September 17th, 1859 – The Emperor of the United States


On September 17th, 1859Joshua A. Norton was declared “Norton I, Emperor of the United States” . . . at least by his own accord he became Emperor . . . he also later declared himself “Protector of Mexico.”

Emperor Norton

Born in England, Norton spent most of his early life in South Africa. He immigrated to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving a bequest of $40,000 (inflation adjusted to $1.2 to $1.5 million in 2014 US Dollars) from his father’s estate, arriving aboard the steam yacht Hurlothrumbo. Norton initially made a living as a businessman, but he lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice.

Emperor Norton 2

Joshua Abraham Norton (c.1818 – January 8th, 1880), known as Emperor Norton

After losing a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, Norton became a less and less public figure. He reemerged in September 1859, laying claim to the position of Emperor of the United States. Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented.

Though some considered him insane or eccentric, citizens of San Francisco celebrated his regal presence and his proclamations, such as his order that the United States Congress be dissolved by force and his numerous decrees calling for a bridge crossing and a tunnel to be built under San Francisco Bay. Similar structures were built long after his death in the form of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and the Transbay Tube, and there have been campaigns to rename the bridge “The Emperor Norton Bridge“.

On January 8th, 1880, Norton collapsed at a street corner and died before he could be given medical treatment. At his funeral two days later, nearly 30,000 people packed the streets of San Francisco to pay homage.

Norton has been immortalized as the basis of characters in the literature of writers Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christopher Moore, Maurice De Bevere, Selma Lagerlöf, and Neil Gaiman.


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