There are many tales of people who go out and seek their fortunes in the American West in the 1800s. But few are as strange or as colorful as that of Joshua Norton, Emperor of These United States and Protector of Mexico. Joshua Norton was born in England somewhere between 1814 and 1819, and his family moved to South Africa in 1820. So how did Norton come to arrive in the United States? His father John Norton died in August of 1848 and left Joshua with $40,000. Joshua used that sum to move to San Francisco and hoped to make money in the gold rush.
At first, Joshua Norton was rather successful in his business endeavors. Taking advantage of the real estate market in California, Norton soon accumulated a fortune of over $250,000 by the mid-1850s. However, he soon lost his fortune after attempting to take advantage of a Chinese ban on rice exports. Norton bought a shipment of rice from Peru as the price of rice in San Francisco skyrocketed, but soon other shipments from Peru arrived in the harbor and the price plummeted. Norton lost almost his entire fortune and filed bankruptcy in 1858. Shortly thereafter he left San Francisco.
Norton returned to the city a year later, disgruntled with the United States system of court and government. In a peculiar move, Norton proclaimed on September 17, 1859 that he was the Emperor of These United States, had absolute rule over the country, and called for the dissolution of Congress commanding General Winfield Scott to send the army in to remove the legislature. Scott, the army, Congress, and the rest of the country ignored his claims. In the next years, Emperor Norton issued further unheeded decrees dissolving the republic of the United States and, in 1862, requesting the heads of the Catholic and Protestant churches to crown him Emperor in order to end the Civil War.
Despite Emperor Norton’s failure to receive recognition from the United States government, he became a local celebrity in San Francisco in the 1860s and 1870s. The army post at the Presidio gave Norton a blue uniform with gold epaulettes to wear signifying his emperorship, and he would frequently walk the city, inspecting the condition of the streets. Throughout his life, he issued imperial seals of approval to businesses in San Francisco, which were prized and caused a large boost in trade. When Norton was arrested by a police officer in 1867 to have him confined to an institution for mental illness, the San Francisco police chief ordered Norton released on the grounds that Norton was not doing any harm, and issued him a public apology. In return, Norton thanked the police chief and issued the arresting office what he considered an Imperial pardon. Norton also issued his own currency to pay for his debts, and it soon became accepted as local currency in San Francisco. The city’s Board of Supervisors even honored him with a replacement uniform in 1870 when his old one became faded, and in return Emperor Norton gave each supervisor a perpetual patent of nobility.
Emperor Joshua Norton lived for another ten years and died of a heart attack in San Francisco on January 8, 1880. The following day, the San Francisco Chronicle put his obituary on the front page under the headline “Le Roi est Mort”. While there were claims that Norton was still rich, in reality he died nearly penniless. Norton’s story influence many literary figures including Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain to base characters off of him. His legacy also lives on in one of the few proposals that eventually became a reality. One of his many “imperial decrees” was to construct a suspension bridge of tunnel link across San Francisco Bay between San Francisco and Oakland. In 1933, just over sixty years after Norton issued the decree, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge began construction. In the 1960s the TransBay Tube was built to extend the rapid transit system to Oakland. There have been two petitions to rename all or parts of the Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton, but neither has gained much of a following. However, there are memorial plaques on both the bridge and the tunnel to honor Emperor Norton for his contributions.