The Emperor of America
February 4, 1819 - Some records indicate that today was Joshua Norton's birthday. Few details of Norton's early life are easy to confirm, but his accession to "Emperor of these United States" and "Protector of Mexico" is a well documented chapter in the unique history of San Francisco.
He was born in London and raised in South Africa where his family prospered in business. Upon the death of his father, Norton took his inheritance and moved to San Francisco. By 1853 he had amassed a sizable fortune ($250,000) but blew it on an ill-advised attempt to corner the rice market.
For the first time in his life, Norton was broke. He disappeared for a few months and nobody is sure where he went, but upon returning to San Francisco in 1859, Norton was undoubtedly a changed man. He issued the following proclamation:
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 citizens of San Francisco played along and soon the Emperor was a local celebrity, welcomed in the finest restaurants and salons. Officers at the Presidio donated a royal blue uniform. He topped it off with a beaver hat and peacock plume.
Emperor Norton would regularly issue decrees that were gladly carried by the local press. These announcements included the firing of the Governor of Virginia, barring Congress from meeting in Washington D.C., and the dissolution of the United States government. His executive orders were at times prescient, like his call for a bridge to be built connecting San Francisco and Oakland.
Money was never a problem for the Emperor, as he issued his own currency that was happily accepted throughout the city. Bars and lunchrooms that he favored with a visit would promote their brush with nobility by posting signs, "By Appointment to His Emperor, Joshua Norton I."
The Emperor's twenty-year reign came to an end on January 8, 1880 when he dropped dead on the corner of Grant and California streets. He died while making his daily rounds. His funeral was attended by thousands.