Emperor Norton offers a brief timeline of his life plus numerous links and images.
The site Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico offers a great summary of his various proclamations plus links and additional Emperor Norton stories.
Check out the reprint of the article Emperor Norton by Patricia E. Carr from the now defunct magazine American History.
The site Joshua Abraham Norton discusses how he was the basis for the character of the King in Mark Twain's (Samuel Clemens) classic book Huckleberry Finn.
The January 10, 1880 issue of The New York Times (page 5, column 2) contains Norton's obituary. It's hard to believe that he was so famous that he would command such a large article in a New York newspaper at that time.
Jed Stevenson's Coins article in the December 9, 1990 issue of The New York Times (Section I, page 84, column 1) features a brief overview of Norton's life plus a discussion of the value of his notes.
A large number of photographs of the Emperor can be found in the book The Forgotten Characters of Old San Francisco by Robert Ernest Cowan, Anne Bancroft, and Addie L. Ballou (1964, Ward Richie Press, originally published in 1938).
The February 1936 issue of Reader's Digest (volume 28, pages 23-27) features a biography on Emperor Norton. Note: some of this article's information seems to differ from all of the other sources used in the preparation of this story.
An excellent article titled The Strange Story of Emperor Norton by David Warren Ryder appears in the August 11, 1945 issue of the Saturday Evening Post (volume 218, page 35).
Another excellent article, Emperor Norton I, by Joan Parker, appears in the December 1976 issue of American Heritage magazine (pages 84-85).
first and only emperor.
Yes, you read the above title correctly. At one time the United States of America did have an emperor. During his reign, he was known as the one and only Emperor Norton, I. As perplexing as this may seem in a country where all government officials are elected by the people, this story is totally true. Just read on to find out more.
Emperor Norton was not born into royalty. In fact, he was just another nobody like the rest of us. Although no exact birth record can be found, Joshua Abraham Norton was born to Jewish parents in London in 1818 (some claim 1819). At the age of two years, his parents picked up and moved the entire family to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.
Somehow, Joshua managed to wind up in San Francisco in 1849. This was Gold Rush time in California and Joshua Norton was there to stake his claim by selling supplies to the miners. By 1853, Norton was worth an estimated quarter of a million dollars through his various mercantile and land deals. He was a wealthy man, even by today's standards.
During this period of time, China was experiencing a terrible famine and placed a ban on the export of rice. The price of rice in San Francisco climbed from four cents to thirty-six cents per pound. Norton then heard the words that would change his life forever - a ship with two-hundred thousand pounds of rice was arriving from Peru. He knew exactly what to do - purchase all of the rice and control the market. Surely the price of rice would skyrocket and Norton would reap all of the profits.
Well, Norton gambled his fortune on December 22, 1852 and lost. Ship after ship of Peruvian rice showed up in port over the next few weeks and the price of rice plummeted. Norton was in debt and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1858. Yes, Joshua A. Norton was now penniless.
In the months following his bankruptcy, Norton seemed to disappear off the face of the Earth. But, this would all change on September 17th of 1859. The United States was about to crown its first emperor.
Joshua A. Norton appeared at the offices of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin with the following proclamation:
At the peremptory request 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 past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, 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 the Musical Hall of this city on the 1st day of February 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.The editor of the paper, Deacon Fitch, was amused by Norton's claim and decided to run the story in the paper.
Almost immediately, people began to take notice. No one really believed that he was the Emperor of the United States, but they saw no harm in playing along.
His uniform consisted of an old donated army coat and boots. Add to that his famous hat with feathers, a donated sword, and assorted imperial epaulets and you have one very royal emperor.
The Emp (as those close to him called him) proudly walked the streets of San Francisco. While on these excursions, he set out to rid the world of its ills. He simply ruled by decree. For example, on the verge of the Civil War, he abolished the Union. If you thought that taxes were too high, he ordered them lowered (don't you wish that he was around today?).
Newspapers competed to publish his proclamations. They did this for one very good reason - the proclamations sold more papers. When the papers needed to boost circulation, they simply made up new Norton proclamations.
Businesses also reaped the benefits of the Emp's presence. If a clothier wanted to sell more clothing, he simply placed a sign in the window stating that the store was the Official Clothier of Emperor Norton(whether they actually did or not). If you wanted to see more patrons in your restaurant, you claimed that the Emperor ate there. You get the idea. Sounds like the "George Washington Slept Here" scheme that they have on the eastern coast of the United States.
Soon the word spread about the Emperor. People visiting the city purchased statues, postcards, and other souvenirs of the Emp. Yes, he became the city's first tourist trap.
Unlike most rulers, Emperor Norton did his best to stay in touch with his people. He attended every public function and meeting (a large upholstered chair was always reserved for him in the state legislature). No never had a chauffeured coach - he always walked or rode his bicycle. He patrolled the streets making sure that the police were doing their jobs. If he saw someone performing a kind act, he would ennoble them. His crowning of the common folk with titles was very popular among the children - they would follow him picking up litter and doing kind deeds in the hope of being crowned king or queen for a day (some claim that this is where the expression comes from).
Emperor Norton did not have the fortune that most other rulers possess, either. However, his expenses were few. He was allowed to dine for free in any restaurant of his choice. Three seats at the opening of every theatrical performance were reserved for the Emperor and his two dogs, Lazarus and Bummer. The local Masonic Lodge (of which he was once a member) paid for his small apartment. The city apparently picked up the costs of his uniform.
For money, Norton issued his own imperial bonds - usually issued in values from fifty cents to two dollars. These notes were actually produced by the printing firm of Cuddy & Hughes. Each note allowed the bearer to collect the face value plus seven percent interest at maturity - which was apparently in the year 1900. Today, the bonds are quite rare and are worth a good chunk of money.
Even the best of Emperors cannot live forever. Emperor Norton died on January 8, 1880. The New York Times reported that he "dropped dead at the corner of California and Dupont streets, in that city". He was on his way to a scientific conference.
Emperor Norton's funeral was attended by a reported thirty thousand people. Police had to be called in to control the crowds. He was buried in the city's Masonic cemetery.
In 1934, his remains had to be moved to Woodlawn cemetery in Colma. Fifty-four years after his death, he still captured the imagination of San Francisco. Flags throughout the city were lowered and businesses actually closed their doors in his honor. Approximately sixty thousand people attended the ceremony which featured full military honors. His new granite tombstone was engraved "Norton I, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico, Joshua A. Norton, 1819-1880". There are no quotation marks on the tombstone.
Many have come to question Norton's sanity. Did he really believe that he was Emperor? Or, did he have every one fooled into thinking that he was. Sane or not, he offers an example that modern politicians should be forced to study.
Don't assume that royalty ends in the United States with the death of Emperor Norton. My friend Kelly has proclaimed herself to be Princess Kelly. Please refer to her as such and feel free to forward all of your cash and jewels to her.