Bet you didn’t even know there was one.
Norton was born around 1819 to a Jewish family in London, England, and grew up in South Africa, where he served in the military and worked in his father’s retail business. After his parents died, he moved to San Francisco in 1849 with an inheritance of $40,000. But instead of hunting for gold like most 49ers, he opened an office to seek his fortune in commodities and real estate. Norton soon became well known and successful around the city. By 1852 he’d managed to acquire a fortune of more than $200,000 (about $5 million today). But then came the bad investment.
In the 1850s, there was a famine in China, and the country banned any of its farmers from exporting rice. China, though, was America’s main rice supplier, and in San Francisco, Chinese immigrants considered the grain a staple. Seeing what he thought was a great opportunity, Norton put a down payment on an incoming shipment of rice from Peru. He planned to buy it cheap and sell it high. But the Peruvian rice turned out to be of poor quality, and other cargo ships brought more and better rice to San Francisco within weeks. Suddenly, there was a glut of rice in the city, and prices tanked—Norton’s purchase was worthless. He felt misled and went to court arguing that he shouldn’t have to pay for a shipment whose quality had been misrepresented. But after a long and costly legal battle, the California Supreme Court decided against him. He had to sell his real estate at a loss to pay creditors, and by 1856, he was broke. Destitute and depressed, Norton left town.
BUILDING AN EMPIRE
By 1859, though, Norton had returned to San Francisco a new man… literally. Instead of a poverty-stricken former investor, he declared himself to be an emperor. No one knows exactly what prompted Norton’s change of status, but his “official” reign began when the San Francisco Bulletin published (as a humorous story) a “proclamation” he wrote for them. It began, “I Joshua Norton… declare and proclaim myself the Emperor of these United States.” He went on to call for American leaders to meet in San Francisco and said his goal was to make laws that would “ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.” Norton dressed the part, too. He wore old uniforms with gold epaulets on the shoulders—usually given to him by soldiers at the Presidio. He also carried a cavalry sword and a walking stick and, on special occasions, donned a beaver hat with an ostrich plume.
Norton behaved like a true king. He announced his new laws regularly in the local newspapers. These included dissolving the U.S. Congress, the California Supreme Court (which had decided against him in his rice catastrophe), and the Republican and Democratic parties. To keep religious peace, Norton attended synagogue on Saturday and went to a different Christian church every Sunday—so that all the country’s religions felt equally honored. He also patrolled San Francisco’s streets to make sure things were in order—sidewalks were clear of obstructions, police were on patrol, and city ordinances were enforced.
THE EMPEROR’S LOYAL SUBJECTS
There’s no question that Norton was a bit crazy, but many San Franciscans humored and honored him anyway. They often even bowed when he passed by. He got free meals at restaurants. He rode on public transit for free and got complimentary front-row seats to lectures, plays, and concerts. He even paid bills with currency he invented. His friends, supporters, and locals also paid “taxes” to the poverty-stricken Norton… to help him pay his rent.
One reason for Emperor Norton’s popularity was the fact that San Francisco had several competitive newspapers that always needed a good story. Emperor Norton—with his uniform, city inspections, and creation of new laws—made great copy and sold papers. The newspapers turned Norton into a local celebrity.
But San Franciscans also genuinely respected and cared for Norton, whom they considered to be kind and harmless. According to one newspaper, “The Emperor Norton has never shed blood. He has robbed no one, and despoiled no country. And that, gentlemen, is a hell of a lot more than can be said for anyone else in the king line.” Many San Franciscans also believed that Norton had better ideas, more compassion, and much more common sense than their elected officials.
A BENEVOLENT MONARCH
Norton’s “laws” (proclaimed in letters that he sent to local papers) were often ahead of their time. Even before the Civil War was declared, he’d wanted to dissolve Congress so it couldn’t bring the country to “ruin” over the question of slavery. Other Norton ideas included the development of a flying machine and calling for a League of Nations to solve disputes instead of going to war. (When President Woodrow Wilson finally did establish a League of Nations in 1919, a precursor to the United Nations, he won a Nobel Prize.)
In 1872 Norton decreed that a suspension bridge be built between Oakland and San Francisco and that a tunnel be constructed through the bay. Those wishes were finally fulfilled with the Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Transbay Tube railway service in 1972.
THE KING IS DEAD
In 1880 Norton collapsed and died while walking to Nob Hill. The city raised money to bury him, and newspapers reported that the line of people in his funeral parade was two miles long. Even after his death, Norton wasn’t forgotten: In 1934, his remains were moved from San Francisco to Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma. Thousands attended this second burial too, which featured full military honors. His tombstone is engraved with his title of “Norton I, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico.”