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Norton I
Emperor of the United States and
Protector of Mexico

(Joshua A. Norton, 1819-1880)



Norton I
Emperor of the United States and
Protector of Mexico

(Joshua A. Norton, 1819-1880)




Emperor Norton
(Joshua A. Norton, 1819-1880)
From the collection of C. B. Turrill


(Joshua A. Norton, 1819-1880)

"Every age has its peculiar folly; some scheme, project or phantasy into which it plunges, spurred on either by the love of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the mere force of imitation." Thus has a gifted writer laid down a human law as universal as the human race itself.

All cities have had that singular class of eccentric individuals commonly and generally known as "characters." Of these San Francisco has had perhaps more than her share. The years from 1860 to 1875 were generously prolific of these freaks. Some were impoverished, soiled and ragged; some were hopelessly woebegone and pathetic; some in their personal appearance were fantastic or picturesque; some were noted for sheer strength of character and vitality of obsessions; others, less few in number, were those who retained the gentility of their happier days and bore themselves with consistent and conspicuous dignity to the end.

In San Francisco in the sixties, the popular promenade was through the streets Montgomery and Kearny from Jackson to Sutter. Here in the late afternoon might be seen as in a rapidly shifting kaleidoscope, a most unusual procession relieved here and there by the injected "characters," who lent life and color to the warp and woof of that most strangely variegated tapestry. A small army they were, each member living his own life and absorbed in his own mysterious schemes. Here were George Washington Coombs," known also as the "Great Matrimonial Candidate"; "Old Rosey"; "Money King"; "Robert Macaire"; the "Gutter-Snipe"; "Old Crisis," and others, all of whom long since have passed into oblivion. And in this motley throng though never of it, appeared "Emperor Norton."

Joshua A. Norton was his real name. He was of Hebrew parentage, born February 4, 1819, probably in Scotland. Of his earlier life nothing is known as he rarely spoke of it. Before coming to California he had been for some time at Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, where he was a member of the Cape Mounted Riflemen. He finally reached San Francisco in December, 1849, having come from Rio de Janeiro on the Hamburg vessel Franzika.

Norton at once engaged in business. He was occupied in extensive transactions in real estate, and many tremendous operations in importation commissions. His native shrewdness was even unusual; his intelligence was wonderfully clear, and his business judgment was remarkably accurate. To this acumen were added the rarer attributes of a sound and inflexible moral and financial integrity. Some of these commissions involved transactions to the extent of several hundreds of thousands of dollars weekly, and Joshua Norton rapidly became wealthy. He had brought with him to California, $40,000, and towards the close of 1853 he had amassed a fortune of a quarter million of dollars.

In 1853, in association with one Thorne and others he attempted to control the rice market. Earlier he had operated heavily, had been uniformly successful, and was applauded for his daring and foresight; co-operation was offered and accepted from other large firms and an immense quantity of rice was secured and held. Everything was promising for yield of immense fortune as profit, as rice was then thirty-six cents per pound in bulk, unloaded. Almost the last pound of rice in this port had been purchased by the combination. The profits were being calculated when two unexpected cargoes of rice arrived, which the combination could not take up nor control. The market was drugged and prices fell much below cost. To add to the general disaster, in order to protect themselves, some of the associated firms sold out and Norton was financially ruined. He contended stoutly to his closing days that one well-known firm owed him $60,000.

Extensive litigation followed. The first of these cases was that of Ruiz Hermanos vs. Norton, et al. In this contention Norton was sustained in the lower court, but upon appeal this decision was reversed by the Supreme Court. This was in November, 1853. Other serious embarassments followed, and the sacrifice of his extensive holdings of real estate, principally around North Beach, was the last chapter of his unfortunate disaster. The previous excitement of false expectation and shock of these disappointments coupled with the legal troubles constituted a severe blow to Norton's sanity. He retired into obscurity, and when he emerged in 1857, he gave palpable and distinct evidence of an overthrown mind.

His obsession took the form of a belief that he was the Emperor of the United States. He claimed that by an act of the legislature of 1853, he had been made Emperor of California. With this he was dissatisfied, and not unreasonably so, for he argued that California was but one of a union of states, and as such could neither loyally nor logically create an emperor. Further, as he would not renounce what he styled the "national cause," the act was accordingly suppressed.

The earliest printed proclamation of the self-created Emperor appeared in 1859.

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
Emperor of the United States.
17th September, 1859.

Having assumed the sword and the plume, Norton I actively entered upon the many duties that pertained to his royal station. It is of interest to note that the pretensions of Norton were early recognized by the public of San Francisco and as speedily humored. His name had temporarily disappeared from the city directory, but in Langley's issue for 1862, we find the following: "Norton, Joshua, (Emperor), dwl. Metropolitan Hotel." His empire was established and Norton I, Emperor of the United States had begun to reign.

One day at this period, some important news was received from Mexico, and in this as in all such matters, the Emperor was greatly interested. In a spirit of levity some joker stated that Mexico needed a protector, and suggested that Norton was the logical choice. Thereupon "Protector of Mexico" was added to the official title and retained for almost a decade. It was dropped during the unhappy career of Maximilian, for, as Norton sanely and even prophetically observed: "It is impossible to protect such an unsettled nation."

The imperialistic duties were manifold, comprehending grave affairs both national and international. The civil war gave him deep concern. On July 12, 1860, he declared the Union dissolved. Early in the war he declared a blockade, and in 1862 he issued a mandate to the Protestant and Catholic churches to publicly ordain him as Emperor, that he might more efficiently bring order out of the chaos into which the country had been plunged by the violent conflict and fierce dissensions of its rebellious people.

Some of the proclamations to be found in the contemporary journals were jokes which originated with the graceless wags and inspired idiots of the day. Others, of which one or two are extant, were the inspiration of Norton alone. They are couched in terms of sanity and composed in superior English. Most of them are national in purport and bear upon relations with Great Britain, Russia, Mexico and other foreign countries. Others relate to the affairs of the civil war. One has survived which is entirely personal. In February, 1860, the Emperor desired to visit Sacramento where the legislature was then in session. The Steam Navigation company denied him transportation. Norton issued an order to the commander of the revenue cutter to blockade the Sacramento river until the offending company could be brought to terms.

The proclamations which were issued as jokes are easily to be recognized. Norton had no part in them as they were the work of the conscienceless wags and amiable villains of the times. One of these fictitious documents was issued in observance of the forty-sixth birthday of the Emperor:

Owing to unsettled questions between His Majesty Maximilian I, El Duque de Gwino, The Tycoon, the King of the Mosquitos, the King of the Cannibal Islands, &c., the usual display of bunting on foreign shipping and on public buildings, in commemoration of our 46th birthday, will be omitted.
Feb. 4, 1865.

Another proclamation was to the effect that the Emperor contemplated marriage, but to avoid arousing jealousy among the fairer sex, he played no favorites and they were to decide for themselves which one of them should be Empress.

Falsified telegraphic news was also a source of great amusement for the versatile wits. In 1864, Jefferson Davis telegraphed to inquire if it were true that Norton was in sympathy with Lincoln, also the request that $500 be sent, as Davis had but one pair of trousers, and even that was worn out. Another telegram was from Lincoln. The President thanked the Emperor for his support, and said he had a good story to tell but at present was too busy settling accounts with a seedy individual named Davis. Norton was instructed to proceed to Petaluma, there to remain until further official notice. What the Emperor thought of these effusions will never be known. But interlinear reading is not altogether difficult, for in many directions the mind of Norton was unusually clear, and at all times he was remarkably philosophic.

During his long reign the equanimity of the Emperor was never seriously disturbed except by the actions of two individuals.

The first of these was D. Stellifer Moulton, formerly New York correspondent of the Boston Traveller. In 1865, he proclaimed a monarchy and styled himself, "Stellifer the King, Reigning Prince of the House of David, and Guardian of Mexico." Stellifer was of fine education and possessed luxurious tastes, but unlike Norton, was entirely insane. He had lived at the leading hotels in New York and Boston, and when dunned by them had agreed to pay upon receipt of his claims against the United States Treasury for $3,500,000, which was to be his semi-annual allowance. In a republic such regal ambitions are not always appreciated, so the authorities apprehended Stellifer the King, and promptly sequestered him. This state of affairs was too much for our Emperor. He, himself, was of the House of David, and also was he not Protector of Mexico? He purged his soul of its bitter resentment which flamed forth in the following:

Down with usurpers and imposters! Off with his head! So much for cooking other people's goose! The legitimate authorities of New York are hereby commanded to seize upon the person of one Stellifer, styling himself King or Prince of the House of David, and send him in chains to San Francisco, Cal., for trial before our Imperial Court, on various charges of fraud alleged against him in the public prints.
Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.
S. F. 6th day of Nov. 1865.

The other member of the grossly offending duo was Denis Kearney, famed for his sand-lot statesmanship and anti-Chinese oratory. For Denis, the Emperor favored speedy judicial extermination. At the same time the new Constitution also exasperated him and he denounced it as high treason. He would have destroyed it but was willing to have the eminent attorney, Hall McAllister legally annul it.

In personal appearance the Emperor was always a picturesque and striking figure. He was of medium height, heavy-set, with hair that was inclined to curl, heavy eye-brows under a massive forehead, moustache and beard that became a royal personage, and clear and penetrating eyes. His garb was of navy blue cut in military style and profusely adorned with brass buttons. The shoulders were surmounted with massive gilt epaulettes, sometimes tarnished from exposure. In the earlier years of his reign he had worn a military cap embellished with red trimmings, which is quite familiar in the cartoons of that time. About 1865, one of his loyal subjects presented the Emperor with a tall beaver hat, which was thoughtfully decorated with a cockade of feathers and a rosette. The cap had outlived its usefulness and was laid aside forever. The hat, replaced from time to time, continued to be the regal headgear until the close of the Emperor's reign. In 1867, one of his subjects had sent from Oregon a large and unusual specimen of grapevine intended for a walking-stick. It was shod with a ferule and gold-mounted, and thereafter constituted his sceptre. He was never without it, but in inclement weather he carried also an umbrella, knowing wisely that royalty may be drenched and that his kingly authority was no greater than that of his illustrious predecessor, Canute.

He bore a sort of resemblance to Napoleon III, which fact when commented upon brought forth the ridiculous rumor that Norton was the son of that ill-starred monarch. This misstatement, so obvious in its utter absurdity, was hatched in the scattered brains of some irresponsible contemporary, whose living prototypes, loud with vacant volubilities and rich in historical misapplications, are yet in our midst.

The private life of the Emperor was simple. For seventeen years he had lived at the Eureka Lodging House, and the regal apartment was not palatial. It was a room of 6 x 10 feet in dimensions, with threadbare carpet and disabled furniture. The chief mural decorations were portraits of the foreign rulers and his collection of hats. His familiar figure was seen and known everywhere. He was a constant attendant of churches, theatres, musical affairs, civic gatherings and school commencements. He was deeply interested in higher education and in the earlier days of the University was a frequent visitor. He was fond of children and to them he was always gentle and courteous. There was at that time a Lyceum of Free Culture of which he was a member, and there he sustained many debates most intelligently and logically. It is said that he had some interest in spiritualism, but in which direction is not known. For sustenance he had the freedom of nearly every restaurant in the city, as also of every saloon. He was unusually abstemious, and if he frequently appeared in the popular saloons of Barry and Patten and "Frank's," or in the famous "Bank Exchange" and the "Pantheon," it was not in quest of liquor, but of "free lunch."

It was his custom to visit the markets and the docks, and to view buildings in process of construction. This was not from idle curiosity but from genuine interest, for in all these and kindred matters he was keenly informed. From time to time visits were made to men of affairs, and the Emperor had that rare discretion that never permitted himself to be regarded as a nuisance. He was even welcomed, for his own business training had taught him to appear at a suitable time and to retire at a proper moment. He had never met with royalty but once, and that distinguished personage was Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil.

No sketch of Norton would be entirely complete without some reference to "Bummer" and "Lazarus," the two dogs that enjoyed the freedom of San Francisco in the sixties. Lazarus was a wretched beast of low degree, and Bummer was but little better. But in some of his long gone ancestors there must have been a strain of nobility, for it was Bummer who sniffed this in the Emperor, and thereafter associated himself with the royal presence, with the miserable Lazarus as an humble retainer. This was not of Norton's choice, but-noblesse oblige.

Edward Jump, then a young man, was the popular cartoonist of the sixties. In numerous of his cartoons he had introduced the wellknown figure of the Emperor. In one of these, Norton is depicted at a free-lunch table satisfying the royal appetite, and beneath him are the two dogs awaiting the crumbs. Bummer as usual is alert and confident; Lazarus stands meanly, looking even more dejected than he did upon the morn of his resurrection. This caricature was displayed in a local shop-window where it was seen by Norton. It was the only time throughout his long reign that he was known to exhibit signs of violence. He savagely growled, "It is an insult to the dignity of an Emperor!" and crashing his stick through the window, destroyed the offending print.

Once only was he arrested. In 1867, a newly-appointed, young and zealous deputy apprehended Norton and took him before the Commissioner of Lunacy. The next day when brought before the proper authorities he was promptly discharged with an apology. The verdict was, '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." There were returned to him the key of the palace, and the imperial funds amounting to $4.75 lawful money. For these the Emperor gave his royal receipt.

During all of these years the Emperor had lived. From June 15, 1858, he had been a charter member of Occidental Lodge, F. and A. M., and the Masons, it is said, had paid his room rent. Voluntary subscriptions were made by the faithful among his subjects, and when the treasury was depleted he was accustomed to levy a tax of varying but small amounts. For these he invariably gave or offered a receipt in the form of a promissory note. This was a printed scrip which bore a vignette of the Emperor and was payable in 1880. It had been his purpose to exchange these for a new series, payable in 1890 at 4%.

The last hoax played upon him was also the crowning effort of the graceless, witty scamps of his realm. Norton was induced to believe that by marriage with Queen Victoria, he could bind closer the ties of the two great nations. Telegrams of congratulations upon the approaching happy event were found among his effects. These purported to be from Alexander of Russia, Beaconsfield, Grévy, former President Grant, and others.

The close of the Emperor's life and the end of his long reign came on January 8,1880. Early in the evening while standing at the corner of California street and Grant avenue, he was observed to fall. Assistance was rendered immediately, but ten minutes later the Emperor was gone. Death had been caused by sanguineous apoplexy. An autopsy by Doctors Stivers and Douglass, made with special reference to the brain, disclosed the fact that that organ was quite normal, and the more unusual fact that it weighed 51 ounces. The costs of the funeral were provided by Joseph G. Eastland, R. E. Brewster, and the members of the Pacific Club. The final ceremonies were conducted at the Morgue, and the eulogy was delivered by Rev. N. L. Githens, Rector of the Church of the Advent. It is estimated that 10,000 people of all walks in life came to view that silent figure, which rested in a wilderness of flowers. A lady, well-known and of high social station, with her own fingers pinned upon the lapel of the sleeping monarch a beautiful boutonniere of hyacinth and a spray of fern, remarking quietly that Norton had been kind to her when she was a child and he was in the heyday of his success. He was interred in Masonic Cemetery.

For twenty-three years the Emperor had reigned in his fantastic realm. His were the best-known features in San Francisco, and many hundreds of citizens yet live who vividly remember him. A striking portrait of him, painted by Benoni Irwin, was formerly in the chess-room of the Bohemian club, and a familiar little terra-cotta figure, possibly by Mezzara or Wells, may yet occasionally be seen.

The question of the insanity of Norton has been debated, but the evidence would appear to be in favor of the entire sincerity of his belief. At the time of his disaster he was but thirty-five years of age, and with his great abilities might easily have regained his fortune or created a new one. But that single, twisted convolution lay uppermost and for twenty-three years dominated his purpose. Poor, sometimes soiled and shabby, pathetic and philosophic, but always with a noble mind, he bore himself with dignity amid his squalid surroundings with one fixed and unvarying purpose, and that was consistently the welfare of his people. The heritage of honor and integrity that he had handed down while in his affluence, was never squandered nor dissipated, and so he bore the respect and goodwill of the best of his people to the end. The jokes played upon him had been harmless, and the merriment that he sometimes excited had been without the bitter venom of ridicule.

If sincere, his was a career of long heroic sacrifice; if an imposter, he must be ranked as one of the most extraordinary of that class who has yet lived. He left no successor. The emoluments of an unattractive throne and an empty royalty were not alluring; there was none strong enough to follow him; and finally the world was entering upon an epoch of materialism in which there is no provision for such a monarch. From that strange stage through the doors of oblivion, thus passes forever Norton I, Emperor of the United States, and Protector of Mexico. L'Empereur est mort.

In the same month, at a Low Jinks of the Bohemian club, a gifted and beloved member, the late Dr. George Chismore, presented this beautiful tribute:


"No more through the crowded streets he goes,
With his shambling gait and shabby clothes,
And his furtive glance and whiskered nose--
      Immersed in cares of state.
The serpent twisted upon his staff
Is not less careless of idle chaff,
The mocking speech or the scornful laugh,
      Than be who bore it late.
His nerveless grasp has released the helm,
But ere the Lethean flood shall whelm
The last faint trace of his fancied realm,
      Let us contrast his fate
With other rulers and other reigns,
Of royal birth or scheming brains,
And see if his crazy life contains
      So much to deprecate.
No traitorous friends, or vigilant foes,
Rippled the stream of his calm repose;
No fear of exile before him 'rose,
      Whose empire was his pate;
No soldiers died to uphold his fame;
He found no pleasure in woman's shame;
For wasted wealth no well-earned blame
      Turned subjects' love to hate.
No long and weary struggle with pain;
One sudden throe in his clouded brain
Closed forever his bloodless reign,
      With every man his friend.
For Death alone did be abdicate.
What Emperor, Prince or potentate,
Can long avoid a similar fate
      Or win a better end!"