- At the pre-emptory 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 last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the Emperor of These United States. - September 17, 1859
Joshua A. Norton (1819 - 1880) was a famous, impoverished and highly eccentric citizen of San Francisco, California in the mid-to-late 19th century. Among his many celebrated and curious activities, he most famously anointed himself as "Emperor of the United States" in 1859. Other notable activities include his dissolution of the United States Congress, and his numerous (and prophetic) decrees that a bridge be built across the San Francisco Bay. The King in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is reportedly modeled after him.
Norton was born in London, England on February 14, 1819. However, in 1820 Norton's parents emigrated to South Africa and apparently established a successful business there. At the age of 30, after receiving a gift of $40,000 from his father, Norton emigrated from South Africa to San Francisco in 1849. After some impressive initial success in the local real estate market, he failed in an attempt to corner the rice market in the mid-1850s, and was rendered destitute.
Sadly there are no known documents noting an eccentric personality or unusual behaviour of Norton prior to the loss of his fortune, so it is not known whether his pronounced eccentricity was a permanent aspect of his psychology, or arose as a result of the stressful financial events of the 1850s. Nonetheless, after his sudden loss of financial stability, Norton became (in the absence of a proper diagnosis) somewhat "odd", exhibiting the symptoms often referred to as "delusions of grandeur".
Having become fully disgruntled with the inadequacies of the political structure and state and federal governments of the United States, Norton took matters into his own hands on September 17, 1859, when, in letters to the various newspapers of the area, he summarily proclaimed himself "Emperor of These United States". (He would, on occasion, add "Protector of Mexico" to this title). Thus commenced his "unchallenged" 21 year reign over America.
As is the role of any emperor, Norton issued numerous decrees on matters of state. Obviously, now that a monarch had assumed power, there was no further need for a legislature, and in October 1859, the Emperor isued a decree that formally dissolved the United States Congress. He also observed that "...fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled". As a result, the Emperor ordered that "all interested parties" gather at Platt's Music Hall in San Francisco in February 1860 so as to "remedy the evil complained of."
Sadly, his decree was not properly observed by the rebellious politicians in Washington. Serious measures were obviously called for, and in another imperial decree of January 1860, Emperor Norton I summoned the army to remove them;
- WHEREAS, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th of October last, declaring the said Congress abolished;
- WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with;
- NOW, THEREFORE, we do hereby Order and Direct Major-General Scott, the Command-in-Chief of our Armies, immediately upon receipt of this, our Decree, to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress.
Much to the disappointment of the Emperor, the army failed in its appointed task, and the former Congress persisted in their disobedience to his decrees. This necessitated further decrees in 1860 that dissolved the republic and forbade the assembly of any members of the former Congress. This battle against the former leaders of his empire was to persist throughout his reign, and it appears that the Emperor eventually, if somewhat grudgingly, granted consent for the Congress to continue operating.
Despite his challenges with the recalcitrant Congress, Emperor Norton I, as a benevolent leader, took it upon himself to issue decrees that pertained to the direct betterment of his subjects. The failure to refer to his adopted home city with appropriate respect was the subject of a particularly stern edict in 1872:
- "Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word "Frisco," which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars."
After examining a number of his Imperial Edicts, it is tempting to conjecture on the mental condition of America's only sovereign monarch. Unfortunately, diagnosing the precise psychological condition of Emperor Norton I is an impossibility, due to the anecdotal nature of all the documents that relate his behaviour. It has been suggested by some that he may have been schizophrenic, as "delusions of grandeur" are symptoms frequently associated with that condition . However, it is also possible that he was in fact quite sane, and just rather audacious. The defining element, that being whether he truly believed he was the Emperor of the United States, is something that must remain unknown.
For all of his quirks and regardless of the precise nature of his psychological condition, it cannot be denied that Emperor Norton I was, on some occasions, a visionary, and a number of his Imperial Decrees exhibited a profound wisdom. Among his many edicts were instructions to form a League of Nations, and he explicitly forbade any form of discord or conflict between religions or their sects. The Emperor also saw fit on a number of occasions to decree the construction of a suspension bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco, his later decrees becoming increasingly irritated at the lack of prompt obedience being exhibited by the authorities;
- WHEREAS, we issued our decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of a suspension bridge from Oakland Point via Goat Island; also for a tunnel; and to ascertain which is the best project; and whereas the said citizens have hitherto neglected to notice our said decree; and whereas we are determined our authority shall be fully respected; now, therefore, we do hereby command the arrest by the army of both the Boards of City Fathers if they persist in neglecting our decrees.
The reign of Emperor Norton had a fairly well documented routine. His days consisted of him inspecting his dominion (the streets of San Francisco) in an elaborate blue uniform with tarnished gold-plated epaulets (given him by officers of the Presidio United States Army post), and wearing a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. Frequently he enhanced this regal posture with a cane or umbrella. During his ministrations, Emperor Norton I would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, the appearance of police officers, and attend to the needs of his subjects as they arose. He would frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to whomever was in earshot at the time.
It was during one of his Imperial inspections that Norton is reputed to have performed one of his most famous acts. During the 1860s and 1870s there were an unpleasant number of anti-Chinese demonstrations in the poorer districts of San Francisco, and ugly and fatal riots broke out on more than a handful of occasions. During one such incident, Emperor Norton I is alleged to have positioned himself between the rioters and their Chinese targets, and with a bowed head began to recite the Lord's Prayer repeatedly. Shamed, the rioters dispersed without incident.
A scandal occurred in 1867 when a police officer named Armand Barbier arrested the Imperial Majesty, for the purpose of committing him to involuntary treatment for a mental disorder. This caused monumental outrage amongst the citizens of San Francisco and sparked a number of scathing editorials in the newspapers. Police Chief Patrick Crowley speedily rectified matters by ordering the Emperor released and issuing a formal apology on behalf of the Police Force. Emperor Norton I was magnanimous enough to grant an Imperial Pardon to the errant young police officer who had committed the (perceived) act of treason. Possibly as a result of this scandal, all police officers of San Francisco thereafter would salute the Emperor as he passed in the street.
Emperor Norton I was clearly much loved and revered by his subjects. Although penniless, he regularly frequented the finest restaurants in San Francisco, and the proprietors of these establishments took it upon themselves to add brass plaques in their entrances that declared "By Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States". This vanity appears to have been tolerated without complaint by the Emperor. By all accounts, such Imperial "seals of approval" were much prized and a substantial boost to trade for such businesses. No play or musical performance in San Francisco would dare to open without reserving balcony seats for the Emperor and his two mongrel dogs, Lazarus and Bummer. (As a sidenote, the tragic death of Lazarus, in an 1863 accident with a vehicle belonging to the Fire Department of San Francisco, led to a period of public mourning. In 1865, when Bummer pased away, Mark Twain was sufficiently moved to write an epitaph for the Imperial Canine, saying that he'd died "full of years, and honor, and disease, and fleas.")
Emperor Norton I did receive some small tokens of formal recognition for his station, the census of 1870 records a Joshua Norton residing at 624 Commercial St, and lists him with the occupation of "Emperor". The Emperor would also issue his own money on occasion in order to pay for certain debts, and this was generally accepted as legal tender by local businesses. (Typically these notes came in denominations of 50 cents to five dollars, and the few notes still existent have fetched thousands of dollars at recent auctions ). Certainly the city of San Francisco honoured its sovereign; when the uniform of the Emperor began to look shabby, the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco, with a great deal of ceremony, appropriated enough money to buy him an appropriately regal replacement. In return, the Emperor sent them a gracious note of thanks and a patent of nobility in perpetuity for each Supervisor.
During the latter years of the Emperor's reign, he was the subject of considerable rumour and speculation. One popular story suggested that he was actually the son of Emperor Louis Napoleon and that his claims of coming from South Africa were simply a ruse to prevent persecution. (To have been an illegitimate son of Louis Napoleon, he would have had to have been conceived when the French Emperor was only 13). Another popular story suggested that the Emperor was planning to marry Queen Victoria. While not actually being true, there is evidence that the Emperor did actually correspond with the Queen on several occasions. A final rumour was that Emperor Norton I was in fact supremely wealthy, and only affected poverty due to miserly inclinations.
In adition to the rumours, a number of "Decrees" were submitted and duly printed in the newspapers which were probably fraudulent, and there is suspicion that in at least a few cases, the editors of the newspapers themselves drafted fictitious edicts to suit their own agendas. The Museum of the City of San Francisco maintains a listing of all the decrees it believes to be genuine .
The benevolent and largely harmless reign of Emperor Norton I came to an end, sadly, on the evening of January 8, 1880, when he collapsed on a street while on his way to a lecture at the Academy of Sciences. His collapse was immediately noticed by another citizen who raised the alarm, and, according to one newspaper, "the police officer on the beat hastened for a carriage to convey him to the City Receiving Hospital" . Tragically, the Emperor passed away before the carriage could arrive.
The following day the San Francisco Chronicle published an obituary  on its front page under the headline "Le Roi est Mort" ("the King is Dead"). With a tone tinged with sadness, the article respectfully reported that "On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night under the dripping rain..., Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life." The Morning Call, another leading San Francisco newspaper, published a front-page article using an almost identical sentence as a headline; "Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life."
Contrary to the rumours, it quickly became evident that Emperor Norton I had died in complete poverty, and his entire estate amounted to no more than a few dollars. Five or six dollars in small change had been found on his person, and a search of his room at the boarding house on Commercial Street turned up only a single sovereign worth around $2.50, his collection of walking sticks, his rather battered sabre, his correspondence with Queen Victoria and 1,098,235 shares of stock in a worthless gold mine.
When the initial funeral arrangements were made a pauper's coffin of simple redwood had been procured for the departed Emperor, however the members of the Pacific Club (a San Franciscan businessmen's association) deemed this to be completely unacceptable. After establishing a funeral fund, the members rapidly raised a sufficient amount to purchase a handsome rosewood casket and arrange a suitably dignified farewell. Reports indicate that respects were paid "... by all classes from capitalists to the pauper, the clergyman to the pickpocket, well-dressed ladies and those whose garb and bearing hinted of the social outcast". 
The funeral for the Emperor was a solemn, mournful and large affair, some accounts report that as many as 30 000 peoples lined the streets to pay homage and that the funeral cortege was two miles long. He was buried at the Masonic Cemetery, at the expense of the City of San Francisco.
In 1934, the remains of Emperor Norton I were transferred, again at the expense of the City of San Francisco, to a gravesite of moderate splendour at Woodlawn Cemetery. His present gravestone refers to him as "Norton I, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico". In January 1980, numerous ceremonies and memorials were conducted in San Francisco to honour the 100th anniversary of the passing of the only Emperor of the United States.
A somewhat whimsical, yet oddly appropriate, footnote to the story of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Joshua Norton I: In 1999, it was reported (via a spiritual medium) that Emperor Norton had issued a new decree which (among other things) established that his Imperial Domain now extends to include the Usenet.
- WHEREAS, We have been specifically resurrected for the purpose of observing and commenting on the great commotion, called by some a "flame war", now occurring in rec.skiing.alpine;
- WHEREAS, such exchanges of invective and rudeness disturb the peace of mind of those who come to said association seeking relaxation and gentle conversation upon the sport of skiing;
- AND WHEREAS, the ongoing and aggravating vendettas, accusations, and legal action that have been spawned by this dispute do little to resolve it and much to expand it beyond the reaches of the fair City of Seattle;
- THEREFORE, We, Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico and the USENet, do decree that all participants in this ongoing confrontation (including the judge) do rebel and riot against the Emperor's good order and command that they be denied InterNet access and electrical service until they have ended their insurrection.
- A list of "decrees" that sfmuseum.org considers real.
- For a proper Bibliography worthy of the Emperor - contains references to books, magazines, newspapers - See: Norton I, Emperor of the United States of America