The Bizarre True Story Of How One Man Became Emperor Of The United States

It’s the fall of 1859 in a booming West Coast city when a strange article appears in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin newspaper. According to the grandiose announcement, a new emperor has stepped up to govern the United States. And for more than two decades, he will delight his citizens with his wise and benevolent reign. So who was Joshua Norton, and how did he become the only monarch in history to take the American throne?

As the heady days of the gold rush began to wind down, San Francisco remained a city where fortunes were lost and made. For years, eager prospectors had been flooding in, keen to meet their destinies on the western frontier. But by the time that Norton arrived on the scene, the region’s supply of its most precious commodity had begun to run dry.

Ever inventive, the people of San Francisco turned to different businesses and schemes. And it was from the midst of this melting pot that one of America’s oddest characters emerged. Resplendent in his uniform and equipped with a plumed hat and a sword, Norton certainly looked every inch the emperor. But where did he come from? And how had he risen to such an apparently illustrious position?

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From that first announcement in September 1859 Norton went on to become an iconic figure across San Francisco and the rest of the nation. But his strange past and unexpected private life were at odds with the pomp and circumstance of his lofty role. And even though he died more than a century ago, his legacy lives on in the annals of the bizarre.

Although the idea of an American emperor might seem odd by today’s standards, the country has not always been overseen by an elected president. In fact, in the days before the Revolutionary War, the 13 colonies each answered to an individual governor. And ultimately, these officials were under the control of the British crown.

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Eventually in July 1776 America gained its independence, breaking free from British rule. And 13 years later the first president, George Washington, was elected. Since then, the United States has been governed by a series of 45 different leaders, each bringing their own style of politics to the coveted role.

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But did any of these powerful individuals take on a more imperial title? And if so, how did things play out? The story of America’s first and only emperor began in February 1818 when Joshua Norton was born in Deptford in south-east England. Just two years later, his parents took advantage of a government scheme and resettled in South Africa with their three young sons.

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There, Norton’s father John embarked on a successful career selling nautical supplies. But unfortunately, his good fortune did not last. And according to research by the Emperor Norton Trust, a charity established in 2013, the family patriarch lost a substantial amount of money over the next 30 years.

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After his father’s death in 1848 Norton inherited the family estate – or what was left of it. But rather than remain in South Africa, he decided to seek his fortune in a new land. In an 1879 article, the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper detailed the journey that the future emperor would take en route to the United States.

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Apparently, Norton had left South Africa via the notoriously perilous Cape of Good Hope and traveled to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. After that, he continued north to Chile and Valparaiso, before eventually arriving in San Francisco on November 5, 1849. According to various reports, he showed up in possession of a significant fortune estimated at about $40,000 – approximately $1.2 million in today’s money.

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At this point, accounts vary as to where Norton’s money had come from – and what he intended to do with it. Some, for example, claim that the windfall was what remained of the family fortune, suggesting that John’s financial situation was not as dire as it might have appeared. But others have speculated that trading conducted en route might have helped to boost his coffers.

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Was Norton one of the Forty-Niners, drawn to California by the promise of riches in the gold rush of the late 1840s? Or was it some other twist of fate that drew him to San Francisco? While the whole truth may never be revealed, we do know that it wasn’t long before the future emperor began making a name for himself in the burgeoning city.

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After arriving in San Francisco, Norton set about growing his fortune into something still more substantial. And, as it turned out, he was a gifted businessman. Setting himself up as Joshua Norton & Company, he embarked on a lucrative career importing goods, arranging deals as a middle man and buying and selling sites for property development.

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Reports indicated that Norton’s wealth grew rapidly as a result of his business dealings. So much so, in fact, that he is said to have been worth $250,000 – roughly $8 million today – after just three years in the U.S. And while this claim could be an exaggeration, there seems to be no doubt that the future emperor quickly became a very rich and successful man.

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According to the Emperor Norton Trust, Norton soon became a fixture on the prosperous San Francisco scene. Taking rooms in the city’s finest hotels, he attended parties with the elite of Californian society and was on the books of all the most exclusive clubs. In other words, he had made it.

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Sadly, though, Norton’s glory days were not to last. Towards the end of 1852 the future emperor received some dubious business advice. Around that time, research conducted by the trust revealed, a Chinese famine had created a global rice shortage, sending prices for the grain sky-high. But then, an opportunity arose.

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It seems Norton was offered the chance to buy a shipload of the scarce resource at a fraction of the market cost. He seized the opportunity but was soon regretting the decision. That’s because when better-quality rice arrived in bulk from Peru, the value of his investment plummeted to approximately a quarter of what he had paid.

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Unwilling to admit that he had made a bad move, Norton sought a way out of his damning contract. But after years of litigation, the court ruled against him. And between the legal costs and the vastly devalued investment, the future emperor had been left insolvent. It appears that by 1858 he was living in a run-down boarding house – a far cry from his previously glamorous existence.

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So how did Norton’s fortunes change once more, transforming him from a down-on-his-luck pauper to an American monarch? Well, like much of this fascinating man’s story, the truth is a little hazy. According to some, he decided to leave San Francisco for a while, spending some months engaged in mysterious business elsewhere.

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Alternatively, others have suggested that Norton remained in San Francisco, albeit languishing in a depressed state. But whatever he was doing, it seems clear that he was definitely in the city in September 1859. Because that month, according to the history website American Heritage, he walked into the offices of the Evening Bulletin.

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Norton, it seems, was ready to make a startling declaration. And on September 17, the paper duly published a lengthy and verbose announcement on his behalf. In it, he explained that he was acting on the instructions of the American people – and that they had decided to bestow upon him a most unusual power.

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“At the peremptory 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 Emperor of these U.S.,” the announcement read.

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Of course, the United States had never had an emperor before. But that didn’t stop Norton from laying claim to the role. In fact, he went on to order state officials from across the Union to assemble in San Francisco. And there’s no denying the man’s ambition. Yes, it was his intention that the gathered politicians would begin work on some drastic changes to the country’s rules of government: the American Constitution.

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According to the proclamation, which was signed “Norton I, Emperor of the United States,” the U.S. had been corrupted by evil. And, apparently, this unlikely monarch was the one to save it. But despite this bold announcement, not many people took notice at first. In fact, the Evening Bulletin likely only printed the piece as something of a joke.

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Unfazed, the self-styled emperor continued to issue a series of proclamations in the San Francisco press. On December 2, 1859, for example, he ordered the dismissal of the governor of Virginia, naming another man as his successor. Then, in July 1860 he took things to the next level, dramatically dissolving the entire institution of the United States.

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Of course, Norton had no legal framework to support his right to make such proclamations. Surely, then, the citizens of America must have hated this usurper to an imaginary throne? On the contrary, it seems that he was tolerated and even indulged throughout San Francisco. And, on many occasions, his behavior was actively encouraged.

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Before long, Norton had taken to appearing around town in an elaborate get-up, gifted to him by the city’s armed forces. And over time, his attire grew even more fanciful. When called upon to attend a formal event, he would deck himself out in gleaming golden epaulets, with a saber at his side and an ostentatious hat complete with ostrich feather upon his head.

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In other words, Norton looked every inch the emperor. And over the course of more than two decades, he continued to act like one too. In fact, he is believed to have issued a great number of proclamations or decrees over the course of his reign. Today, some are believed to have been faked by the press, although there were many that were genuine.

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Among these, according to The Museum of the City of San Francisco, were orders banning Congress from Washington and demanding cash funding for aeronautic experiments. Meanwhile, another more controversial tale claims that Norton also spoke out against a popular yet much-derided nickname for the city. Allegedly, he wrote, “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.”

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Generally speaking, though, Norton’s proclamations were fairly liberal in nature, even by today’s standards. According to the Emperor Norton Trust, he spoke out against corruption and in favor of more rights for immigrants, women and members of minority races. Not only that, he was a humanist who fervently believed in the separation of church and state.

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As well as these beliefs, Norton also supported policies that would improve the quality of life for everyday citizens in San Francisco. And as such, he soon became a popular figure throughout the city. Before long, he found himself enjoying an even more privileged position in society than he had before his fortune had been lost.

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According to reports, Norton became a favored guest of everyone from theater-owners to restaurateurs, commanding the top seats and the best tables at the most fashionable establishments. In return, the businesses would gain the right to display an official seal bearing the legend, “By Appointment To His Imperial Majesty.”

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In a city where Norton was famous, such an accolade would have been good publicity. After all, portraits and dolls of the monarch in full regalia had quickly become popular souvenirs. And when Brazil’s own imperial figurehead visited San Francisco in 1876 the people were delighted to present their emperor in an equally elaborate fashion.

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By that time, the Emperor of the United States had also added Protector of Mexico to his title, after the failed French invasion of 1863. For many years, he spent his days reading, playing chess, attending debates and penning his many proclamations. But that wasn’t all. On occasion, he would also travel the 90 miles northeast to California’s state capital Sacramento, where he observed meetings of state officials.

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But despite Norton’s grandiose stylings, his personal life was not quite as glamorous as it might have appeared. In fact, after mingling with refined intellectuals and high-level government personnel, he was returning home to a tiny room in a local boarding house. Costing just $3.50 a week, it was barely more than a closet, with just a bed and couch and little else.

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Somewhat embarrassingly for an emperor, Norton was often forced to rely on the people of San Francisco in order to survive. Never one to let his imperial facade drop, he referred to their charitable donations as taxes, using them to cover expenses such as rent and food. And at one point, he began issuing his own bonds, documents which are still treasured by collectors today.

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Despite his eccentricities, though, Norton was loved across the city. By almost everyone, anyway. Unfortunately, there were some who found his erratic behavior cause for concern. And on January 21, 1867, the emperor was arrested by Armand Barbier, a local policeman, on suspicion of vagrancy. When that charge didn’t stick, he found himself facing one of lunacy instead.

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Thankfully, Norton did not remain in jail for long. As the people of San Francisco erupted in outrage over the treatment of their emperor, a number of journalists sprang forward to defend him. In the Evening Bulletin, one writer noted, “this kindly Monarch of Montgomery Street is less a lunatic than those who have engineered these trumped up charges.” And over at the Daily Alta, the sentiment was echoed.

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“Norton was in his day a respectable merchant, and since he has worn the Imperial purple he has shed no blood, robbed nobody, and despoiled the country of no one,” the article in the Daily Alta noted, continuing, “…which is more than can be said of any of his fellows in that line.” Clearly out of their depth, the San Francisco police promptly released Norton with an apology. And from that moment onwards, officers would stop to salute the emperor whenever they spotted him.

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By the time that Norton died in January 1880 he had held the role of emperor for more than 20 years. And according to some reports, as many as 30,000 people turned out for his funeral in San Francisco. Today, he is remembered as one of the most eccentric figures from U.S. history. But what was really going on inside his head? According to the Emperor Norton Trust, the American documentarian Timothy Levitch summed the story up thus: “Some say he’d gone mad; others say he’d gone wise.”

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