Born in London, Norton spent most of his early life in South Africa. He emigrated to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving a bequest of $40,000 from his father's estate. Norton initially made a living as a businessman, but he lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice.
After losing a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, Norton left San Francisco. He returned a few years later, apparently mentally unbalanced, claiming to be the emperor of the United States. Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented.
Though he was considered insane, or at least highly eccentric, the citizens of San Francisco celebrated his regal presence and his proclamations, most famously, his "order" that the United States Congress be dissolved by force (which Congress and the U.S. Army ignored) and his numerous decrees calling for a bridge and a tunnel to be built across San Francisco Bay. On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at a street corner, and died before he could be given medical treatment. The following day, nearly 30,000 people packed the streets of San Francisco to pay homage to Norton. Norton's legacy has been immortalized in the literature of writers Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, who based characters on him. In December 2004, a resolution was made to name the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge in honor of Norton, but the idea did not progress further.
Norton was born in England, but scholarly works disagree as to the date and exact town of his birth. His obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, "following the best information obtainable," cited the silver plate on his coffin which said he was "aged about 65", suggesting that 1814 could be the year of his birth. Other sources claim that he was born on February 4, 1819 in London. Immigration records indicate that he was two years old in 1820 when his parents moved to South Africa. South African genealogies suggest that his parents were John Norton (d. August 1848) and Sarah Norden. Sarah was a daughter of Abraham Norden and a sister of Benjamin Norden, a successful Jewish merchant.
Norton emigrated from South Africa to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving a bequest of $40,000 from his father's estate. He enjoyed a good deal of success in the real estate market and by the early 1850s had accumulated a fortune of $250,000. Norton thought he saw a business opportunity when China, facing a severe famine, placed a ban on the export of rice, causing the price of rice in San Francisco to skyrocket from four cents per pound to thirty-six cents per pound (9 cents/kg to 79 cents/kg). When he heard that the Glyde, which was returning from Peru, was carrying 200,000 pounds (91,000 kg) of rice, he bought the entire shipment for $25,000 (or eight cents per pound), hoping to corner the market.
Shortly after signing the contract, several other shiploads of rice arrived from Peru causing the price of rice to plummet to three cents a pound. Norton tried to void the contract, stating that the dealer had misled him as to the quality of rice to expect. From 1853 to 1857, Norton and the rice dealers were involved in a protracted litigation. Although Norton prevailed in the lower courts, the case reached the Supreme Court of California, which ruled against Norton. Later on, the Lucas Turner and Company Bank foreclosed on his real estate holdings in North Beach to pay Norton's debt. Norton's mental state was severely affected by these financial setbacks. He declared bankruptcy in 1858 and left the city for a time. There are no known documents noting that Norton had an eccentric personality prior to the loss of his fortune, so it is not known whether his pronounced eccentricity was a permanent aspect of his character or arose as a result of the stressful financial straits he found himself in during the 1850s. Nonetheless, after his sudden loss of financial stability, Norton became (in the absence of a proper diagnosis) somewhat "odd", exhibiting the symptoms often referred to as "delusions of grandeur".
When Norton returned to San Francisco from his self-imposed exile, he had become completely disgruntled with what he considered the vicissitudes and inadequacies of the legal and political structures of the United States. On September 17, 1859, he took matters into his own hands and distributed letters to the various newspapers in the city, proclaiming himself "Emperor of these United States":
"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 S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; 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 Feb. 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 announcement was first reprinted for humorous effect by the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin. Norton would later add "Protector of Mexico" to this title. Thus commenced his unprecedented and whimsical twenty-one-year "reign" over America.
In accordance with his self-appointed role of emperor, Norton issued numerous decrees on matters of the state. After assuming absolute control over the country, he saw no further need for a legislature, and on October 12, 1859, he issued a decree that formally "dissolved" the United States Congress. In the decree, Norton observed:
"...fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled."
As a result, Norton ordered that all interested parties gather at Platt's Music Hall in San Francisco in February 1860 so as to "remedy the evil complained of".
In another imperial decree a month later, Norton summoned the army to depose the elected officials of the U.S. Congress:
"WHEREAS, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th of October last, declaring the said Congress abolished;
WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with;NOW, THEREFORE, we do hereby Order and Direct Major-General Scott, the Command-in-Chief of our Armies, immediately upon receipt of this, our Decree, to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress."
Norton's orders obviously had no effect on the army, and the Congress likewise continued in its activities unperturbed. Norton issued further decrees in 1860 that purported to dissolve the republic and to forbid the assembly of any members of the Congress. Norton's battle against the elected leaders of America was to persist throughout what he considered his reign, though it appears that Norton eventually, if somewhat grudgingly, accepted that Congress would continue to exist without his permission, although this did not change his feelings on the matter. In the hopes of resolving the many disputes between citizens of the United States during the Civil War, Norton issued a mandate in 1862 ordering both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches to publicly ordain him as "Emperor".
His attempts to overthrow the elected government of America by force having been utterly ignored, Norton turned his attention and his proclamations to other matters, both political and social. On August 12, 1869, "being desirous of allaying the dissensions of party strife now existing within our realm", he abolished both the Democratic and Republican parties. The failure to refer to Norton's adopted home city with appropriate respect was the subject of a particularly stern edict in 1872:
"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."
For all of his quirks and regardless of the precise nature of his psychological condition, Norton was on some occasions a visionary, and a number of his "Imperial Decrees" exhibited a profound foresight. Among his many edicts were instructions to form a League of Nations, and he explicitly forbade any form of discord or conflict between religions or their sects. Norton also saw fit on a number of occasions to decree the construction of a suspension bridge or tunnel connecting Oakland and San Francisco, his later decrees becoming increasingly irritated at the lack of prompt obedience being exhibited by the authorities:
"WHEREAS, we issued our decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of a suspension bridge from Oakland Point via Goat Island; also for a tunnel; and to ascertain which is the best project; and whereas the said citizens have hitherto neglected to notice our said decree; and whereas we are determined our authority shall be fully respected; now, therefore, we do hereby command the arrest by the army of both the Boards of City Fathers if they persist in neglecting our decrees."
Given under our royal hand and seal at San Francisco, this 17th day of September, 1872.
This suggestion, unlike Norton's others, actually came to fruition, but not because of him; construction of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge began on July 9, 1933 and was completed on November 12, 1936. The construction of Bay Area Rapid Transit's Transbay Tube was completed in 1969, with Transbay rail service commencing in 1974.
Norton spent his days as emperor inspecting the streets of San Francisco in an elaborate blue uniform with tarnished gold-plated epaulets, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco. He also wore a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. He frequently enhanced this regal posture with a cane or an umbrella. During his inspections, Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, and the appearance of police officers. Norton would also frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot at the time.
It was during one of his inspections that Norton is reputed to have performed one of his most famous acts of "diplomacy." During the 1860s and 1870s, there were a number of anti-Chinese demonstrations in the poorer districts of San Francisco. Ugly riots, some resulting in fatalities, broke out on several occasions. During one such incident, Norton allegedly positioned himself between the rioters and their Chinese targets, and with a bowed head started reciting the Lord's Prayer repeatedly until the rioters dispersed without incident.
Norton was much loved and revered by the citizens of San Francisco. Although penniless, he regularly ate at the finest restaurants in San Francisco; these restaurateurs then took it upon themselves to add brass plaques in their entrances declaring "by Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States." By all accounts, such "Imperial seals of approval" were much prized and a substantial boost to trade. Supposedly, no play or musical performance in San Francisco would dare to open without reserving balcony seats for Norton.
A popular rumor started by the devoted Norton caricaturist Ed Jump holds that he had two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, who were themselves notable San Francisco celebrities at the time. Although he did not own the dogs, Norton ate at free lunch counters where he provided the dogs with a few morsels of food. The royal dogs were not considered dogs in Norton's eyes and in the eyes of his "subjects". The canines were treated as their own autonomous beings.
In 1867, a police officer named Armand Barbier arrested Norton for the purpose of committing him to involuntary treatment for a mental disorder. The arrest outraged the citizens of San Francisco and sparked a number of scathing editorials in the newspapers. Police Chief Patrick Crowley speedily rectified matters by ordering Norton released and issuing a formal apology on behalf of the police force. Chief Crowley observed of the self-styled monarch "that he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line." Norton was magnanimous enough to grant an "Imperial Pardon" to the errant young police officer. Possibly as a result of this scandal, all police officers of San Francisco thereafter saluted Norton as he passed in the street.
Norton did receive some small tokens of formal recognition for his self-claimed position: the 1870 U.S. census records Joshua Norton as 50 years old and residing at 624 Commercial Street; his occupation is given as "Emporer". Norton would also issue his own money on occasion in order to pay for certain debts, and this became an accepted local currency in San Francisco. Typically these notes came in denominations ranging anywhere from fifty cents to ten dollars; the few notes still extant are collector's items. The city of San Francisco also honored Norton. When his uniform began to look shabby, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, with a great deal of ceremony, bought him a suitably regal replacement. In return, Norton sent them a gracious note of thanks and issued a "patent of nobility in perpetuity" for each supervisor.
During the later years of Norton's "reign", he was the subject of considerable rumor and speculation. One popular story suggested that he was the son of Emperor Louis Napoleon and that his claim of coming from South Africa was a ruse to prevent persecution. Another popular story suggested that Norton was planning to marry Queen Victoria. While this claim is unsupported, Norton did write to the Queen on several occasions and he is reported to have met Emperor Pedro II of Brazil. Rumors also circulated that Norton was supremely wealthy—only affecting poverty because he was miserly.
A number of decrees that were probably fraudulent were submitted and duly printed in local newspapers, and it is believed that in at least a few cases, newspaper editors themselves drafted fictitious edicts to suit their own agendas. The Museum of the City of San Francisco maintains a list of the decrees believed to be genuine.
On the evening of January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed on the corner of California Street and Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) in front of Old St. Mary's Church while on his way to a lecture at the California Academy of Sciences. His collapse was immediately noticed and "the police officer on the beat hastened for a carriage to convey him to the City Receiving Hospital." Norton died before a carriage could arrive. The following day the San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary on its front page under the headline "Le Roi est Mort" ("The King is Dead"). In a tone tinged with sadness, the article respectfully reported that, "on the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain..., Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life". The Morning Call, another leading San Francisco newspaper, published a front-page article using an almost identical sentence as a headline: "Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life."
It quickly became evident that, contrary to the rumors, Norton had died in complete poverty. Five or six dollars in small change had been found on his person, and a search of his room at the boarding house on Commercial Street turned up a single sovereign, worth around $2.50; his collection of walking sticks; his rather battered saber; a variety of hats (including a stovepipe, a derby, a red-laced Army cap, and another cap suited to a martial band-master); an 1828 French franc; and a handful of the Imperial bonds he sold to tourists at a fictitious 7% interest. There were fake telegrams purporting to be from Emperor Alexander II of Russia, congratulating Norton on his forthcoming marriage to Queen Victoria, and from the President of France, predicting that such a union would be disastrous to world peace. Also found were his letters to Queen Victoria and 98 shares of stock in a defunct gold mine.
Initial funeral arrangements included a pauper's coffin of simple redwood. However, members of the Pacific Club (a San Franciscan businessman's association) established a funeral fund that paid for a handsome rosewood casket and arranged a suitably dignified farewell. Norton's funeral on Sunday, January 10, was a solemn, mournful, and large affair. Respects were paid "...by all classes from capitalists to the pauper, the clergyman to the pickpocket, well-dressed ladies and those whose garb and bearing hinted of the social outcast." Some accounts report that as many as 30,000 people lined the streets to pay homage, and that the funeral cortege was two miles (3 km) long. He was buried at the Masonic Cemetery, at the expense of the City of San Francisco.
In 1934, Norton's remains were transferred, as were all graves in the city, at the expense of the City of San Francisco to a grave site of moderate splendor at Woodlawn Cemetery, in Colma. The site is marked by a large stone inscribed "Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico" .
In popular culture
Ghirardelli, a chocolatier in San Francisco, used to offer a sundae called "The Emperor Norton", which has as its primary garnishes two bananas and a handful of nuts. The company also produced a 5-oz. "Emperor Norton Non-Pareils" candy.
The Oakland-based San Francisco Bread Company produces the "Emperor Norton Sourdough Snack Chips" in 5.5-oz. or 12-oz. bags. Varieties include original flavor and ranch. The product is marketed through deli shelves, and according to vice-president of operations Jill Schuster, it has a very loyal following around the country. In North Beach, the San Francisco Brewing Company produces the "Emperor Norton Lager", a Munich-style amber lager with a distinctive malt character. The beer is always on tap and can be shipped within the state.
The Emperor Norton Utilities is a collection of strange and amusing software of limited practical use. The name is a play on the Norton Utilities.
Thinkin' Lincoln, a webcomic, uses Emperor Norton as a minor character.
There was a popular blog titled "Strip Mining for Whimsy", whose author wrote under the name Joshua Norton II, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico. It was taken down in March, 2007. Others have tried to co-opt Norton's image for their own use: In 1999, it was reported (via a spiritual medium) that Emperor Norton had issued a new decree which, among other things, established that his Imperial Domain now extends to include the Usenet.
Emperor Norton inspired the character "the King" in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain was resident in San Francisco during part of Emperor Norton's "reign".
The story of Emperor Norton was used by Neil Gaiman in "Three Septembers and a January", an issue of his comic book The Sandman included in the collection Fables and Reflections. Gaiman's Norton is a victim of Despair until Despair's brother, Dream, gives him the dream of royalty. Dream's sister Delirium notes that Norton's fantasy of Imperial power keeps him from true insanity, observing that "he should belong to me, but he doesn't ... his madness keeps him sane." In later issues collected in Worlds' End, it is mentioned that a movement started in San Francisco sought to declare Prez Rickard Emperor of the United States, and a figure resembling Norton appears in Dream's funeral procession.
A short story by Robert Silverberg, "The Palace at Midnight", features a post-apocalyptic California with an Empire of San Francisco. The Emperor at the time of the story is a decrepit and senile Norton the Seventh.
Christopher Moore's novels Bloodsucking Fiends, A Dirty Job, and You Suck: A Love Story feature a character based on Norton in contemporary San Francisco, referred to as "the Emperor of San Francisco" and accompanied by his dogs Lazarus and Bummer.
Emperor Norton, Bummer, and Lazarus make a brief appearance in Barbara Hambly's Ishmael, a novel set in the Star Trek universe. There are also references to "The Emperor of San Francisco" in the science-fiction novel The Woman Between the Worlds by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre.
Dianne Day's San Francisco-based "Fremont Jones" mystery series includes the novel Emperor Norton's Ghost (1998), in which a friend of the intrepid investigator claims to be communicating with the late Emperor about some unfinished business.
The character of "His Imperial Highness Smith" in the French Comic "Lucky Luke: L'empereur Smith" (1976), by Morris and René Goscinny, is loosely based on Norton. In contrast to the historical Norton, at the time that he declared himself emperor, the fictional Smith remains a successful businessman. In fact it is becoming fabulously rich that gave him his delusions of grandeur. He is capable of maintaining his own private army which an outlaw manipulates him into using to "reconquer" the United States before Lucky Luke stops him. In spite of the drama arising from the manipulations, Smith is never described as malicious, probably in respect of the "real" emperor. At the end of the comic book, a page is devoted to a short biography of the real Emperor Norton.
Norton is the probable basis for the Selma Lagerlöf novel, Kejsarn av Portugallien (The Emperor of Portugallia), the story of a rural Swedish man so disturbed by his daughter's leaving home that he goes mad and declares himself the emperor of Portugallia, parading through the streets of his village wearing a long robe and a bizarre piece of headgear. The 1925 film The Tower of Lies is based on the book.
Emperor Norton was a "guest of honor" at the 1993 World Science Fiction Convention, held in San Francisco. He was "channeled" by a local fan.
Emperor Norton I is the ruler of the Bear Flag Empire (encompassing the modern-day states of California, Oregon, and Washington) in R. Talsorian Games' Castle Falkenstein series of RPGs. Originally installed as a figurehead by the leaders of the Bear Flag Revolt, he was popularly asked to remain as a beloved monarch after the assassinations of the men that had originally propped him up.
In Diana: Warrior Princess by Marcus Rowland (a satirical RPG with an "alternate" 20th-century setting, which also features such "historical" characters as Wild Bill Gates and Prince Albert Einstein), Emperor Norton is described as the "benign ruler of large parts of America."
The story and ideas of Emperor Norton are lovingly related in several books by Robert Anton Wilson, most notably The Illuminatus! Trilogy, co-authored with Robert Shea, and a sequel, Schrödinger's Cat.
Ted Naifeh's fantasy comic Polly and the Pirates features an Emperor Joshua who is obviously modeled after Norton.
L. Neil Smith's novel The Probability Broach prominenty features action set at Emperor Norton University.
Alistair Cooke's Letter From America featured Norton as the subject of one of its episodes.
Emperor Norton was one of 15 "eccentrics" featured in the book Eccentrics by Henry and Melissa Billings as part of their critical reading series The Wild Side.
Emperor Norton makes a cameo appearance in The Golden Nineties by Lisa Mason.
The opera of Emperor Norton is being composed and written by one of the lesser characters in the novel Factotum by Charles Bukowski.
Warren Baer's 1934 melodrama The Duke of Sacramento is based on the career of The Emperor Norton.
T.A. Pratt's novel Blood Engines makes a reference to Emperor Norton through a cameo by Norton's appointed (and very powerful) Court Magician.
Emperor Norton's story makes an appearance in the San Francisco Chronicle comic stip Farley by Phil Frank from September 23 to November 12, 2004. The character Baba Rebop also promotes naming the new San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton in his honor. Emperor Norton comics
The comic strip The New Adventures of Queen Victoria includes Norton as a minor character. The third paperback collection of the strip is entitled Norton Hears a Who, and Other Stories.
The character of Mr. Crazy in the novel "Dark Hearts Of Chicago" by William Horwood and Helen Rappaport is based on Norton.
FilmAn actor dressed in a costume resembling Emperor Norton's regalia, accompanied by two dogs, is briefly seen leading a torchlight parade during the San Francisco sequence of the 1956 film Around the World in Eighty Days.
Video GamesEmperor Norton is a character in the Neuromancer video game, an adaptation of the novel by William Gibson. He hangs out in the Matrix Restaurant and sells the player skill chips.
Lu Watters composed a piece entitled "Emperor Norton's Hunch" Recorded on Good Time Jazz 12002 1954.
An opera based on Norton's life was penned by Henry Mollicone and was performed by (among other companies) the West Bay Opera company in the San Francisco peninsula in the fall of 1990.
An opera by Jerome Rosen premiered in Davis, California in 1999.
An independent record label, Emperor Norton Records, memorializes his legacy through their dedication to Emperor Norton's history.
Emperor Norton: A New Musical by K. Ohanneson with songs by M. Axelrod premiered at San Francisco's Dark Room Theater in December 2005 and ran there for three months, consistently selling out the Dark Room. A condensed and re-arranged version was presented in July 2006 at the San Francisco Theater Festival, and a revised production with many of the original cast and several new songs began a three-month run at the Shelton Theater in January 2007.
In the 1950s, Robert B. Aird, founding chairman of the University of California at San Francisco neurology department, composed a still unperformed musical based on Norton's life.
Since 2003, an opera "I, Norton", by Gino Robair, based on the Emperor's life, combining free and conducted improvisation with graphical and conventional scores, has been performed by many ensembles in North America and Europe.
In 2007, an Irish four-piece rock band formed under the name "Protectors of Mexico". In 2007, a musical play, "Emperor Norton, the Musical" was produced in San Francisco. The play dramatized the "reign" of Norton I and includes dogs Bummer and Lazarus as characters
ReligionIn the religion of Discordianism, Emperor Norton is considered a Saint Second Class, the highest spiritual honor attainable by an actual (non-fictional) human being. The Principia also says that the Goddess Eris / Discordia replied with Norton's name when questioned as to whether She, like Jehovah, had a Begotten Son. As reported in the Principia Discordia, the Joshua Norton Cabal, a group of Discordians based in San Francisco, has as its slogan:
"Everybody understands Mickey Mouse. Few understand Hermann Hesse. Only a handful understood Albert Einstein. And nobody understood Emperor Norton."
In official practice, the phrase is never translated out of Latin, except on certain holidays.
RadioThe San Francisco radio station KFOG referred to the Bay Bridge as the Emperor Norton during their morning traffic reports in the late 1980s
Bonanza, an American western television show, featured an episode titled "The Emperor Norton." It first aired on February 27, 1966 as episode 225 in the seventh season. In the episode, Emperor Norton gets in trouble after calling for worker safety in the mines. As a result of his concern for the miners, his opponents attempt to have him committed. Mark Twain, and the cast of Bonanza testify on Norton's behalf at a competency hearing. Norton's suspension bridge concept is also featured.
Death Valley Days "Emperor Norton" (episode 376, aired 6/15/56).
Broken Arrow "The Conspirators" (episode 11, aired 12/18/56).
Weird U.S., Vol. 3 (History Channel) DVD (2004).
"Surprise", a Korean entertainment show, aired a 're-enactment' of Emperor Norton's life in 2006.
LGBT CultureJosé Sarria, a drag queen and early gay activist, proclaimed himself "Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton" in 1964. As the Widow Norton, Sarria established the Imperial Court System, an international network of charitable organizations.
Many micronations celebrate January 8 as Emperor Norton Day.
Norton appears on the currency of some micronations, including the 10 Valora coin and 5 Valora paper note of the Republic of Molossia.
Molossians have declared part of their backyard to be Norton Park. Micronations can be awarded Norton Awards for Micronational Excellence.