It’s good to be the king. Just ask Joshua Abraham Norton. The self-declared “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico” was one of the most beloved political figures in California history (despite the fact that he had no actual power).
Norton started his life out as an average sort of Joe. Born in England in 1818, he emigrated to the United States after the deaths of both his parents. He was already well into adulthood by that time, and apparently had a bit of cash–rumor has it that mommy and daddy left him quite the inheritance.
He quickly turned that money into a small fortune through dealings in U.S. commodities . . . but when he was caught trying to control the rice market, his world came crashing down.
After a lengthy legal battle, he was forced to declare bankruptcy and ended up living in a local flophouse. It is then that people say he totally lost his mind.
An unlikely proclamation
In 1859, angry about his bad fortune and sad financial status, Norton sent a letter to the San Francisco Bulletin. Thinking it was a joke, the paper printed it in full. It read:
“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 S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.”
Every day, Norton wore a military uniform gifted to him by a local army base. The jacket had regal gold epaulets, and he often completed the ensemble with an old saber. It was a look not dissimilar from the one he had printed on his official currency (which, while technically worthless, was still accepted by many local businesses).
During his time in office, he issued several decrees such as:
- Dismiss the governor of Virginia for hanging John Brown
- Dissolve the United States of America
- Dissolve and abolish the Democratic and Republican parties
Foreseeably, the U.S. government completely ignored the order to dissolve itself.
A hero among men
As whacky as he was, Norton was also completely harmless. Locals loved him and encouraged his eccentricities. After one ill-advised arrest (on charges of lunacy) the citizens rallied around him until he was released–and an embarrassed police chief was forced to apologize.
In 1880, Norton collapsed dead on the street. The public was heartbroken, and a record 30,000 people attended his funeral. Monuments to the United States‘ only emperor still stand in San Francisco to this day.