History & Culture

The Emperor from California

AMAC Exclusive by Herald Boas

The state of California is the largest U.S. state in population (55 million), and has one of the most curious lists of colorful, unlikely, sometimes self-deluded characters in its historical chronicles. As the home of Hollywood and the American film industry, it has supplied a lion’s share of our entertainment celebrities, a few of whom have gone on to political prominence, including Senator George Murphy, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Mayors Clint Eastwood, Sonny Bono and Will Rogers, to name some of the more well-known. Most notable of all, of course, was “B” movie star Ronald Reagan who became governor and, later, a very significant president of the United States.

But none of these figures exceeded in sheer presumption and boldself-promotion the now almost-forgotten 19th century eccentric Joshua Norton, the self-declared Emperor of the United States.

Born in what is now part of London in 1818, Norton soon moved with his family to South Africa where he grew up. In 1845, he left Cape Town for Liverpool and then went to Boston.

Not much is known about his life until 1849, when he showed up in San Francisco during the California gold rush.

With a purported inheritance from his father, 31-year-old Norton became a successful commodities trader and real estate speculator, and a respected member of the business

Then in 1852, after a famine in China, Norton tried to corner the rice market by buying a shipload of rice from Peru, but he guessed wrong and was soon ruined. A bank foreclosed on his real estate holdings, and he filed for bankruptcy. By 1858, he was impoverished and living in a working-class boarding house.

A year later, unhappy with the legal and political institutions in his adopted country, he went to the San Francisco daily newspaper, the Daily Evening Bulletin, and delivered a proclamation declaring himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States.

It was published.

Outside San Francisco, this ultimate act of political chutzpah had no impact whatsoever, but in the early days of what became the Bay Area, Norton’s declaration was received with what can only be described as affectionate, tolerant sympathy.

Wearing a blue uniform with gold epaulets and colorful hats, Emperor Norton I was seen daily inspecting the city’s streets and giving impromptu speeches on a variety of political and philosophical subjects. He began issuing decrees, beginning with the abolition of the U.S. Congress, and eventually the abolition of theDemocratic and Republican Parties, but no one outside SanFrancisco paid any attention.

Not all his ideas were wacky. Some of his pronouncements were ahead of his time, including building a suspension bridge between San Francisco and Oakland and forming a League of Nations.

Emperor Norton’s “imperial government” issued his own money in the form of printed scrip or currency that, amazingly, was honored by some local restaurants where Norton dined.
(Surviving Norton scrip notes are now prized collector’s items which sell for thousands of dollars.)

After Napoleon III invaded Mexico in 1863, Norton added“Protector of Mexico” to his imperial title.

His other diplomatic efforts went mostly nowhere. Queen Victoria did not reply to his letters proposing marriage and the union of their two empires, but King Kamehameha V of Hawaii, furious with the U.S. government, declared Norton the sole leader of the United States.

Local newspapers published Emperor Norton’s decrees, and a few of their own under his name. He became a well-known character until his death in 1881 at the age of 61. Thousands attended his hastily arranged public funeral.

Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson each made Norton a character in one of their novels.

The news out of San Francisco and California these days has taken some strange turns of its own, including a gubernatorial recall election, proposals to divide the state into three states or to secede from the U.S. altogether. A beautiful place, but prone to more than its share of droughts, earthquakes, floods and other natural and man-made disasters, it has a remarkable history.

But nothing in it perhaps was so strange as the saga of Emperor Norton I.

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Bill on the Hill
2 months ago

I must say I wasn’t sure where this story was heading, however it managed to draw me in as I read it to it’s conclusion…California being what it is & what it has become I would suggest is why they tolerated just such a man, such as the self anointed Emperor Norton I himself…
Do I sense an unspoken reference to the current tyrannical governor of CA & soon to be recalled- the Emperor himself, the Gruesome Newsom…? I couldn’t resist, lol!
Bill on the Hill… :~)

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