HE LOST EVERYTHING
BUT PROCLAIMED HIMSELF ROYALTY
On a cold, rainy Thursday evening in January 1880, a man with a cane hurried along California Street in San Francisco heading toward Nob Hill when he clutched his chest, staggered a few steps, and collapsed.
The following day, The San Francisco Chronicle ran the man’s obituary on the front page under the headline: "Le Roi est Mort" ("The King is Dead").On Saturday, January 10, flags flew at half-mast.
A crowd estimated at 30,000 jammed the streets to catch a glimpse of the funeral procession for the self-proclaimed Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, Emperor of the United States.
Most businesses around the city chose to lock their doors for the day or, at least, part of it, despite it being a Saturday.
His journey from obscurity to mythic proportions captured the imagination of those who lived in what was then the ninth largest city in the U.S.
Born in London and reared in South Africa, Norton arrived in this commercial port city about 1849 as a young businessman.
A young man with entrepreneurial vision, Norton was not above taking a risk. But when he be everything to take advantage of a rice famine in China, he fell on hard times.
In December 1852, the famine pushed the price of rice in San Francisco from four cents to thirty-seven cents a pound. When a friend told Norton about a ship docked in the harbor with its hold full of Peruvian rice, he bought the entire cargo for twelve cents a pound.
But, a day later, the clouds of a financial disaster began gathering when another cargo of Peruvian rice arrived in port, followed by several others. The price of rice plummeted to three cents a pound. Joshua Abraham Norton was broke.
Following bankruptcy, Norton disappeared until Sept. 17, 1859, when the San Francisco Bulletin ran this announcement:
"AT THE peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity."
(Signed) Norton I, Emperor of the United States.
The declaration signaled the dubious start of a reign as America's first Emperor, a title to which he later added Protector of Mexico.
The usual whirlwind of rumors arose, some questioning the man's sanity and mental faculties, in general. For the most part, though, the public embraced Norton proclivities.
Even the newspapers got in on the act. Soon, many believed the idea of an Emperor living in San Francisco could generate higher tourism numbers.
Some restaurants and others businesses, which many never have even seen Emperor Norton, displayed signs in their windows reading: "By Appointment to His Imperial Majesty Norton I."
Norton often patrolled the streets in his elaborate blue Emperor costume, highlighted by gold epaulets give him by officers of the nearby Presidio. Atop his head, he wore a beaver hat decorated with peacock feathers.
When he wasn't parading through the streets, Norton stayed busy by issuing proclamations, most of which were outlandish but published by newspapers.
In one proclamation, Norton abolished both the Republican and Democratic parties.
Several other proclamations, however, made perfect sense.
One called for the creation of a League of Nations. Another proclamation ordered the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to construct a suspension bridge and a tunnel across the bay. Ironically, both completed fifty and eighty years after he died.
Norton died flat broke.
A local businessman's club paid for his casket and plot. In 1934, his remains moved to Woodlawn Cemetery, and an impressive headstone provided free of charge.