Beginning on September 17, 1859, the United States was unofficially “ruled” by Joshua A. Norton, a penniless San Francisco oddball who, in a fit of inspired lunacy, declared himself “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” Amused San Franciscans humored “Norton I’s” delusions of grandeur, and over the next 20 years he became a local celebrity, winning adoration from his subjects and literary tributes from the likes of Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson. Find out more about the unlikely story of America’s first and only self-proclaimed Emperor.
On September 17, 1859, a most unusual decree appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper. In grandiloquent fashion, the message stated, “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.”
The Bulletin’s editors had printed the imperial decree on a lark, but over the next 20 years, its author would grow into one of San Francisco’s most recognizable tourist attractions. Clad in an epaulette-adorned Navy coat, an ostrich feather-plumed hat and occasionally carrying a military saber, the delightfully eccentric “Emperor Norton I” walked the streets accepting mock-fealty from all who were willing to indulge his royal fantasy. He ate in restaurants free of charge, issued his own currency and made official proclamations that ranged from the comical to the surprisingly prophetic. It didn’t matter that the self-styled ruler was more than a little unhinged, or that he was actually a poor beggar whose “palace” was a local flophouse—many in San Francisco enjoyed playing along with the joke. It is even said that when Emperor Pedro II of Brazil visited the City by the Bay, its residents marched out their beloved “Mad Monarch” for a formal meeting.
Before he was “Norton I, Emperor of the United States,” Joshua Abraham Norton was just another businessman who ventured to the West to make his fortune. Born in Britain around 1819 into a decidedly un-regal family of merchants, he spent his youth in South Africa before migrating to San Francisco during the heady days of the 1849 Gold Rush. Norton dove into the real estate business, and by the early 1850s, he’d turned his original $40,000 stake into a quarter million dollar fortune. But like so many Gold Rush-era speculators, Norton’s greed eventually got the better of him. During a rice shortage in 1853, he concocted a scheme to conquer the San Francisco market, only to land in financial ruin when fresh shipments poured into the harbor and caused the price to plummet. Norton declared bankruptcy and fell off the map for several years. When he resurfaced in September 1859 and marched into the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin, royal decree in hand, it was with the sincere belief that he was the unrecognized sovereign of the United States. Norton had never exhibited any symptoms of mental instability or delusion during his business career, but all signs seemed to indicate that he had lost his mind along with his riches.
In a display of the off-kilter charm that would make San Francisco famous, its residents scarcely batted an eye at Norton I’s claims. People greeted him with bows when he passed by on his royal walks, and the city directory ironically listed his occupation as “Emperor.” Smelling a story, local newspapers actively encouraged the Norton myth and printed his zany imperial proclamations with great fanfare. One of the first, from October 1859, declared, “fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice…in consequence of which, we do hereby abolish Congress.” When the nation’s leaders had the gall to continue meeting, Norton I issued a second decree ordering General Winfield Scott to march on Washington and put the legislators to a rout. The following summer, as the United States teetered on the brink of the Civil War, he announced that he had dissolved the Union altogether and replaced it with an absolute monarchy with himself at the helm. When the French later invaded America’s neighbor to the south, he nurtured international relations by adding the honorific “Protector of Mexico” to his title.
As his celebrity grew, Norton I became a cherished mascot for the city of San Francisco. Photos of him in imperial dress were popular souvenirs, and Emperor Norton dolls found their way into shops across the city. Theater owners saved him a seat at the opening night of every play; local train and ferry companies let him ride free of charge; and some restaurateurs allowed him to skip out on his tab in exchange for the right to post an imperial seal of approval that read: “By Appointment to His Imperial Majesty, Norton I.” The Emperor remained cash poor in spite of the handouts, so admiring subjects gave aid under the guise of paying taxes into the imperial treasury. In 1871, a local printing firm even ran off a special currency emblazoned with a picture of Norton I and his imperial seal. The Emperor passed the notes as his official government bonds until the day he died, and many recipients displayed them as treasured mementos. Today, Norton I’s imperial IOUs still fetch a kingly fee among coin collectors.
Even the Bay Area’s most powerful men delighted in catering to the Emperor’s whims. Army officers at the Presidio gifted him a fresh uniform when his old one wore out, and local lawmakers helped furnish the royal wardrobe from public funds. When an overzealous police officer once dared to arrest the Emperor on charges of vagrancy, the city’s newspapers responded with outrage. One writer defended him as a local institution, arguing, “since he has worn the Imperial purple [he] has shed no blood, robbed nobody, and despoiled the country of no one, which is more than can be said for his fellows in that line.” The Emperor was quickly released, and from then on, the city’s lawmen saluted whenever they encountered him on the street.
All the while, newsmen continued to print Norton I’s grandiose edicts in the papers. Some bordered on the bizarre—in 1872, he declared that anyone who referred to his adopted city by “the abominable word ‘Frisco’” was subject to a $25 fine—but others carried an unmistakable logic. One of the most famous mandates came in the early 1870s, when his majesty announced that the city should appropriate funds for construction of a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. Ignored at the time, Norton I’s decree eventually came to fruition in 1936 with the opening of the Bay Bridge.
Emperor Norton’s story inspired fascination from tourists and great artists alike. The city’s benevolent dictator also captured the imagination of Mark Twain, who had worked as a journalist in San Francisco during his reign. Twain went on to use the Emperor as the model for the “King,” a royal impostor who appears as a character in his 1885 novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Several other plays and operas were written about Norton I during his lifetime, yet outside of occasional visits to the halls of power and cameos at city gatherings, his everyday routine was quite unremarkable. He lived in a tiny rented room and spent his days playing chess, attending religious services, reading in libraries or going on long walks to survey his realm, supposedly with Bummer and Lazarus, two of the city’s most famous street mutts, in tow.
It was during one of these royal constitutionals on January 8, 1880, that Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, dropped dead from a stroke. His passing inspired comment in dozens of newspapers including the New York Times. San Francisco gave Norton I a send-off fit for an Emperor. “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.” At Norton I’s funeral a few days later, some 10,000 loyal subjects turned up to pay their respects.