Fransisco due to the large number of Chinese immigrants in the city at the time. He soon made himself a fortune, about a quarter of a million dollars by 1853, but lost it all in 1854 trying to corner the market on rice with an ingenious scheme that unfortunatly failed. He bought up all the rice in the city, thus soon driving up the price to astronomical levels. Disaster struck when two Japanese ships unexpectedly arrived in the harbor laden with rice. Norton was ruined.
He vanished from public wiev for three years, and when he next proclaimed himself, September 17, 1859, he did it in the following way; he walked up to the office of the San Francisco Bulletin, and handed over a note to the editor which read;
"At the peremptory 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 past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U.S., 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 the 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 was published the following day, on the front page, under the headline;
"An Emperor among us?
It is not known how the good citizens of San Fransisco initially felt about their new monarch, but they apparantly soon got used to him, for he was often seen walking the streets of the city, dressed in his regal, although frequently a bit worn, alternating blue and grey uniform, to show his support for both the Union and the Confederacy, his beaver hat with itīs colored feathers, his saber at his side and gnarled cane and wiry umbrella in hand. When his uniform was worn out, the Board of Supervisors, with a great deal of ceremony, presented him with another, for which he sent them a note of thanks and a patent for nobillity in perpetuity for each supervisor.
As Norton the I, Emperor of the United States of America and Protector of Mexico, he found, if not a fortune, at least some of the previlegies of his office. He lived at a boarding house on Commercial Street, and was registered as "Emperor, living at 624 Commercial St." in a census done August 1, 1870.
He lived there for seventeen years, but refused to pay the rent by week and instead payed by day.
He was fed for free by some of San Fransiscos finest resturants, which he graciosly allowed to put up signs which said; "By Appointment to His Emperor, Joshua Norton I." He had a standing ticket, together with his two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, at any play or concert in the cityīs theatres. He was given a bicycle by the city as his means of royal transport, he was allowed to review the police to check that they performed their duty, a special chair was reserved for him at each precinct. He marched at the head of the annual Police parade and reviewed the cadets at the University of California.
The Emperor even let print his own money, which were honored at most places in the San Fransico area, and even a few banks. When saner men had tried to break the currency monopoly and been arrested, Norton I got away with it, on the grounds, one must assume, that he wasnīt percived as a threat.
The stories about Emperor Norton is many, and some more facticious than others.
One story tells how on January the 21, 1867, an overzealous Patrol Special Officer, by the name of Armand Barbier, arrested His Majesty Norton I for vagrancy. It was pointed out that the Emperor had $4.75 in his pocket and lived in a lodging house, and so technically wasnīt a vagrant. Armand Barbier then decleared that Norton was of unsound mind and arrested him as a danger to himself and others. This created a public uproar and several scathing newspaper editorials followed the arrest. Norton was was held in custody pending examination by the Commissioner of Lunacy. City Police chief Patrick Crowley saw to it that the hearing was never held and apologized to the Emperor and ordered him released. All police officers began to salute Norton I when he passed them on the street.
Emperor Norton took the title "Protector of Mexico" because Mexico had, as he said, "beseeched him to rule over her." But this didnīt last long, he soon dropped his new title with the explanation that it was "impossible to protect such an unsettled nation." Norton also published many proclamations, some of them sensible, others rather eccentric, like the following;
"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." (1872)
A few of Nortons edicts was actually very much ahead of his time, such as the one ordering a suspension bridge to be buildt at the exact spot where the Golden Gate bridge now stands;
"The following is decreed and ordered to be carried into execution as soon as
I.That a suspension bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island, and then to Telegraph Hill; provided such bridge can be built without injury to the navigable waters of the Bay of San Francisco. II.That the Central Pacific Railroad Company be granted franchises to lay down tracks and run cars from Telegraph Hill and along the city front to Mission Bay.
III.That all deeds by the Washington Government since the establishment of our Empire are hereby decreed null and void unless our Imperial signature is first obtained thereto." (March 1872)
And the following, regarding the project of a local inventor, thirty six years before the Wright brothers made their first flight in 1903;
"Whereas, we Norton I, "Dei Gratia" Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, being anxious for the future fame and honor of the residents of San Francisco, do hereby command all our good and loyal subjects to furnish the means and exert their best skill and advance money
to make Mr. Marriot's aerial machine a success.
Given at San Francisco, Cal., this 25th day of July, A.D. 1869, in the seventeenth year of our reign."
Here is another of Nortonīs more extravagant decrees;
"Being desirous of allaying the dissension's of party strife now existing within our realm, we do hereby dissolve and abolish the Democratic and Republican parties, and also do hereby decree the disfranchisement and imprisonment, for not more than ten, nor less than five years, to all persons leading to any violation of this our imperial decree."
--San Francisco Herald, August 4, 1869
Norton also proposed the forming of a League of Nations that would help prevent war and settle difficulties between nations. He also sugested that an international Bible seminar should be held to help the formation of a world religion.
Unfortunatly, not all people took the Emperor seriously, or asceded to all his demands. The Chinese laundryman who washed his clothes refused to do it for free, and a friend secretly had to pay for the expense. Caricatures and false proclamations were common, and the Emperor complained about it more than once. He was, however, powerless to do anything about it.
The Emperor wasnīt wholly without friends and sympatisers, though. Samuel Clemens, or as he is more poularly known, Mark Twain, worked next door to Nortonīs boarding house and saw the man almost every day. He defended Norton and claimed that the man wasnīt so insane as people thought.
Twain later, after the Emperorsī death, modeled his character, "The King" in Huckleberry Finn on Emperor Norton. Norton is also mentioned in The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury, The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
The Empreror had two dogs, originally strays given to him by the city, that he had named Lazarus and Bummer. They were his constant companions and followers, and most of the contemporary cartoons of the emperor showed him walking his dogs. Tragedy struck, however, when, in october 1863, Lazarus was run over and killed by a fire-truck. A public funeral was held, and many prominet people turned up to console the Emperor. Bummer continued to beg for scraps at his mastersī feet until the 10th of November 1865 when he, too, shuffled off this mortal coil. Mark Twain wrote the epitaph for the noble canine.
The Emperor himself lived out his remaining years in his little room at 624 Commercial Street, continuing to oversee his domain during his daily walks.
On the 8th of January 1880, Norton I, "Dei Gratia" Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, was promoted to glory on California Street, on his way to a lecture at the Academy of Natural Sciences, two blocks away. The cause of death was apoplexy. In his pocket was found some telegrams, a coin purse, a two and half dollar gold piece, three dollars in silver, an 1828 French Franc, and a few of his own bonds. When reporters sacked the Emperorsī tiny apartment they discovered that all he left behind in the world was his collection of walking sticks, his tasseled saber, newsclippings, his corrospondesce with Queen Victoria and Lincoln and 1,098,235 shares of stock in a
worthless gold mine.
The Morning Call ran the headline; "Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life."
On the 10th of January 1880 Emperor Norton was buried in the Masonic Cemetery. Wealthy citizens of San Fransisco paid for the coffin and funeral expenses. The funeral cortege was two miles long and an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 people turned up for the funeral.
It is reported that his burial was marked by a total eclipse of the sun.
On 30th June of 1934 his grave was moved to Woodlawn Cemetery by the citizens of San Francisco.
Click here to see the certificate.
On January 7, 1980, San Fransisco marked the 100th anniversary of the death of its only Emperor with lunch-hour ceremonies at Market and Montgomery streets.
Not Dead, Just Sleeping