Emperor Norton: Colorful Self-proclaimed Emperor

Emperor Norton was Joshua Abraham Norton, a citizen of San Francisco, California, who declared himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States” in 1859. He was the son of farmer John Norton and Sarah Norden, both English Jews. The exact date of his birth is unclear and records conflict although it seems he was born on 4 February but whether it was in 1814, 1817, 1818, or 1819 no one seems to know for sure.

Emperor Norton

Joshua Norton. Author’s collection.

What is known is that he was born in England. However, he spent most of his early life in South Africa. That was because his family was part of those who helped to colonize South Africa in the 1820s by the United Kingdom government.

While Norton and his family were living in South Africa a ship docked in Cape Town in August of 1842. Aboard it was Nathan Peiser of Vallejo, California. He met Norton’s father, who was keeping a ship chandlery store and invited Peiser home. Peiser was then introduced him to his family and according to Peiser years later:

“The eldest of the children was Joshua Northon, the late ‘Emperor Norton,’ then a young man between 25 and 30 years of age. I was two or three years younger. At that time he talked freely of his birthplace as being in London. While enjoying the hospitality of Mr. North, Jewish prayers were frequently said, which always was a source of amusement to Joshua. One day he provoked the father to such an extent that, old as he was, he received a castigation. While at Cape Town we were both very intimate, and Joshua assisted his father in the ship-chandlery store as a clerk, and had a keen business-like air, and was much admired by the young as well as the old people in the settlement.”[1]

Norton’s mother died in 1846 and his father died a year later. Norton decided to leave South Africa. He therefore sailed west and probably arrived in San Francisco around November 1849 where he achieved great financial success. Some people have suggested that he arrived in the golden state with $40,000 and parlayed it into a fortune of $250,000 but there is no documentation to support this allegation. Nonetheless, he did become wealthy due to the commodities market and real estate speculation, and, in fact, by late 1852, Norton was one of the more prosperous and respected citizens of San Francisco.

Norton was always on the lookout for a good deal and in December 1852 he thought he had found one in rice. He learned that China was facing a severe famine and had banned the export of rice. This caused prices to skyrocket in San Francisco climbing from 4 cents to 36 cents a pound practically overnight. Norton then learned that a 200,000 pound shipment from Peru was set to arrive. He believed he could corner the market if he acted swiftly and so he bought the 1853 shipment at 12 ½ cents a pound.

Unbeknownst to him there were several other shipments on their way from Peru and when these rice shipments arrived, rice prices plummeted as quickly as they had risen. Rice was now selling for 3 cents a pound. Details about the fiasco were later printed in Tid-Bits, a New York City newspaper that contained original reporting and selections from books, newspapers, and periodicals on a weekly basis:

“[Norton] was eagerly speculative, and, in 1853, tried to gain control of the rice market. He bought heavily to effect a ‘corner;’ was applauded for his daring, cooperation was offered by and accepted from several large firms, and an immense stock was held. Everything was promising for the yield of a rapid fortune as profit; rice was worth thirty-six centers per pound in bulk, unloaded, and Norton built vastly extravagant dreams as to the result of his investments. Almost the last pound of rice in this port had been purchased by the combination. The profits were being calculated, when two unexpected cargoes of rice arrived. The combination could not take them up; the market was drugged; the price fell, so that Norton and his associates were almost ruined.”[2]

Norton attempted to void his contract with the rice dealers. He maintained that they had misled him about how much rice was on its way to San Francisco. Protracted litigation then ensued from 1853 to 1856. When lower courts ruled in Norton’s favor it looked like he would prevail, but when the case reached California’s Supreme Court, they ruled against him. He was thus forced to file for bankruptcy.

By 1858, Norton was living in a boarding house in a working class neighborhood. He was also trying to make ends meet. He then seemed to disappear but resurfaced around September 1859. The San Francisco Bulletin, a newspaper founded in 1855 by James King of William and used to crusade against political corruption, reported that a “well-dressed” and “serious looking man” entered their offices. It was Norton and he requested that they publish the following announcement:

“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of 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 Emperor of these United States; 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 first 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. NORTON I, Emperor of the United State. 17th September 1859.”[3]

Emperor Norton

Emperor Norton. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It should have been no surprise that Norton would declare himself “Emperor Norton.” Those who knew him said he had never had any patience for “republican principles” and had always advocated the overthrow of them. Moreover, it was common knowledge that he preferred England’s system of government and wanted a monarchy to be established in the U.S. If anyone disagreed with him, it brought him “to his feet” and he argued his points so eloquently that those who knew him jocularly called him “the Emperor.” Thus, it was surmised that was the reason he eventually he began to assume the title in earnest:

“[T]o the amazement of his friends [he] set about exacting the fealty commensurate with his assumed station. Still more to their surprise the imposture was successful. The Emperor never pushed his claims with undue warmth; but there was always such a quiet dignity and impressive air of certainty about him that it seemed impossible to doubt his sincerity of belief in himself or the dignity of his reign.”[4]

After Norton pronounced himself Emperor Norton, the Mountain Democrat, a Placerville newspaper, notified its readers in May 1860 that although Norton had once been an upstanding and wealthy citizen of San Francisco, he had lately “become deranged and fancies himself Emperor of the United States.”[5] The paper maintained that the only thing Emperor Norton was talking about anymore was “his royal intentions.” Moreover, the paper’s correspondent maintained that he was “fearful” of Norton because some “facetious individuals” were catering to his crazy belief of being Emperor and that they did so by providing him with a military suit and sword that he was now constantly wearing.

Emperor Norton

Emperor Norton’s military suit. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

It seems that except for a well-worn, decayed, and unfashionable hat ― a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette ― Norton had always been unassuming and low-key in his dress. He had never caused any type of commotion when he appeared on San Francisco’s streets and so therefore when Emperor Norton suddenly appeared dressed in extraordinary fashion and sometimes carrying a cane or umbrella it was big news. The reporter of the Mountain Democrat could not help but note Norton’s new out-of-character appearance:

“Joshua Norton reached his forty-ninth year on the first day of April last. His most intimate friends have never known him to smile. … We should say the height of this individual, destined to such future remarkable notoriety, was in the neighborhood of five feet and nine inches. For the last two or three years his figure has betrayed a proclivity to corpulency. His general contour and appearance does not differ essentially from George IV, in the latter days of his reign. His step is perhaps less elastic, and his movements more dignified than was characteristic of the English Monarch. … Until within a few months past, the distinguished subject of my comments was in the habit of arraying himself in the most humbly character of citizens’ dress. … [but then] Joshua Norton on the 17th day of May last, astounded our good people by his appearance upon the most noted of our thoroughfares … in a complete change of wardrobe. It would be difficult to portray to your quiet mountain readers, the intensity of excitement that perfused all classes of our population as the news of this astounding metamorphosis became prevalent. … [F]rom mouth to mouth, fiercely ran the consternating intelligence that Joshua Norton had incased his person in a regimental suit … in military garb, with a sword suspended to his side. They saw this man of mighty enterprise slowly perambulating the street, betraying his usual lack of concern. … he strolled along, regardless of the unusual and excited concourse. … Europe never watched with more earnest and jealous eye, the movements of … Napoleon [Bonaparte], than do the denizens of this metropolis, the slightest change in garb or attirement of Joshua Norton.”[6]

Besides the new attire, during Emperor Norton’s self-acclaimed reign, he issued numerous decrees or edicts. One interesting one appeared in the Marysville, California, Daily National Democrat having been issued by Norton on 12 October 1859. This time he declared that he wanted to formally abolish the United States Congress:

“It is represented to us that the universal suffrage, as now existing throughout the Union, is absurd; that fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violations of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of protection for person and property which he is entitled to by paying his pro rata of the expense of Government: ― in consequence of which, we do hereby abolish Congress, and it is therefore abolished; and we order and desire the representatives of all parties interested to appear at [Platt’s] Musical Hall, of this city, on the first of February next, and then and there take the most effect steps to remedy the evil complained of.”[7]

In May 1861 Emperor Norton issued another edict. This time he mentioned the incumbent Democratic California governor, John G. Downey and stated:

“Imperial Guards ― to your duty! The time for action has arrived! The decrees of the Empire must be enforced! The Legislature is still in open rebellion, devouring our substance and remorselessly plundering the Imperial Treasury! Guards to your duty! Disperse the rebels! Spare no one but the usurper, Downey! ― him will I meet in single combat.”[8]

John G. Downey. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Upset at Downey, Emperor Norton then launched his own run for Governor of California in 1863. In the end Norton received less than .01% of the vote. However, Downey did not win either as the victory went to the Republican candidate, Frederick Low, the former United States Representative who won just over 59% of the vote.

It was not just Norton’s failed run for governor in 1863 that created headlines. That same year he decided to take a secondary title, “Protector of Mexico” He did so after Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Napoleon III, became determined to extend the influence of Imperial France by invading Mexico. To realize his ambitions without interference from other European nations, he joined in a coalition with Spain and the United Kingdom and after much guerrilla warfare that continued after the Capture of Mexico City in 1863, the French Empire suddenly withdrew from Mexico. They also abandoned the Austrian emperor of Mexico, Emperor Maximilian I, who was then executed on 19 June 1867. His execution was then followed by the restoration of the Mexican Republic.

Emperor Norton and now the “Protector of Mexico” also began to inspect San Francisco’s streets, its cable cars, and the appearance of its police officer. He also began to expostulate to anyone within ear shot what he thought by his lengthy philosophical rantings. In addition, he issued his own money in the form of a promissory note, which surprisingly several San Francisco restaurants accepted. Norton’s imperial notes came in denominations of fifty cents to ten dollars, “which he denominated ‘bonds of the Empire.’”[9]

One of Norton’s promissory notes. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ultimately in 1867, Norton’s bizarre behavior resulted in his arrest by special officer Armand Barbier, who was part of a local auxiliary force. Barbier thought that the insane Norton would be committed to a mental hospital, but the arrest backfired. Citizens were outraged that Emperor Norton had been jailed. Scathing newspaper articles also appeared citing him as harmless and his arrest as an abuse of power by authorities. Ultimately, all the fuss forced the San Francisco Police Chief to release Norton and issue a public apology.

San Franciscans went further. They decided to adopt Emperor Norton as a beloved icon of the city. For instance, when he appeared overly shabby in his suit (he was reportedly wearing a rusty blue threadbare, ill-fitting suit with tarnished epaulettes, a button-hole flower, gold stripes on the pantaloons, a gaudy colored sash round his waist, ornamented with a pile of old coins, theatrical stars, and odds and ends of colored scraps meant to imitate royal decorations pinned or sewed on to this coat), the San Francisco Board of Supervisors decided to buy him a replacement outfit. He in turn honored them by sending a thank you note and issuing a perpetual “patent of nobility” to each supervisor.

Emperor Norton in his blue military suit. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Over the years, Emperor Norton also became the subject of many tall tales. Some people claimed that he was the son of Napoleon III. There were also stories that his real father was William IV of England, successor of George IV and predecessor to Queen Victoria. Others maintained that Norton was not of noble birth but that he was extremely wealthy and that the only reason he did not appear to be so was because he was extremely miserly, much like the famous Hetty Green of Wall Street. Yet, as to who the real Emperor Norton was The San Francisco Examiner reported:

“He was a good conversationalist, and having a free access to all the libraries and reading-rooms, kept well posted on current topics. He talked readily upon any subject. He was more familiar with history than the ordinary citizen. His scientific knowledge, though somewhat mixed, was considerable. He attended many of the theatres when he pleased. He journeyed by rail and other public conveyances without expense. He was on familiar terms with all officials, high and low, feeling that they were merely his favored subjects. He was perfectly harmless, and at times jocular and humorous. His living was very inexpensive. He occupied a cheap room and boarded at cheap restaurants. He was temperate in habits. When he wished money, he would sign one of the Imperial drafts, and presenting it to an acquaintance who humored his delusion, get it cashed. He kept a large quantity of these drafts on hand.”[10]

Emperor Norton’s colorful life came to end on 8 January 1880 after he collapsed on the corner of California Street and Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) in front of Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral. He was heading to a lecture at the California Academy of Sciences when the incident happened. The San Francisco Examiner reported:

“Last night, at the corner of Dupont and California streets, the well-known character known as the ‘Emperor’ Norton fell to the pavement and in a few minutes expired. He had been walking leisurely up the hill from Kearny street, when, just before reaching the corner of Dupont, he staggered and fell. William Proll, who was a few paces behind him, went to his assistance and raised him to a sitting posture. Other hands lent their assistance, but he remained speechless and unconscious, and in ten minutes afterwards, with a deep moan, he died.”[11]

The paper that humorist Mark Twain wrote for, The Call, also mentioned Norton’s death:

“On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night, under the dripping rain and surrounded by a hastily gathered crowd of wondering strangers, Norton I., by the grace of God Emperor of the United States and Protector Mexico departed this life. Other sovereigns have died with no more of a kindly care; other sovereigns have died as they have lived in all the pomp of of earthy majesty; but death having touched them Norton I rises up the exact peer of the haughtiest king or kaiser that ever wore a crown. Perhaps he will rise more than the peer of most of them.”[12]

The coroner was sent for and Norton’s body was immediately removed to the morgue. There a search of his clothing was conducted with the following found:

“[A] $1.50 in gold, $3 in silver, and a five-franc piece dated 1828, a mass of papers, embracing letters, and printed notes of hand, which the deceased Emperor gave in exchange for the twenty-five and fifty-cent loans given him by those who contributed towards his support, also fictitious telegrams from sundry potentates, all written on genuine telegraphic blanks, and delivered to him probably by persons who meant Norton no harm and did him none by catering in good humor to his harmless delusion.”[13]

Norton’s funeral was held on Saturday at the undertaker’s rooms, no. 16 O’Farrell Streets. Expenses for the funeral were paid for by prominent citizens who had known Norton early in his career. His remains were “neatly attired” and he was reported to have looked “quite natural.” Thousands came to view his body, celebrate his life, and listen to the services presided over by the Reverend J.H. Githens, minister of the Episcopal Church of the Advent. When he was buried at the Masonic Cemetery,* he was noted by friends to be a “harmless, kind-hearted, eccentric man, whose mind suffered more than his heart.”[14]

Emperor Norton

Plaque honoring Emperor Norton I. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

*In 1934, Emperor Norton’s remains were transferred to a grave site at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, California, as were all graves in the city.


  • [1] The Record-Union, “Emperor Norton,” January 26, 1880, p. 1.
  • [2] Tid-Bits, “The Old Californian “49-er,” ‘Emperor Norton I,’” May 9, 1885, p. 183.
  • [3] The Sacramento Bee, “-,” September 19, 1849, p. 3.
  • [4] The Overland Monthly (San Francisco: The Overland Monthly Publishing Company, 1892), p. 450.
  • [5] Mountain Democrat, “San Francisco Correspondence,” May 12, 1860, p. 3.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Daily National Democrat, “Another Proclamation from Morton First,” October 14, 1859, p. 3.
  • [8] The Sacramento Bee, “Emperor Norton,” May 11, 1861, p. 3.
  • [9] Tid-Bits, p. 183.
  • [10] The San Francisco Examiner, “Summoned,” January 9, 1880, p. 3.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Evening Star, “Emperor Norton Dead,” 24 January 1880, p. 6.
  • [14] The San Francisco Examiner, “At Rest,” January 12, 1880, p. 3.

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