Who was Joshua A. Norton?
Joshua A. Norton was an eccentric man who lived in the U.S. and is most famous for calling himself the ‘Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico’. Though he was not born in the U.S., he spent much of his life in the country, specifically in San Francisco, from where he supposedly “reigned” over America for 21 years. He spent his childhood in other countries before sailing to the U.S., where he attained much wealth. But a bad business deal sent him spiralling down the road to bankruptcy and insanity. When he re-emerged, he issued a proclamation calling himself the king of the country. He issued many decrees under this title, most of them against the government, and this battle continued for the rest of his life. But many of his decrees were quite insightful too, such as the construction of a bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland. Thus, the people of San Francisco humored him, honoured him and even celebrated him after his abrupt death on the city streets. He has also inspired many literary characters around the world.
Childhood & Early Life
Joshua Abraham Norton was born on February 4, 1818, in England, to John Norton and Sarah Norden. His father was a farmer and merchant.
Joshua spent most of his childhood in South Africa when his family moved there in early 1820. His mother passed away in 1846 and his father in 1848, after which he boarded a ship for the United States.
He arrived in San Francisco in 1849, reportedly with an inheritance of about $40,000.
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Joshua Norton set up a successful real estate business, ‘Joshua Norton & Company’, in San Francisco and also did well in the commodities markets to become a rich and noteworthy citizen of the city by 1851.
In 1852, he decided to take advantage of a supposedly great business opportunity by buying rice from Peru that he intended to sell in China. But the deal went wrong and he tried to void the contract by blaming the dealers.
From 1853 to 1856, he was entangled in a long litigation about the Peruvian rice business deal, but he lost the case. As a result, he lost his entire fortune, including his real estate holdings.
In 1858, he filed for bankruptcy and was forced to live in a boarding house for the rest of his life.
In September 1859, he was back in the public eye when he distributed letters to newspapers declaring himself as ‘Emperor of the United States’, and the ‘San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin’ printed the announcement for a humourous effect. In October, he issued a decree abolishing the United States Congress.
In 1860, he issued decrees commanding the dissolution of the American republic; barring the members of Congress from meeting in Washington D.C.; the nation’s army to remove the elected representatives of the people from the Congress, etc.
In 1862, he ordered the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches to ordain him as Emperor.
In 1863, he proclaimed for himself the additional title of ‘Protector of Mexico’.
In 1867, he was arrested by an auxiliary force officer to be treated for a mental disorder. By then, he had become an eccentric yet much-loved character. Outraged citizens demanded his release, which the police complied with and also issued an apology. All police officers began to salute him thereafter.
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In August 1869, he ordered the dissolution of the Republican and Democratic parties of the U.S.
In 1870, his occupation on the U.S. census was listed as ‘Emperor’ along with a note stating that he was insane.
In 1872, it is believed that he issued a decree imposing a penalty of 25 dollars upon anyone who referred to his home city as ‘Frisco’. He also ordered the building of a suspension bridge or tunnel to connect San Francisco and Oakland.
During his reign as ‘Emperor’, he also issued many other noteworthy decrees like forbidding conflicts between religions, creation of a ‘League of Nations’, fair treatment of immigrants and minorities, etc.
He was often seen inspecting San Francisco’s streets, sidewalks and buildings, dressed in an elaborate imperial uniform. He also gave philosophical talks and oftentimes diffused communal tensions in the poor areas of San Francisco.
Many capitalized on his popularity and began selling ‘Emperor Norton’ branded souvenirs. He was treated like royalty in the city, and ate and travelled for free. The city also provided him with an annual sum for his other needs.
Awards & Achievements
In 1884, American author, Mark Twain, modelled the character ‘King’ in his book ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ after Norton.
In 1892, Scottish novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson, featured him as a character in his book ‘The Wrecker’.
In 1980, his death centenary was marked by several ceremonies across San Francisco.
Throughout the years, and most recently in 2013, several campaigns have been launched to rename the ‘San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge’ as ‘Emperor Norton Bridge’.
Family & Personal Life
On January 8, 1880, while on his way to deliver a lecture, he suddenly collapsed on the street and died before medical aid could arrive.
More than 10,000 people paid their respects to him on the streets of San Francisco. Since he died in abject poverty, the city bore the expenses of his funeral and he was buried at the ‘Masonic Cemetery’.
In 1934, his remains were moved to ‘Woodlawn Cemetery' in Colma, California.
He was always followed by two street dogs, Lazarus and Bummer, who also became famous and ate for free too.
When authorities searched his tiny living quarters at a boarding house, they found an old sword, various headgear, walking sticks, a gold sovereign worth $2.50, and some fictitious bonds that he sold to tourists.