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Joshua A. Norton
Joshua Abraham Norton (January 17, 1811-January 8, 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, becoming Emperor Norton I. Other notable activities include his
ordering the dissolution of the United States Congress (which Congress
ignored), and his numerous (and prophetic) decrees that a bridge be built
across San Francisco Bay. The King in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is
reportedly modeled after him.
Norton was born in England. Records vary as to the date and place of birth.
Parish records from the chapelry of Priors-Lee (now Telford) in the
parish of Shifnal show he was born on January 17, 1811 to John and Sarah
Norton, and was baptized less than a month later on February 20 in
Shropshire. His obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, "following the best
information obtainable," cited the silver plate on his coffin. It said he
was "aged about 65" at time of death, which suggests 1814 as his year of
birth. Other, non-primary sources have his birth on February 14, 1819 in
London. It may be presumed that those secondary sources did not have access
to the earlier records.
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 1854,
and was rendered destitute.
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":
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
(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 on October 12, 1859, the Emperor issued 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."
His decree was not properly observed by the rebellious politicians in
Washington. Serious measures appeared to be called for, and in another
imperial decree of January 1860, Emperor Norton I summoned the army to
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
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. On August 4, 1869 he abolished both
the Democratic and Republican parties. And 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
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 quite sane.
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.
Given under our royal hand and seal at San Francisco, this 17th
day of September, 1872.
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 whoever 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 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 addition 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
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" . 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, [image:Emperor_norton_grave.jpg]
mournful and large affair, some accounts
report that as many as 30,000 people 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. The day after his
funeral, January 11, 1880, blackened the San Franciscan skies with a total
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.
Norton as part of the public imagination
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
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
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.
The story of Emperor Norton was used by Neil Gaiman in "Three Septembers and
a January," an issue of his comic "The Sandman" included in the collection
Fables and Reflections.
Emperor Norton, Bummer and Lazarus make a brief appearance in Barbara
Hambly's Ishmael, a novel set in the Star Trek universe.
Emperor Norton was a "guest of honor" at the 1993 World Science Fiction
Convention, held in San Francisco. He was "channeled" by an impressive local fan.
In the religion of Discordianism, Emperor Norton is considered a Saint,
Second Class, the highest spiritual honor attainable by an actual
(non-fictional) human being.
As reported in the Principia Discordia, the Joshua Norton Cabal, a group of
discordians based in San Francisco, has as its slogan:
Everybody understands Mickey Mouse. Few understand Hermann Hesse. Only
a handfull understood Albert Einstein. And nobody understood Emperor