The unusual story of a man who declared himself “Norton I, the Emperor of the United” in 1859 and even issued his own currency
Despite being penniless, he proclaimed himself the Emperor of the United States and reigned the country for 21 years. He was an inspiration for many famous authors including Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Neil Garmin. He was also considered a saint of Discordianism, a religion that worships the Goddess of chaos, Discordia. Here is the story of Norton I, the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, and the city of San Francisco, which humored his grandiose delusions and whimsical reign.
Born Joshua Abraham Norton in England in circa 1818, Norton immigrated to San Francisco after the death of his parents in 1849. He was a successful businessman in the real estate market but lost his fortune after investing in Peruvian rice.
Upon receiving a bequest from his father’s estate, Norton boarded the Hamburg ship Franzeska and emigrated to San Francisco with a sum of $40,000 ($1.1 million as of 2015). After his success in real estate during the 1850s, Norton found out about the famine in China and the ban the Chinese placed on rice exports. Norton felt he saw an opportunity, signed a contract with a dealer and bought 200,000 pounds of rice from Peru for $25,000. However, after he signed the contract, other ships arrived from Peru with rice, causing the price to drop forty cents per pound to just three cents. Norton tried to break the contract which resulted in a prolonged litigation that bankrupted him.
After being completely dissatisfied with politics and law, Norton decided to take action and on September 17, 1859, sent letters to various newspapers declaring himself the “Emperor of the United States”.
On October 12, 1859, after assuming absolute control over the United States, Norton issued a decree abolishing United States Congress and summoned the Army to depose the elected officials. In 1862, he issued a mandate ordering the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches to publicly ordain him as “Emperor” hoping to resolve the disputes of the Civil War. Later on August 12, 1869, he abolished both the Democratic and Republic parties. All his attempts to overthrow the government failed and none of these orders were ever taken seriously. He was, however, humored by the citizens of San Francisco as the Emperor and the officers of the U.S. Army gave him gold-plated epaulettes and in 1870 U.S. census his occupation was listed as “Emperor”.
Though thought insane, Emperor Norton did have visionary ideas and gave many orders and decrees, some of which, if carried out, could have resulted in the betterment of the city.
Some of Norton’s Imperial Decrees include the formation of a League of Nations, explicit forbidding of conflicts between religions and sects, and the construction of a suspension bridge or tunnel between San Francisco and Oakland. The bridge is, perhaps, the only one of his many decrees that had come to be real. The construction of San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was finished on November 12, 1936 and there is a campaign that calls for the bridge to be named after him.
He even issued his own money in denominations between fifty cents and ten dollars to pay his debts, which came to be accepted as local currency and became collector’s items.
Upon searching his room in a boarding house on Commercial Street after his death, it was found that he had very little actual money. However, there were a handful of fake imperial bonds, telegrams, and letters too. One of the telegrams was from Emperor Alexander II of Russia congratulating him on his future marriage with Queen Victoria, another telegram from the President of France warning that such a union would be bad for world peace, and also there were letters he wrote to Queen Victoria.
Norton often conducted inspections of San Francisco’s streets and had once, allegedly, stopped anti-Chinese rioters from attacking the Chinese by reciting the Lord’s Prayer until they dispersed.
He would frequently dress up in an elaborate blue uniform with gold-plated epaulettes, a beaver hat with a peacock feather and a rosette, and had a regal posture enhanced with a cane or umbrella during his inspections. He would examine the condition of sidewalks, cable cars, and public property. Norton had always made grand, gracious, and magnanimous gestures toward those who were good or kind to him.
He was well loved and respected by the citizens of San Francisco and when he died on January 8, 1880, he received a grand funeral with an attendance of 30,000 people standing for two miles.
Though he had no money, he visited fine restaurants to dine and the restaurateurs would put up a brass plaque at their entrances that read “Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States”. A seat was always reserved for him at plays and musical performances. When his uniform was worn out, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors got him a suitable replacement.
When he died before help arrived after suddenly collapsing on a street, members of the Pacific Club established funds to have a handsome casket and a dignified funeral instead of a simple pauper’s coffin. He received a very large funeral on Sunday, January 10, with people from all walks of life and classes like rich and poor people, and in-between, gathered to give him farewell. In 1980, San Francisco even celebrated his 100th death anniversary.
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