By Harley Austin | United States
America has its fair share of local celebrities, famous people, and self-righteous egotists. However, none can compare to the country’s former self-proclaimed emperor: Joshua Norton. Through charisma and a sheer lack of humility, Joshua Norton (1818-1880) became a San Francisco legend.
Joshua Norton was born in England around 1818. Two years later, his family moved to British South Africa. After failed business ventures in South Africa, Norton decided to move to San Francisco in 1849. Norton then became a fairly successful merchant for the next few years.
This would all end in in 1853, when China, facing a severe famine, banned the export of rice. This caused a skyrocket in the price of rice in San Francisco. Seeing an opportunity, Norton purchased a large shipment of rice from a Peruvian seller, hoping to make a large profit. However, the price of rice soon returned to normal levels, far below the price Norton purchased his shipment for. After legal battles with the seller, Norton lost everything, filing for bankruptcy in 1858.
Becoming “Emperor of the United States”
By now, Norton was living a life of abject poverty. Through this, he witnessed what he saw as a failure in the legal system. As a result, in 1859, Norton sent a written proclamation to multiple San Francisco newspapers declaring himself “Emperor of the United States.” One newspaper thought this was humorous and decided to publish it. The decree is as follows:
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 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 1st 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 States.
The Reign of Joshua Norton
Norton’s “reign” would last for 21 years until his death in 1880. In this span, he made many decrees on a variety of social and political issues, including the American Civil War and the divisive political nature of the time. Norton first made a decree declaring the replacement of Virginia Senator Henry Wise after his part in the hanging of abolitionist John Brown. In 1869, Norton would decree that the Democratic and Republican parties must both cease due to their hyper-partisanship.
His egalitarian views extended to slavery and beyond. Norton used his influence to stop San Francisco’s anti-Chinese rallies by using prayer and speeches. He also made a petition to a California Constitutional Convention, demanding women’s suffrage.
Norton’s most famous decree was in 1872, in which he threatened a major fine for any person who uses San Francisco’s nickname: “Frisco.” The decree states:
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.“
Disdain for the use of that nickname continues to this day in San Francisco.
Despite his rather eccentric and odd demeanor, Norton displayed a great deal of foresight with his decrees. One of his decrees was for the establishment of a League of Nations, decades before it really formed. He also decreed multiple times for a bridge to connect San Francisco and Oakland. Long after his death, the government built the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Fans of Norton have been trying to rename it to “Emperor Norton’s Bridge” ever since.
While Norton had no actual power, he was widely popular among the citizens of San Francisco. Some viewed him as insane, while others played along with his imperial royalty. Norton rode public transportation for free, often received free meals, and even got special seating at local performances. Local businesses begged for the Emperor’s approval and Norton became a local celebrity.
San Franciscans would even pay Norton “taxes” that covered his minimalist lifestyle. Local newspapers would be eager to publish Norton’s decrees, often competing with each other because of how popular they were. Norton also made his own imperial currency, which many people in San Francisco accepted. Some stores even sold dolls of Norton.
In 1867, a police officer arrested Norton on the assumption that he was mentally ill. This, of course, outraged citizens and newspapers alike, who spoke out against the arrest. Ultimately, their protest worked, as the police chief released him and issued a formal apology. Norton eventually gave the officer who arrested him an Imperial Pardon. Following the incident, police officers saluted him when they saw him in the street.
In 1880, Joshua Norton collapsed on the city street and died of apoplexy at the age of 62. He had amassed so much popularity that his funeral procession contained 30,000 people and was over two miles long. The entire city mourned the loss of their emperor and held an extravagant ceremony to honor him. In 1934, when his remains had to be moved to the nearby town of Colma, 60,000 attended the ceremony. He also then received a new tombstone that read “Norton I: Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”
Over a century after his death, Joshua Norton remains a local legend in both U.S. and San Francisco history. In 1974, the Imperial Council, a decree of Norton’s, formed, dedicating itself to Norton’s legacy. They make annual pilgrimages to Norton’s grave and have appointed imperial heirs ever since. In 1980, they held a ceremony to honor the 100th anniversary of Norton’s death.
In 1939, after the construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a plaque was made honoring Joshua Norton and his commitment to the idea. Local government did not allow it to go on the bridge, however. Later, workers placed it on the Transbay Terminal in 1986 until the terminal’s demolition in 2010. The plaque has since been in storage.
There have been many attempts to rename the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to “Emperor Norton’s Bridge.” A non-profit called The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign formed in 2018 and has been trying to pass legislation to add an additional name to the bridge in Norton’s honor. They hope to do so in 2018, the 200th anniversary of Norton’s birth.
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