Grymm Tooms Travelling Museum
Joshua Abraham Norton (1819-1880)
Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico



by Professor Leonidas Grymm

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usJoshua Abraham Norton was born in London, in 1819. His family went to South Africa and made their fortune after moving to the Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope. Sometime around 1849 he left South Africa for the United States and became a wealthy San Francisco businessman. Norton’s headquarters were in a beached ship called the ‘Genesse’. A considerable amount of money was to be made selling rice to Chinese immigrants and at the peak of his business career he was worth a quarter of a million dollars and by 1854 he had monopolised the San Francisco rice market. Sadly he went out of business when the Japanese started sending rice in bulk to the city, glutting the market. Prices tumbled and Norton, having lost everything, filed for bankruptcy.

Joshua Norton seems to disappear until 17th September 1859, when he walked into the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin and handed over the first of his many declarations, officially declaring himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. While the American people did not recognise his command, the inhabitants of San Francisco began to treat him in many ways like a real-life Emperor, even paying for his lodgings, a small room in a 50c a night lodging house - this was Norton’s Imperial Palace.

Many of the Emperor’s “decrees” were fakes written by newspaper editors of the time for amusement or for political purposes. A few however, were actually issued by Emperor Norton, and since the American Civil War marked his reign some of them are of interest here:

December 2nd, 1859 – He dismissed Gov. Wise of Virginia for hanging John Brown and appointed John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky to replace him.
July 16th, 1860 – He dissolved the United States of America
October 1st, 1860 – Norton I barred Congress from meeting in Washington, D.C.

During the Civil War (1861 - 1865) he alternated between wearing a blue US uniform and a butternut grey CS uniform to show that he supported both sides in the conflict. When Lincoln became President Emperor Norton is thought to have written this declaration to get rid of him:

  “We, Norton I, do hereby decree that the offices of President, Vice President, and Speaker of the House of Representatives are, from and after this date, abolished. We further decree that the Senate of the United States elect a prominent Democrat as their presiding officer, to act as President until the next election, and to reconstruct the Cabinet according to our wishes hereafter to be declared.”  

He also summoned both Lincoln and Davis to his Imperial Palace to cease hostilities. Sadly the presidents declined and the war continued in earnest.

Emperor Norton was such an influence on the culture of his capital San Francisco that two plays were made about him. The first, in September 1861, was called ‘An Emperor for a Day’ while the second; ‘The Golden Demon’ was made in 1873. Theatres reserved a seat of honour for him and audiences stood up at his entrance. He ate at the finest restaurants in exchange for allowing them to put up signs saying that they were ‘By Royal Appointment’. He printed his own currency, a 25 and a 50-cent note, which was accepted by most shops and even sent a proposal of marriage to Queen Victoria.

Although Mark Twain wrote the epitaph for Emperor’s dog Lazarus in 1863, there is considerable dispute regarding Lazarus and another dog called Bummer. These shaggy dog stories seem to be based on a derogatory cartoon called ‘The Three Bummers’ by Ed Jump. Lazarus was poisoned for biting someone in ’62 while Bummer met an equally sad fate in ’65 when a Henry Rippey kicked him to death. While Bummer’s remains disappeared those of Lazarus were stuffed, exhibited in a bar and eventually found a home with the California Historical society.

On 21st January 1867, a policeman named Armand Barbier arrested Emperor Norton on the grounds of insanity. The public were shocked and after an apology by the Chief of Police Emperor Norton was saluted by the police force whenever they saw him. On another occasion a riverboat captain ordered Norton off his boat for failing to pay a fare. After Norton ordered the US navy to blockade the company's vessels, the board of directors quickly apologised and gave him a free lifetime pass.

Emperor Norton abolished both the Democratic and Republican parties, declaring:

  "Being desirous of allaying the dissension's of party strife now existing within our realm, [I] do hereby dissolve and abolish the Democratic and Republican parties, and also do hereby decree the disfranchisement and imprisonment, for not more than ten, nor less than five years, to all persons leading to any violation of this our imperial decree."  
--San Francisco Herald, August 4, 1869

Emperor Norton also had an interest in technology as a way of making his country famous and, again in 1869, he ordered San Francisco to support an airship designer. Amongst the Emperor’s many proposals was an order for the building of a suspension bridge in San Francisco at the place where the Golden Gate Bridge was built in 1937. This particular decree is thought to be a forgery by some people. On another occasion he called upon the other leaders of the world to join him in forming a League of Nations where disputes between nations could be resolved peacefully. One story about him tells us that during a pogrom against the Chinese, he went into the middle of the street and prayed causing the crowd to disperse.

Robert Louis Stevenson admired the people of San Francisco for looking after this "harmless madman". Norton brought colour to the city and, as a judge remarked when Norton was arrested for lunacy, he had:

  "Shed no blood, robbed no one, and despoiled no country, which is more than can be said for most fellows in the King line."  

Joshua Abraham Norton died on 8th January 1880, and was buried two days later in the Masonic cemetery. His funeral cortege was two miles long; with an attendance of some 10,000 - 30,000 people. By an amazing twist of fate the day was even marked by a total eclipse of the sun viewable from San Francisco at just after 4pm. Emperor Norton I left nothing of value behind, except perhaps his eccentric humanity, but has never been forgotten. In 1934, he was reburied in the Woodlawn cemetery. A century after his death ceremonies of remembrance were held in his honour by the people of San Francisco.

Some sources: money this last site is excellent and dedicated to this remarkable man timeline