by Professor Leonidas Grymm
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
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,
||"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,
||"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.
http://www.zpub.com/sf/history/nort.html money http://www.notfrisco.com/nortoniana/
this last site is excellent and dedicated to this remarkable man