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The story of America’s first emperor- Joshua Norton I

Goran Blazeski

Joshua Abraham Norton was born on February 14th, 1819 in London, England. During his infancy, his parents John Norton and Sarah Norden moved to Algoa Bay in South Africa.

He was raised there, and his father became a successful merchant. In 1849, when Norton was 30 years old, he decided to immigrate to San Francisco, United States.

He arrived in San Francisco with a lot of money which later he had lost in an atrocious financial deal.

It has been reported that he had entered the port with $40,000, thus soon opened a business selling supplies to gold miners. By 1855, he became one of the most respected businessmen in San Francisco.

In fact, he was so successful that it took him no more than several years to accumulate about a quarter of million dollars after he had arrived in the United States. His friends referred him as “Emperor.”

Portrait crop of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, also known as Joshua A Norton.

Portrait crop of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, also known as Joshua A Norton.

During a rice shortage in 1853, he bought as much rice as he could in an attempt to corner the local market. At the beginning, it seemed that the “Emperor” made an excellent deal, but then two ships laden with more rice entered the port.

The “Emperor” lost all the money and went bankrupt overnight. He disappeared for about nine months but returned in the summer of 1859. Besides losing the money, he apparently lost his mind, too.

He returned to San Francisco claiming to be the Emperor of the United States and announced his rule by issuing an official proclamation.

Emperor Joshua Norton, in full military regalia, circa 1880 or earlier

Emperor Joshua Norton, in full military regalia, circa 1880 or earlier

“I, Joshua Norton, do hereby at the request and desire of a great majority of the citizens of the United States, declare myself Emperor of America and Protector of Mexico.”

He soon became the best-known man in San Francisco and a cherished mascot for the city. People on the streets began greeting Norton with deep bows and courtesies.

He was wearing an old military outfit and was given gold colored buttons and gold cloth by a soldier at the Army base in San Francisco.

One of Norton's undated proclamations. Photo Credit

One of Norton’s undated proclamations. Photo Credit

If he ever wanted to eat, he would just go to a restaurant where he was served a free meal. Theater owners saved him a seat at the opening nights of any play and he even had his own currency printed.

Emperor Norton began sending royal orders, and newspapers began publishing his decrees. Many of the San Francisco residents would buy newspapers just to read about the latest decree of the Emperor of the United States.

One of the most famous decrees ordered the city government to build a bridge between Oakland Point and Goat Island and then on to San Francisco.

A ten dollar note issued by the Imperial Government of Norton I

A ten dollar note issued by the Imperial Government of Norton I

In 1872, he declared that anyone who referred his adopted city as “Frisco,” must pay a penalty of twenty-five dollars.

On July 16th, 1860, a Decree from Norton I dissolved the United States of America. Finally, in 1880, after 21 years in service, Emperor Norton I died from a stroke.

Here is another interesting read from us: The Emperor would throw people into the arena to be killed by animals, because he was bored

The whole city mourned over the loss. A few days later, at his funeral turned up 20,000 people to pay their last respects.

His funeral cortege was two miles long. Emperor Norton I was laid to rest in the Masonic Cemetery.