In A Nutshell
After losing his fortune, mentally unstable Englishman Joshua Norton declared himself emperor of the US on the streets of San Francisco. Seizing the opportunity to have some fun, residents played along until Norton’s death. His funeral was attended by 30,000.
The Whole Bushel
From 1859 to 1880, the United States of America had an emperor.
Joshua Norton and his family immigrated to South Africa shortly after his birth in 1819 in England. In 1849, with a sizable amount of money, Norton moved to San Francisco, California, where he dabbled in the real estate business.
He did fairly well for himself. He reportedly had a small fortune by 1853, but he made a costly mistake when he decided to invest in rice, hoping to monopolize immigrant demand for it in the city. He bought all he could, but two large shipments of foreign rice made his purchases essentially worthless, and he was financially ruined.
Likely mentally unstable, and certainly desperate, Norton declared himself “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico” in 1859. Dressing in an old military uniform, Norton I strolled the streets of San Fran like he owned the place.
And he didn’t just consider his role ceremonial—he issued political decrees. During his first few years as emperor, Norton dismissed a governor, demanded a meeting to address evil, barred Congress from meeting, and dissolved the United States. (All of his decrees were, of course, ignored.) In 1872, he even ordered the arrest of a politician for continuing to ignore him.
Other orders included a demand for San Franciscans to clean the streets, furnish his hotel room, and build a bridge from Oakland Point to Goat Island to San Fran (though after the lack of action, he later decided to order a survey seeing if citizens would prefer a tunnel).
Norton was well-liked by the residents of San Francisco, who enjoyed humoring him. They mailed Norton’s decrees to local newspapers for printing, addressed him as emperor, and honored his currency at local bars. Author Mark Twain was fascinated by the man, writing obituaries for Norton’s pets and even using him as inspiration for a character in Huckleberry Finn.
In 1880, on his way to attend a science lecture, Norton dropped dead in the street. He was 61. Norton is still remembered in San Francisco. In 1980, the city ceremoniously honored the 100-year anniversary of his death.