Did you know that America once had an emperor? As ridiculous as this sounds, few heads of state have received burials as regal and solemn as that which took place in San Francisco, on January 10th, 1880. 30,000 people lined the streets, while businesses closed for the day and flags flew at half-mast. Many had shed bitter tears on reading, ‘Le Roi est mort’ – the King is dead. This ‘king’ left an estate worth only $6 when he died – a tramp of madcap appearance, who collapsed on a rain-swept street two days before his funeral, but who had ‘ruled’ America for over twenty years: Joshua Abraham Norton, alias Norton I, Emperor of the USA!
Emperor Norton giving an audience
Born in 1819, in London, Norton arrived in San Francisco in 1849, and even though he had accumulated $250,000 by 1853, disastrous investments led to his being declared Bankrupt in 1857. A broken man, he was forced to swap his smart townhouse for a decrepit bedsit, yet in 1859 he impressed the editor at the San Francisco Bulletin with a document that many would have laughed at.
Next morning, breakfast readers of the paper were amazed to see the following: “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I Joshua Norton... declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me invested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different states of the Union to assemble... To make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is labouring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, both in our stability and our integrity.”
The people of San Francisco soon warmed to this genial and intelligent man, because he genuinely did take his self-declared role very seriously indeed. He involved himself deeply in local affairs, inspecting drainage and sewer systems, local transport, construction sites, and even talking crime rates with local police! He was always to be found striding around the city streets, keeping in touch with the people.
A dignified figure, he quickly became well-known, and it wasn’t long before he had not only 'abolished' Congress, but also 'dissolved' the American Republic! San Franciscans loved his eccentricity; even more so after he abolished the office of President, declaring that, henceforward, he would rule personally!
Typical Emperor Norton proclamation
A Jew himself, Norton eventually ordered the foundation of a ‘Universal Religion’ into which all faiths were to be joined – at the same time as he abolished both the Democratic and Republican parties! San Franciscans showed him real deference. The familiar pale blue army uniform, with gold-plated epaulettes and brass buttons, the heavy sabre clanking at his side, and the faithful hounds (Lazarus and Bummer), would always cause people to bow and curtsy.
Actor Playing Emperor Norton in his finery
He usually ate at fashionable restaurants, but was never asked to pay. Plaques proclaiming his patronage were on show all over, and he used public transport free of charge. Theatres would reserve three free seats for him and his two dogs, knowing that his entrance would bring the audience respectfully to its feet. Newspapers happily published his ‘royal decrees’, and when his outfit became too shabby, the best tailors fought for the privilege of making a replacement, at city expense! Norton elevated all city officials to the nobility, as a thank you gesture.
Affectionately called ‘The Emp’ by those close to him, Norton even issued his own currency – ‘Bonds of Empire’ – which promised to pay the bearer the full amount plus 25% in twenty years time, and they were happily accepted all over the city! When an errant policeman arrested him in 1867, public outcry was such that the police chief had to issue a full public apology. The city, in recompense, awarded Norton free board and lodging for life! When Norton ordered the US navy to blockade a local riverboat company – after a captain had mistakenly thrown him off for not paying – the company directors gave him a lifetime free pass.
Norton was not the madman some might believe. He wrote to Queen Victoria, and offered President Lincoln his services as a mediator during the Civil War, but was politely refused. The Emperor called for funding for research into ‘aerial machines’ and the establishment of a ‘League of Nations’, and also proposed the building of a suspension bridge across the bay, 50 years before the Golden Gate came into being.
Plaque to Norton at Golden Gate Bridge
He may have worn boots that had slits in the sides, to accommodate his corns, but one thing is certain: he was an honest, noble, intelligent man, who was respected by his subjects because he had the greatest respect for them. Norton I did what many politicians fail to do. He won the hearts of the people, so wonderfully demonstrated by the grief that followed his final journey, to Woodlawn Memorial park in Colma. His occupation was listed in both census and city directory as ‘Emperor’, the title that also graces his red granite tombstone. In so many humanitarian ways, Joshua Norton really was the unsung Emperor of America.
Headstone on grave of Emperor Norton I