The life and legacy of America’s self-proclaimed ‘Emperor Norton’

By: Ashley Reign

Throughout the history of the United States, there has only been one Emperor, and he was such a character that he’s never likely to be replaced. Emperor Norton was a self-proclaimed ruler who fascinated people to the extent that they allowed him to live out his life as Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. When his reign finally ended upon his death in 1880, his funeral drew in 10,000 mourners, and a Cincinnati newspaper declared him “an emperor without enemies, a king without a kingdom, supported in life by the willing tribute of a free people.”

So how does a regular guy suddenly become royalty who is allowed to print his own money, ride trolley cars for free, and eat in diners with no charge? Mostly due to the collective kindness of the city of San Francisco, who banded together to help one of their own when he fell on hard times.

Pre-Emperor Norton

Before he was Emperor Norton, the man who would be king was born as Joshua Norton in 1818. After inheriting around $40,000 in his 20s, Norton decided to try his luck in San Francisco like many other young men at the time.  Rather than head out to pan for gold like all the other guys, he slowly amassed a small fortune in real estate. Ultimately, however, he decided it was time to bump it up a notch and hatched a brilliant plan. It all revolved around rice, which was suddenly the “it crop” due to a shortage caused by a rough farming season in China.

Wikimedia

As fate would have it, the wealth-seeking Mr. Norton came across a ship captain who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. The captain had just sailed in with a ship full of rice and offered to sell it all to Norton for a discount. Though Norton jumped on the deal, it would prove to be his undoing. Little did he know that four more ships would sail in the same week, all chock full of rice. Not only did the rice market go downhill, but the real estate scene was soon to follow. Before long, Norton found himself totally broke.

Emperor Norton declares himself crowned

For two years, Norton would disappear from public life and while he dealt with the emotional turmoil of his situation. Then one day, he suddenly reappeared in the streets of San Francisco, clad in a full military uniform, complete with a sword and a hat topped with a peacock feather. It was then that he would make a declaration so crazy it turned out to be absolutely brilliant. He had decided that from now on, he would serve as Norton I, Emperor of the United States.

The president, he decided, was out, and he was in. As his legend spread through newspapers, it soon became apparent that people were surprisingly cool with it, and Emperor Norton soon became sort of a town mascot. Though he was still broke at the time, he solved the problem by having his own money printed, and people all over town cheerfully accepted it.

Emperor Norton soon became sort of a town mascot

The only time an unknowing cop made the mistake of arresting the Emperor, outrage erupted throughout the city. He was soon released with a formal apology from the Chief of Police, and from then on, the cops would give him a formal salute whenever they saw him on the street.

He even managed to stop a violent discrimination mob that was headed into China town one day by dropping to his knees and reciting the Lord’s prayer. The mob soon walked away in shame. Throughout the rest of his life, the people of San Francisco banded together in a huge display of love to treat Emperor Norton as the royalty he had declared himself to be.

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The only time an unknowing cop made the mistake of arresting the Emperor, outrage erupted throughout the city. He was soon released with a formal apology from the Chief of Police, and from then on, the cops would give him a formal salute whenever they saw him on the street.

He even managed to stop a violent discrimination mob that was headed into China town one day by dropping to his knees and reciting the Lord’s prayer. The mob soon walked away in shame. Throughout the rest of his life, the people of San Francisco banded together in a huge display of love to treat Emperor Norton as the royalty he had declared himself to be.

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The fascinating life (and death) of Russia’s most peculiar royal, Anastasia Romanov I History 101

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