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200 years ago, on February 4, 1818, Joshua Abraham Norton was born in Deptford, now a part of modern London. His parents, John Norton and Sarah Norden, were English Jews who had alarmingly similar last names. Sarah had come from a line of great merchants, and John was a merchant himself.
In the year 1820, the British were sending numerous settlers to South Africa in an effort to colonize. Colonize, that is, a place where indigenous people already lived and had been living in for thousands of years.
In 1846, nearing 30 years old, Norton lost his mother, Sarah. In 1848, he lost his father John as well. That same year, Norton knew it was time for change. He sailed west, crossing the pacific and arriving in San Francisco around November of 1849. That’s about a little more or a little less than a year at sea— which I assume sounds cool at first and gets really old after the third or fourth time you wake up and think “hey, I’m still here.”
To me, life at sea is like being old in Florida. Like you’re disabled and stuck at home, but at the same time there’s hurricanes and tsunamis comin’ for ya every other day.
Norton supposedly inherited $40,000 dollars from his father. Some accounts say he didn’t have quite that much money, and perhaps they’re true, but when Norton arrived in San Francisco he enjoyed the huge financial success that many people did in the Gold Rush. Many, but not all, mind you. The Gold Rush wasn’t as kind to the other 300,000 people that came pouring into California in 1849.
Norton supposedly made his fortune in real estate. Well, that and imports. That’s part of the reason the Gold Rush fucked so many people– it was because the state was so god damn far westward that people showed up and had no farms to eat from, or, well, anything to buy. So the smart people made their money by investing in the import game, bringing stuff in from other states, and then jacking up the price because hey, who else are you buying your denim from?
So by 1853 Norton’s worth a whopping $250,000. For perspective, that’s way beyond $6 million today– which I say because my favorite currency calculator only goes back to the 1910s. So tack another 60 whole years of inflation on that.
But, that same year, Norton watched as an unexpected rice shortage hit the city. Norton sunk literally as much money as he could into buying out the local suppliers, trying to corner the market. Then, overnight, two massive barges of rice came rolling through the Golden Gate.
(Not the bridge, just the thing the bridge goes over)
The price of rice plummeted, and Norton had wasted every cent of his investment. Now take that kind of failure, and compound it with Norton trying to sue the owner of his investment. He lost not just his remaining cash, but his remaining properties. His bankruptcy was almost an exact recreation of everyone’s losing turn in Monopoly.
Now for the next six years, Norton faded into poverty and obscurity. In 1857, he made a couple appearances, but those who knew him formerly said that he become someone quite different. In 1859, that made itself apparent when Norton appeared in the office of the San Francisco Bulletin, with written decrees for whichever editors he could find. He was dressed in full military regalia, as well as a large top hat with many feathers attached. He was sporting a very full beard.
Norton had made his rounds to more newspapers, but it was the editor of the Bulletin that decided to humor him. The following edict was published in the San Francisco Bulletin on September 17, 1859.
“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of these United States, I, Joshua Norton … declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U.S. and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall … 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.”
Now Norton had never shown signs of mental illness either during his career or before. This decree, however, was very sincere. The new sovereign emperor of the U.S. saw a large amount of recognition in his city, because it’s San Francisco and nobody has anything better to do. When he passed by on the street (still wearing that outfit), people would sometimes bow to him. The city directory even changed his occupation title to emperor, as a tongue in cheek joke. Pretty soon, the story starting getting picked up by all the other papers, and his antics started getting published on the daily.
By the next month, emperor Norton made another declaration: “fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice…in consequence of which, we do hereby abolish Congress.” Emperor says no more congress! He argued that the republican and democratic parties should both be abolished, since their divisiveness had driven a wedge into the productivity of the country. A controversial opinion, I’m sure you’ll agree.
When Norton learned that congress was still meeting, he ordered U.S. General Winfield Scott to march on Washington and clear the halls of congress.
I SAID NO. NO CONGRESS! GO HOME!
On top of that, he declared the governor of Virginia be hanged for allowing the hanging of an abolitionist.
Now, according to one biographer I read from, these decrees of his were published across several San Francisco newspapers. In fact, some even starting making up some of their own decrees, slapping his name on them to sensationalize the stories. This is one argument for how the title “protector of Mexico” got added on to his name, but those with the history channel and san francisco chronicle allege that Norton had complete control of his delusional honorifics.
When the civil war threatened to tear the country apart, our sweet emperor decided that we had our chance, but now it was time to dissolve the union altogether and reformat it as a monarchy, with him at the throne. GOD DAMN IT, THAT’S IT! YOU WON’T QUIT CONGRESSING, YOU’RE USING SLAVES– YOU’RE DONE!
Meanwhile, when France began its invasion of Mexico during the pastry war, Norton didn’t like that. In the spirit of not really helping since he didn’t have an army, Norton just started calling himself the protector of Mexico.
Meanwhile, back at home, Norton’s reputation was only getting better and better. He was, by this point, San Francisco’s mascot, essentially.
Which, if I’m gonna’ throw that out there, I guess I should ask what their mascot is now? The Governator? L Ron Hubbard??
He and his outfit became something of a merchandising opportunity, and souvenirs started going around in his honor. Photos, drawings, even dolls were made of the emperor! Even local business owners started giving him little luxuries– like every opening night of a play would have one seat reserved for him. Restaurants would have spots set aside for him as well, and he’d even get a free meal if he left his royal seal of approval on the establishment. Ferries and local trains would let him ride for free, too.
Norton, being absolutely dirt poor, was probably happy to receive these handouts. Despite his title and many honors, though, he was still poor of cash. Citizens of San Fran started giving Norton cash donations, under the guise of “paying taxes,” and Norton accepted them. When his emperor’s uniform would become visibly dirty, officers and soldiers would bring him a freshly washed replacement.
Norton just wandered around the city, all day, everyday. He’d check up on local construction projects, clean up litter, and even stop to chat with his citizens– making sure everyone was doing alright. To deal with that whole “not a lot of cash” thing, Norton even made up his own currency, a brand of coin marked with his royal seal. Theatres, ferries, trains, restaurants, and all sorts of places accepted his money as an IOU they never expected to pay off, because he was such a lovable scamp.
Though he’d lost his mind, he hadn’t lost the core of himself. He was still very intelligent, able to hold accurate conversations on current affairs. He was very kind with children, and was generally a good hearted man. The only instance of him getting violent was after a cartoonist drew a picture of him scavenging for scraps with the likes of Bummer and Lazarus, two famous stray dogs that roamed San Francisco around this time. Norton apparently smashed his walking stick through the window of the shop he saw the picture in, screaming that it defaced his honor.
Outrage swept through the city when an officer, new to the city of San Francisco, arrested Norton on the charges of vagrancy. While he tried having him committed into a mental hospital, the community was so outspoken that the department decided to let him go. To quote one local paper: “since he has worn the Imperial purple [he] has shed no blood, robbed nobody, and despoiled the country of no one, which is more than can be said for his fellows in that line.” From then on, cops would salute the emperor as he passed.
Norton kept up his decrees, as well. He suggested that anyone who called the city just “Frisco,” should be fined $25, which would be nearly a four figure fine today. I’m trusting someone else to do that math for me because again, I just don’t have the tools I thought I did.
In the 1870s, he also proposed that a bridge be built from Frisco to Oakland, over the bay. Though not because of his request, such a bridge was built quite a few years later. (No, not the Golden Gate).
It was on one of his daily patrols around the city on January 8, 1880 that the emperor suddenly seized up, and collapsed. He died almost immediately. Tens of thousands showed up for his funeral. Papers sent of heartwarming tributes, declaring that the throne of San Francisco was empty, and would never be filled by a more worthy soul.
When his body had to be relocated to a new cemetery in the 1930s, businesses closed for the funeral procession to pay honor to the emperor. Even fifty four years after his death, the procession lowered flags, and drew a crowd of 60,000 mourners.
When his home was investigated, he was found to be living in a very small apartment, with hardly any possessions– especially not any cash. His renters explained that he had been paying a 50 cent renters fee every night before going to bed.
Today, there remains a petition to rename the San Francisco Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton. On the fourth of February, just a few days ago, San Francisco celebrated Norton’s 200th birthday.
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