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17 September 2008

On this day in history: Joshua Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States, 1859

Joshua Abraham Norton was born somewhere in Britain on 4th February 1819. Little is known of his early life, although he lived for some time in South Africa where he served in the military. In 1849 he arrived in San Francisco, California, with a sizeable fortune.

He invested his money creating a successful business selling supplies to the many prospectors drawn by the California Gold Rush. Over the next few years his fortune grew to an estimated quarter of a million dollars. About this time he decided to join a group seeking to control the rice supply to the city, which had a large Chinese population.

In 1853, the group purchased all the supplies of rice they could find to corner the market. Unfortunately for them, two ships laden with the grain arrived in port creating a glut of the foodstuff. The price of rice plummeted bankrupting Norton and the resultant litigation left him penniless. He moved away from the city and into obscurity.

In 1857 he returned to San Francisco. Soon it became clear that he had, at the very least, developed an eccentric streak or completely lost his mind. He walked the city streets dressed in military uniform with a beaver hat on his head, believing himself to have been made Emperor of California by decree of the state legislature.

On 17th September 1859, he went one step further by declaring himself Emperor of the United States. The editor of the city's newspapers, the San Francisco Bulletin, decided to humour him and publish his declaration:

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.

Over the next two decades the people of San Francisco, like the newspaper editor, responded warmly to Norton making him something of a local celebrity. Other newspapers published his edicts and Norton started to issue his own currency. Citizens bowed and curtsied to him in the street and he ate for free in various restaurants.

In 1867 a rookie policeman arrested him, believing he required confinement in an asylum. The public outcry that followed Norton's incarceration led the Chief of Police to fear a breakdown in civil order and he released his self-styled majesty after issuing a lengthy apology. From that time on the city's police saluted Norton when he passed.

Joshua Norton, the first emperor of the United States, collapsed and died of sanguineous apoplexy early in the evening on 8th January 1880. Newspapers across the United States printed the news of his demise, with the Cincinnati Enquirer devoting 16 inches to the story. An estimated ten thousand people came to pay their respects while he laid in state, and a two mile funeral cortege followed his body from the morgue to the Masonic Cemetery.

If you wish to learn more about this eccentric character read R. E. Cowan's excellent biographical essay Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico (1923)


Anonymous said...

That's hilarious! Great blog.

Borkiman said...

Signe: thanks for the comment