With Nancy J. Farrier
What!! An Emperor of the United States. We are a democracy and have a president, not an emperor. Right? You might be surprised to find out we did have an unofficial Emperor, Norton I, who declared himself Emperor, September 17, 1859.
Joshua Abraham Norton was born in Britain, but grew up in South Africa when his parents moved there. In 1849, Norton headed for San Francisco, as did many who were interested in the gold rush. However, Norton didn’t try to pan for gold. Instead, he made money in real estate, turning his original investment funds in to a quarter million dollar fortune.
In 1853, Norton tried to cash in on a rice shortage. His scheme came to naught when unexpected ships arrived in the harbor laden with rice. Norton lost everything and had to declare bankruptcy. For the next few years, no one heard anything from Norton.
Then in 1859, Norton made his big announcement. Wearing a navy uniform, complete with gold epaulets, he marched in a regal manner down the streets of San Francisco. He put this message in the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper, “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.” His message further stated he would make alterations to the laws of the union to eradicate the evils of the country.
The Bulletin printed the statement more as a joke than a serious claim, or Imperial decree. Over the next two decades, Norton I would take his reign seriously. Citizens and visitors to San Francisco were treated to Norton’s grandiose behavior. People often greeted him on the streets with a bow. The city directory listed his occupation as Emperor. The newspaper printed his imperial proclamations and sought out news on him, because he sold papers.
|Norton I with Bummer and Lazarus|
As Norton’s popularity grew, stores sold photos and dolls of the emperor. Restaurants would waive his bill if he would allow them to post his imperial seal of approval of their establishment. When he attended plays, he was given one of the best seats in the house gratis, because his presence in the audience drew more of a crowd.
In 1871, a printing house ran off special currency with Emperor Norton I, displaying his imperial seal. Although Norton remained very poor, people often gave him money in the guise of “paying taxes” to the realm. Norton passed out notes as his government bonds to people, and those papers continue to bring a handsome price today.
One of Norton’s most famous edicts, caused quite a stir, years after his death. In the early 1870’s, Norton proclaimed that the city should construct a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. At the time, his proclamation was considered impossible and ignored. His decree came to fruition in 1936 when the Bay Bridge was built. There have been efforts to rename the bridge in honor of Norton I.
The Emperor spent his days among his subjects. He would play chess, visit libraries, or attend churches, but much of his time he spent walking his dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, about San Francisco. It was on one of these walks that Emperor Norton I dropped dead in the street of a stroke. The headline in the newspaper declared, “Norton the First, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.” Over 10,000 of his loyal subjects attended his funeral, many having enjoyed the eccentric man.
Both Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain wrote Norton I into one of their books. Twain used the Emperor as the model for his character, King, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In 1980, San Francisco marked the 100th anniversary of Emperor Norton I’s death. They had a ceremony at Market and Montgomery streets.
Have you ever heard of Emperor Norton I? Do you recall the character Mark Twain used in his book? I would love to hear your thoughts about Emperor Norton I.
Nancy J Farrier is an award winning author who lives in Southern California in the Mojave Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. Nancy and her husband have five children and two grandsons. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. Nancy is represented by Karen Ball of The Steve Laube Literary Agency. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website: nancyjfarrier.com.