Sunday, January 07, 2007

Emperor of the United States

Joshua Abraham Norton
(1815-January 08, 1880)

Joshua Abraham Norton was born in England in 1815 to John and Sarah Norden. His parents emigrated to South Africa in 1820. He lived there until his father passed away and settled in San Francisco in 1849.

Norton was very successful in the real estate market and had accumulated a sizeable fortune. In 1853, China was experiencing a severe famine and had placed a ban on the export of rice. Norton decided that he wanted to corner the rice market in San Francisco so he purchased an shipload of rice from Peru. Unfortunately he did not bargain for the constant shiploads to keep coming and the market plummeted. Norton lost his fortune and declared bankruptcy in 1858. He promptly left San Francisco and went into exile.

Now this is when the story gets really interesting, because when Norton returned to San Francisco his behavior had become somewhat odd and began to exhibit delusions of grandeur. He was disgruntled with the legal and political structures of the United States and on Sept 17, 1859 he sent letters to the 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 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 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.

Norton also issued numerous decrees on matters of state. On October 12, 1859 he issued a decree that formally dissolved the Untied States Congress. Of course is decrees were ignored by congress and the military. At one point Norton also abolished the Democratic and Republican parties.

The people of San Francisco loved Norton
so much, they allowed him to make his own currency,
and accepted it as payment

Norton’s delusions of grandeur continued to the point that he wore a blue uniform and on a daily basis inspected the streets, sidewalks and cable cars. He even stopped a riot by standing between the rioters and their Chinese targets and with a bowed head began to recite the Lord’s Prayer repeatedly. Shamed everyone went their separate ways without so much as a stone thrown.

Now most people would have thought the man to be insane however, the people of San Francisco loved Norton. Though he was considered insane, the affluent and poor celebrated his presence, his humor and his deeds. Mark Twain was a co-resident in San Francisco during Norton’s “reign” and the King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is reportedly modeled after him.

In fact in 1867 a police officer named Armand Barbier arrested Norton for the purpose of committing him to a involuntary treatment for a mental disorder. The good citizens of San Francisco wrote letters of protest to the editors of the local newspapers. The Chief of Police, Patrick Crowley ordered the Emperor released immediately and issued a formal apology on behalf of the Police Force. Crowley released a statement saying “that he had shed no blood; robbed no one: and despoiled no country, which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.”

Norton was allowed to issue an “Imperial Pardon” to the officer that arrested him and as a possible result of his arrest, police officers would salute Norton as he walked down the street.
During the later years of Norton’s life, he was the subject of many rumors and speculation. Some people said he was the son of Emperor Louis Napoleon or that he was going to marry Queen Victoria. Also it was rumored that he was in fact supremely wealthy and just lived like a miser.
On January 8, 1880 Norton collapsed as he was walking on the streets of San Francisco. He died having a single sovereign to his name. After establishing a funeral fund by his friends he was buried at the Masonic Cemetry. As many as 30,000 people lined the streets to attend his funeral.

Want to know more?


Cech, John (1997). A rush of dreamers : being the remarkable story of Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. New York: Marlowe, 215 p.. ISBN 1-56924-775-7


Imperial Councils of San Francisco

Quarterly of California


Museum of San Francisco


I am having a wonderful and relaxing weekend! I hope you are too!

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N Posted by Rain at 1/07/2007 01:26:00 AM


  • Blogger jules posted at 4:38 AM  
    Wow, so in SF all you have to do is declare your self royalty? I guess that's where Hollywood got their delusions of granduer as well.
  • Blogger jedimerc posted at 1:20 PM  
    California does have an intriguing history in self-determination, not unlike my home state :)

    My weekend pretty much ended at the hand of a botched field goal attempt... oh well, we'll get them next year, as they say.
  • Blogger jedimerc posted at 1:27 PM  
    Another interesting fact about California. If it seceded from the US, it's economy would be in the top 10 in the world (7th according to current GDP's) and Texas and New York would be 10 and 11 respectively... and those three states make up 1/4 of the US economy... wild :)
  • Anonymous Rav`N posted at 2:45 PM  
    wow. thats a really cool story. Here in WA we have a similar but less popular guy. He runs an area called the Hutt River Province and he declared it an independent country from Australia a few years back. The government at first declared trade bans and stuff with the Hutt River Province, but now I think they're just ignoring him and hoping it'll go away.
  • Blogger mike posted at 5:50 PM  
    Now that was an interesting post.
  • Blogger Hale McKay posted at 8:12 PM  
    That was a very entertaining and interesting post. He was quite the fellow wasn't he.

    There was a Twilight Zone episode with a man who run his company like a ship under the charge of himself as an admiral.
    ....I wonder if Rod Serling modeled his admiral after this man?

    Thanks for a fun post to read.

    Stopped by from the comments over at Jules' place.
  • Blogger Rashenbo posted at 10:27 AM  
    Now that was a fascinating tidbit of history. Thank you for sharing!
  • Blogger TOM posted at 1:30 PM  
    That's a great story, I'm thinking of trying that out myself...I've been referred to as a "Royal Pain In The Ass" a couple of times so I think I'll be "The Royal HighnASS of New England"
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