Once a wealthy San Francisco businessman and land owner, Joshua Norton lost his fortune speculating on rice prices in the 1850s and descended into a gloomy and destitute self-exile for several years. Then on September 17, 1859, he publicly declared himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States, and later, Protector of Mexico. Encouraged by the local newspapers, he issued numerous public decrees on matters of public policy and later issued his own currency, which was widely accepted in San Francisco.
The army furnished him with a uniform befitting his status as Emperor, the local theaters provided him with seats on opening night. Meanwhile he wandered the city streets, visited local clubs, and slept in a flophouse. In the 1870 national census, Norton’s occupation is officially listed as ‘emperor’. On the same census, it is noted that he does not have the right to vote. In that column, the reason is entered as ‘insane’.
Though he was considered insane, or at least highly eccentric, the citizens of San Francisco celebrated his regal presence and his proclamations - most famously, his “order” that the United States Congress be dissolved by force (which Congress and the U.S. Army ignored) and his numerous decrees calling for a bridge and a tunnel to be built across San Francisco Bay. He was reported to have been articulate, well read, had progressive ideals, and played a mean game of chess.
After a reign of nearly 20 years, on January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at a street corner and died before he could be given medical treatment. The next day the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front page obituary titled ‘Le Roi est Mort’ (‘The King is Dead’). 10,000 mourners visited his body in state, and a tremendous funeral procession attended his first burial at the Masonic Cemetery. In 1934, Norton’s remains were transferred, as were all graves in the city, at the expense of the City of San Francisco to a grave site of moderate splendor at Woodlawn Cemetery, in Colma, south of San Francisco. The site is marked by a large stone inscribed “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico”.
- San Francisco History Encyclopedia biography of Norton
- Find-a-Grave entry on Norton at Woodlawn cemetery
- Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco - Emperor Norton decrees
- Collection of Emperor Norton Bills
- Site dedicated to Emperor Norton
- SFGate.com article on 100th anniversary of Norton