The year is 1859. The United States is on the verge of a massive split that will eventually lead to the Civil War. As lines are drawn and tensions are running high, a man in San Francisco writes to the local newspaper. His name is Joshua Abraham Norton, and his plan is nothing short of grand. He declares himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States. Many have never even heard about the reign of the United States' first and only monarch ...
Norton was born in England in 1818. When he was just two years old, his parents moved to South Africa, where his father set up a successful business. Norton grew up thinking that when his time came, he would set up his own business, perhaps a business empire even. However, when he got older, these plans did not work out. As a young man, he tried to start his own company, and it flopped. Then, his parents and siblings died, leaving him alone and unsuccessful in South Africa. That takes us to 1849, when he did what everyone with dreams of grandeur in 1849 did. He got on a boat bound for the United States and moved to San Francisco to join the Gold Rush. While his first business venture did not give him any real success, it gave him the experience to help him set up shop in San Francisco.
Norton began to make a fortune in the real estate market, and it seemed like just maybe, he had found his place in life. Then, he took a gamble; no, he didn't declare himself Emperor just yet. Instead, he put all of his money into rice. In 1852, China faced a rice shortage, and as imports of Chinese rice came to a halt, Norton saw this as a chance to capitalize on the rice market. Unfortunately for him, the rice famine ended just as quickly as it began, and Norton found himself competing with an influx of rice imports. His gamble resulted in bankruptcy, and for the second time, Norton found himself broke and without a purpose. Eventually, he found a new direction in life, a completely logical one too. He decided that he was now the Emperor of the United States.
Joshua Norton proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States on September 17, 1859, and this decree was originally published in the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin. How could they choose not to publish it? After all, it was a royal decree.
In all seriousness, though, the editors just thought it was funny. Maybe they were a little harsh in making fun of the guy, but a little schadenfreude at the expense of a failed rice salesman was fitting for the period. After his first decree was met with laughter from the editors and audiences alike, local papers just kept publishing his decrees. In 1860, Norton called for the United States' dissolution after the outbreak of the Civil War. Several times over his 21-year reign, he called for bridges to be built and streets to be repaired, as The Emperor knew that his empire needed strong infrastructure. Norton's decrees gave readers a brief escape into a world of humor during a time that was anything but humorous.
With the Civil War raging and most gold prospectors coming up broke, the guy parading around as a monarch gave some much-needed escapism. His decrees became so popular that historians believe that when Norton went too long without proclaiming anything, newspapers made up decrees from the Emperor. Impersonating a monarch might be grounds for criminal charges, but it was all done for a good laugh.
Okay, so no one actually followed Norton I as a real monarch, and he had no real power. Papers that published his edicts and proclamations all did it as a joke, and there was no "Cult of Norton" or anything. The United States might have been going through a major upheaval in the 1860s, but that didn't mean people followed a self-proclaimed Emperor. But none of this was a joke to Norton. He took this empire business seriously. He was known for his trademark appearance, a military uniform with a beaver skin hat complete with a peacock feather. In his imperial garb, he would patrol the streets of San Francisco.
Those edicts that he made? Those weren't just empty proclamations on his part. He went around to bridges and buildings to ensure that they were being built and maintained to the quality that he ordered. Naturally, what he wanted to have done didn't matter in any practical sense, but still. Emperor Norton was not going to settle for anything less than the best in his empire.
Also, it should be noted that Norton was actually quite progressive for the time, and honestly, he deserves praise for that in a way that most people from that era don't deserve. He advocated for the rights of Black Americans in his proclamations, and he fought back against the violence that Chinese immigrants faced in San Francisco. One time he shielded a group of immigrants from rowdy protesters. Rather than continue, the protesters backed away and dispersed.
Failure isn't fun. And Joshua Norton experienced a lot of failure in his pre-imperial days. Because of this, there's pretty strong reasoning to believe that the poor guy was going through a personalized grieving process. Failed businesses in two continents? Feeling like things out of your control keep bringing you down? Might as well just declare yourself Emperor; that way, no one can tell you what to do, and no pesky rice markets can ruin your finances. Being Emperor was a comfortable alternative to being a struggling businessman. The Empire of Norton I might have just been a figment of the guy's imagination, but it was a coping mechanism that worked. Think of it as a 19-century WandaVision. Wanda Maximoff created a sitcom universe where she got to live with Vision, and Joshua Norton became Emperor of the United States.
While reigning as Emperor, Norton was financially about as broke as he could be, but he was the ruler in his head. And honestly, the people of San Francisco made sure his life wasn't all bad.
This story had the potential to get kind of ugly. A delusional guy parading around the city as a monarch who was also frequently publicized in papers for laughs? This sounds like it's just going to be a story about how much people made fun of him. Here's the thing, though: they really didn't. Yeah, people found it funny that he was acting out some royal fantasy, but honestly, they loved him. He became a sort of symbol for the city, and residents were excited when they saw him walking around, almost as though they had a brush with a real monarch.
Business owners invited him in and let him eat for free because he was an icon. When his uniform became old and worn, military officers at San Francisco's Presidio base donated a new one. Norton had his own imperial currency, and while his notes were literally worthless, people considered it an honor to have official Emperor Norton money. Once, Norton was arrested for his homelessness, but this only highlighted the love that the community had for him. Immediate anger from the press and public ensured that he was quickly released and never bothered again. When the benevolent Emperor Norton died in 1880, the people of San Francisco made sure that, despite his lack of wealth, he was given a proper burial with a casket and headstone paid for by the public. His stone read, "Norton I Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico." Oh yeah, he also decided he was "Protector of Mexico" at one point for good measure too.
History is full of novelties. Every town has a story of a funny guy that became locally well-known a hundred years ago or something like that. Joshua Norton is not like that at all, though. His name is still known to this day. The Emperor Norton Trust is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving his memory, and there have been campaigns in recent years to rename the Bay Bridge that connects San Francisco to Oakland in his honor. One of Norton's royal decrees called for the building of the bridge, and he may have been the first to advocate for the idea. February 2018 was even declared Emperor Norton Month in San Francisco to honor the Emperor's 200th birthday.
Joshua Norton created an empire. He might have thought that it would span the continent, and in reality, it never even officially took over San Francisco. Through the absolute dedication that he had to his role as Emperor of the United States, though, Norton turned himself into one of American history's quirkiest and most unforgettable figures.
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Top image: via History of Yesterday