Emperor Norton I of the United States

    Emperor Norton I of the United States

Few Americans are aware of the man who proclaimed himself Norton the First, Emperor of the United States. 

    Joshua Abraham Norton was born in Britain in 1818. He spent much of his life in South Africa, but headed to San Francisco, arriving there in 1849 at the height of the gold rush. He was a businessman, not a prospector. He managed to amass a considerable fortune, but lost it all in trying to corner the market in rice from Peru.

    It’s not clear when he went off the deep end. Speculation is that losing his fortune drove him insane. In 1859, he declared himself Emperor Norton I of the United States. In 1863 he added ‘Protector of Mexico’ to his imperial title. Norton regularly issued proclamations, such as one that dissolved Congress on the grounds it was full of crooks. His uniform was a tattered US Army uniform, with epaulets on the shoulders, and a beaver hat with a peacock feather. He carried an old sword and used a variety of walking sticks.

    San Francisco adopted Emperor Norton as a local curiosity and tourist attraction. In 1867 a police officer arrested him, intending on committing Norton to an asylum. Citizen protest resulted in Norton being freed, and the Chief of Police apologized. Norton issued an imperial edit pardoning the police officer who had arrested him.

    Norton had money printed for his imperial expenses. The money was honored at restaurants and bars he frequented. Little Norton money survives today, but at auctions collectors pay thousands of dollars for it. The 1870 US Census listed Norton’s profession as ‘emperor’ and unkindly noted that he was insane.

    Emperor Norton died in 1880. 10,000 people attended his cortege. He’s mostly forgotten today, but lives on in characters in fiction by Mark Twain.

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