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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

His Excellency Norton I

The self-proclaimed Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, was a colorful citizen of San Francisco from the turbulent 1850s gold rush days through the city’s continuing evolvement and new civic issues of the 1880s.

His Excellency, whose real name was Joshua Abraham Norton, arrived in San Francisco in 1849, rumored to have substantial funds from his father’s South African estate, although this remains a guess. In any case, he was so successful as a commodities trader and real estate investor, that by 1852 he was one of the more prosperous, respected citizens of the city.

Then in late 1852, China, facing a severe famine, placed a ban on the export of its rice, causing the price of rice in San Francisco to soar by 900 percent. Sensing a rare opportunity to corner the market, Norton bought an entire shipment of rice on its way up from Peru. Shortly after he signed the contract, however, other shiploads of rice arrived from there, causing the price to plummet—so he tried to void the contract on the basis that he had been misled by the Peruvian rice dealers. Norton and the Peruvian dealers were involved in protracted litigation until 1854, when the California Supreme Court ruled against Norton, and simultaneously the bank foreclosed on his real estate holdings. It was said that Norton suffered from a mental disorder caused by his catastrophic financial losses.

In July1859, he declared himself “Emperor of these United States,” in a letter delivered to the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin; and thus began his whimsical 21-year reign over America, to right what he saw as the inadequacies of the country’s legal and political structures. During those years Norton issued numerous decrees, including decrees to formally abolish the United States Congress; to dissolve the republic in favor of a temporary monarchy; and to abolish the Democratic and Republican parties. In 1862, after French Emperor Napoleon III invaded Mexico and installed Maximilian I as his pawn, Norton also added the title “Protector of Mexico” to many of his proclamations. It was a title he later revoked, saying that it was impossible to protect such an unsettled nation.

Norton wore an elaborate, second-hand blue uniform with gold-plated epaulettes, given to him by officers of the U.S. Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco. This he embellished with a variety of adornments, including a beaver hat decorated with peacock or ostrich feathers, a sword, and a walking stick. Always short of funds, Norton spent his days in parks and libraries, visiting old friends, or inspecting the streets and cable cars.

Treated deferentially in San Francisco and elsewhere, his signature alone was accepted as payment in the dining and entertainment establishments he frequented. When he died on January 8, 1880, in complete poverty, possibly aged 61 although his birth date remains in question, members of the Pacific Club provided for a handsome rosewood casket instead of a pauper’s coffin of simple redwood. His funeral drew hundreds of mourners from all social classes of the city, who lined the streets to pay their last respects.

Emperor Norton’s life story was immortalized by Mark Twain, who modeled the character of the King in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after him, and by Robert Louis Stevenson, who made Norton a character in his 1892 novel The Wrecker. In modern times, adaptations of his story have been featured in comic books and television dramas.

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