The Emperor




On January 8, 1880, Emperor Norton I (pictured above) collapsed on his way to a lecture at a local university. He died before help could arrive. His death made front page news in the largest newspaper of the area, under the headline “Le Roi Est Mort” — “The King is Dead,” with a similar headline published in the second largest newspaper of the locale. At his funeral two days later, thousands — perhaps as many as 30,000, despite the city’s population being only about 200,000 — came to pay their respects. The newspaper reported the next day that within hours, the line to do so was out the door, hundreds of people long.

But his empire wasn’t real. Joshua Abraham Norton — or his Imperial Majesty, Norton the First, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, was a delusional (or at least, eccentric) pauper with a flair for grandeur. And the city of San Francisco seemed to love him for it.

The United States, of course, has never had an Emperor, let alone one who was also the Protector of Mexico (the Monroe Doctrine notwithstanding). But that mattered little to Norton. Born in England in the early 1800s, he inherited a large sum of money upon his father’s death and moved to San Francisco (from South Africa) in 1849. Over the next few years, he’d successfully invest in real estate in the area, and was worth a reported $250,000 in the 1850s — the equivalent of well over $6 million today, accounting for inflation. But he would soon lose his fortune. A famine in China led to rice shortages in San Francisco, and a rapid increase in prices looked like it was on the horizon. Norton started buying up rice coming in from Peru at twelve and a half cents a pound, expecting to corner the market, but other shipments from Peru made it to the city — and the price fell to about three cents a pound. Norton lost money not only on the transaction, but also on litigation to try and void the contract. In 1858, he left San Francisco, bankrupt.

He returned to the city at some point in 1859, but was no longer interested in the rice or real estate businesses. Instead, Norton fancied himself as some strange kind of political activist, and on September 17, 1859, he sent a letter to various area newspapers proclaiming himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States. At first, the newspapers took it as a strange joke from a formerly well-known well-to-do citizen, but it soon became clear that Norton had lost more than his riches in the rice deal gone bad. In October, the self-crowned Emperor issued his first decree, abolishing Congress. (When Congress did not vacate, Emperor Norton ordered the Army “to procede with a suitable force to clear the Halls of Congress.”) And he instituted what may be the world’s first swear jar, when he called for a $25 fine for anyone who used a certain F-word — “Frisco.”

Despite his apparent madness, Norton was eminently likable, and well-received by the community. A local Army post gave him the uniform he is seen wearing above — a gift befitting a commander of a real army, not just the one in his own head. Norton, being a sovereign, issued his own currency — here’s an example — and local citizens and businesses used it in day-to-day transactions.

Norton is now buried in Colma, California. His gravestone, seen here, memorializes him as “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico,” just as he lived.

Bonus fact: Norton I isn’t the only person buried in Colma, California — also buried there are Joe DiMaggio, William Randolph Hearst, Wyatt Earp, and Levi Strauss. The town, founded in 1924 (Norton’s remains were moved there in 1934), was designed to be a necropolis — it is made up mostly of cemeteries or land designated to become cemeteries in the future. The residents of the town take their role in life (and death) with humor. In 2006, the mayor of Colma told the New York Times that the city “has 1,500 above-ground residents and 1.5 million underground,” while the town’s official website reads “It’s Great to be Alive in Colma.”

From the ArchivesThe San Francisco Bushman: Allegedly homeless, definitely loved.

RelatedThree different books on Emperor Norton.