Joshua Abraham Norton (1819 – 1880)
Born into a Jewish family in London, Norton’s early years were spent in South Africa before, like many others, he was lured to California in the late 1840s by the prospect of gold. Norton, however, didn’t pan for gold; rather he speculated on the commodities market and in property. By late 1852 he was one of the most prosperous and respected denizens of San Francisco. Then disaster struck.
China was facing a severe famine and in December 1852 banned the export of rice, causing the price in California to rocket. Norton heard that the Glyde, en route from Peru, was laden with rice and so bought the lot, hoping to corner the market and make a fat profit. But shortly afterwards, several other shipments of rice arrived from Peru, causing the price of the commodity to plummet and Norton to lose his shirt. Norton tried to wriggle out of the contract and a protracted court battle ultimately saw him bankrupted in 1858 and reduced to living in a working class boarding house.
It may be that this traumatic event unhinged Norton but when he next surfaced he had a concocted a ruse which requires considerable chutzpah with a certain dash of eccentricity to carry off. He marched into the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper with an astonishing announcement which the rag, doubtless with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, printed on 17th September 1859. It ran, “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens…I, Joshua Norton…declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.” Norton commanded representatives from all the states to assemble in the Bay Area “to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is labouring.”
Although his palace was a rundown boarding house, Norton would march around the streets of Frisco – the use of that word would have earned me a fine of $25 under one of his edicts – dressed in a navy coat with enormous epaulettes, with an ostrich feather plumed hat and carrying a sabre. The townsfolk indulged Norton in his fantasy, bowing as he approached. Restauranteurs would give him free meals, theatre-owners free tickets, train and ferry operators free rides. Some even added by appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Norton I on their advertising literature. Army officers would give him a new uniform when his old one wore out and a local printing firm even issued a new currency with a picture of Norton on the front. But Norton didn’t get rich, some citizens keeping him going by giving him handouts in the form of payment of imperial taxes.
Not everyone saw Norton as a harmless eccentric. A police officer had the audacity to arrest him for vagrancy but he hadn’t realised the storm of outrage he would unleash. One newspaper wrote, “since he has worn the Imperial purple [he] has shed no blood, robbed nobody, and despoiled the country of no one, which is more than can be said for his fellows in that line.” Norton was quickly released and thereafter was saluted every time he was spotted by a police officer.
As Emperor, Norton issued a number of imperial proclamations, each of which was printed in full by an eager press. Some were ambitious – banning the Republican and Democratic parties and dissolving Congress by force – but one was truly visionary, the call for a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. Work started on the structure in 1933 and there are still calls to rename it after Norton.
On 8th January 1880 Norton died on the street, suffering a major stroke. “Le Roi est mort”screamed the San Francisco Chronicle. Some 30,000 turned out for his funeral. Mark Twain immortalised Norton as the itinerant King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Filed under: Culture, History Tagged: Emperor Norton I, Joshua Norton, Mark Twain, San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the emperor of the United States, the Glyde, the San Fracisco Bulletin, the San Francisco Chronicle, unsuccessful rice speculation
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