by Joshua Hennen

SAN FRANCISCO California - Imagine being a citizen of San Francisco on September 17 1859. There was talk of secession by the Southern States from the Union. The economy was in shambles after the Panic of 1857 when a general hysteria was caused after some banks railroads and businesses went bankrupt. Unemployment was rife and there were riots in some cities over the lack of employment.
These fearful conditions usually serve as fertile soil for a would-be savior, or in the case of San Francisco in 1859, an emperor. Those good folks were astonished to read the following proclamation that was published in the San Francisco 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 S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; 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 Feb. 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.

NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.

There followed a twenty-one year reign during which Emperor Norton, by royal edict, abolished the United States Congress, disbanded the Republican and Democratic parties, and issued a mandate that anyone who uttered the “abominable word ‘Frisco’” would be considered guilty of a High Misdemeanor.

In actuality, Joshua Norton (1819? - Jan. 8, 1880) was a citizen of England. After relocating to San Francisco from South Africa in 1849 he promptly lost a small, inherited fortune in the rice market.
Subsequent to his loss of financial stability, he apparently lost his mental balance as well. Nevertheless, he disappeared from the city and reappeared about a year later.  From that point forward, he became a daily fixture and beloved citizen of one of America’s most romantic cities. As testimony to his cherished status, his funeral was attended by no less than 30,000 people.

As Emperor, his rule was designed to benefit his subjects. Unlike other so-called emperors, he routinely inspected the sidewalks, public works, police officers, and general “goings on” of his kingdom.

Once however, an officer had the audacity to arrest Norton to have him involuntarily treated for mental insanity. But after a deluge of criticism from the populace and a raft of condemnatory editorials from the media, the Chief of Police quickly released the self anointed ruler.  From then on, all police officers would stop and salute when passing Norton in the street.

Of course, the beneficent ruler was also penniless.  Despite that seemingly insurmountable obstacle, he routinely dined at the finest restaurants in San Francisco.  It was considered such an honor to host the emperor that those restaurateurs who did, affixed brass plaques to their establishments that read:  “by Appointment to his  Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States.”

Norton’s fame was so extensive and his presence so eagerly sought, that no play or musical would dare open in San Francisco without at least offering a balcony seat to him.

One may be led to believe that Emperor Norton’s authority was only recognized by San Franciscans.  But  the official census record for 1870 listed Norton’s occupation as “Emperor” and living at 624 Commercial Street.

It was about ten years later, however, that our friend collapsed on a street corner and passed away on the spot.  He never assumed his regal duties again but left his subjects many fond memories instead.  The next day, a San Francisco newspaper, the Morning Call, emblazoned this headline on its front page:  “Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.”

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Despite Norton’s fame and San Francisco’s congenial attitude, he remained destitute upon his death.  A few faked telegrams purporting to come from  Queen Victoria and other notables were found in his boarding room along with a few dollars, a couple hats, and canes.

e was immortalized by a resident of San Francisco,  Mark Twain. He modeled the king in his book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after Norton.

As a side note, the city of San Francisco in January 1980 celebrated the passing of  the one and only “Emperor of the United States” with much pomp and ceremony.