Thursday, August 11, 2022

On This Day in the Old West: August 12

 On August 12, 1969, Emperor Joshua A. Norton issued a new proclamation. What? You weren’t aware that the United States had an emperor? Well, we did, from 1859 to 1880.


Joshua Norton was born in England, but not much is known of his life until he arrived in San Francisco in late 1849. We do know he spent much of his early life in South Africa, but there’s no clue as to what he did for a living or how he got to San Francisco from Boston, Massachusetts, where he landed in March 1846.


Norton operated in San Francisco as a successful commodities trader and real estate speculator. He was actually one of the city’s richest citizens by late 1852. In December 1852, Norton saw a business opportunity. China, faced with a severe famine, banned the export of rice, a move which caused the price of the grain to rise in San Francisco from four to thirty-six cents per pound. Norton bought out a shipment of rice from a Peruvian ship carrying 200,000 pounds. He paid twelve cents a pound, thinking to make a profit when he sold the rice at thirty-six cents. However, shortly after he signed the contract, other Peruvian ships arrived with more rice, causing the price to plummet to three cents a pound. 


After spending nearly two years in a heated court battle with the Peruvians, Norton lost his bid to have the rice contract voided. He lost his fortune and the Lucas Turner & Company Bank foreclosed on his holdings in North Beach to pay his debts. Norton declared insolvency in August 1856.


There followed a three-year period during which Joshua Norton practically disappeared from the public eye. It is known that he took lodgings in a working-class boarding house and in September 1857, he served on the jury during the trial of a man accused of stealing a bar of gold from Wells Fargo. In August 1858, Norton ran an ad announcing his candidacy for US Congress. 


By 1859, Norton had become completely disillusioned with what he considered “the inadequacies of the legal and political structure of the United States.” In July, he published his first “Manifesto” in the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, addressed to the “Citizens of the Union” and outlining what he saw as the national crisis. Norton suggested the imperative for action to address this crisis but did not lay out any concrete plans for such action.


Two months later, on September 17, Joshua Norton hand delivered a letter to the offices of the Bulletin:


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.


He signed this letter Norton I, Emperor of the United States.


The newspaper, thinking this a grand joke, printed the letter in their evening edition, and the 25 year “reign” of Emperor Norton officially began.


The Emperor issued many decrees on matters of state, such as the one abolishing the US Congress in 1859, and the subsequent decree ordering the US Army to depose the elected officials in 1860. Neither the Army nor Congress paid any attention to these official notices.


On August 12, 1869, a decree was issued abolishing the Democratic and Republican Parties. Norton stated he was “desirous of allaying the dissentions of party strife now existing within our realm.” Sounds like a reasonable plan--maybe we need a new Emperor nowadays.

Emperor Norton spent most of his days inspecting the streets, taking note of the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, and the appearance of the local police officers. He spent time in parks and libraries and paid visits to newspaper offices and old friends in the city, in Oakland, and in Berkeley. In the evenings, Norton was often seen at political gatherings or at theatrical or musical performances, where he was given free admission.


He wore an elaborate blue uniform with gold-plated epaulettes, sometimes given to him secondhand by officers at the Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco. Norton embellished this with several accoutrements, such as a beaver hat sporting an ostrich or peacock feather and his rosette. He also carried a walking stick and an umbrella. 


The 1870 US Census lists Joshua Norton as a 50-year-old living at 624 Commercial Street; occupation: Emperor. It also noted that he was insane.


Emperor Norton reigned until January 8, 1880, when he collapsed on the corner of California Street and Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue), in front of Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral. The police immediately sent for a carriage to take him to the nearest hospital, but Norton died before it arrived. The San Francisco Morning Call reported the following day, “On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night, under the dripping rain … Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.” Two days later, the San Francisco Chronicle posted an article on Norton’s funeral with the headline “Le Roi Est Mort.”


Your characters would likely have been aware of the existence of this beloved eccentric, as his antics and proclamations were widely reported in newspapers around the West. They might well have run into the Emperor if they traveled to San Francisco during the years of his reign. The Emperor always makes a wonderfully humorous addition to a historical story.


J.E.S. Hays


  1. Fabulous post. I love information like this. Thank you. Doris

  2. Great post. I recall seeing a television show long ago, mostly fiction, about the emperor. It was fun to read about him again. B.G.

    1. I read a fantasy book last year where a witch brought the emperor's ghost to current day to help her protect the city ...

  3. JES...
    BIG JIM...

    1. Glad you liked it Jim - I love the crazy stuff!

  4. JES, I never heard of this. WOW! This is really fascinating, and you are so right, this guy would make a great "reference" or "cameo" in a story or two. Thanks so much for bringing this bit of wild history to my attention! Very interesting post!

    1. I adore Emperor Norton - heard about him when I started writing my westerns set in San Francisco & couldn't get enough ...

  5. Great stuff, but there is one date wrong: "In August 1898, Norton ran an ad announcing his candidacy for US Congress." Since he died in 1880, this can't be right, of course. I expect it was 1858?

  6. I don't know why these posts are coming out "Anonymous." I suspect it's because I haven't signed in to something somewhere. Anyway, it's Jack from the Fictioneers.

  7. Jack - you're right my finger must have typed the wrong number somehow! Surely my original source wouldn't have typed it wrong ... hopefully ...

    I'll correct it now! Thanks!

  8. Fun post! My uncle worked in a mental institution as a young man, and he said it was hilarious working with people like the Emperor. But then they started feeding them tranquilizers, and it wasn't fun anymore.

  9. Vicky - wow! I imagine it must be interesting working with the mentally ill. I'm glad we have better medication nowadays than just tranquilizers though! I'd have loved talking to The Emperor!